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Mott’s CD review

Mott's CD Reviews: Gryphon - Crossing The Styles

mott the dog

4 Stars ****

Camel over the course of their history came to define progressive melodic rock. Starting out of a band called ‘The Brew’ who were more of a straight forward rock trio, upon the addition of Peter Bardens on keyboards the trio from ‘Brew’, Andy Latimer on guitars and flute, Doug Ferguson on bass and vocals, and Andy Ward on drums, became the mighty beast that is ‘Camel’ with their first gig as support to ‘Wishbone Ash’ in 1971.

But it was not until 1973 that their first self titled album was released, and although attracting a little critical attention, did little else. Listening to it now it is hardly surprising as it is a little twee.

The second album got them all the publicity they wanted, but mostly not for musical reasons. Mirage (1974) came in an album cover replicating a packet of Camel cigarettes, which got them sued by Camel cigarettes in America. But then the tables were turned and they received an endorsement from Camel cigarettes Europe, giving away free packets of five Camels to all the audience members at all their European gigs of that tour. So they ended up with enormous hassles in the States and had to change their album covers, and in Europe were hated by the anti-smoking league forever.

Because of this their next album, the all instrumental album based on Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose, had to be called ‘Music inspired by the Snow Goose’ due to the author’s abhorrence to all things nicotine. Nevertheless, Snow Goose was Camel’s breakthrough album, opening up the world market to the band. Due to the record company’s (Decca) horror at having put out an all instrumental album last time, the band’s next effort, ‘Moonmadness’ (1975), was a bit of a compromise between band and record executives with all the songs having actual words, choruses and verses.

By now the sound of the Camel had moved far away from the rock ‘n’ roll roots of ‘The Brew’, and after the tour too promote ‘Moonmadness’ Doug Ferguson decided to hang up his camel saddle and move on. Famed session saxophonist Mel Collins had toured with the band on the last tour and was now keen to carry on his association with the band. He was to be an unofficial member of the band for all further albums and tours for the next decade.

But a new bass player and vocalist had to be found. Top of the list was original founding member of both ‘Caravan’ and ‘Hatfield and The North’, Richard Sinclair, who just happened to be arriving back from his holidays that had helped him recuperate after the termination of his last band ‘Hatfield and The North’. One telephone call was all it took and Richard Sinclair packed up his bags in Canterbury and joined the dromedary cause.

This gave Camel much more artillery under it’s hump. Richard Sinclair was blessed with very distinctive vocal chords, far superior to anything the band had in their armoury before. Mel Collins, being full time available to the band, meant much more space to stretch out in the long instrumental sections of the Camel material (Does that make Camelhair?). Whilst Andy Ward on the drums was much more comfortable with Richard Sinclair’s more jazzy bass style than the straight ahead rock style of the previous incumbent.

The new album ‘Rain Dances’ (1977) was waited for with great anticipation by the massed ranks of Camel fans. They were not disappointed. The album opens up with a bright instrumental titled ‘First Light’ which would have been far more aptly titled ‘Introducing Mel and Richard’. The first three minutes of the song are taken up by some pretty impressive musical jousting between the keyboard work of Peter Bardens and Andy Latimer’s guitar. As they quiet down it is left to the nifty bass work of Richard Sinclair to take the next section of the song onwards before handing over to Mel Collins who brings this musical section to a rousing conclusion with a rasping saxophone solo. A very satisfying beginning.

After this the album is split into two halves: the next four songs having vocals, whilst the remaining four are instrumentals. (This copy has got the single version of ‘Highways of the Sun’ tagged onto the end, completely unnecessary as it is only the original version with a thirty second section chopped out of the middle.) ‘Metrognome’ is a good Camel song where you feel that the new band are getting acquainted. ‘Tell Me’ is an emotional ballad written by Latimer and Bardens, but giving full reign to the voice and bass work of Richard Sinclair. On ‘Highway Of The Sun’ Camel almost get carried away with themselves, with its driving marching keyboard driven beat and chirpy vocals, why this was not a hit single at the time is beyond me.

‘Uneven song’ follows in equally upbeat mood, showing why Camel were such a class act. Crammed into its five minutes thirty three seconds are well sung verses, crystal clear solos from each member of the band, giving you a complete saga in its allotted time.

The instrumentals are all extremely well executed, each with its own distinctive flavour. The wonderfully titled ‘One Of These Days I’ll Get An Early Night’, the only title credited to every member of the band, is a vicious slab of fusion jazz/rock, with each soloist elbowing his way to the front of the instrumental stage to have his share of the limelight, grabbing on literally with two hands and giving their instruments a real shake.

‘Elke’ is a slowly burning piece written by Andy Latimer reminding you of his Scottish heritage, and featuring Andy’s haunting flute work, underpinned by some sympathetic keyboards from Peter Bardens. ‘Skylines shakes you out of your reverie with its funky beat and jaunty attitude, Richard Sinclair’s bass work again excels. The album closes with the title track which lulls you along to its conclusion on a very comfortable cushion of sound.

Camel found themselves with another huge hit on their hands and soon set out on another world tour to promote the album, recording a lot of the concerts along the way for their next album, a double live vinyl affair wittily titled ‘A Live Record’. It has recently been re-released with lots of bonus material on it bringing the total playing time up to over two and a half hours.

The success of these albums by Camel is all the more remarkable by the fact that these songs of grace and dignity were released whilst punk rock was sweeping all before them. Most bands of Camel’s ilk never stood a chance and were blown away, but the Camel is a sturdy animal and made great commercial progress, filling concert halls and selling albums wherever it went.

1976, 1977, and 1978 were to be the Camel’s finest years; unfortunately disaster was only just around the corner, but for now sit back and enjoy the beast at its best.

Peter Bardens: Keyboards, Vocals
Andy Latimer: Guitars, Vocals, Flute
Richard Sinclair: Vocals, Bass Guitar
Andy Ward: Drums
Mel Collins: Saxophone

First Light
Tell Me
Highways Of The Sun
Uneven song
One Of These Days I Will Get An Early Night
Rain Dances
Highways Of The Sun (Single Edit)

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