If you are really, really into the long history of rock music and want to explore what’s underneath the top layer of overexposed famous bands that everyone knows, there are many treasures awaiting you. There was once a time when you could make a good living for an extended period as a musician creating original music. You might be surprised at how many people whose careers started in the sixties and seventies have made a go of it, retaining large enough fanbases to regularly put out recordings over the course of several decades.
Things have changed now, of course, since the structure of the music industry has changed (ie crumbled). One act that adapted and can even be said to have thrived despite changing trends and collapsing business models is British progressive rock band Camel, which started out as a collective of four and ended up being the personal project of guitarist, singer and occasional flautist Andy Latimer. Camel experienced a good deal of success in the seventies and retained a major-label career throughout the eighties, but when the age of prog-rock had given away to punk, then to new wave, interest from the industry dried up for aging bands like Camel (by aging I mean they were probably in their thirties at that point…).
Latimer, however, did not give up and instead became one of the first true independents, releasing his own records successfully since the early nineties after relocating his activities to California, and even mounting successful tours of Europe. It’s inspiring to see how he identified and pursued ways to keep his music alive and to keep producing new gems — and to hell with the mainstream, youth-obsessed music world.
In the late 2000s, Latimer battled a potentially fatal bone marrow disorder. The progression of the disease and his fight to overcome it was documented via regular newsletters to his fans. Fortunately, he has won his battle and is back making music and touring again. Currently, as a matter of fact!
OK, so this guy’s done good — he’s both a musical survivor and a survivor of one of life’s toughest battles. So is his actual music of interest? Yes! I’ll be detailing some of the highlights of Camel’s long career below. The band started off as a high-energy jazzy rock combo based around Latimer’s bluesy but melodic playing (think of a funkier David Gilmour) and Peter Bardens’ keyboards, which alternated between full-on Chick Corea and an effective use of the ethereal sounds of synths and mellotrons. The band also had Andy Ward, one of the best drummers to come out of the British progressive scene.
They reached their commercial peak during prog’s heyday with a musical adaptation of the book The Snow Goose, and with the follow-up album, Moonmadness, which featured more vocals and some poppier songs. That album is distinguished by an overall pleasant, dreamy softness.
Some lineup shakeups resulted in the presence of Caravan bassist/vocalist Richard Sinclair, one of Britain’s most underrated musicians — a great player and possessed of a wonderfully melodious voice. The lineup produced Rain Dances and Breathless.
When he left, new (and longtime) member, the aptly named Colin Bass joined, also possessed of a fine singing voice. As an aside, Bass’s fine solo album An Outcast of the Islands is pretty much a Camel album due to Latimer’s presence. It’s really good.
By that time the winds of change were rudely roaring in and tastes were changing also. Still, the band forged on, producing what is likely their best album, 1981’s Nude, another concept piece that concerns a Japanese soldier marooned on a Pacific island for decades.
After a couple more efforts, Latimer got tired of decreasing industry interest and moved with his wife and lyricist, Susan Hoover, to California, where he unleashed a string of concept albums, Dreams and Dust, Rajaz, Harbour of Tears and A Nod and a Wink, in a style generally based around quiet, reflective songs and his extended guitar leads.
What distinguishes Camel’s music is really Latimer’s musical personality, at least since he’s taken to running the band on his own. There’s an important idea that such intellectual luminaries as Camus and Orwell have tried to present in their works, which is decency. By this I mean the basic need that people have at their best to be good to each other, whether in times of duress or in their small daily interactions, thus providing meaning in a world that often seems depressingly meaningless. It may be weird to associate this concept with rock music, but it’s true in this case. While Latimer’s music is tuneful and well-composed and definitely of interest to discerning listeners, there’s just a sense of quiet decency and compassion in his songs, his playing and his voice that makes this music for true grown-ups, not in the easy listening sense, but in that there is a lot of wisdom to be found here. A reassuring tranquillity and an interest in human betterment, I’d say. I’m not sure that makes any sense, but that’s my feeling.
Hence, Latimer’s music is amongst my favourites. This is not music for people looking for anything like the latest trend, or something exciting in an edgy way. It’s curl up by the fire or radiator, throw on the album, and take a relaxing, intelligent journey kind of stuff.
So, here’s a selection of the finest Camel albums. There are lots more, but I can’t be writing a book here.
Camel’s second album contains some of the highest-octane rock they did, such as the jagged rhythm and pulse of “Freefall”, but for the most part the album sets the band’s template in the long, dreamy and occasionally jazzy progressive tunes “The White Rider” (Tolkien was very big back then with the post-hippies) and “Lady Fantasy”. Latimer gets in some exciting solos on this record, and Bardens’ keyboard sounds are as good as you’ll find on a seventies album. Certainly I imagine a lot of Floyd fans were grooving to this stuff back in the day!
The Snow Goose (1975)
An interesting concept that might not work in theory but really does in practice, this is an instrumental retelling of The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk, the classic book by Paul Gallico, “a parable on the regenerative power of friendship and love, set against a backdrop of the horror of war”. It’s always ambitious to adapt a book to music, and frankly I’ve never read the book in question, so I can attest to the fact that an acquaintance with it is not necessary to appreciate the music, which tells a story in itself. The music is, of course, a combination of jazzier soloing and more textured, emotional pieces. I believe it did quite well commercially and is still well worth a listen.
At the peak of their success, this album best exemplifies what early Camel was about — snappy but poppy tunes, billowing synths and keyboards, and measured, tasteful guitar solos. While none of the band members were exactly opera singers, they acquit themselves well with their classy vocals. Gems on this record include “Song Within a Song” and the more up-tempo “Another Night”. There are also some jazz-rock instrumentals in “Chord Change” and the lengthy “Lunar Sea”. While things are generally a bit more muso noodly here than they would be on later Camel albums, it’s a pleasant listening experience.
Rain Dances (1977)
The addition of Richard Sinclair and his golden vocal tones really raises the quality of this album to a new level. Yes, things are still jazzy at times, and Sinclair is adept at that style of bass playing, but the quality of the songs themselves is very impressive, and Sinclair must have brought some of the classic English whimsy of Caravan with him, because “Metrognome” is a really cute little tune. Other highlights are the beautiful ballad “Tell Me” and the unabashedly tuneful late-seventies prog-pop of “Unevensong”. And you can add this to the very long list of albums containing guest appearances by Brian Eno! I love this album. Horns are provided by the legendary Mel Collins, who played with a who’s who of English prog-rock greats in the seventies.
Things get even poppier on this album, which is a bit more uneven(song) but still has some great songs. The title track features Sinclair’s tuneful singing at its best. “Echoes” is a longer progressive rock piece with more complex parts that is still wonderfully melodic. “Down on the Farm” is a piece of distinctly English village humour married to a pop song that a lot of listeners will find too silly, but I think it’s good fun. “Starlight Ride” is a really nice little ballad too.
Sinclair and Bardens had departed by this point, and Colin Bass was on … bass. A couple of keyboard players now provided the textures, including Duncan Mackay, formerly of Cockney Rebel. By now the band was firmly under Latimer’s control, which was a good thing. This concept album based on a true story about a marooned Japanese soldier who doesn’t believe the war is over contains some of Latimer’s prettiest instrumentals, which sometimes verge on being ambient music, as well as a number of really good songs. But there’s a strong emotional resonance here that makes it one of my favourite albums. Bass shows off his vocal chops on the ballad “Drafted”, and check out the very beautiful instrumentals “Landscapes” and “Reflections” to hear the more ambient sounds available here. A great, great album.
After a couple more major label releases, Latimer and his poetess paramour, Susan Hoover, hoofed it to the U.S. to regenerate. With Bass still in tow, they released this concept piece under their new banner of Camel Productions. Based on Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl fiction and no doubt inspired by their new setting, the album tells the story of Depression-era Easterners and their travails in uprooting and moving west in search of a new life. Hence, the music is appropriately melancholy, featuring a lot of ballads and long, textured keyboard parts. Latimer has really grown as a lead vocalist by this point, providing appropriate dramatic heft on songs like “Go West”. There’s also some bluesy/AOR pieces like “Mother Road”, on which he shows off his supreme mastery of a Les Paul.
Similarly, Harbour of Tears tells the story of Irish immigrants to the U.S. during the famine of the mid-nineteenth century. This gives Latimer a new palette for his guitar playing, in the rhythms and melodies of Irish traditional music. His playing on this album at times reminds me of that of Johnny Fean of Horslips. Which is very, very good! In keeping with the new style, the album takes the listener on a journey painted through instrumentals and evocative songs. If you love folk music and folk-rock, you’ll love things like “Irish Air”, “Eyes of Ireland” and the incredible soloing on “Under the Moon”. Not my favourite Camel release but nonetheless has plenty of stunning musical moments.
Yet another musical journey, Rajaz takes us to the Middle East in a Lawrence of Arabia-ish kind of way, conjuring up visions of desert landscapes. Latimer lets things get back up to mid-tempo at times again amongst all the quiet and reflective pieces, so this is probably more of interest to prog-rock fans than the few previous releases. “Lost and Found” and the acoustic ballad “Shout” are the highlights here.
A Nod and a Wink (2002)
After taking all these musical trips around the world, Latimer stays home for this wistful album largely based around English themes from his boyhood. Hence there are some whimsical songs like “A Boy’s Life” and the Genesis-y “Fox Hill”, and also some more melancholy pieces such as “Simple Pleasures”, as a mature man looks back on the world of his youth. The album also contains the classiest piece I’ve heard based on a 9/11 theme (with the possible exception of Springsteen’s “Nothing Man”), “For Today”, which partially concerns the famous and controversial photo of the man jumping to his death, seemingly like a diver. The lyrics are sparse and moving, exemplifying this quiet decency I mentioned earlier. A really fine, mature album by a master musician and co. Rajaz and A Nod and a Wink more consciously recall the sounds and styles of seventies British progressive rock.
OK, so, you can get all these albums or visit
to purchase them and to read more.