CARAVAN – Waterloo Lily

Isn’t it peculiar how your life changes? If you’d told my Black Sabbath/Iggy Pop-loving 16-year old self that 30 years later I’d be singing the praises of Caravan I’d have (only metaphorically, though only just) spat in your face. Caravan?? CARAVAN?? The band so faceless and woolly they were like four (or five.Sometimes six!!) Eric Olthwaites in the same group. Once, many years ago, I’d been given a Caravan album by someone who confused the rock albums I adored so much, with lukewarm shit. I hated the long running times, I hated the air of smug, middle-class twattery (even though I was willing to accept David Bowie as an inter-galactic pan-sexual rock god, there was no way I wanted anything to do with poshos in cheesecloth and patchouli with their Tarquins and Sebastians), and I hated the flutes. It was Year Zero, and Caravan and the majority of their pals, to all but the faithful, went missing, presumed B.O.F. in The Punk Rock Wars, and it now shames me to say it but I happily put the boot in myself at times. I never mourned them. Like an idiot cousin or an exotic STD I put my prog dabblings to the back of my mind and denied their existence if anyone ever asked.

Times change and the album I played most this week is WATERLOO LILY by CARAVAN.   Dividing hardcore fans as either ‘too jazzy’ or ‘not jazzy enough’, it marks the transition between the blend of pop, folk, jazz and classical music of  ‘In The Land Of Grey And Pink‘ and the poppier ‘For Girls Who Grow Plump…’. It’s certainly jazzier than ‘ITLOGAP’ which makes it sound like the kind of album Steely Dan would’ve made if they were born in Kent. The shuffle of ‘Nothing At All’ is the sort of blues that used to crop up at least once every Dan album, although here it is an extended instrumental groove, split in two by the funk of ‘Its Coming Soon’. What could have been an over-long extravagance is kept entertaining throughout by the guitars, piano and Lol Coxhills sax solos. Pin-sharp and never out-staying their welcome, this is a joy from start to finish.   The charm of early Caravan is that they are not the virtuosi you expect to find in prog: although they are good musicians all willing to step forward when required, they are much better as an ensemble, letting the music breathe and flow. What they lack in technical dexterity they make up for in wonderful harmonies, and the quality of ‘milkman’ melodies McCartney stopped writing around 1969. Dave Sinclair had already left (for the first time) and had been replaced by Steve Miller (no relation) whose jazz playing is superb throughout, making it a more focussed album than its predecessor, although it is the five-part symphonic centre-piece ‘The Love In Your Eye’ which has remained in the bands set to this day. There are a couple of beautiful pop songs on the LP, which led to accusations of being (horror) ‘commercial’. Depending on your point-of-view, ‘Aristocracy’ and ‘The World Is Yours’ are either timeless sunshine-pop or dated soft-lad public-school toss, easily replaceable by ‘Where Have All The Boot Boys Gone?’.

Caravan make music for the sheer joy of making music: they are consistently inventive, never boring, and are inimitable in the way they conjure up nostalgia for a kind of virtual Englishness which we all think we can recall but which never really existed, except in a Flake advert: a bucolic dream of hazy summers, croquet on the lawn and girls in diaphanous blouses. They are far more interesting to me than Iggy Pop is these days and have never tried to sell me car insurance. My favourite Caravan album this week: a good place to begin if you are a newcomer to the charms of this most English of bands.

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MAXOPHONE – Maxophone

Italian Progressive Rock (RPI) is littered with this sort of record-a single album on a tiny label which vanished into obscurity on its release, but which has more recently been re-appraised and introduced to an latter-day audience with more eclectic, adventurous tastes. A lot of these albums are obscure for a good reason (they weren’t very good at the time, and no amount of revisionism will alter that), but once in a while an album emerges which bucks the trend and urges you to listen with fresh ears: ‘Maxophone‘ is one such album.

Formed in Milan in 1973 this album was released on the Produtorri Associati label in 1975 as a domestic release. A remixed English language version with a different running order was released in Germany, and this version was licensed for release in the USA and Canada. Although not unique, not every RPI band recorded English versions and the label obviously had high hopes for the band to enable this to happen. The six piece band utilise a variety of instruments more usually found in an orchestra: between them Leonardo Schiavone and Maurizio Bianchini employ sax, clarinet,French horn, trumpet and flute as well as vibraphone and various percussion instruments. This reflects the classical education of half the band, the other half being schooled in rock. The duality of the band is well-suited to the music, quickly and seamlessly shifting from classical to rock and all stations in between along the way, amply demonstrated in the first two tracks: ‘C’e Un Paese Al Mondo’ starts with Baroque piano before slipping into fiery jazz-rock riffing which in turn lead into a section much reminiscent of Genesis. Clarinet-led swinging jazz follows next, then resolves into an orchestral interlude. Adding guitar and horns takes us back to the Gabriel-soundalike for the conclusion. The intricate riffs which begin ‘Fase’ give way to a saxophone solo, then a section which could have been lifted from Brian Wilson‘s wackier instrumental moments (including a lovely vibraphone solo). Guitar rock next, duelling first with a tuba, then a flute and fading out with an acoustic guitar, bringing contrasting musical shadow and light.

With one song just under nine minutes and the average lasting around six-and-a-half, Maxophone pack a multitude of ideas into the six songs, lasting just under what used to be one side of a cassette (45 minutes-to this day, still the optimum length for 99% of all albums), and they never plod or bore. The different parts flow easily into one another, giving the whole album an organic, laid back feel, and the playing throughout by each member is very impressive.

Musically Maxophone recall Gentle Giant, with their use of orchestral instruments and the occasional detour into medieval themes. However they have a lightness of touch more usually associated with Canterbury-scene bands Caravan and National Health, which makes their stylistic leaps more palatable than some of GG’s more, erm, adventurous moments. This isn’t to say that they are bland: Roberto Guiliani puts down the kind of riff Gary Moore used to throw down in his Colosseum II days (and can hold his own as a soloist too), and the whole band can tear it up when they want to, but what impresses is the ease they ‘progress’ from one genre to another, equally at home with a cocktail-jazz groove as with a Weather Report-style jazz odyssey.

That the label thought enough of them to release an English language version is testament to the strength of the songs and the band itself, but for one reason or another Maxophone never found their audience at the time and this was to be their only contribution to the Prog-Rock time-line.

Recommended for fans of the above-mentioned bands, and for anyone who likes music with a little something extra.

Buy it if you can find it.