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.