CARAVAN: IN THE LAND OF GREY AND PINK (1971)
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.