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Off the Beaten Tracks: To Hatfield, via Caravan

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I HAVE often seen it claimed that side two of In the Land of Grey and Pink by Caravan is the peak achievement in all of Seventies progressive music. I can’t disagree. The eight-part suite Nine Feet Underground is a joy from start to finish and still sounds remarkable almost half a century on.

Caravan were at the heart of the Canterbury Scene which also included Kevin Ayers and Soft Machine, Delivery, Egg, Gilgamesh, Matching Mole and the National Health, to name but a few. The band’s music combined influences of psychedelic rock, jazz and classical with a strong melodic pop sensibility which separated them from their rivals.

It was in 1968 that keyboards player Dave Sinclair, his bass-playing cousin Richard Sinclair, guitarist Pye Hastings and drummer Richard Coughlan, all aged 20 or 21 and from Kent, decided to form Caravan. Each had played in a soul-influenced group called the Wilde Flowers along with Ayers and future Soft Machine colleagues Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt.

The four rented a house in Whitstable, on the coast, where they rehearsed solidly for six months before being turfed out for making too much noise and upsetting the neighbours. For a while they camped outside the village hall in nearby Graveney, playing indoors and pitching their tents inside when it got too cold. Much of their equipment was borrowed from Soft Machine, who were touring the US with Jimi Hendrix and used his PA system. Caravan gigged incessantly and moved to London after becoming the first British band to be signed by the US-based Verve label, which released their debut album in October 1968.

Caravan is accomplished and very listenable, particularly for a first effort, although it failed to trouble the charts. Standout tracks include Love Song with Flute, featuring Hastings’s flautist brother Jimmy, Place of My Own and Where But For Caravan Would I? 

Dropped by Verve, which had decided to quit the UK record business, Caravan were signed by Decca and worked the university and festival scene alongside bands such as Yes, the Nice, Colosseum, Van Der Graaf Generator and Pink Floyd. In 1970 they released the groundbreaking If I Could Do It All Over Again I’d Do It All Over You, which is a quote from either Bob Dylan or Spike Milligan depending on who you believe. The opening title track, once performed on Top of the Pops, is not one of my favourites but thereafter the album is great with inspired musicianship from all concerned. And I Wish/Don’t Worry is an excellent second track, followed by As I Feel I Die and With an Ear to the Ground while the highlight is probably the 14-minute suite Can’t Be Long Now/Françoise/For Richard/Warlock

This would prove to be the inspiration for Nine Feet Underground.

Thus far Pye Hastings had made the biggest contribution to songwriting, although all compositions were attributed to the group, but now the superb Richard Sinclair’s influence began to grow. He suggested the album title In the Land of Grey and Pink in tribute to the county of Kent after seeing a particularly spectacular sunset. The cover is heavily influenced by Tolkien.

Golf Girl provides a poppy opener and is about Richard’s future wife. Winter Wine, performed here live on German TV, is a beauty. Hastings takes over the vocals for the staccato Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly) while Richard is back for the whimsical title track during which he can be heard blowing bubbles.

Then fasten your seatbelts for the aforementioned Nine Feet Underground, with its concentration on Dave’s fuzztone organ and piano. It was recorded in five sections then sewn together by producer David Hitchcock and engineer Dave Grinsted. This would prove a staple of late-night radio programmes throughout the decade and the LP sold steadily while never actually hitting the charts. Mojo magazine described it as ‘the quintessential Canterbury album’ while, including it in its 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine said it evoked ‘a Middle Earth sunset, with the music wavering between medieval folk melodies and jazz-savvy musos’. A new CD edition of In the Land of . . . was released in 2001 and is well worth acquiring with the addition of unreleased material including the excellent I Don’t Know Its Name, Aristocracy, It’s Likely To Have a Name Next Week (an instrumental version of Winter Wine), Group Girl, which was the original Golf Girl, and a remixed Disassociation/100% Proof, the latter part of Nine Feet Under. 

So what is the Canterbury Sound? According to Richard Sinclair, ‘I think you have to come to Canterbury and see it and hear it. I think Kent has got a particular sound. We’ve sung it in our schools here, we were all at school in this sort of area. I was part of the Church of England choir; up to the age of sixteen I was singing tonalities that are very English. Over the last three or four hundred years, and even earlier than that, some of the tonalities go back. This is the Canterbury Scene for me. It forms here. Musicians, friends join together and play music together, and then they head off around Europe and play their music and get noted for this type of sound.’

Upset at Land of Grey and Pink’s initial lack of sales success, Dave Sinclair left to join Robert Wyatt’s band Matching Mole. He was replaced by Steve Miller, whose style was completely different. The resulting album, 1972’s Waterloo Lily, sounds little like its predecessors with its, to me, often awkward combination of fairly straight pop songs with jazzy piano solos from Miller.

In July the band broke up. In Richard Sinclair’s words: ‘It didn’t quite work with Steve in the band because the music started to go a bit too loose for the way that Pye and Richard Coughlan played.’

Richard and Steve quickly joined forces with two members of the former blues group Delivery – Miller’s brilliant guitarist brother Phil and drummer Pip Pyle. Steve was then replaced by Dave Sinclair and they decided on the name Hatfield and the North, after an iconic road sign on the A1 leaving London. They were signed by the new Virgin label but before they could record anything Dave Sinclair was on his bike, with Egg’s Dave Stewart arriving in his stead. Sinclair went back to Caravan, for more about whom I can recommend this gentle documentary tribute from 2000. Also this 2003 performance with Coughlan in his jim-jams.

Hatfield and the North was completed in January 1974 and released the following month. Its cover, designed by Laurie Lewis, combines a photograph of Reykjavik with a fresco by Luca Signorelli in Orvieto Cathedral. Inside is a playful collage including pictures of the group, a magician with a flying dog and the Cartwright family from the TV cowboy series Bonanza. Equally jocular are the song titles, including Going Up To People and TinklingShaving is BoringBossa NochanceLobster in Cleavage Probe and Gigantic Land Crabs in Earth Takeover Bid. Robert Wyatt makes a guest appearance singing on Calyx while backing vocals are often provided by the Northettes – Amanda Parsons, Ann Rosenthal and Barbara Gaskin, the latter from the prog/folk band Spirogyra.

With its complex time signatures and key changes, this is an album that rewards frequent playing. The musicianship is top-notch throughout, typically on Son of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton. The 1987 CD reissue also includes both sides of the single Let’s Eat (Real Soon) and Fitter Stoke Has a Bath, both of which are excellent. I saw the Hatfields twice in 1974, in April at Newcastle City Hall and in September at Preston Polytechnic. Regular readers might recall my world exclusive interview with Nils Lofgren, described here. Similarly edifying was my chat with Richard Sinclair in the bogs at Preston Poly where we were urinating in adjacent stalls.

AA: Good gig.

RS: Thanks, man.

AA: I saw you in Newcastle in April.

RS: Yeah?

AA: In fact I think you were better then than tonight.

RS: Oh? Sorry. (Zips up and wanders away).

Inexplicably my slim volume of memoirs, In DepthConversations With The Stars, has yet to find a publisher.

Fitter Stoke returns in longer form in 1975 on the band’s second album The Rotters’ Club, again with innovative cover design by Laurie Lewis. This is a slightly more accessible record than its predecessor, opening with Richard Sinclair singing the hippie anthem Share It. Another stellar vocal performance comes on the wistful Didn’t Matter Anyway while Miller excels on his two compositions Lounging There Trying and Underdub

Side two, like In The Land of Grey and Pink, belongs to a 20-minute-plus suite. Mumps features an astonishing fuzz organ solo from Dave Stewart which is one of the most remarkable performances he ever gave.

The Rotters’ Club was the inspiration for a novel of the same name by Jonathan Coe, which in 2005 was turned into a BBC TV series featuring nowhere near enough of the Hatfields. Sadly after two terrific albums they split up – Richard spending some years as a carpenter and kitchen fitter before returning to music. The band got back together to coincide with interest in the TV series and an album of archive recordings was released – Hatwise Choice on the Burning Shed label. Another collection, Hattitude, came out the following year but the project came to an end with the death of Pip Pyle in August 2006, aged 56. According to an obituary by Dave Stewart, who was not part of the reunion, Richard Sinclair told him Pyle had been brilliant during their final gig two days earlier in Groningen, Holland. ‘He went out in a blaze of fire.’

Stewart wrote: ‘After the concert everyone was in good spirits and Phil (Miller) and Pip, who had known each other since the age of four, went out together and stayed out till 3am. It’s a consolation to know that Pip’s career ended on a high, happy note in the company of lifelong friends.’ Here, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, is that concert. Pip Pyle’s last bow, RIP.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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