Thursday, 26 January 2017

Interview: CAMEL - Tales From The Emerald Exile


‘Harbour Of Tears’ is CAMEL’s sixteenth album. 
But this time it’s personal. Camel’s history 
begins with Van Morrison, and THEM
 But the history of the album goes back further – 
to ANDY LATIMER’s family roots in Ireland, 
and their forced migration from 
Cóbh Harbour in County Cork

You couldn’t – as they say, make it up. Unless you are Andy Latimer.

I mean, 1996 need concept albums like Arnold Schwarzenegger needs more muscles, right?

And yet here come Camel with ‘Harbour Of Tears’, their twelfth studio album. Camel, you may recall, are the Progressive Rock band whose previous finest hour came with a full high profile orchestral version of their epic extended work ‘Snow Goose’ (1975) performed live and lavish at the Albert Hall. Yet here they come again with not so much a concept album, according to their PR, as more ‘an album of concept’. And oh, the unbearable brightness of its being. Here there be newly minted neo-classical string arrangements, horns and flutes. There are exquisitely marbled swooping guitar solos, melancholy and reflective. All the kind of ingredients cred-conscious reviewers normally dismiss as things that will not unduly interfere with listener’s sleeping habits. But wait – ‘Harbour Of Tears’ is something more. It’s a documentary-style ‘Roots’ project too, one that takes the band’s Andy Latimer down through his own personal DNA gene-trail to his Irish ancestry, a time when ‘winds blew our lives, and scattered our seeds…’

These are tales from the Emerald Exile. And it deserves your attention. At least once.

‘This happens when you get the death of a parent’ he divulges carefully. Reticently. For this is personal stuff. ‘It’s a natural thing. I’m sure a lot of people come up against it. The idea came after my Dad died. I realised that I knew very little about his side of the family. So I started to enquire. I tried to discuss his past. And I discovered things I hadn’t realised before. His mother – my grandmother, was Irish, and as I got deeper into it I found out that a lot of her family members had left Ireland from this place called Cóbh Harbour (Cove Harbour) in County Cork. But the story ended there. Nobody remembers more. Nobody knows anything about what happened to them or where they went to. The story came to an abrupt halt. So I thought ‘where is this place called Cóbh Harbour?’ I found different stories relating to its history and how people came and went. I learned that it was dubbed ‘The Harbour Of Tears’ because it was the place that all these families left Ireland from. It was their last sight of Ireland. And that really did strike a chord. That’s how it started…’

The album opens in Gaelic mode with former Ultravox backing singer Mae McKenna’s high Folk vocal enveloped in traditional instrumentation picked out by Latimer’s keening Floydian guitar. From there it follows the diaspora of migrants to America, ‘I am one of seven brothers,/ five of us must leave to start again,/ in the land of saints and martyrs’, in strands of stories and letters home. Rich in the history of ‘Sending Home The Slate’ (about which more later), embroidered with strings and linked by haunting instrumentation, it’s an obvious work of intelligent premeditation. If occasionally you feel it’s one lacking flesh, flash, fire or – despite its highly personal genealogy, in emotional commitment. There are passages as emotionally involving as the Maxwell Brothers trial.

But is the concept album itself – sorry, the ‘album of concept’, really still a viable currency in 1996?

‘I don’t know. I only do it ‘cos I enjoy doing it. It’s a challenge to me. I love the idea of weaving all the melodies and themes together. I don’t necessarily KNOW whether it’s a commercial thing or not. The fans who buy the records seem to like it. A lot of them write to me and say ‘you’re the only person doing this’, and I love that aspect of it. So – although it may not be hugely commercial, it’s very satisfying. ‘Harbour Of Dreams’ was a nice project to do. And… I mean, I might just have American relations! I don’t really KNOW where all those people went to. So it’s possible.’

It’s that personal angle that gives the album its unique relevance. Previously, and more esoterically, Camel had worked from literary sources. ‘Hey, I haven’t done THAT many concepts!’ he protests. ‘But yes, I like the challenge of doing a book. And a lot of the albums are loosely based on conceptual ideas. ‘Snow Goose’ (adapted from a children’s story by Paul Gallico) was one, of course. And then ‘Nude’ (1981) was a story very much based in TRUE FACTS actually. And then – I think, ‘Stationary Traveller’ (1984, with lyrics by partner and long-term collaborator Susan Hoover) was a sort-of looser concept. And then I came back to it with ‘Dust And Dreams’ (1992), based on John Steinbeck…’

A project followed by no less an artist than Bruce Springsteen. His ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ (1995) is also an ‘album of concept’, also drawing on Steinbeck’s same ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’.

‘He got a lot more coverage than we did.’ Latimer laughs so exuberantly that the last word comes out d-he-he-he-he-id. ‘I bought the Springsteen album actually, to listen to it. It’s interesting. A bit too low-key for me though. A little one-dimensional.’

The multi-dimensional ‘Harbour Of Tears’ by contrast, seems in some ways to be as much to do with a novel or a movie soundtrack as it is to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll. ‘Yes. A lot of my music is like that. It has different scenes and sounds. A lot of people say…’ he drops his voice to a suggestive whisper, ‘‘how come you don’t get into movies?’ They don’t seem to realise that it’s bloody difficult!’

--- 0 --- 

It’s a little like speaking to a hologram. A telephone interview, I mean.

It’s like the holo-suite sequence in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ where Data talks to computer-simulated replicants of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Prof Stephen Hawking. A little like that, but not quite. Andy Latimer is in Mountain View, California, where it’s warm and fragrant. Even in February. San Francisco is just down the road apiece. I can construct a facsimile of him from bits of old photos on album sleeves and CD inserts. His face lost in shapeless cascades of hair. His sharp features animated by a slanting grin. I can assemble these impressions photofit-style and morph them onto the likeably unassuming and pretention-free voice on the other end of the line. But I could be wrong.

Time inflicts changes. And Camel’s had more changes than most. You couldn’t – as they say, make it up.

The name Peter Bardens – of Van Morrison fame, initially looms large in the story. In fact, at one stage, the band was even known as Pete Bardens’ Camel, to distinguish it from the then-current Peter Frampton’s Camel. ‘Yes – yes, of course. Pete was a late member of Them. He was definitely with Them when Van was in the band, but I don’t think he actually played on “Gloria” or anything.’ Andy could be wrong. When Van Morrison roared out of Belfast as vocalist with the Angry Young Them his potential as Van The Man was instantly recognised by producers Bert Berns and Tommy Scott, but during the initial recording sessions that resulted in the debut album – as was common practice at the time, the group themselves were not deemed up to the technical demands of studio work. So Van sang, but the rest of Them were excluded in favour of session players, including Jimmy Page and keyboardist Pete Bardens. So it’s likely that – yes, he played on “Gloria”, “Here Comes The Night”, or at least some of the other classic Van sides. And when this practice understandably provoked resentment within the group, and Belfast Gypsies Jackie and Patrick McCauley split, Bardens stepped in to assume full Them membership. He subsequently went on to join struggling young Blues-shouter Rod Stewart and Peter (Fleetwood Mac) Green in the short-lived Shotgun Express, recording the highly-collectible single “I Could Feel The Whole World Turn Around” with them.

Meanwhile, Andy Latimer with other proto-Camels Andy Ward and Doug Ferguson, were working as part of the back-up band for singer/songwriter Philip Goodhand-Tait, DJM’s failed answer to Elton John. A guy who nevertheless wrote hits for the likes of Love Affair (“A Day Without Love”) and Roger Daltrey (“Ocean’s Away”). ‘It was tough because we were doing our own Roadie-ing and driving at the time, and hardly getting any money either. A fiver (£5) a gig between the three of us. But we were young and you do these things, don’t ya! Until basically, we got the sack. Goodhand-Tait was a good writer, but he didn’t like stage performing at all, and when we played live we were kind-of overshadowing him. The record company who were handling him didn’t like that. So they got rid of us.

 ‘Which, in retrospect, was very good. It worked out very well for us. Because by then Andy, Doug and myself had had this band together for two years. We put an advert in ‘Melody Maker’ for a keyboard player. And Pete (Bardens) answered it. He came along. He didn’t have any gear. He didn’t even have an organ or anything. And yet it worked. It was fantastic. It had this tremendous energy and we all felt really good about it. He said ‘look, I’ve got these gigs lined up in Ireland’. So we said ‘yeah, let’s go and do them’. We weren’t too together. We were doing bits and pieces of new material, and then padding the set out with bits of Blues. But this was at the time when they (the IRA) were blowing up Pubs and all sorts of things, and everyone was frightened of going over to Northern Ireland, hence they were starved of musicians. And as a result the gigs were absolutely fantastic, they went down a storm. I’m sure that was more because they were starved of music – because we weren’t THAT good. I loved Ireland. We went up north to the Giant’s Causeway. Ah, it was so beautiful…’

Hence Camel. A contract with MCA followed soon after, resulting in albums ‘Camel’ (1973) – with writing credits split equally between Bardens and Latimer, and ‘Mirage’ (1974, Deram), with Latimer’s multi-part “The White Rider” suite drawing on JRR Tolkien. Yet it was assumed to be Bardens’ band. There’s even a suggestion that – to draw a Pink Floyd analogy, that Bardens was Camel’s Syd Barrett to Andy Latimer’s Roger Waters. That Bardens was the initial creative force whose burn-out allowed Latimer to wrest control of the band.

‘Was he our Syd Barrett?’ Andy muses thoughtfully. Then laughs. ‘It WAS a kind-of weird thing for us. Pete had already had two albums out before joining us (‘The Answer’ in 1970 as The Village, and the US-titled ‘Write My Name In The Dust’, 1971), and because he had that track record everybody said ‘oh, it’s Pete Bardens band’. But that was very much something that was dubbed on from the outside. I was writing most of the material at that time, as I have all the way through Camel. Within the band it was NEVER his band. He was just a PART of the band. Pete and I just used to laugh about it at times.’ He says all this completely without irony.

But it WAS ironic that just as Camel were breaking really big with their third album – ‘The Snow Goose’, and seemed on the brink of even greater things, that the squalling brat of two-minute one-chord-wonder Punk arrived to destroy the whole Progressive Movement that they were very much a part of. Again there seems little bitterness or rancour. ‘Y-e-e-e-s. We did sort of have a bit of success with ‘Snow Goose’, and then the Punk scene came in which really did knock everything sideways. But I think it was, on the whole, a reasonably healthy thing. It did knock all the pompous Superbands who were making fortunes in the studios and it turned them upside-down. But we… survived it. We just continued to gig and keep going.’

It occurs to me at around this point that Andy Latimer is something of a self-contained continuum. In a fiercely independent Indie/Trip-Hop jungle which claims to champion freedom and innovation, yet in many cases produces a mere alternative conformity, it is determined contra-trendies like Camel who are both truer and more honest about their music, by cheerfully ignore the zeitgeist to follow their own muse despite the ridicule of their peers.

Pete Bardens quit ‘in 1977? No – 1978 wasn’t it!, ‘cos it’s nearly eighteen years ago now. Gor Blimey! Yes. He left us and he went straight back to Van Morrison to do an album with him.’ Other musicians came and went. But Camel continued. And continues. Bassist Doug Ferguson quit and ‘the whole dynamics of the band changed.’ Mel Collins came in from King Crimson. Dave (and Richard) Sinclair from Caravan and Duncan MacKay from Cockney Rebel joined up, while Andy Ward left for a brief link-up with Marillion during the Prog-resurgence of the early-eighties. The band’s centre of gravity simultaneously shifted to America where a sizeable audience for mature intelligent adult Rock remained, unaware, or unconcerned by shifts in musical taste. But ‘Camel has always been about the same sort of thing. It’s always been a direction. In a way, it doesn’t matter who’s in the band. You keep the direction together, and that’s what it’s all about.’

And now… ‘Harbour Of Tears’. Album number sixteen (including live and compilation sets).

‘I always do a lot of research’ he volunteers. ‘I read so many Irish stories and things that relate to Ireland during that period. And ‘Sending Home The Slate’ was a thing that they did. I found out that when a lot of the Irish people went to America they sent home money for all sorts of things, for other family members to come out to America, or for things like putting new slates on the roof. And that’s how it became ‘Sending Home The Slate’. And yes, that song is like an open letter home (‘I’ll not send empty letters/ I know you need the rent’). ‘Gandy Dancing’ – mentioned on the same track, is something that they used to do when they were building the railroad. One guy would be the Gandy Dancer, and he’d shout out this tune, so they’d all move the rails in time. It was a work song. And it was called Gandy Dancing…’

I mention Sinead O’Connor’s “Famine”, with its roots in the same period.

‘I’m not a political person’ he admits. ‘But it’s hard not to get too political when you see what the Irish went through. It was an awful time.’ He gives a slightly self-conscious little laugh. ‘The English have got a lot to answer for.’

The album closes with the sound of waves breaking on a shingle beach while gulls soar above the speakers. This goes on for some time. It’s like one of those New Age Ambient Relaxation Tapes designed to cleanse and purify the polluted urban soul. ‘It was just an afterthought. An idea that I had’ he explains, ‘I thought yeah, why not put it on for twenty minutes, it’ll give you time to reflect on the album. Whether it works in that way or not is another thing.’

The waves probably come from a Library Sounds Effects disc. But before probing deeper I give Andy Latimer the opportunity of constructing just one more holo-suite image. He could, as they say, make it up. So you went on a Roots-style pilgrimage all the way to Cóbh Harbour. You sat on the very beach that was your ancestor’s last glimpse of Ireland. And for twenty minutes reflective homage you taped the sound of the waves?

‘That’s a lovely thought. Yes – I DID go to Cóbh Harbour. And yes – I recorded the waves.’ He lies straightfaced.

Pete Bardens 
19 June 1944 – 22 January 2002 

HARBOUR OF TEARSreleased 20 January 1996, produced by Andy Latimer, with Andy (guitars, flute, keyboards, vocals), Colin Bass (bass) and Mickey Simmonds (keyboards). Songs written by Andy with lyricist Susan Hoover. With ‘Irish Air’ (traditional), ‘Irish Air (Instrumental Reprise)’, ‘Harbour Of Tears’, ‘Cóbh’, ‘Send Home The Slates’, ‘Under The Moon’, ‘Watching The Bobbins’, ‘Generations’, ‘Eyes Of Ireland’, ‘Running From Paradise’, ‘End Of The Day’, ‘Coming Of Age’, ‘The Hour Candle (A Song For My Father)’. Running time: 01:02:08


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