There’s been some interesting discussion recently in The Sound Machine on the subject of that enduring prog-rock band Caravan and what might be considered their best album.
I was first introduced to the band shortly after the release of their self titled debut album from 1968 when a school mate of mind lent me his copy. (Thanks Dave). It soon hit me just what a terrific album it is with the haunting opening track Place Of My Own still sitting highly on my list of all time fave songs. Here was an album of creative and beautifully crafted tracks in a style unlike anything I had heard before including Love Song With Flute, Cecil Rons and the gorgeously laid back Magic Man. It culminated in Where But For For Caravan Would I? which introduced us to what would become something of a trademark of the band, the lengthy, largely instrumental piece. This is undoubtedly a very special album, an astonishing debut and a strong candidate for their best.
So how to follow this up! Well their next offering was again most impressive and is highly favoured by many as the best. The snappily titled If I Could It All Over Again I’d Do It All Over You is in itself a gem of an album, twisting and turning as it does through a set of highly melodic songs and instrumental delights with David Sinclair’s keyboard work becoming a distictive element of the Caravan sound. The album closes (more or less) with the extraordinary For Richard which sits fimly as a fans favourite and which climaxed many a live performance.
So we all asked the question – could it actually get any better? Well to me and many others the answer is yes. The third album In The Land Of Grey And Pink is rightly regarded by many (including me) as a masterpiece. Here we have strong songs like Golf Girl alongside the longer tracks with staggering instrumental work particularly in Winter Wine and the popular live favourite Nine Feet Underground whose keyboard melodies continue to send shivers up my spine on every listen. In fact every track is brilliant with great vocals from Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair, those keyboards and the wonderful bass playing of Richard and drumming of the late but great Richard Coughlan. With the usual fabulous contribution of Jimmy Hastings on flute and sax here is an album of sheer delight from start to finish.
As a side note here I was fortunate to see the band play at The Stables in Milton Keynes in 2013 where alongside a number of their classic tracks plus most of their latest release Paradise Filter they actually played both For Richard and Nine Feet Underground and bloody brilliantly!!
So have we now tidied up the answer within these three albums? Well actually not quite. The fourth album Waterloo Lily saw a change in personnel with the departure of David Sinclair and the arrival of Steve Miller and whilst not regarded in the same class as the previous albums it does include in my opinion one of their greatest tracks The Love In Your Eye. This is another lengthy piece with time changes and mood swings aplenty topped off with a beautifully engineered echoed keyboard section which with Richard’s superb bass is another track that turns me into an emotional wreck.
Few will call it their favourite album but the next For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night certainly has its fans. Back comes David Sinclair along with Geoffrey Richardson on viola (a mainstay in the band since) and again we are treated to lengthy instrumental passages such as A Hunting We Shall Go along with popular favourites to this day such as Hoedown, Headloss and Memory Lain Hugh. A fine album without doubt but to me not quite up there with the first three.
The Live album followed noteable for the inclusion of two great songs Virgin On The Ridiculous and Mirror For The Day that never did appear on any studio albums. This was followed by surprisingly the bands highest chart placed album, Cunning Stunts, which has its moments noteablyThe Dabsong Concerto but to my mind is the least interesting so far. It certainly didn’t feature too much in our discussions.
Blind Dog At St Dunstans was next. This was made up of a decent collection of Pye’s songs without too much instrumental emphasis as was Better By Far which is worthy of mention however for another great track in Nightmare, a favourite of the band’s and one still in their set list. Also on this album was a Geoffrey Richardson instrumental The Last Unicorn with some superb viola playing by the man himself.
This was now 1977 and nine albums down the line. The band called it a day soon after but reappeared in 1980 with a new album entitled The Album. It has little to commend it but the next effort Back To Front with the reformed original line-up is certainly worth a mention including two beautifully quirky Richard Sinclair tracks, Back To Herne Bay Front and AA Man plus the appealing Videos Of Hollywood. Certainly an album worthy of attention. Later releases such as The Battle Of Hastings, The Unauthorised Breakfast item from 2003 and the aforementioned Paradise Filter show that Pye is still capable of knocking up a good tune but none of these would feature in the best album stakes.
So back again to the opening question. Is there a definitive answer? Well no and perhaps nor should there be really but it prompted some interesting discussion that’s for sure. What we do know is that Caravan released a number of outstanding albums particularly the first three and to this day remain much loved and one of the greatest of the UK’s prog rock bands.
About the Author
Mike Warth – Retired teacher and Education Officer, old rocker, lover of prog, psych and folk – the latter for which I sometimes take some stick. (Why?) Currently having a ball working in The Sound Machine, Reading – independent Record Store par excellence and now working with Vernon Joynson on an update to Dreams, Fantasies And Nightmares.