1976 was not the top year in the classic period of progressive rock, and arguably just outside of that golden era altogether. Many of the bands at the genre’s top echelon were still touring, recording and releasing albums but for most, these albums did not rank among their best. Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer already released their best albums. King Crimson was no more, at least for that decade. Punk was knocking at the door, and as any rock or pop sub-genre, the classic period of progressive rock seemed to run out of steam after five years. One band was an exception, still on their way up artistically and commercially in 1976. With a couple of excellent records released in the previous two years you could have expected them to peter out like many of their contemporaries, but they had one more masterpiece coming. This is the story of Camel’s Moonmadness.
The all instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose was a surprising success for Camel, climbing to no. 22 on the UK album chart in 1975. The concept album, based on Paul Gallico’s sentimental story of Rhayader and Fritha revolving around the Dunkirk evacuation in World War 2, got the band to the prestigious Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra and a spot on BB2’s The Old Grey Whistle Test with a wind ensemble.
In Melody Maker’s readers poll that year they were voted Brightest Hope, and the pressure was on to quickly deliver an even more successful album. To Decca, their record company, that meant songs with vocals. Maybe they saw The Snow Goose as a commercial fluke, unlikely to repeat its success unless someone steps up to the microphone.
Camel is one my favorite bands in that magical era of progressive rock in the early 1970s. They purely focused on the music and had none of the dramas, peculiar personalities and over-the-top stage shows that defined some of their peers. They were certainly one of the most melodic bands, their lengthy musical compositions and passages never boring and connecting to each other very tastefully. Many of their solos were memorable and you could hum them to yourself, something you could rarely do with most of the great instrumentalists of the time. But Camel had one weak point, and maybe that was the reason they were less successful than some of their peers. There was no natural born singer and performer on that band. More than one of them could sing, but none had a great voice or stage presence the like of Peter Gabriel, Ian Anderson or Greg Lake. Writing lyrics was also not their best skill, and it is no wonder that their best known “concept” album of the period is one without any lyrics. Drummer Andy Ward said of Lady Fantasy, one of their all-time best songs from the Mirage album: “I think the lyrics to that are absolutely dreadful, and I wrote some of them. When you compare them to a songwriter who’s really got something to say …. And vocally the band were weak compared say to Caravan who had two great singers, Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair, two terrific singers. Pete [Bardens] and Andy [Latimer] didn’t have that, and they knew this to be true, it was hard for them, but at least they gave it a go.”
Even though albums such as Mike Oldfiled’s Tubular Bells proved that instrumental music can sell, the record companies, mainly the US distributor, were leery of such experiments. Andy Latimer recalls: “There was considerable outside pressure from our record companies, particularly in America, for us to deliver an album which was more song based.” The band managed to deliver lyrics and vocals on Moonmadness, but not the type that will make a record company happy. Four tracks on the album feature vocals, three of them with lengthy instrumental passages, none of them the chart topping material.
Similar to the writing process of their previous album, Andy Latimer and Pete Bardens retired to the country side to compose and put words to Moonmadness, and this is where the album name came about. Latimer: “Pete and I, we camped out in this farm near Dorking and that was kind of what instigated the title in a way because Pete and I were both convinced that the house we were living in was haunted. Pete especially tuned into the spirit of things. His father wrote lots of books on the occult and spirits, so he talked about it, and we were saying one night ‘it gets kind of mad when there is a full moon’. And I sort of, just to be funny said ‘we would get some sort of moonmadness’. It kind of stuck.”
The opening track kicks the moon theme off with the title Aristillus. As with many of the band’s songs, Latimer had the music but did not have a title for it yet: “Andy Ward came into the studio and he said ‘I’ve been reading about the moon and there are all these fantastic names for the craters on the moon. This one is called Aristillus and there is another one called Autolycus.’ He had the idea of keep repeating the words Aristillus Autolycus, but every time he started he burst up laughing.” His band mates were not able to accomplish this task any better so the end result you hear on Aristillus is the Drummer’s only vocal on the album.
The next track on the album, Song Within a Song, has everything that Camel excelled at: great melodies, interesting time signatures, a melancholic verse that segues into an energetic theme (alternating between 4/4 and 7/8 bars). The song was co-written by Latimer and Bardens, and from Latimer’s reminiscing about it we can guess who wrote what: “Pete and I seemed to always be on the same wavelength. He was very quirky in his writing and I was very simple and melodic. Pete came up with the title and the lyrics. Pete loved words. Sometimes he would write a lyric and it wouldn’t mean much but it would sound quite nice. It is still one of my favorite pieces.” Bassist Doug Ferguson delivers the lead vocals, and I love Andy Ward’s playing on this track, a great example of a melodic approach to drum accompaniment.
When the band started to plan the theme for the album, they thought of writing songs that will capture the personality of each of the band members. A concept as loose as they come, even in an era that saw some very questionable concepts for concept album. Suffice it to say that the theme did not last long, but while it did each member got his song. The next track, Chord Change was awarded to Pete Bardens: “Pete was very changeable. Part of his character was he changed moods very quickly, very humorous chap but he also had dramas too. So we wrote Chord Change for him. It is kind of funny because Pete and I wrote that together.” It is the most complex song on the album, indeed a schizophrenic instrumental that takes some skill to pull off.
Asked if he had a favorite on the album, Latimer said: “I love my solo on Chord Change, I do a really slow solo in that. I borrowed a 175 Gibson from Michael Chapman.” You can hear that wonderful solo at 1:45 into the song.
The last track on side one of the LP, Spirit of the Water, is also the first to be recorded for the album, and one of its best melodies. It started as a piano demo that Bardens brought to the studio.
Latimer remembers: “Pete said, look I got this idea and he played me the whole piece and I said wow this is fantastic, we don’t need to do any overdubs. We can just add a recorder, that was my idea, but it was Pete’s number. He has been reading Siddhartha which is a book by Herman Hesse (that book was considered as the basis for their previous album but Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose was the chosen one), and that’s all about the river, quite deep. He wrote the lyrics but did not have a title. And I was reading a book called Salar The Salmon by Henry Williamson and one of the last lines in that book is something about the spirit of the water.”
You may notice when listening to the vocals on Moonmadness that they are almost exclusively pretty low in the mix and sound dreamy. The band at that stage defined themselves as instrumentalists, and their reluctance to become lead singers resulted in making interesting choices in the studio: “We didn’t mix our vocals very loud. We often put a lot of effects on, a leslie, phasing, chorusing, echoes. All sorts of things to bury them. It kind of worked and a lot of people commented that they loved these effects.” Indeed this is quite effective, and Spirit of the Water is a great example, this time with Pete Bardens singing the lead.
Before we move to side two, a few words about the production and packaging of the album. Moonmadness was recorded at Basing Street Studios, formerly Island Studios, where the band recorded The Snow Goose and would continue to record their next album, Rain Dances. The studios were under the artistic direction of Muff Winwood, brother of musician-extraordinaire Steve. It was the site where many great albums were recorded in the 1970s including Led Zeppelin 4, Jethro Tull’s Aqualang and Selling England by the Pound by Genesis. The album was engineered and co-produced by house engineer Rhett Davis, who in addition to his work with Camel worked on Brian Eno’s records during and after his tenure with Island Records (Taking Tiger Mountain, Another Green World, Evening Star, Before and After Science, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Music for Films) and King Crimson in their early 1980s incarnation (Discipline, Beat).
The cover drawing was created by John Field, who the same year also made the sleeve design to Michael Chapman’s Savage Amusement!, on which Andy Latimer contributes guitar parts. The Camel logo was created by David Anstey, who also made the wonderful illustrations for Mellow Candle’s Swaddling Songs, Caravan’s Waterloo Lily and most notably the iconic drawing for Days of Future Past by the Moody Blues.
Like many other sleeve designs of its time, that great artwork was butchered by the American distributor, this time Janus Records, who moved the UK cover design to the inner sleeve and put a camel in a spacesuit on the front. They actually could have done much worse, as AM records did with Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking.
And we come to side two of the LP and a song that was created for Doug Ferguson’s character: “He was extremely forthright and always getting into crazy escapades”, hence the song Another Night. It is the rockiest song on the album and the only track remotely resembling a radio-friendly song. It became the album’s only single, but with a long instrumental passage and a B-side being the 9-minute instrumental Lunar Sea it went nowhere and like their previous singles, did not make Camel a household name.
Next on the second side we find Air Born, the Andy Latimer-themed song: “Airborn was written about me because they saw me as very English. When I sat down and I wrote the intro to Airborn I had to discard all this American influence I had always through my youth.” The song opens with a trademark pastoral piano and flute that made so many Camel songs cherished by their fans. Latimer’s flute playing may not have the energetic style that was part of Ian Anderson’s stage performance, nor the virtuosity of Thijs Van Leer of Focus, but it is no less effective when he uses it. Latimer, who prefers to be classified as ‘emotional music’ rather than ‘progressive’, is ever-romantic in his flute melodies, usually played as song openings and instrumental transitions.
Latimer has a story about the guitar part that starts at 2:30 on Airborn: “Rhett and I spent a whole afternoon plugging guitars into moogs and fuzz boxes and all sorts of things. We spent four or five hours messing about and then at the end of the day we recorded it and we both looked at each other and said ‘this sounds just like a bad keyboard, doesn’t it?'”.
The album closer is also its crown achievement, the space-jazz-rock bonanza that is Lunar Sea. This one was written for Andy Ward: “Lunar Sea was for Andy because he had an element of being a bit of a lunatic at times. I think he came up with the title because it was based all about the moon.” Maybe there was a word play here with Lunacy. In those days not a lot was known about bipolar disorder, a condition that caused Andy Ward to lose his position with Camel in the early 80s. Unlike less fortunate musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, Ward was properly diagnosed in later years and managed to put that condition under control.
The high string sounds that start the track are played on a Roland RS-202 Strings, a synth that was released in 1976 with Pete Bardens an early adopter. Many early Camel songs feature string sounds, giving them that space rock texture, and Bardens used a number of analog string synth strings that were developed around that time. Another one was the Freeman String Symphonizer, who later that year was famously used in Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. Both synths were trying to capture the sound of a string ensemble and were ousted later in the 1970s when ARP released their ARP Solina String Ensemble, but that is a different story.
Lunar Sea also features interesting sound effects, courtesy of Rhett Davis who knew what the songs needed and had the imagination to think of ways to create them. The sound you hear about 40 seconds into the song is Andy Ward blowing into a plastic tube inserted into a bucket of water. Even more interesting is the thunder you hear at the end of the song: “Rhett suggested that we use some thunder. We brought this huge sheet of metal called thunder sheet, far too cumbersome to cart around, 4′ by 10′. You used to press the sheet and it world vibrate and make it sound like thunder.” Another suggestion can only be appreciated by those who remember the good old days of vinyl: “And then Rhett said ‘you know what, on vinyl there is a way to scroll the record so that it doesn’t stop. The needle will keep going and going.’ So we thought fantastic, we’ll just put thunder at the end of it and it will keep going until you take the needle off.” The fun days of analog.
Lunar Sea points to the direction the band will take in their next album, Rain Dances. It is the jazziest track they wrote and played to date, a result of the music they were listening to and influenced by at the time. In 1974 the band opened a number of times for Soft Machine, at the time with Allan Holdsworth in their lineup: “We were impressed by Soft Machine, and Allan Holdsworth was the guitar player. Andy and I sat at the side of the stage every night with our mouths open. We got hang up in jazz. Pete came up with that corky riff. I wrote that end riff, which is really quite Soft Machine.”
Listening to Lunar Sea I heard something that reminded me of Brand X. The 5/4 time signature, the bass lines. Funny enough, I found an interview with Andy Ward in which he tells the following story: “I first met Phil Collins at Basing Street studios, Genesis were downstairs in the larger studio putting the finishing touches to “Lamb Lie Down”, and I needed to borrow a drum key. So we got chatting and Phil was a very friendly guy, we met a couple more times after that, exchanged phone numbers and that sort of thing. Soon after he phoned me, and asked me would I like to play percussion with his jazz rock band, Brand X, at a gig in London? I said “I’d love to”, I was very excited by this, so I went along and rehearsed with them. I found them quite something to follow, not knowing the tunes, and there were a lot of time changes, very demanding. I picked up on a few things, good enough to do the gig, but I was quite nervous about it. Anyway the next day came, and it was the gig, at a place called The Nashville in London. It had a tiny little stage, with the five of us crammed on, I was set up directly behind Phil Collins on another little platform. We started playing and everything was going swimmingly well for twenty minutes or so, but during the fourth number, I was playing tambourine with my right hand, and occasionally hitting cymbals with it, and catching them with my left hand to choke the sound. I did a particularity spirited one of these and failed to catch the cymbal with my left hand, the result was the cymbal crashed directly onto Phil’s left shoulder. Which I’d imagine was quite painful, it was just the most awful moment, and he gave me a very cold look that froze me to the floor. We carried on playing, but I felt pretty shaken, and was being very careful, but low and behold it happened again! This time I missed Phil but demolished half his drum kit and this time the band had to stop playing altogether while things were put right. The rest of the band thought it very funny, and made a thing of it during the announcements. I was never asked to play with them again. But they were a great band, and it was a fun evening except for those two incidents.”
Moonmadness was released in the UK on March 26, 1976 and became the band’s highest charting album, peaking at no. 15 in the UK and no. 118 on the US Billboard chart. The tour to promote the album started the day before the release, and culminated in the UK with their stellar performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on April 14th.
Later during the Moonmadness tour Mel Collins joined the band at the recommendation of Doug Fergusson. With a reeds player the direction pushed farther into jazzier areas, ironically pushing Fergusson out of the band. The band remedied the vocals deficiency by recruiting Richard Sinclair, previously with Caravan and Hatfield and The North, a great bass player and vocalist. The following record, Rain Dances, possibly featured Camel’s most stellar lineup, and the resulting tour was one of their best.
Artistic differences mounted and Bardens left the band after one more record. The band added two more ex-Caravan members, Richard’s cousin David Sinclair and Jan Schelhaas, causing Camel to earn the nickname “Caramel” by the music press.
Camel 1977: Richard Sinclair, Andy Ward, Peter Bardens, Andy Latimer, Mel Collins
Moonmadness remains one of the many peaks of the classic progressive rock era. It is beloved by many musicians, including Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt: “I was already in my twenties when I first heard it. I was working at a record store in Stockholm at the time, and one of my co-workers, who was in his early forties, suggested I check out Camel. I bought a couple of their albums on second-hand vinyl, including Moon Madness and The Snow goose, and took them home on a lunch break. I was floored by Moonmadness and especially by Andy Latimer’s guitar playing. It was just what I’d been looking for—finally, someone to copy! I had always leaned toward hard-rock players like Blackmore, but this was something new. It was so heartfelt and emotional, and every note felt like it served a purpose. I was also amazed by the compositions, as well as the solos, and of course, Latimer’s guitar tone. One of the best guitar solos is in a song called ‘Lunar Sea.’ It’s long and fantastically executed. He really builds it to a splendid climax.” Well said.
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