CARAVAN: THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS (1995)
1) It's A Sad, Sad Affair; 2) Somewhere In Your Heart; 3) Cold As Ice; 4) Liar; 5) Don't Want Love; 6) Travelling Ways; 7) This Time; 8) If It Wasn't For Your Ego; 9) It's Not Real; 10) Wendy Wants Another 6" Mole; 11) I Know Why You're Laughing.
The Battle of Hastings, fought on October 14, 1066, is generally considered a key event in the political, social, and cultural history of England, leading to a decisive victory on the part of Norman forces led by William the Conqueror and initiating a major period of transformation for the entire English society. Precisely one year later, in 1067, the old cathedral of Canterbury was completely destroyed by fire, and starting in 1070, rebuilt under the supervision of the first Norman archbishop; the new marvels of Norman architecture, along with the subsequent murder of Thomas Becket on the steps of the cathedral, led to a major increase in its popularity and, consequently, the popularity of Canterbury as such, directly reflected in such artistic highs as the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (A Canterbury Tale), and English progressive rock bands such as The Soft Machine, Gong, National Health, and, of course, Caravan. In addition, the Norman conquest led to major changes in the English musical tradition, with new styles of court, sacred, and even folk music complementing and sometimes replacing older Saxon traditions — echoes of which still survived in English popular music in the 20th century, and were merged by progressive and experimental artists with African and American elements to form the basis for progressive rock music, including the Canterbury school, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. All of these connections are brought back to us with the front cover of the album, a partial reproduction of the monumental Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the key elements of the Ba...
...wait a minute, what? You're telling me it is all just a lame pun on the last name of Pye Hastings, the de-facto leader of Caravan since at least 1973? Oh. Bummer. Could we please get Mr. Hastings on the phone here, to confirm this? What's that? He's got no memory of making this album, so he can neither confirm nor deny? Double bummer.
Admittedly, it is true that The Battle Of Hastings, released 929 years after the epochal event and 13 years after the last attempt at a Caravan reunion, sank to the bottom even quicker than Back To Front, and continues to be largely ignored by prog and pop fans alike: in 1995, it was hard to imagine a style less out of touch with the times than Pye Hastings' brand of «soft prog», and good luck to anybody wishing to find a comprehensive and serious review of the record. And yet, it was a serious record. Most of the songs were indeed composed by Hastings, but the band also included Coughlan on drums, Dave Sinclair on keyboards (he is also credited for at least one song, ʽTravelling Waysʼ), a returning Geoff Richardson on viola and 50,000 other instruments, and even brother and long-time sideman companion Jimmy Hastings on the usual flutes and saxes. The only new member is bassist Jim Leverton, and even that guy is a true veteran (of Noel Redding's Fat Mattress, Juicy Lucy, Hemlock, Savoy Brown, and whoever else's fame).
Naturally, the lineup alone does not matter: what matters is whether the songs, the production, and the level of energy/inspiration makes the record any better than the lackluster works by the 1977–1982 versions of the band. According to a few disappointed fans whose opinions may be gathered from various prog review sites, the answer seems to be a firm «no». The Battle Of Hastings is, indeed, a collection of acoustic-based pop songs, with very little by way of «listening challenges», very low-key in execution, rather monotonous in atmosphere, and sort of embarrassing when it comes to the occasional quirk such as that ʽWendyʼ song. So it would seem that if you were bored stiff by Better By Far and The Album, the same should be expected of this record. And yet, this is not how it works for me.
Two things in particular make enough of a difference to make me want to embrace and recommend the album. The first and lesser one is the production: everything here sounds a ton better than the muffled, hollow production of the 1977–1982 albums. This is obvious from the opening lively acoustic guitar chords and old-fashioned background organ hum on ʽIt's A Sad, Sad, Affairʼ — a good sign that even if the songwriting will not be up to par, at least the overall sound will remind you more of classic Caravan than of the late-period plastic Caravan. It is not always like that (occasionally, the ugly synth tones and the silkbox-enclosed guitar echoes will come back to haunt you), but it is the rule rather than the exception.
The major difference, however, is that, apparently, Pye Hastings had grown himself a few demons to exorcise in the 13 years that we hadn't heard from him. Most of the songs here do not sound like commercially-oriented sentimental pop songs: this is more of a gloomy, melancholic, nostalgic singer-songwriter record, formally dressed up as a collection of pop tunes. There is indeed a «battle» fought here, and I do not know how personal it was (information on Pye's personal life is quite scarce to come by), but most songs are about cheating, rejection, bitterness, reproaches — I mean, just look at the titles: ʽIt's A Sad, Sad Affairʼ, ʽCold As Iceʼ (no, not Foreigner!), ʽLiarʼ (no, not Argent!), ʽIf It Wasn't For Your Egoʼ, etc. It might not necessarily be about one's love life as such — might be a general allegory for the bitterness at feeling forgotten and rejected, which had pretty much been Caravan's ordeal for the past 15 years. Regardless, it feels very sincere when you really get into it, and, oddly enough, I find myself returning to some of these songs far more often than I'd expect myself to, usually in times of trouble.
Describing the individual songs is hard, though, because they are really all unified in terms of style and substance. Some are a little slower, some a little faster, most float by on a double-layer bed of acoustic guitars and keyboards with whatever additional instrumentation Richardson and Jimmy Hastings decide to throw in for fullness' effect (flutes, mandolins, accordions, etc.). Probably worth singling out is that opener, ʽSad, Sad Affairʼ, slightly more upbeat and precisely shaped than the rest (what with Pye playing and singing the exact same catchy folk-pop melody); the sax-embellished waltz of ʽCold As Iceʼ; and the squint-eyed, stop-and-start menace of ʽLiarʼ (which was probably influenced by the old Argent song after all — at least, the stop-and-start trick, followed by the massive eruption of "LIAR!", follows the same formula, and I do not believe this is a coincidence).
The only «objective» standouts, however, are the last two tracks. ʽWendy Wants Another 6" Moleʼ is the specially incubated ugly duckling — a song that sounds more 10cc than Caravan with its vaudeville-pop rhythmics and caricaturesque vocals, not to mention grotesque (though not very funny) lyrics, although even 10cc would probably have never dared to end any of their tracks with a bunch of raspberries (literally!). Apparently, Pye remembered at the last moment that he had neglected to imbue enough of his sick humor into the songs, and synthesized it all within a single short track. It's okay to feel offended, though I'd guess that for some people, it would at least be a nice breakup of the overall monotonousness.
The real kicker, however, is the last song, ʽI Know Why You're Laughingʼ. It begins by skilfully deceiving you into thinking of it as a lazy adult contemporary ballad of a conclusion, then quickly kicks into high gear and becomes the fastest, catchiest, and most grim-faced pop-rocker that Pye had ever written up to that point. I really mean it — the song rocks, and at 3:36 it goes into genuine hard rock mode, with a fluent, furious, and perfectly constructed guitar solo that may remind one of Lindsey Buckingham (think ʽGo Your Own Wayʼ and suchlike). It is the kind of song that I would never in a million years expect out of Caravan, and it's been one of my favorites of theirs ever since I heard it — a criminally underrated pop-rock masterpiece that could have gotten its due were it released in 1975 rather than 1995... but it is never too late to make amends.
So, is this really the «comeback» we'd been hoping for? Certainly not for those who expected long-winded progressive structures, and probably not even for those who hoped for the bright, shining fun of Blind Dog. It is a monotonous, morose, autumnal record, good for the mood on one of those days where the rain just won't stop, but it is authentically atmospheric and perhaps even subtly allegorical, so much so that I could easily see it becoming the favorite album of the defeated King Harold Godwinson, had he had the (mis)fortune to survive the battle of Hastings and live into his late 920s. Thumbs up.