There is a very special feeling when you miss a joke and realise – alas, too late – you have appeared as thick as a brick.
I was responding to 1537’s post on a T Rex album and commented that I’m not a big fan. Sure, the singles are great, but I find the albums – even the one he was writing entertainingly about – unsatisfying. ‘Fun though wafer thin,’ I opined. ‘Not much of substance here,’ I asserted. ‘You’ll be hungry again soon.’
Now the blogger in question is, as many of you may know, a fellow of nimble wit and always ready to frolic with a metaphor or gag. He attacked the food/nourishment motif with gusto, agreeing that there isn’t much ‘roughage’ in T Rex and reflecting on the delights of Groundhogs or Camel. I missed it entirely.
Sad music tragic that I am, I responded literally, asking about albums in his collection by those UK bands. Later I cringed; lambasting myself for not counter-punching with barbequed Bulldog, Buffalo burgers or even a bite of Budgie. It may be something of a stretch, but I found myself thinking of Mark Twain’s observation that ‘it usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.’ What is the preparation time for repartee?
Included in the interchange was my opinion, totally off-the-cuff, that my favourite Camel album is Mirage. I decided to ascertain whether that was, in fact, true, and why.
So here are half a dozen reasons why I like Mirage, by UK progressive band Camel.
You can listen to ‘Earthrise’ here.
- Cigarette brand cover
Everybody knows that smoking will kill you and selling your soul to a tobacco company will kill you worse. Though everything seems sponsored today, it was strangely confronting to see a corporate image – albeit a cleverly phased one – adorning an album cover back in 1974. Come to think of it, the miragey logo dromedary shimmering under the cigarette brand name sucks at every level except that it is a brilliant piece of artwork; both deconstructive and manipulative. (‘Sleeve design by Modula’).
- Musical invention
The compositions are more fully developed and the arrangements more complex than the enjoyable self-titled debut. There are two long pieces, one per side, neatly constructed and mostly satisfying. Having said that, the three shorter pieces – punchy opener ‘Freefall’, tricksy ‘Supertwister’ and the exciting dawn of ‘Earthrise’ – are my favourites on Mirage.
- Pete Bardens
Having played with Them, worked with Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green and discovered how to get interesting sounds out of an impressive range of keyboard instruments, Pete was a real asset to Andrew Latimer’s fledgling band. The balance of Latimer’s guitar yang with Bardens’ fertile organ and synthesiser yin provides much of the enjoyable contrast in Camel’s music and Mirage is where it first blooms. Interestingly, when Latimer adds flute – a second instrument on which he is clearly adept – instead of the more astringent electric guitar timbres, the sound becomes so much more romantic it feels like a soft hug rather than a bracing clap on the shoulder.
- Literary references
‘Nimrodel’, the nine minute suite-piece on side one was an early Camel venture into literature inspiration, a direction fully embraced on their third album, The Snow Goose (1975). This exploratory foray dabbles with Lord of the Rings, the two parts being called ‘The Procession’ and ‘The White Rider’. Like the entire Snow Goose album, these are tone poems rather than literal interpretations of the story. But for someone besotted by JRR Tolkien’s book, this was an excellent selling point. Funnily enough, although I enjoyed Goose, it never excited me. Always sounded more like a lush film soundtrack than a rock album.
- Instrumental / Vocal ratio
There are lashings of melody and hummable themes in Camel’s music. It is tuneful in an creatively fertile, feminine way; describing them as the yin to, say, King Crimson’s yang would be far from outrageous. But that does not extend to the singing. Despite a shared workload, the singing is consistently limited in range and monotonous in delivery. Don’t bother about delving into the lyrics either, because they are generally dreadful. Here is a sample from ‘Lady Fantasy’.
I can see clearly,
A face in the sky,
Moon’s in your eye,
You’re passing me by
Tell me the reason why
So having the balance of Mirage (and Camel music in general) pointing away from vocals and towards instrumental work is a very good thing.
- Live, they cooked
Well, if you were the sort of person who would rather play air keyboard than shake your ass in an unbecoming manner, they cooked. In the early 90s Andrew Latimer released an ‘official bootleg’ CD of Camel live in 1972, the year before their first album. Comprising four long pieces, it shows the band bubbling with energy. It also reveals that some of their repertoire was of well seasoned. One piece (‘God of Light’) was borrowed from a Pete Bardens solo album that pre-dated Camel, ‘Six Ate’ appeared on the imminent first album (released February 1973), while ‘Lady Fantasy’ and ‘White Rider’ were both recorded in the studio for Mirage two years later in 1974.
I really love the raw rolling waves of Camel On The Road 1972. But if you are a Camel fan – or become one! – and find the CD difficult to source, do not despair. The re-issues of the Camel discography in the early 2000s included thoughtfully chosen live cuts from around the time of each album. Mirage, for example, has three tracks (totalling 17 minutes) from the Marquee Club in October 1974. The live setting toughens up the genteel Camel sound, de-sweetens it if you will, and it is all the better for that.
Camel carried on long after their style of instrumental-soaked progressive music became unfashionable and long after Pete Bardens departed in 1978. There were flirtations with different styles (I can see your house from here, 1979) and Barclay James Harvest styled romanticism (‘West Berlin’, 1984) and though the band folded in 2003 (co-incidentally not long after the death of Bardens), Latimer re-formed a touring version of Camel to mount ‘The Snow Goose Tour’ in 2013-14. They even re-recorded an extended version of the Snow Goose album. You’d have thought the goose would have been well and truly cooked by that stage, but apparently it was well received and further concerts are planned for 2015, the 40th anniversary of The Snow Goose. What a long time to dine out on one bird. I guess prog fans have an insatiable appetite for nostalgia, if not for culinary jokes.