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Very much in the mould of one-time label-mates WISHBONE ASH, English prog-rocksters CAMEL are known best for their mid-70s breakthrough concept album, “The Snow Goose”, a record adapted and inspired from a children’s book that brought about an equal share of trouble when its author, Paul Gallico, served a writ against the group for copyright infringement. Duly sticking to less ambitious structures, CAMEL were later dogged by constant line-up re-shuffles, although one man (the multi-talented but reticent Andy Latimer) has been at the helm in their four/five decades together. October 2013 will see the group, who are currently Latimer (guitar, vocals, etc.), Colin Bass (bass, vocals, etc.), Guy LeBlanc (keyboards) and Denis Clement (drums) get back together; the latter two, members since the new millennium.
Formed in 1971, Latimer, drummer Andy Ward and bassist Doug Ferguson (alumni of Guildford, Surrey combo, The Brew), successfully auditioned for PHILLIP GOODHAND-TAIT, who was on the lookout for a tight-knit band to complement fresh songs for his “I Think I’ll Write A Song” album. Subsequently combining forces with Brit-R&B veteran keyboardist, Peter Bardens (ex-Shotgun Express, ex-THEM, ex-solo, etc.), CAMEL played their inaugural gig in December 1971, supporting none other than WISHBONE ASH.
Signed to M.C.A. Records the following summer, early 1973 saw the delivery of the quartet’s debut set, CAMEL {*5}. Drowned in a desert of jazz-inflected rock and off-tangent prog-improvs, the album was rather too cool for its own good, although there were highlights in Bardens’ `Mystic Queen’, Latimer’s `Never Let Go’ and the pair’s `Slow Yourself Down’.
Probably on the strength of their side-long “Greasy Truckers – Live At Dingwalls” Various Artists recording, `God Of Light Revisited – Parts One, Two, Three’, CAMEL switched labels to Deram (an offshoot of Decca).
1974’s MIRAGE {*8} – the cover shot in the “Camel” fag-packet motif/brand style – was a vast improvement and a record that clearly marked out their own territory among the big boys of the prog scene. Cosmic opener, `Freefall’, the flute-y, FOCUS-like `Supertwister’ and the lengthy `Nimrodel’ medley, were exceptional in both texture and interplay, while side two (featuring the 12-minute `Lady Fantasy’ suite), endeared them to the American market where their album had bubbled under the Top 100.
CAMEL really came into their own with their conceptual interpretation of THE SNOW GOOSE (1975) {*10}. A British Top 30 breakthrough, the record was dominated by excellent instrumental pieces which perfectly translated Gallico’s children’s novella into a prog-rock framework. Produced by David Hitchcock and orchestrally arranged by DAVID BEDFORD (conducting The London Symphony Orchestra), the storyline of the lonely Rhayader, young friend Fritha and an ailing bird, The Snow Goose was CAMEL’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”. Pity then it didn’t receive more plaudits during its short-ish chart run. `Migration’ was of The ASSOCIATION meets YES reserve; `Preparation’ and `Dunkirk’, both climactic and essential listening; the classical `Friendship’ embarrassingly sponge-y but fulfilling nevertheless. A post-script to the album was the death, in 1976, of author Gallico, a smoker, who, mistakenly, thought the band were sponsored by the Camel tobacco manufacturers.
CAMEL duly came up with their fourth album, MOONMADNESS (1976) {*8}, this time utilising vocal songs rather than just instrumentals. This took them a stage further in their musical development. Sweeping layers of keyboards and syncopated soundscapes, atmosphere won hands-down over adaptation, although this concept, low as it was on an exciting storyline (it’s loosely based on each individual group member’s moods), was equally rewarding in the short term. From quirky and quick-fire `Aristillus’, to the funereal `Spirit Of The Water’, longer pieces such as `Lunar Sea’, `Chord Change’ and `Another Night’, were also accessible and laid-back.
Marking the group’s first personnel switch, as Ferguson made way for bassist/vocalist Richard Sinclair (ex-CARAVAN) and saxophonist Mel Collins (ex-KING CRIMSON), RAIN DANCES (1977) {*7}, was a softer, more conventional affair, the antipathy to the advent of punk and new wave. `Metrognome’, `Tell Me’ and `Unevensong’, were all gloriously horizontal tracks, while the pop-fuelled rare 45, `Highways Of The Sun’ and the ambient `Elke’ (featuring ENO), were from both ends of their musical spectrum.
Dismissing a rather filler in-concert double-set, A LIVE RECORD (1978) {*4}, which at times dated back to 1974, CAMEL’s studio follow-up, BREATHLESS (1978) {*6}, achieved its potential – another Top 30 place. Radio-friendly and fully incorporating Richard’s “Canterbury Scene” prog-ness, its jazzy-pop element gave tracks such as `Down On The Farm’ and `Starlight Ride’ a foggy air/heir of CARAVAN at their most gracious.
When CARAVAN’s Dave Sinclair (brother of Richard) and Jan Schelhaas came on board as temporary keyboardist replacements for Bardens, CAMEL seemed to have been hijacked by their prog cousins. Thankfully, when the promotional tour was over, only Latimer, Ward and Schelhaas took shelter in the studio; American-born synths/keyboardist Kit Watkins (from HAPPY THE MAN) and bassist/singer Colin Bass being added to the pack for I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE (1979) {*6}. Produced by Rupert Hine, and featuring respective percussion and sax spots from PHIL COLLINS and the unrelated Mel Collins, CAMEL maintained their prog sensibilities with the lengthy `Who We Are’ and the 10-minute `Icy’.
Now down to Latimer, Ward and Bass (with mainly guest positions for Duncan Mackay, Mel Collins and Schelhaas), NUDE (1981) {*6} was another concept affair, this time based on a Japanese WWII soldier (“Hiroo Onoda” aka Nude) stranded on an island. Featuring lyrics by Latimer’s wife Susan Hoover, CAMEL could be consoled in the fact they were probably the only post-prog outfit still to be carrying on the thematic tradition; `Docks’, `Beached’ and `Lies’ capturing Latimer’s axeman prowess.
When Andy Ward opted to join neo-prog-machine MARILLION, Latimer decided to go it alone on the aptly-titled ninth set, THE SINGLE FACTOR (1982) {*4}. Although surrounding himself with CAMEL associates old and new (Bardens was a guest, while bassist David Paton and former GENESIS acolyte ANTHONY PHILLIPS – on keyboards – laid it on thick), Latimer’s radio-friendly approach was given the thumbs-down.
STATIONARY TRAVELLER (1984) {*5} also retained Hoover as main lyricist, while a proper band was found by way of Ton Scherpenzeel (keyboards) and Paul Burgess (drums); Mel Collins, David Paton and Chris Rainbow (also a guest on the previous LP) were on hand for anything extra. Attempts at something akin to an ALAN PARSONS PROJECT type concept, `Pressure Points’, `Refugee’ and the title track, had the most appeal. PRESSURE POINTS – CAMEL LIVE IN CONCERT (1984) {*3} rounded off more than a decade on the fringes of the premier prog league, as the group split like ships in the desert.
Although CAMEL had retained a loyal fanbase within the college fraternity and beyond, the onset of more hip sounds (i.e. alt-rock and indie) effectively swept them under the carpet. The previous quartet line-up made their comeback album on the American-ised DUST AND DREAMS (1991) {*5}, a record inspired by John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes Of Wrath. Described as a watered-down take on Dave Gilmour’s PINK FLOYD, or something akin to STEVE HACKETT with a twist of ENO, the thematic set was ambitious as it was elaborate; `Go West’, `Rose Of Sharon’ and `Hopeless Anger’, the choice cuts. NEVER LET GO (1993) {*4} was the obligatory live effort that only fans lapped up.
For 1996’s Celtic-inspired HARBOUR OF TEARS {*6}, Mickey Simmonds was now in place of Ton and Paul, with other folk-styled musicians such as David Paton, Mae McKenna and Karen Bentley were used to convey the harsh environs of Irish immigrants crossing the sea to America.
COMING OF AGE (1998) {*6} – a live double, RAJAZ (1999) {*5}, THE PARIS COLLECTION (2001) {*6} – a live set featuring Guy LeBlanc on vocal duties, and A NOD AND A WINK (2002) {*6}, kept CAMEL from sinking into the sands of time; the latter studio effort was indeed dedicated to Bardens, who’d died in January 2002. The fact that Andy Latimer was suffering from a blood disorder (myelofibrosis), led to CAMEL taking time out, while the man underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2007; the group would be fighting fit for concerts in October 2013.
A subsequent re-recording of THE SNOW GOOSE (2013) {*6} by Messrs Latimer, LeBlanc, Bass and Clement (keyboardist Jason Hart was added) was a nice touch as CAMEL continued onwards on tour. Sadly, Guy LeBlanc (aged only 54) died of kidney cancer on 27th April 2015, but that too couldn’t halt the group in their sand tracks; a year on, Pete Jones (keyboards, sax, vocals) replaced both Ton and Jason as the readied themselves for another mouth-watering concert reprise of “Moonmadness”.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD / rev-up MCS Jul2013-Sep2018

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