Soundchecks Music Reviews

Caravan: More Cunning Stunts

interview by Andrew Darlington

I have to ask it. I just can't resist it. Pye Hastings - prime motivating force behind Caravan, that 1970s caravanserai of strange and esoteric music... Pye, if you had to do it all over again... would you, or would you do it differently? "No matter how much you try, you can never recreate something exactly after a number of years have passed," he replies. It was, in part, a spoof throwaway question. But he answers it in serious measured tones. "Particularly nowadays with technology moving as fast as it does. The intention might be the same but the sound would be different. Your voice lowers as you get older, your playing - hopefully, would have matured, and the change from analogue to digital recording has improved so much that the possibilities are now endless." In response to a part-spoof throwaway question, he's opening up answers with endless possibilities. What else would you expect? Wasn't that the entire strategy pursued by Caravan itself, through a series of wonderfully strange songs, oddly enticing albums, and cunning stunts?

Of course, there's an entire celebrity culture today of X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent where the focus is exclusively on achieving fame at any cost. It always seemed that something as shallow and superficial as fame was never the mindset of Caravan, or of the environment it moved in. "Of course Caravan wanted to be successful, still do," he argues back, "but the pressure nowadays is quite different. We never set out to be better than anyone else. We wanted to achieve success by writing good songs, playing our instruments as well as we could and hoping that people would buy into that. I like good healthy competition...", then, unexpectedly, he goes off into an analysis of the pressures on X-Factor contestants, "when your whole career can depend on whether you have a good performance on the day, then I think it can be destructive. Suppose somebody fucked-up during the show? - which believe me is entirely probable; then you would be out of the contest knowing full well that you can do it better. That can and, I imagine, has caused bands to break up. The other problem is that the judges on those shows only seem to define what constitutes a 'hit' by comparison with what has gone before, a tried and tested formula or should that be 'a tired and tested' formula."

By contrast, Caravan seem never to have deliberately conformed to formulaic pop in order to get a hit single, although, if a track of theirs had accidentally achieved chart status - as, say, Pye's chirpy catchy pop-structured three-minute track Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly) may well have done, I don't imagine he'd have been dismayed? "I would have loved to have written good pop songs," he concedes. "But we were contracted to produce an album at a time for the record companies, and from whatever we gave them they would select the most suitable track to get whatever airplay was appropriate. If we had written singles I think we would undoubtedly have reached a larger audience." A shrug.

Checking through a voluminous file of previous Caravan features and interviews, most of them conform to the same album-by-album talk-through history formula. If you want that, it's already there, richly documented. Check out Wikipedia. This interview will not be like that. The list of questions I've scribbled down - while hopefully informed and relevant, will prove a little more stimulating, and not just retread the usual tedious path!

Caravan grew into one of the most enduring of British underground bands, emerging just as late-1960s rock was evolving into its newly mature phase. They rose from out of the protean ashes of much-mythologised Wilde Flowers, the Canterbury entity that also fed Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, and Hugh Hopper into the original Soft Machine. As minds were busy blowing, horizons expanding, and possibilities becoming infinite, the Softs scored a contract with Polydor and hit the ground running with the single Love Makes Sweet Music in February, 1967. A month later Pink Floyd stole their lead with Arnold Layne, an altogether more chart-friendly take on pop-psych, so the Softs reconfigured their music, reset their controls for something infinitely more improvisational. While Caravan were hatching their own oblique course in a parallel, but related continuum. Or, as drummer Richard Coughlan recalls, 'sitting about in the sunshine making up bits of music' (in the BBC4 documentary Prog-Rock Britannia: An Observation In Three Movements). Pye tells how he was motivated to diversify into his own brand by watching Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, from the audience at the "IT (International Times) gig at the Roundhouse."

Julian Gordon 'Pye' Hastings was born in Banffshire, Scotland, but he'd lived in Canterbury since he was 12. Richard Coughlan was a former trainee dentist. With them in the first Caravan line-up were cousins David Sinclair (Hammond A100 organ, and Mellotron), and Richard Sinclair (Fender Jazz bass, vocals). According to Record Collector: 100 Greatest Psychedelic Records (Diamond, 2005) this embryonic formation undertook labouring jobs on the Sevenoaks bypass to finance sharing a bohemian group-house in Whitstable enabling them to bond and rehearse as a collective. A 'getting-it-together' in the country scheme... When cash ran out they simply shifted into tents in Graveny village, supported by the sympathetic local vicar. Such intensive preparation paid off. They played the counter-culture 'Middle Earth' venue in June 1968, signed to MGM's Verve Forecast subsidiary, and recorded an 'astonishingly assured' debut album (Caravan, October 1968). Their upward trajectory only skewed by the label's abrupt collapse.

Resigning to Decca's progressive Deram label, If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You followed in September 1970, involving wistful, eccentric songs and gentle avant garde playing. And the extended side-two medley For Richard with its jazzily laser-sharp keyboard moments played in magnetic fields that criss-cross and reconnect over twitchily chopping rhythms. Humour too, from the title track's strangely disconnected lyrics about "lovin' the stuff, the things that slows me down," over the chanted "who do you think you are..." as Coughlan adds congas, bongos, maracas and finger-cymbals to his drum-patterns. Some say the title was derived from Bob Dylan's basement tapes, although I've been unable to track it back, others claim Spike Milligan said it, maybe neither, but just possibly elements of the surreal absurdity of both are at play.

Then, In The Land Of Grey And Pink arrived in May 1971, frequently quoted as their finest moment, with Richard's carefree nonsense-tale of Pat the Golf Girl who talks in Morse, and when it rains golf-balls they politely drink tea. It flaunts a quirky Ray Davies' Englishness, with piccolo interlude from Pye's brother Jimmy Hastings. And Winter Wine - also by Richard, a complex instrumental interchange, "conjuring up midnight dreams of ancient castles dark," wandering minstrels, heroic voyages, and knights in armour slaying dragons, saving maidens. "Life's too short to be sad," it advises, using dreams to "pay the Sandman." From the start, Caravan were minting such gently engaging oddness, a durable whimsicality that established them as a classic and very English underground band, with their burgeoning prog-rock instincts allied to an underlying pop sensibility. Classy fusions and folk-psych. Free-music, but tightly disciplined too. What Ian Carr termed 'elastic rock' given full rein, yet never less than tuneful.

That same November (1971), David Sinclair quit to join Robert Wyatt's Matching Mole (a group-name derived from the French translation of Soft Machine!), to be replaced by Steve Miller from Delivery. The rich densely-musicianly textures and complex cut-up changes of the fourth album, Waterloo Lily (May 1972) was equally well-received. Hints of vague perversity lurk in the title-track's flexible ensemble playing too, "if you knew the kind of glue, she gums her eyelids with, realise, on those eyes, that's a gum you'd rather not use." What can it mean? Nothing related to the hair-gel Cameron Diaz uses in There's Something About Mary, surely? Yet again, there's the quaintly English reference to drinking "a cup of char."

After its release there were swirling constellations of shifting personnel innovations, with Richard Sinclair also leaving to form Hatfield & The North - taking Miller with him, and bringing in Geoff Richardson (electric viola). Various replacements were tried, but it was only when Richard Sinclair rejoined Hastings, Coughlan, Geoff Richardson, and American-born John Perry (Gibson EB3 bass, vocals), that Caravan's music began to reach out to new audiences. For the teasingly-titled For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night (1973), there's Pye's Lovecraftian C'thlu Thlu, an atmospheric weirdly-shaped tempo-change piece in 14/4-time, with effects produced by recording a bass drum backwards, hitting a cymbal, then re-recording the results through a phase box while speeding up and slowing down the master-tape. Unexpectedly, they even score an American success in 1975 where their seventh album, the malapropically-named Cunning Stunts, became a minor hit. And all the while the steady flow of new, inventive and stylistically distinctive albums continues, selling to a steady bedrock of fellow-travellers devoted to every aspect of the trip. Through until... pretty much now.

But - back-tracking a little down what they term 'Memory Lain', the internal power-structure of each band is different. Some have a single dominant creative figure (Ray Davies), others operate around a duo-ology (Jagger and Richard). For some bands each member is a powerful force in their own right (The Who). Others attempt a kind of democracy. What was the prevailing power-structure within Caravan? "When we started out we shared everything," Pye explains. "We thought that if, for instance, one person doesn't write songs then it's only fair that all the proceeds are shared out equally anyway. Because it's for sure that that person would be contributing to the arrangements in some way and therefore deserves a cut. This is all very well when you are young and don't need much, but as you get older and have to find more and more money to feed, clothe, and school a family then the need to generate more prevails. It really is just a natural progression."

Yet Pye is the single continuity throughout the long Caravan career-arc, did the successive line-up changes alter that internal power-structure? "Not in my mind. I'm sure it did in others though. I have always known what I wanted to achieve with the band. I haven't always managed it, hence the personnel changes. My approach to the band has always been quite democratic but I suspect that some people quit because they were fed up with my trying to push them in a certain direction. Likewise I could get equally as fed up by being led. Changing band members can however be very rewarding in that new people bring new enthusiasm."

The first high-level defections from the original Caravan line-up were David and Richard Sinclair, did their leaving cause a re-evaluation of the band's priorities? "Dave was the first to leave and left a hole that was almost impossible to fill," he admits. "He was replaced, on Richard Sinclair's suggestion, by Steve Miller who played a very different style to Dave. This necessitated a change. It became more jazzy, a direction which Richard was steering towards. It didn't work well with the existing fans. I wanted to continue with a more rocky approach so a 'head-on' was inevitable. So Richard and Steve left."

Caravan were part of the very first slew of Radio 1 John Peel Show guest-bands (their 1968 Peel sessions preserved on the Green Bottles For Marjorie album, 2002). What does Pye remember of them? Were they good? Did they allow time and sympathy to obtain the correct sound? Was the venerable Peel himself actually directly involved (I've heard differing reports from different 'guest' bands)? "The John Peel Sessions were great, although not without their problems. He was a truly genuine guy and is sadly missed. But the BBC engineers were reluctant to break from their institutional approach to recording. They had their way of doing things and often could not be pushed into changing the sound in the mix. This caused some frustration and inevitably a compromise would be reached. They really didn't like musicians telling them how it should sound. My brother overheard a conversation between a couple of engineers saying 'If we didn't have to put up with those bloody artists and musicians then it would be a really good job'. John Peel was not directly involved in the recording although he did occasionally pop in to visit us and see how we were getting on."

Although it has a dedicated clique of fans, and enjoys periodic revivals of interest, so-called prog-rock is a genre not always held in high critical esteem. As though its innovations moved too far from the essential heartbeat of rock, and became overly intellectual. How does he respond to such attitudes? He's not phased by my suggestion. "Every genre of music has a rightful place," he points out. "Prog rock certainly didn't get 'overly intellectual', but some of it just got plain over-indulgent and deadly boring, and we have to live with that. What is an intellectual? I defy anyone to come up with a definitive explanation that anyone can understand."

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the genre is instrumental fluidity evolving towards jazz - extending the vocabulary of rock into playful conversations between instruments. In fact Pye himself - answering a muso's query in Melody Maker suggested "get sheet music of as many of the old jazz standards as you know and like, and learn these. If you can, watch John McLaughlin playing and when you feel like giving up, go home and try again!" So which other jazz artists were they listening to at the time? Was Miles Davis' innovatory Bitches Brew period influential on the group's ideas? "Yes we all listened to Miles Davis and the 'instrumental fluidity' as you put it came directly from jazz. Robert Wyatt put it quite succinctly when he said that when the Soft Machine were running out of material they started extending their solos as it was a way of lengthening the set just like the guys who were playing jazz. It is always hard to resist a good idea so we all followed suit."

So did Caravan have clearly defined and articulated musical objectives, was it something discussed and argued out prior to recording, or was there a more intuitive approach to the music? "No we just went wherever our influences took us." Unlike most mainstream pop, for prog-rock, as for jazz, the 'contract' - if you like, between group and audience is that the musicians are allowed to be self-indulgent and pursue their musical ideas towards their own personal visions, while the audience is informed and intelligent enough to enjoy the trip. In that respect, Caravan have always been gifted with a loyal and perceptive audience following. Does that sound like a reasonable analysis? "It is in the nature of the beast that the artist must always lead the audience. Once you start the opposite, you will find yourself in trouble. A good set must be a balance between old and new material and a cross-section of what the band can do. The strength of an audience can be seen in whether they are willing to tolerate being the guinea pigs for new material. Our audience have always given us that leeway and they are to be applauded for it."

Into the era of transition from analogue to digital, the original Caravan albums are now enjoying renewed visibility and new audiences via CD reissues, downloads, and a high hit-rate on You Tube, but does Pye believe the analogue sound of the original vinyl albums is 'warmer' than the digital CD reissues? "Yes I do, but vinyl wears out after x number of plays whereas digital doesn't, so you make your choice." My choice definitely goes out to the current 3-CD deluxe edition of In The Land Of Grey And Pink, a beautiful artefact in itself. Recorded in Decca's West Hampstead studio, and completed at AIR in Oxford Street, it originally came embellished within Anne-Marie Anderson's Tolkien-informed gatefold sleeve.

The complete re-mastered vinyl album forms CD disc one, from the intriguing stoned-pastoral title-track with its little keyboard ripples and Edward Lear lyrical strangeness about "those nasty grumbly-grimbles climbing down your chimney." Its enviable prowess extends into a sweetly narcotic voyage to "the land of warm and green" where we can "take our fill of punk-weed" and "'smoke it till we bleed," fraying into burbling mouth-music and squealing treated guitar. Then the formidable 22:43-minute eight-part suite Nine Feet Underground which formed the whole of the vinyl side two. Although it's this kind of ambitiously extended project that drew the ire of the anti-prog punk backlash, its interweaving contours never lapse into the self-indulgence of the other genre-offenders they were once unfairly bundled with, and suffered by comparison with. Among a wealth of bonuses, disc two adds Richard's Frozen Rose from the AIR sessions but never previously issued, alongside three songs from BBC's Sounds Of The 1970s and two done live from John Peel's 'Sunday Concert' including their take on Soft Machine's Feelin', Reelin', Squealin'.

While the third disc adds alternate versions of Golf Girl and Winter Wine from a June 1971 edition of German TV's Beat Club. The album can now be judged, as it always should have been, without preconceptions, as a product of its own unique creativity. As an example to those raised on the 'tired and tested' formula of reality TV-shows, that music can be infinitely more than the X-Factor. That it can be playfully improvisational and absorbing, where, on a spontaneous lyrical whim Golf Girl can mutate into Group Girl, and sheltering from the golf-balls can become sheltering from the H-bombs. All in all, it's a cornucopia of delights, a comprehensive Caravan-collector's joy.

Personally - for me, when I look back over things I've written there's a constant temptation to revise, rewrite and amend the texts. As a musician, does Pye get the same feelings listening back to these reissues, that it would be nice to re-do that solo, or alter that lyric? Indeed, the re-mix aspect of the process offers the opportunity to maybe do that? "Yes I do. There hasn't been a recording that I have done that I didn't feel I couldn't improve upon. This is certainly so with my lyrics. I get very frustrated about not being able to write lyrics easily. More often than not I have had to write the lyrics to a song after the backing-tracks are done and just before the vocal has to be recorded. Very confusing for the other members of the band, but I am getting better at it."

Now, decades after the event, a lot of the music happening during the period Caravan was at its most active seems incredibly distant, the attitudes ('won't need any money, just fingers and your toes...'), social ambitions, political consensus, artistic orientations´┐Ż and even the music itself seems to have little points of contact with what you hear on the radio every day. Does he see positive things happening in today's music, is he optimistic about what's going on within music? "The musical points of contact are surely a reflection of what the writer is listening to at any given moment, whether it is political or not..." he reasons. "I think one is naturally influenced by what is going on around you and I don't think it's any different from when we were at our most active to today. The styles may have changed, but the essence of the music remains. Anyway, don't you feel that musical tastes are cyclical, in that 'what goes around comes around'? I love changes in music and am quite magpie-like in that I will take something from everything I listen to. So the more changes there are the more I like it."

The internet and downloading is attacking the traditional dominance of the big labels, but is creating new portals of access for bands like Caravan, through dedicated websites and fan-groups. What are his attitudes to these changes? "I must say I am confused by the whole situation. It used to be quite simple in that you recorded an album for a record company, who then actively promoted the band. The buyer got something he or she could hold and treasure, and at the end of the day you got your royalty. Now I don't know who owns what and how you can translate digital sales into income. It seems that everyone wants to download everything for free."

I had to ask it. I just couldn't resist it. Pye 'if you had to do it all over again...', would you, or would you do it differently? This deluxe re-issue with its set of remixes, is probably the closest an artist will ever get to re-creating an original idea, for a new decade. Hell, for a new century. And it's good to see Steven Wilson - of prog-renaissance band Porcupine Tree, involved in the re-mixing process. I remember debating various aspects of 1970s' music culture with him backstage at the Leeds Cockpit club! Is Pye happy for other people to get involved with the Caravan legacy, and is he pleased with the results? "Yes, Steve is a good bloke and I am very pleased with the results. I've only met him once, at a Porcupine Tree gig that I went to. And it's always good to hear other people's take on your music." A calculated pause, then "..the original, however, still remains the original..." An in-part spoof throwaway question, opening up answers with endless possibilities... What else would you expect?

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press