March Through Time: Caravan

This month, I’m hitting pause on coverage of new artists and releases, focusing instead for a bit on the bodies of work from some of my favorite artists. — bk

In music, the so-called “Canterbury sound” encompasses a wide swath of musical styles. The label refers to the unique music made by English bands including Egg, National Health, Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine and sometimes even Gong, who are French (go figure). There’s a strong jazz element – or at least sensibility – to much of the Canterbury sound, though it owes debts to progressive rock, English folk, psychedelic and even (cringe) “jam” as well.

For me, the very best music that falls under the heading has been made by Caravan. Almost wholly unknown here in the U.S., the group nonetheless does register on some listeners’ radar thanks to their album covers being featured (along with 15 others) on the outside of record inner sleeves from the London label.

They deserve better. Melodic in the extreme, often whimsical, reliably complex and frequently breathtaking, Caravan’s music deserves a wider hearing. They released their debut in 1968, and they’re still at it, with a new album released mere months ago. That said, their “prime” era centers around the earlier releases. Here’s my rundown of those, with mentions of some notable latter-day sets worthy of your attention.

  • Caravan (1968) – As is so often the case, on its debut Caravan is still sorting out its sound. Jazzier and closer to Soft Machine than later works, but still impressive. I get into details here.

  • If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You (1970) – A great leap forward in terms of song structuring, combining catchy melodies with intricate and (again) thrilling music. Reviewed in detail here.

  • In the Land of Grey and Pink (1971) – Their best. “Nine Feet Underground” is the centerpiece, but it’s all great.

  • Waterloo Lily (1972) – Caravan were on a roll; their short, pop-leaning tunes are very good, but it’s within the extended pieces that the band truly takes off.

  • For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night (1973) – Another corker with great playing, great arrangement, great… you get the idea.

  • Caravan and the New Symphonia (1974) – An experiment along the lines of the Moody Blues or Electric Light Orchestra, and it works quite well. And Caravan didn’t use backing tapes!

  • Cunning Stunts (1975) – I’ve seen reviews that rate this one as inferior to Caravan’s earlier albums. I disagree; it’s right up there with Grey and Pink.

  • Blind Dog at St. Dunstans (1976) – This one is a bit less immediate but still worthwhile: if you’ve collected all that came before, it’s worth picking up. But perhaps not until then.

Later but still well worth investigating…

  • The Battle of Hastings (1995) – Few would have expected the group to rally this late in its career, but Hastings is a winner. “Liar” in particular is as good as any of the early material, though it’s less complex/challenging musically than their best.

  • The Show of Our Lives: Caravan at the BBC 1968–1975 (2007) – Caravan were superb live, and this collection of BBC recordings is proof. And these readings are different enough from their studio counterparts to keep this set from being redundant.

  • Recorded Live in Concert at Metropolis Studios, London (CD/DVD, 2012) – A bit less energetic than earlier concerts, this is nonetheless a fine document of a band well into the 21st century. A fuller discussion is here.