tue 15/10/2019

Reissue CDs Weekly: Caravan | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Caravan

Reissue CDs Weekly: Caravan

Box set shows that the malleable Canterbury outfit are still valued

Caravan take a moment to reflect on how much their extemporisation should be moderated

Last week in central London, the Covent Garden branch of the book and music chain Fopp was selling CD sets branded as “5 Classic Albums” and “Original Album Series”. Each collected five CDs of the same number of albums. Amongst what could be picked up were collections by Kevin Ayers, Fairport Convention, Steve Hackett and Man. The asking price for each was £10. There were no bonus tracks and each set didn’t include a booklet. Nonetheless, this is a very keen price.

But it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about what’s represented. Have major labels have thrown their hands up and decided that music is worth very little? The loss-leader perspective. Or, perhaps, all these albums have earned back what was put into them in the first place so the low amount of money made back from each £10 set doesn’t matter. The returns must be as low – or maybe lower – than those coming from streaming.

Caravan The Decca/Deram Years (An Anthology) 1970 –1975 On the other hand, as existing fans would already have the albums, such pricing could act as an attractive entry point into, say, Fairport Convention. And that must be a good thing.

The mixed feelings these releases generate are irresolvable. However, it’s hard to escape the feeling a corresponding equation states low cost equals low quality. Maybe the stature of Kevin Ayers is undermined by such pricing?

Such brooding is engendered by the release of The Decca/Deram Years (An Anthology) 1970 –1975 by Caravan, a 9-disc set housed in a slip case. Along with a booklet, the set includes versions of the previously issued albums If I Could do it All Over Again, I'd do it All Over You, In the Land of Grey and Pink, Waterloo Lily, For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night, Caravan & The New Symphonia, Cunning Stunts, Live at the Fairfield Halls 1974 and the double CD The Show of Our Lives: Live at the BBC 1970–1975. The discs come in a gatefold wallets. The Decca/Deram Years is released by Universal, who also hold the rights to Caravan’s eponymous first album from 1968. Inexplicably, it’s not included so the story of the band is not told from the beginning.

Where these were originally albums as such rather than after-the-fact archive releases, each disc is as per the Caravan reissue programme of 2001 with the same bonus tracks and track sequencing. The Fairfield Halls’ set was first issued in 2002 and The Show of Our Lives was issued in 2007. Nothing is previously unissued. If I Could do it... and In the Land of Grey and Pink were last reissued, on vinyl only, in 2013 and 2014. Copies of the 2001 CD versions and Live at the Fairfield Halls 1974 can be bought for around £5. And as the 2007 The Show of Our Lives: Live at the BBC 1970–1975 goes for between £15 and £20, it's possible to pick up the box's musical contents up for about £50. The Decca/Deram Years' selling price is around £65, a sum which doesn’t induce any musing about Caravan’s status being diminished.

caravan in the land of grey and pinkAfter listening to the set, it’s hard to see Caravan as the prog-rock band they’re pigeonholed as. Often, especially on In the Land Of Grey and Pink, they are poppy. An agreeable, pastoral softness is never far. At other times they have an oblique wackiness, akin to that of Stackridge.

But the thread throughout is a jazziness, common to fellow Canterbury outfit Soft Machine. Both band's roots were in the seed-bed outfit The Wilde Flowers. Indeed, the title track of If I Could do it… could have been lifted from the first Soft Machine album, and The Show of Our Lives features a 1971 version of the 1968 Soft Machine B-side “Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin’”. With the exception of 1972’s Waterloo Lily, Caravan’s jazz was less tricksy than Soft Machine’s. On If I Could do it… and In the Land of Grey and Pink, the two most consistent albums here, they moderate extemporisation in favour of the song.

caravan & the new symphoniaThen, there’s 1974’s Caravan & The New Symphonia, a live album recorded in late 1973 in collaboration with an orchestra; a logical follow-on from partially orchestrated, most overtly prog Caravan album For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night. At this remove, the live album is a disjointed listen as it weaves between sections where the orchestra overwhelms and the band take the foreground. True integration is limited but when it comes – especially on the turbulent climax of “For Richard” – it is stunning. The same cannot be said of their weak next album, 1975’s erratic though successful-in-America Cunning Stunts.

It ought to come as no surprise that Caravan were inconsistent and fired off in different directions. Between 1968 and August 1975 they had five different line-ups and there were also dovetailings with Hatfield and the North and Matching Mole. Caravan were malleable. From the musical perspective, The Decca/Deram Years bears witness to this.

The Decca/Deram Years (An Anthology) 1970 –1975 also – ostensibly – confirms that at least one record label does not see all of its catalogue as the equivalent of bargain-basement shelf filler. For this, Caravan and their fans have cause to be happy.

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