- THE PYE HASTINGS INTERVIEW -
An interview with Pye Hastings to coincide with
the release of the 3-CD Deluxe Edition of:
‘IN THE LAND OF GREY AND PINK’
(Deram 5333161, May 2011)
By contrast, Caravan seem never to have deliberately conformed to formulaic Pop in order to get a Hit Single, although, if a track of theirs had accidentally achieved chart status – as, say, Pye’s chirpy catchy Pop-structured 3:04-minute track “Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly)” may well have done, I don’t imagine he’d have been dismayed? “I would have loved to have written good Pop songs” he concedes. “But we were contracted to produce an album at a time for the record companies, and from whatever we gave them they would select the most suitable track to get whatever airplay was appropriate. If we had written singles I think we would undoubtedly have reached a larger audience.” A shrug.
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Checking through a voluminous file of previous Caravan features and interviews, most of them conform to the same album-by-album talk-through history formula. If you want that, it’s already there, richly documented. Check out Wikipedia. This interview will not be like that. The list of questions I’ve scribbled down – while hopefully informed and relevant, will prove a little more stimulating, and not just retread the usual tedious path!
Caravan grew into one of the most enduring of British underground bands, emerging just as late-sixties Rock was evolving into its newly mature phase. They rose from out of the protean ashes of much-mythologised Wilde Flowers, the Canterbury entity that also fed Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper into the original Soft Machine. As minds were busy blowing, horizons expanding, and possibilities becoming infinite, the Softs scored a contract with Polydor and hit the ground running with the single “Love Makes Sweet Music” in the February of 1967. A month later Pink Floyd stole their lead with “Arnold Layne”, an altogether more chart-friendly take on Pop-psych, so the Softs reconfigured their music, reset their controls for something infinitely more improvisational. While Caravan were hatching their own oblique course in a parallel, but related continuum. Or, as drummer Richard Coughlan recalls, ‘sitting about in the sunshine making up bits of music’ (in the BBC4 documentary ‘Prog-Rock Britannia: An Observation In Three Movements’). Pye tells how he was motivated to diversify into his own brand by watching Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, from the audience at the ‘IT: International Times’ gig at the ‘Roundhouse’.
They played the counter-culture ‘Middle Earth’ venue in June 1968, signed to MGM’s Verve Forecast subsidiary, and recorded an ‘astonishingly assured’ debut album (‘Caravan’, October 1968). Their upward trajectory only skewed by the label’s abrupt collapse. Resigning to Decca’s progressive Deram label, ‘If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You’ followed in September 1970, involving wistful, eccentric songs and gentle avant garde playing. And the extended side-two medley “For Richard” with its jazzily laser-sharp keyboard moments played in magnetic fields that criss-cross and reconnect over twitchily chopping rhythms. Humour too, from the title track’s strangely disconnected lyrics about ‘lovin’ the stuff, the things that slows me down’, over the chanted ‘who do you think you are...’ as Coughlan adds congas, bongos, maracas and finger-cymbals to his drum-patterns. Some say the title was derived from Bob Dylan’s basement tapes, although I’ve been unable to track it back, others claim Spike Milligan said it, maybe neither, but just possibly elements of the surreal absurdity of both are at play.
Then ‘In The Land Of Grey And Pink’ arrived in May 1971, frequently quoted as their finest moment, with Richard’s carefree nonsense-tale of Pat the “Golf Girl” who talks in morse, and when it rains golf-balls they politely drink tea. It flaunts a quirky Ray Davies Englishness, with piccolo interlude from Pye’s brother Jimmy Hastings. And “Winter Wine” – also by Richard, a complex instrumental interchange ‘conjuring up midnight dreams of ancient castles dark’, wandering minstrels, heroic voyages, and Knights in armour slaying dragons, saving maidens. ‘Life’s too short to be sad’ it advises, using dreams to ‘pay the Sandman’. From the start Caravan were minting such gently engaging oddness, a durable whimsicality that established them as a classic and very English underground band, with their burgeoning Prog-Rock instincts allied to an underlying Pop sensibility. Classy fusions and Folk-Psych. Free-music, but tightly disciplined too. What Ian Carr termed ‘Elastic Rock’ given full rein, yet never less than tuneful.
Yet Pye is the single continuity throughout the long Caravan career-arc, did the successive line-up changes alter that internal power-structure? “Not in my mind. I’m sure it did in others though. I have always known what I wanted to achieve with the band. I haven’t always managed it, hence the personnel changes. My approach to the band has always been quite democratic but I suspect that some people quit because they were fed up with my trying to push them in a certain direction. Likewise I could get equally as fed up by being led. Changing band members can however be very rewarding in that new people bring new enthusiasm.”
Caravan were part of the very first slew of Radio 1 ‘John Peel Show’ guest-bands (their 1968 Peel sessions preserved on the ‘Green Bottles For Marjorie’ album, 2002). What does Pye remember of them? Were they good? Did they allow time and sympathy to obtain the correct sound? Was the venerable Peel himself actually directly involved (I’ve heard differing reports from different ‘guest’ bands)? “The John Peel Sessions were great, although not without their problems. He was a truly genuine guy and is sadly missed. But the BBC engineers were reluctant to break from their institutional approach to recording. They had their way of doing things and often could not be pushed into changing the sound in the mix. This caused some frustration and inevitably a compromise would be reached. They really didn’t like musicians telling them how it should sound. My brother overheard a conversation between a couple of engineers saying ‘If we didn’t have to put up with those bloody artists and musicians then it would be a really good job’. John Peel was not directly involved in the recording although he did occasionally pop in to visit us and see how we were getting on.”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the genre is instrumental fluidity evolving towards Jazz. Extending the vocabulary of Rock into playful conversations between instruments. In fact Pye himself – answering a muso’s query in ‘Melody Maker’ suggested ‘get sheet music of as many of the old jazz standards as you know and like, and learn these. If you can, watch John McLaughlin playing and when you feel like giving up, go home and try again!’ So which other jazz artists were they listening to at the time? Was Miles Davis’ innovatory ‘Bitches Brew’ period influential on the group’s ideas? “Yes we all listened to Miles Davis and the ‘instrumental fluidity’ as you put it came directly from jazz. Robert Wyatt put it quite succinctly when he said that when the Soft Machine were running out of material they started extending their solos as it was a way of lengthening the set just like the guys who were playing jazz. It is always hard to resist a good idea so we all followed suit.”
So did Caravan have clearly defined and articulated musical objectives, was it something discussed and argued out prior to recording, or was there a more intuitive approach to the music? “No we just went wherever our influences took us.”
Unlike most mainstream Pop, for Prog-Rock, as for Jazz, the ‘contract’ – if you like, between group and audience is that the musicians are allowed to be self-indulgent and pursue their musical ideas towards their own personal visions, while the audience is informed and intelligent enough to enjoy the trip. In that respect, Caravan have always been gifted with a loyal and perceptive audience following. Does that sound like a reasonable analysis? “It is in the nature of the beast that the artist must always lead the audience. Once you start the opposite, you will find yourself in trouble. A good set must be a balance between old and new material and a cross-section of what the band can do. The strength of an audience can be seen in whether they are willing to tolerate being the guinea pigs for new material. Our audience have always given us that leeway and they are to be applauded for it.”
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Into the era of transition from analogue to digital, the original Caravan albums are now enjoying renewed visibility and new audiences via CD reissues, downloads, and a high hit-rate on ‘YouTube’, but does Pye believe the analogue sound of the original vinyl albums is ‘warmer’ than the digital CD reissues? “Yes I do, but vinyl wears out after x number of plays whereas digital doesn’t, so you make your choice.” My choice definitely goes out to the current 3-CD Deluxe Edition of ‘In The Land Of Grey And Pink’, a beautiful artefact in itself. Recorded in Decca’s West Hampstead studio, and completed at AIR in Oxford Street, it originally came embellished within Anne-Marie Anderson’s Tolkien-informed gatefold sleeve. The complete re-mastered vinyl album forms CD Disc one, from the intriguing stoned-pastoral title-track with its little keyboard ripples and Edward Lear lyrical strangeness about ‘those nasty grumbly-grimbles climbing down your chimney’. Its enviable prowess extends into a sweetly narcotic voyage to ‘the land of warm and green’ where we can ‘take our fill of punk-weed’ and ‘smoke it till we bleed’, fraying into burbling mouth-music and squealing treated guitar. Then the formidable 22:43-minute eight-part suite “Nine Feet Underground” which formed the whole of the vinyl side two. Although it’s this kind of ambitiously extended project that drew the ire of the anti-Prog Punk backlash, its interweaving contours never lapse into the self-indulgence of the other genre-offenders they were once unfairly bundled with, and suffered by comparison with.
Among a wealth of bonuses, Disc two adds Richard’s “Frozen Rose” from the AIR sessions but never previously issued, alongside three songs from BBC’s ‘Sounds Of The Seventies’ and two done live from John Peel’s ‘Sunday Concert’ including their take on Soft Machine’s “Feelin’, Reelin’, Squealin’”. While the third disc adds alternate versions of “Golf Girl” and “Winter Wine” from a June 1971 edition of German TV’s ‘Beat Club’. The album can now be judged, as it always should have been, without preconceptions, as a product of its own unique creativity. As an example to those raised on the ‘tired and tested’ formula of reality TV-shows, that music can be infinitely more than the ‘X-Factor’. That it can be playfully improvisational and absorbing, where, on a spontaneous lyrical whim ‘Golf Girl’ can mutate into ‘Group Girl’, and sheltering from the golf-balls can become sheltering from the H-Bombs. All in all, it’s a cornucopia of delights, a comprehensive Caravan-collector’s joy.
Personally – for me, when I look back over things I’ve written there’s a constant temptation to revise, rewrite and amend the texts. As a musician, does Pye get the same feelings listening back to these reissues, that it would be nice to re-do that solo, or alter that lyric? Indeed, the re-mix aspect of the process offers the opportunity to maybe do that? “Yes I do. There hasn’t been a recording that I have done that I didn’t feel I couldn’t improve upon. This is certainly so with my lyrics. I get very frustrated about not being able to write lyrics easily. More often than not I have had to write the lyrics to a song after the backing tracks are done and just before the vocal has to be recorded. Very confusing for the other members of the band, but I am getting better at it.”
Now, decades after the event, a lot of the music happening during the period Caravan was at its most active seems incredibly distant, the attitudes (‘won’t need any money, just fingers and your toes…’), social ambitions, political consensus, artistic orientations… and even the music itself seems to have little points of contact with what you hear on the Radio every day. Does he see positive things happening in today’s music, is he optimistic about what’s going on within music? “The musical points of contact are surely a reflection of what the writer is listening to at any given moment, whether it is political or not…” he reasons. “I think one is naturally influenced by what is going on around you and I don’t think it’s any different from when we were at our most active to today. The styles may have changed, but the essence of the music remains. Anyway, don’t you feel that musical tastes are cyclical, in that ‘what goes around comes around’? I love changes in music and am quite magpie-like in that I will take something from everything I listen to. So the more changes there are the more I like it.”
I had to ask it. I just couldn’t resist it. Pye ‘If You Had To Do It All Over Again…’, would you, or would you do it differently? This deluxe re-issue with it’s set of remixes, is probably the closest an artist will ever get to recreating an original idea, for a new decade. Hell, for a new century. And it’s good to see Steven Wilson – of Prog-renaissance band Porcupine Tree, involved in the re-mixing process. I remember debating various aspects of 1970’s music culture with him backstage at the Leeds ‘Cockpit’ club! Is Pye happy for other people to get involved with the Caravan legacy, and is he pleased with the results? “Yes, Steve is a good bloke and I am very pleased with the results. I’ve only met him once, at a Porcupine Tree gig that I went to. And it’s always good to hear other people’s take on your music”. A calculated pause, then “…the original, however, still remains the original…”
An in-part spoof throwaway question, opening up answers with endless possibilities. What else would you expect?
A CARAVAN OF ALBUMS
October 1968 ‘CARAVAN’ (MGM Verve 8829522) with ‘effusive’ sleeve-notes by underground activist Miles, and issued just prior to the debut Soft Machine album (the Softs get a lyrical reference in “Magic Man”) this album includes “Love Song With Flute” with Jimmy Hastings playing flute, “Policeman”, the ‘mesmerising immaculately stoned’ “Cecil Rons”, and it includes both sides of the single “Place Of My Own” c/w the eastern-tinged “Ride”, and Hugh Hopper helps write the ‘glorious extended finale’ “Where But For Caravan Would I?”. A 2002 CD reissue adds single “Hello Hello”
May 1972 ‘WATERLOO LILY’ (Deram SDL8) the only Caravan album featuring Stephen Miller (keyboards), also includes guest jazzers Lol Coxhill (Soprano sax), Jimmy Hastings (flute) and Mike Cotton (trumpet) with “Love In Your Eyes”, “Waterloo Lily”, “To Catch Me A Brother”, “Nothing At All”, “It’s Coming Soon”, “Subsultus”, “Aristocracy”, “The World Is Yours”, “Debouchment”, “Song And Signs”, “Tilbury Kacks”. After his stint with Caravan Steve Miller later appeared as a duo with Lol Coxhill, and worked with Delivery and Hatfield And The North
April 1974 ‘CARAVAN AND THE NEW SYMPHONIA’ (C SMLR 1110) recorded live at London’s Drury Lane Theatre Royal with the 43-piece New Symphonia Orchestra conducted by Martyn Ford. Consists of five tracks – “Introduction”, Pye’s “Mirror For The Day” and “Virgin On The Ridiculous”, and group compositions “The Love In Your Eye” and “For Richard”. Lindsey Boyd in ‘NME’ wrote ‘Caravan are one of my all-time favourites and in terms of audience response the concert could not have been better’, while Paul Wier in ‘Sounds’ wrote ‘a few bands have dabbled with orchestras, but few can match Caravan in the field. Caravan deserve an orchestra. It was a rare treat for those who managed to see the show’
May 1976 ‘BLIND DOG AT ST DUNSTAN’S’ (Repetoire 4501, BTM BTM 1007) again, Pye is credited on 8 of the 9 tracks. Produced by David Hitchcock – responsible for their previous 6 albums, as well as Camel’s ‘Snow Goose’. For this album Caravan is Pye, Coughlan, Richardson, Wedgwood, and incomer Jan Schelhass (ex National Head Band and Gary Moore’s band, keyboards). With “Here I Am”, “Bobbing Wide”, “A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oak”, “Come On Back”, “Can You Hear Me”, “Jack And Jill”, “A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oak (reprise)”, plus both sides of the single “All The Way (edit)” c/w “Chiefs And Indians” (written by Wedgwood)
June 1977 ‘BETTER BY FAR’ (Arista 4134, SPARTY 1008), produced by Toni Visconti. Followed by a group gap-year during which David and Richard Sinclair join Camel. The line-up now includes Pye with Geoff Richardon, Dek Messecar (ex Darryl Way’s Wolf, replacing Mike Wedgwood), Richard Coughlan, and Jan Schelhaas. Six songs by Pye, two by Richardson and one by Schelhaas, “Man In The Car”, “The Last Unicorn”, “Feelin’ Alright”, “Behind You”, “Nightmare”, “Give Me More”, “Let It Shine”, plus both sides of the single “Better By Far” c/w “Silver Strings”
July 1981 ‘THE SHOW OF OUR LIVES: CARAVAN AT THE BBC 1968-1975’ (Kingdom, reissued in 2007 on Universal / Decca)
June 1982 ‘BACK TO FRONT’ (Kingdom 5011) The four original members together for the first time in eleven years – Pye Hastings, Coughlan, David and Richard Sinclair, plus saxophonist Mel Collins (ex King Crimson). With “Back To Herne Bay Front”, “Sally Don’t Change It”, “All Aboard”, “Bet You Wanna Tell It All”, “Videos Of Hollywood”, “Hold On, Hold On AA Man”, “Takin’ My Breath Away”. “Proper Job”, “Back To Front”
April 1985 ‘AND I WISH I WERE STONED, DON’T WORRY’ (See For Miles) re-issued in August 1990 as ‘THE BEST OF CARAVAN’ (C-Five C5CD 505) with “And I Wish I Were Stoned, Don’t Worry”, “Can’t Be Long Now-Francoise-For Richard-Warlock”, “No Backstage Pass”, “The Dog, The Dog, He’s At It Again”, “The Love In Your Eye-To Catch Me A Brother-Subsultus-Debouchement-Tilbury Kecks”, “In The Land Of Grey And Pink”, “Memory Lain, Hugh”
May 1991 ‘SONGS AND SIGNS’ (Elite) compilation
October 1991 ‘CARAVAN: BBC RADIO 1 LIVE IN CONCERT’ (Windsong Int WINCD 003) with “Love In Your Eyes”, “For Richard”, “The Dab Concerto Song”, “Hoedown”
July 1992 ‘CARAVAN OF DREAMS’ (HTD) issued as by ‘RICHARD SINCLAIR’S CARAVAN OF DREAMS’ during temporary group disassociation, with David Sinclair, Jimmy Hastings, with Andy Ward (ex Camel)
1995 ‘BATTLE OF HASTINGS’ (Castle CD41) with the line-up of Pye and Jimmy Hastings, Richard Coughlan, Geoffrey Richardson, David Sinclair and Jim Leverton
Spring 1998 ‘LIVE: CANTERBURY COMES TO LONDON’ (HTD Records) recorded at the London Astoria September 1997. With “Headless”, “Cold As Ice”, “Nine Feet Underground”, “For Richard”
June 2000 ‘ALL OVER YOU TOO’ (Castle 609 / Transatlantic 325) 9-track compilation with “Hoedown”, “Stuck In A Hole”, “Bobbing Wide Hastings (+ reprise)”, “Ride” etc
2002 ‘GREEN BOTTLES FOR MARJORIE: THE LOST BBC SESSIONS’ (Caravan) eight tracks including two versions of “Feeling, Reeling And Squealing” from 1968 John Peel Show, and Radio 1 In Concert 1971, plus “Love In Your Eye” from John Peel 1972
2002 ‘CARAVAN LIVE AT THE FAIRFIELD HALLS, 1974’ (Decca) originally issued in France in 1980 as ‘The Best Of Caravan Live’, line-up includes David Sinclair (keyboards), Geoffrey Richardson (viola), Pye Hastings (guitar, vocals), Richard Coughlan (drums) plus Mike Wedgwood’s debut on bass
December 2004 ‘THE UNAUTHORISED BREAKFAST ITEM’ (Eclectic Discs) 2-CD set, with second disc live in Japan and “For Richard” live in Quebec. With “Smoking Gun (Right For Me)”, “The Unauthorised Breakfast Item”, “Revenge” and “Tell Me Why” on both discs, plus studio “It’s Getting A Whole Lot Better”, “Head Above The Clouds”, “Straight Through The Heart”, “Wild West Street”, “Nowhere To Hide”, “Linders Field”. Line-up is Pye Hastings, Richard Coughlan, Jan Schelhaas (keyboards, backing vocals), Doug Boyle (lead guitar), Geoffrey Richardson (viola, banjo, ukelele, acoustic guitar), Jim Leverton (bass) plus guests Jimmy Hastings (tenor and soprano sax), David Sinclair (keyboards on ‘Nowhere To Run’), Simon Bentall (percussion), Ralph Cross (percussion on title track)
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‘SOUNDCHECKS MUSIC REVIEW’
(UK – June 2011)