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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Caravan: In The Land Of Grey And Pink


1) Golf Girl; 2) Winter Wine; 3) Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly); 4) In The Land Of Grey And Pink; 5) Nine Feet Underground.

Almost universally acknowledged as Caravan's masterpiece — and I concur. However, if you are a big fan of the intricacies and sonic risks of classic progressive rock, be warned: In The Land Of Grey And Pink is not about that at all. Yes, it does feature a 22-minute multi-part suite and long stretches of instrumental jamming with classical, jazz, and blues influences, but the album also marks a decisive break with the avantgarde-minded section of the Canterbury scene, opting for a melodic, sentimental, and quintessentially English atmosphere instead. Ironically, the bulk of the material here was written by Richard Sinclair, who would very soon leave the band to form Hatfield and The North — one of the most avantgarde-minded bands of the Canterbury scene, so go figure what it's all about with these damn musicians.

Anyway, In The Land Of Grey And Pink is really a mix of melodic, not-too-sophisticated prog with an early Brit-pop attitude: throw in the high, sweet, gentle voices of both Sinclair (who, nautrally, also takes most of the lead parts here) and Hastings (who only sings lead on his own ʽLove To Love Youʼ and on one section of the closing suite), and it is little wonder that most of the record sounds pretty much like what, say, the Kinks would have sounded like, had they ever deci­ded to join the «progressive club» in the early Seventies. Consequently, the album suffers from the usual problem: pop music fans avoid it because it has been labeled as «prog», and prog fans leave it somewhat disappointed because they were hoping for Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator, and got ʽLouie Louieʼ instead.

That last remark is not a complete joke, by the way: Pye's ʽLove To Love Youʼ, released as the second single from the album, is based on a chord sequence that is eerily similar to ʽLouie Louieʼ, and only a tiny bit more complicated — a deliberately simplistic, both musically and lyrically, pop tune that still manages to sound disarmingly cute and romantically optimistic (which does not prevent Pye, the hooligan troubadour, from sneaking a dirty reference into the second verse: too bad they didn't get the chance to do it on Top of the Pops). It should be as much of an insult to the average prog rock fan as Phil Collins' ʽMore Fool Meʼ on Selling England By The Pound — but to those who like to lighten up every once in a while, it might be taken as a sign that the band, unlike many of its competitors, did not take itself too seriously.

The first single was ʽGolf Girlʼ, which, I guess, went on to become the quintessential Caravan tune just for being so... straightforward? We get references to golf balls, cups of tea, going for walks in fine weather, and just fancying each other (written about Richard's actual girlfriend), all set to a rock-steady acoustic-and-bass pattern that is at once simple, unassuming, and completely self-assured. Even more than ʽLove To Love Youʼ, this is Caravan's way of filling the world with silly love songs, and what's wrong with that, especially if you give the whole thing such a taste­fully gallant English vibe? There's a subtle key change in the coda, where David Sinclair and Jimmy Hastings trade Mellotron and flute solos and the atmosphere becomes slightly more som­ber — like a patch of thin rainclouds darkening the golf course — but that does not really spoil the mood, just makes things a bit more intriguing, with a tiny hint of never-know-what-the-future-may-bring. Come to think of it, there's a tiny bit of surrealism mixed here, maybe with an echo or two of Alice In Wonderland rather than P. G. Wodehouse; and that atmosphere is even more acutely felt in the title track with its utopian escapist vision and strangely eccentric over­dubbed sound effects (what's up with all that bubbling and blubbering?).

Escapism, imaginary nostalgia, and yearning for visions of transcendental beauty also constitute the fuel for the two long tracks — Sinclair's ʽWinter Wineʼ on the first side and the collective ʽNine Feet Undergroundʼ suite that occupies the entire second side. ʽWinter Wineʼ weaves a strange trance as the song's five verses cling to each other like a lengthy visionary monologue, with an odd mix of medieval, fantasy, and sexual imagery, until the final verse brushes it all away with a decisive "Life's too short to be sad / Wishing things you'll never have" and "Funny how it's clearer now, you're close to me / We'll be together all the time" — although the last lines are still delivered in the same tired, melancholic, given-up voice, implying that it may be easier to reject dreaming in theory than accomplishing this in practice. David picks up that same dejected tone in his lengthy keyboard solo, and the result is like taking a seven-minute ride along an arrow-straight highway of broken hearts. The song never rips, never flashes, never tries to break out of its lonesome shell; you have to knock on its door, but once it finally opens, it's a beautiful whiff of soothing balm for all you broken-hearted sentimentalists out there.

The worst thing that can be said about the epic ʽNine Feet Undergroundʼ is that it offers few new elements compared to what we'd already just heard on Side A. Like ʽFor Richardʼ, it is a collec­tion of different, but similar segments, with few vocals and lots and lots and lots of keyboard soloing from David — an excellent player, for sure, but do it for too long and your quiet, fluent modesty might gradually slip into boredom. I do really like Pye's ʽDisassociationʼ part, where he shows himself just as capable of evoking moody, bitter nostalgia for I-don't-know-what as Sin­clair was on ʽWinter Wineʼ; and the last section, after the band rocking you to sleep for so long, suddenly brings it all home with a vengeance, regurgitating a thick, monstrous guitar/organ riff from the ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ school of thought and leading our airplane to a fairly hard landing after all. Toto, we're not in the land of grey and pink any more. Oh well, I guess we needed a good shaking up after such a rosey dream after all.

How the record ended up not hitting any charts at all, right in the middle of the prog-is-cool era, is objectively beyond me, but I'd guess it might have to do with the fact that the record lacks flash and glam — Pye Hastings is no Steve Howe or Robert Fripp, and David Sinclair is no Jon Lord or Keith Emerson when it comes to glorifying your instrument of choice; and who knows, per­haps this brand of gentlemanly, five-o'-clock-tea progressive rock was simply not what the five-o'clock-tea gentlemen wanted in 1971 (much like what happened to the Kinks a few years earlier). In the long run, though, these speculations are meaningless and useless: what is important is that In The Land Of Grey And Pink seems to have stood the test of time well enough, and that it can be just as enchanting and entrancing to those who have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of English bourgeois culture — actually, even more enchanting. A definitive thumbs up.


  1. I used to think Winter Wine would be a good song to have played at one's funeral, with its haunting music, yearning imagery and the repeated line: "dreams are always ending far too soon". It's a beautiful song and it fits in well with the album which has equal parts cheerful escapism and melancholy. The title is the land of Grey and Pink, after all, it's not just color, there is also grey there.

  2. Nine Feet Underground does rather sag in the middle. The reason Disassociation evokes a Richard Sinclair-ish mood is because it's by Richard and not by Pye, though.

  3. The remastered version of this from Stephen Wilson has got some cool bonuses material, including two new songs: aFlower in the Garden (another somber thing from Richard), and an early, higher-key version of Aristocracy, which I actually prefer a bit to the one on Waterloo Lily. Good stuff on this album in spite of almost no leed guitar from Pye, who is at least half way decent on the instrument. The disc would go gold at some point and is the band's best seller despite the fact the band did manage to scratch the charts with Cunning Stunts and Blind Dog. Love Dave's playing though, perhaps even better than that of Emerson and company, as understated as it can sometimes be. His unwillingness to go nuts might explain his early departure from Matching Mole and the Hatfields; although he would start demonstrating a little more flash on Girls, and particularly so on the little known jazzy archival thing from his mid-70s outfit 'the Polite Force'.

  4. The occasional monotony of the sidelong piece aside, this is pretty much a perfect prog-pop album. Catchy, witty, quirky, and occasionally sad and wistful when it needs to be ("Winter Wine," eh?). The more traditional folk and pop elements contribute to The Land of Grey and Pink being more understated than your average contemporaneous British prog rock (Yes, ELP etc.) and the general humility and amiability of the proceedings makes for a genuinely special listening experience. I especially love "Golf Girl," a summery folk-pop number that manages to reenergize those old love song cliches with a bit of casual and funny surrealism. Frankly, I don't think Caravan ever came close to this level of quality before or after.

  5. The second side of ILGP reminds me of Can from this same period: the latter achieves moments of lift through their weird alchemy of free-form, rhythm-based jamming; the former achieves the same sort of lift, but through labor-intensive, melody-infused (name your genre) composition design. In both cases, whatever suspension of my disbelief is achieved, it gets pulled to the ground by the damn vocals -- too undisciplined on the part of Can, too disciplined on the part of Caravan. The result is transcendent music with two wildly different vocal approaches that grate on me in the exact same way. For me, this flaw will forever keep the work of both bands out of "masterpiece" territory. Love 'em both, even so.

  6. For many people 'Grey & Pink' is the definitive Caravan album, mixing short pop songs with an often slightly laborious extended 'suite' that mixed song fragments and extended instrumental passages.

    Significantly though, these instrumental sections avoided endless guitar solos in favour of quite tightly arranged sections that often utilised jazz-rock textures and skilled session players.

    Caravan settled into a comfortable groove after 'Grey & Pink' was released, touring in Europe and once - hilariously - on a package tour to Australia, in company with Slade & Status Quo.

    However, they never lost their reputation as a 'student band' and whilst they chugged along in the middle lane of the European Rock Autostrada, other bands and artistes - Genesis, David Bowie and Deep Purple are just three who had hitherto supported Caravan on their University tours - now went flying past them in the fast lane, with huge American tours and massive success in the album charts.

    Perhaps they were also with the wrong record company - Decca were notoriously 'old school' with their promotional strategies; perhaps Caravan on Vertigo or Island or CBS would have been pushed harder and achieved more. We'll never know...

    Both Sinclairs left shortly after this album came out - Richard to join Robert Wyatt and Phil Miller in Matching Mole and though Richard lasted long enough to record 'Waterloo Lily', he then left with David's replacement, Steve Miller, to work on a project that eventually became Hatfield & the North.

    None of these 'Canterbury' projects ever really became mainstream successes but the likes of Caravan, the Hatfields, Soft Machine, Egg and Gong have had an influence that far outweighs the commercial success that they achieved in their lifetimes.

  7. Remaining halfway between pop and prog actually can work to the band's advantage. I wasn't a prog fan in any way but fell in love with this record instantly and it encouraged me to explore some other stuff, with mixed results. I absolutely adore some records by Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Can while Genesis and Yes do absolutely nothing to me. I am still not 100 % sure if i can call myself a prog lover or not.