“Genesis, Floyd and ELP all received so much more popularity… I’ve always just accepted who and where we were and I don’t think about why we didn’t reach those same heights”: Andy Latimer is happy if Camel managed to matter

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Having battled potentially life-threatening diseases for the best part of 20 years, most Camel fans thought their hopes of seeing the band live again were over. However, with health returned, guitarist Andy Latimer resurrected the group in 2013, when he told Prog about his revamp of The Snow Goose for their upcoming live shows. His ambitions included a return to London’s Royal Albert Hall – which he was to achieve five year later.

The news that Camel were preparing to return to action with some long-awaited live shows was greeted with something approaching joyous hysteria by the band’s diehard fan base earlier this year. In truth, the return of the band that brought us such classic albums as Mirage, The Snow Goose and Moonmadness would have been momentous enough, based purely on the fact that no new Camel material has surfaced in over a decade. 

However, the reality of the band’s recent history is that many fans will have long since given up any hope of their heroes re-emerging into today’s brave new prog realm. Thanks to the severe and well-documented health problems that guitarist and Camel mainstay Andy Latimer has been battling with over the last 20 years or so, this autumn’s flurry of live shows amount to one of the biggest and best surprises of the year.

Diagnosed with a blood disorder known as polycythaemia vera in 1992, Latimer experienced an arduous and debilitating run of extremely poor health that eventually put paid to Camel’s status as a fully-functioning live band. Since receiving chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Latimer’s determination has miraculously seen him through. As he explains to Prog, he remains mindful of his physical fragility but having made an impressive recovery he simply couldn’t resist bringing Camel back for another crack of the whip.

“I missed it, that’s the truth,” he states. “It took me a long time. I had the bone marrow transplant and I was very ill for two or three years before that, and that was what made me decide not to tour anymore. I was so ill. I had no energy and could barely walk up the drive. Then I got diagnosed with the illness and was told that I had a choice between having the transplant or having 20 months to live! Some choice!

“So it took me a long while to get through that and come out the other side but I’ve been getting slowly stronger and stronger, and we’ve been talking about doing this for a while. I’ve written quite a bit of new material but we thought the best thing to do is get out on the road and get in touch with the fans and all our friends out there and get the whole machine working again.”

There can be few better experiences for focusing the mind and rejuvenating one’s passion for making music than a genuine brush with death. Similarly, it is hard to imagine exactly how relieved, excited and surprised Andy Latimer must be as he contemplates hitting the road with Camel for the first time in over a decade.

“Yes, there were one or two moments, especially when I was coming out of the illness and getting better, when I thought I’d never do this again,” he admits. “I still have a few health issues. My hands became a bit arthritic after the transplant so I have daily challenges with that. Even early this year I was thinking that I didn’t know if I could get back into touring because of my hands. I was most concerned about them.

“But I just thought that I’ve got to do it and force my way back in. Sod all the rest of it and keep going forward, you know? It’s only a short little hop, this first tour. But if all goes to plan, we’re thinking about going out again in March and April next year. So once we get back in the saddle it shouldn’t be such an effort, because it has been a big effort getting it all back together again.”

As aficionados will be aware, Andy and his current Camel comrades – drummer Denis Clement, keyboardist Guy LeBlanc and bassist Colin Bass – will be performing The Snow Goose in its entirety for fans in the UK, Holland, Belgium and Germany this autumn. This first burst of activity represents a great opportunity for fans to hear Camel’s most popular work, not to mention what Andy describes as “all the favourite oldies.”

Some of the live tapes I heard are so funny. You can isolate the brass section and the guys are saying ‘What time does this finish? When can we go down the pub?’

But in keeping with prog’s spirit of adventure, The Snow Goose has undergone its own glorious rebirth behind the scenes as its creator has been preparing to hit the stage again. “Oh yes, I’ve re-recorded it and that’s been a challenge!” says Andy. “I wanted to keep to the original as much as I could but also I wanted to invest some new things in it, to see if I could improve it.

“I’ve re-orchestrated it with Denis, our drummer, so that’s been fun. I’ve written some new bits for it, I think. I’ve lengthened some of the quieter pieces. But when people listen to it, it has the same feel. It’s very true to the original but it’s got a lot of new things in it that I hope people will enjoy. It’s been a bit of a rush, like it always is in the rock’n’roll world, but we’re doing artwork now, so it should be available on the tour. I think people will like it.”

It takes an impressive degree of testicular fortitude to meddle with an established genre landmark like The Snow Goose, but Andy Latimer’s reasoning seems sound enough. He cites errors in the mastering process by the record company that reissued a substantial part of the Camel catalogue in 2002 as the principal reason for wanting to revisit and revamp such revered material.

He is also eager to stress the huge contribution made by his former bandmates Peter Bardens, Doug Ferguson and Andy Ward to the band’s unmistakable sound. “Oh yes, they were really important to the Goose and to all those early albums,” he avows. “They all contributed so much to the arrangements and the way they worked them out. Especially the rhythm section – Andy and Doug were so tight together.

“I’ve asked Colin and Den from the current band to learn the parts and they’ve done it really faithfully and it’s quite amazing. They’ve done their respective parts and Guy has done all of Pete’s parts. Some of the solos are exactly the same as Pete’s. In many ways this tour and the new Goose are a tribute to Pete and the other guys.”

Although Peter Bardens sadly passed away in 2002 and neither Doug Ferguson nor Andy Ward are involved in the current Camel band, there is a strong sense that Andy Latimer feels he is carrying the spirit of that original line-up forward into a bright new future. He even states, on several occasions, how much he would like to re-enact what is arguably the most celebrated moment in Camel history: the band’s gig at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra back in October 1975, when they performed The Snow Goose in its entirety and made their own mighty contribution to prog rock’s list of grand gestures.

We’ve always been a band that didn’t want to repeat ourselves…Any sensible artist would probably have done The Son Of Snow Goose, but not us!

“It was quite daunting actually, as you can imagine!” Andy laughs. “I remember being really nervous. It was the Royal Albert Hall, for a start, and we only had one rehearsal with the orchestra and that didn’t go brilliantly. Orchestras are a bunch of little kids and hooligans! Some of the live tapes that I heard, which later became part of a live record, they’re so funny. You can isolate the brass section and the guys are saying ‘What time does this finish? When can we go down the pub?’

“So half the orchestra was, for various reasons, going, ‘Oh this is okay’ and others were totally disinterested in playing their parts. The whole gig was an occasion, though. I wouldn’t say it was the best gig we did playing The Snow Goose, but we felt that we owed it to everybody to do at least one show with the orchestra, even though we were told by management that even if we sold out the Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra we’d still lose five grand or more! Our motto was ‘Fuck it! We’re doing what we want!’ We didn’t care.

“That was our attitude back then. We were getting a lot of money from the record company – we used to go out with three screens with projections and movies and explosions and smoke and all sorts of stuff. It was at great expense. It was huge and silly and we couldn’t afford it! We certainly can’t afford it now. But who knows what fortunes will come our way? I’d like to do it with an orchestra again at the Albert Hall. That would be fantastic.”

Revisiting The Snow Goose and performing it live again could hardly be a better gift to patient Camel fans, but the album is by no means the only jewel in the band’s sonic crown. Eleven studio albums deep, the Camel catalogue is one of the more diverse, inventive and surprising in the prog canon, a view that is often overlooked due to the diminishing commercial returns that Andy and his comrades underwent towards the end of the 70s and during the 80s.

The guitarist remains philosophical about those days, admitting to a partial creative decline after the original line-up began to disintegrate, but also giving credit where it is due to those who joined him for that part of the ride.

“At the time we thought Moonmadness was flawed, because everybody was saying we should do another Snow Goose,” he recalls. “But we’ve always been a band that didn’t want to repeat ourselves and we wanted to do something different. Any sensible artist would probably have done The Son Of Snow Goose, but not us!

I had so much support over the internet when I was ill and it was wonderful. I really think it saved me

“That’s probably my favourite album from the Pete, Andy and Doug era, for a lot of reasons. There are some great pieces on it and the band was harmonious and working well and the rot hadn’t set in. We were still all very happy and accepted our roles in the band and it wasn’t until Rain Dances when everything shifted.

“Doug had left and when he left, everybody’s roles changed and it wasn’t the same band anymore. Richard Sinclair came in and he was a very talented chap, but he had his own agenda. He wanted to take the band in a certain direction, but Pete and I were the main writers, so there was this tug of war going on. It was very topsy-turvy from then on, but it gave us the opportunity to work with some wonderful musicians and expand. By the time we got to Breathless, Pete and I were arguing about everything, and it shows! But these things happen in your life and you do the best you can in the circumstances.”

Such is his self-effacing demeanour and, you might say, the somewhat unflashy and humble nature of Camel’s music, that many casual observers may be surprised to learn that the band’s history has been fairly turbulent and not a little dark at times. Andy Latimer’s prolonged battle with illness and Peter Bardens’ tragic demise at the hands of lung cancer at the comparatively tender age of 56 would be enough for most people to deal with, but Andy Ward’s downward spiral into alcoholism and drug dependency during the early 80s has clearly had a potent impact on his former colleague. 

Thankfully, Andy does bring relatively glad tidings about his erstwhile drumming foil. “I haven’t spoken to Andy for a year or so now but he was doing very well when I last spoke to him,” he says. “He’s into growing things and he’s a keen gardener. He really did go through it. He went off the rails when Doug left the band. That was the start of Andy going slightly mad, and it’s very easy to do in a group situation. He was drinking far too much and he was taking an awful lot of drugs too, so it was inevitable that he was going to end up the way he did.

“It was so sad for all of us. We couldn’t save him really. We all tried. But when someone’s on that path it’s really difficult to go clean. It was part of his life and he was totally out of control. I think he did go to rehab at the Priory for a while and he did have some counselling, I think. But in the end he made a really good decision for his life, which was to get out of the rock‘n’roll business. We were all sad and full of heartache that we couldn’t work with him anymore. I loved Andy and his playing. He was a fantastic drummer when he was straight, but when he wasn’t it was hell!”

Having weathered a few formidable storms during the 40 years since forming Camel, not least his own near-death experience, Andy Latimer could be forgiven for shying away from the spotlight and retreating into quiet retirement. But his decision to rev up his creative engines again, even as he continues to endure the after-effects of such severe medical treatment, marks him out as one of prog’s great survivors – albeit one that seems to let life’s slings and arrows bounce off his fretboard rather than allow them to hold him back from doing the things he loves.

If my hands seize up at one gig and I don’t play as well, so be it… I’ve got plenty of painkillers so I’ll be there! There are a lot of people much worse off

Touchingly, Andy makes a point of stating how much he appreciates all the support that he received from Camel fans from all corners of the globe during his illness and how, without that groundswell of encouragement, he could well have bowed out altogether and never made this admirable comeback after all. “I had so much support over the internet when I was ill and it was wonderful,” he states. “I really think it saved me. So this is kind of a thank you to everybody, to be going out again.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s a very nice feeling to be getting back into it and I hope my health, fingers crossed, will hold out. My determination is strong. If my hands seize up at one gig and I don’t play as well, so be it. Hopefully that won’t happen and it’s not much fun when they do seize up, but I’ve got plenty of painkillers so I’ll be there! There are a lot of people much worse off, aren’t there?”

Modest soul that he is, Andy Latimer will never be accused of being one of prog’s grandstanding show-offs and, in truth, Camel were never the vast commercial force that Genesis, Yes or ELP were back in the 70s. However, they did make some of the very finest and most wonderfully idiosyncratic music that the genre has ever produced. As we welcome them back to our world, maybe it’s time to celebrate these underrated underdogs of prog anew?

“That’s very kind of you, but it’s very difficult for me to comment really!” chuckles Andy. “I never think ‘Wow, we’re never mentioned in magazines!” or anything like that. I just think Genesis and Floyd and ELP all received so much more popularity. Their albums were huge.

“I’ve always just accepted who and where we were and I don’t really think about why we didn’t reach those same heights. It doesn’t occur to me. This is what we do and if people like it then obviously I’ve done something right and everyone I’ve played with has done something right. It’s been an interesting ride and I’m a lucky man!”

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.