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The story behind Camel's Moonmadness

(Image credit: PRESS)

The last time the UK had a summer as hot as this one, Camel were one of the biggest bands in the country. Riding high after the huge success of the preceding year’s conceptual extravaganza The Snow Goose, the band formed by guitarist Andy Latimer in 1971 had passed steadily through the progressive rock ranks and were now, seemingly, on the cusp of even greater success. Their next move would eventually turn out to be their smartest of all: 42 years later, the band’s fourth album is widely regarded as their finest work, not to mention their most enduringly popular. 

Released in March 1976, just in time for that year’s now legendarily drought-ravaged summer, Moonmadness was the ultimate showcase for the classic Camel line-up of Latimer, keyboard player Peter Bardens, bassist Doug Ferguson and drummer Andy Ward. Fast forward to 2018 and the current Camel line-up are out on the road again, revisiting Moonmadness in its entirety onstage. As a result, Latimer and his present-day comrades have spent a lot of time thinking about and dissecting the album that, for many fans, best defines the Camel sound. Thinking back to those heady post‑Snow Goose days, Latimer admits to Prog that there was no clear plan to follow as the band embarked on the follow-up to their breakthrough album.

“Oh yes, we were all in a bit of a quandary about it,” he chuckles. “Because of the success of The Snow Goose, it was a bit like, ‘Oh God, what are we going to do next?’ Probably because none of us were that sensible, we just said, ‘We want to do something totally different!’ We should’ve really just done the Son Of Snow Goose, but instead we decided to do something completely different.”

In truth, the pressure was mounting on the band to produce another hit. Camel’s record label Decca had been pleasantly surprised by the huge success of The Snow Goose, an album they had been distinctly concerned about prior to its release. 

“We were always under a lot of pressure from the management and the record company to do something they could sell,” Latimer recalls. “When we actually gave the record company The Snow Goose, especially in America but in England too, they were quite horrified that it was one piece of music with no breaks, because how could they get it played on the radio? So we were getting pressure to do more commercial stuff and we resisted, really. We were pretty arrogant. We just thought, ‘No! Sod ’em!’ But they weren’t too bad, Decca. They left us alone to do our stuff to a degree, but there was always that element of ‘How are we gonna sell this?’”

Admirably resistant to the notion of repeating themselves, chief composers Latimer and Bardens began to pool their ideas for the next album. Wistfully recalling a very satisfying time for the whole band, Latimer notes the enormous rush of creative fervour Camel were enjoying at that point, buoyed by their recent success. 

Doing their best to ignore pressure to conjure another chart-conquering masterpiece, Latimer and Bardens disappeared into deepest, darkest Surrey to get the compositional ball rolling. But all was not as it seemed.

“We were writing in this place out near Dorking somewhere. It was a really nice barn, a great place to write, but it was a bit strange,” Latimer recalls. “The people there were a bit strange. You wouldn’t sense they were in there, they just suddenly appeared. Pete and I had these awful visions in the night where we’d wake up and think there were ghosts in the room. There was rustling and scraping at the window. It was all getting a bit funny! 

“It seemed to be that every time there was a full moon it was happening. So we started thinking about the moon and the madness of the full moon, and that’s how the title came about. There were some very strange things going on at that place.”

Supernatural interference aside, Latimer fondly recalls what he regards as a major pinnacle in his writing partnership with Bardens. At a time when successful bands were given a decent amount of freedom to pursue their most ludicrous ideas, the duo’s confidence in each other led to an almost unassailable confidence in the band as a whole. Consequently, the group itself would become the focus of the new material.

“In those days the situation was idyllic, really. We’d go off to some cottage in the wild somewhere, so it was a lot of fun,” Latimer enthuses. “Pete and I, from my point of view at least, we had this great writing relationship. That’s not an easy thing to find. In the past I’ve often tried to find somebody else like Pete and it’s really difficult. It’s just something that clicks, when you’re a team like that. 

“But back then there was a lot of talking and then eventually me and Pete came up with this idea of basing the next album on the four individuals in the band. It was lot of fun, really. We looked at each of us and, of course, Andy Ward and Doug Ferguson were the easiest. Doug was so solid and straightforward in some ways, and Andy was definitely a free spirit! Then there was Pete and I. It’s always hard writing about yourself, but after a lot of talking, I think we got the essence of what each individual was all about.” 

Andy Latimer

(Image credit: PRESS)

Two major decisions were made in the Camel camp as they started to piece together new music for their then untitled fourth record. Firstly, Latimer and Bardens would write one song for each member of the band, focusing on their personality, musical identity and strengths within the band. Secondly, in keeping with their desire to do something different from the instrumental sprawl of The Snow Goose, Moonmadness was to be an album with lots of vocals and vocal melodies.

“We definitely wanted to get more into singing,” Latimer notes. “It was a challenge for us because none of us in the band were really great singers. We’d never felt really confident about it after making the first album [Camel, 1973]. Our producer Dave Williams, bless him, he was a lovely guy but not very tactful! We were doing the album and he said, ‘So who’s singing? Because none of you can sing!’ We all felt a bit like, ‘Er… what?’ [Laughs] So we took a break in recording and held an audition for about 40 would-be vocalists, thinking, ‘Okay, we’d better get a singer in.’ All these 40 guys that thought they were great singers were awful, and we figured we could sing better than them anyway, so we’ll do it and sod ’em, you know? But that gave us a little bit of paranoia for the future.

“When it came to Moonmadness, we didn’t have that much confidence about any of our vocals so we had to be really inventive about it,” he continues. “We’d disguise them in lots of ways, putting Leslie speaker effects on vocals and phasers and all those kinds of things, and then also not mixing them too loud. I think that gave the album a certain mood. A lot of people like the treatment we did on the vocals and we only really did it to cover them up!”

Moonmadness was recorded at London’s Basing Street Studios in January and          February 1976, with esteemed engineer Rhett Davies (Genesis, Brian Eno, Roxy Music) manning the controls. Armed with a batch of new material that they instinctively felt was the best possible forward step, Camel were a very focused and united unit. 

Living together, playing together and dedicating every waking moment to the band, Latimer and his three friends may not have been overly confident about their collective vocal abilities, but extensive touring had honed the band’s shared chemistry to a state of near-perfection – something they were eager to capture on the new album. 

“Absolutely – the band at that stage were really solid,” Latimer agrees. “The relationships were really good at that point. No rot had set in yet. It was later that things started to unravel, but when we were doing Moonmadness, everything was great. We were a band that really liked to rehearse, so we’d rehearse every day we weren’t actually gigging, and we gigged a lot in those days. We were just consumed by it. 

“I don’t think many of us had relationships outside the band. Everybody was living together and it was very productive. We were thinking about the band all the time. It was a great time and, I suppose, it was a simpler time.”

Latimer goes on to pointedly praise Rhett Davies’ contribution to Camel’s classic fourth album. Having engineered Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound, the producer hardly had anything to prove at that point, but his freewheeling approach to making records clearly had a profound effect on Moonmadness’ unique vibe. 

“The whole thing was recorded very fast and I have to give credit to Rhett Davies,” says Latimer. “He did a bit of engineering on The Snow Goose too, I think. He was a lovely man and a fantastic engineer. The sound of that album is really down to him. He was such a great guy to work with. He was great fun and encouraged us to be silly and to explore all these daft ideas. Andy Ward would be blowing a pipe into buckets of water to simulate sounds on the moon. On the song Air Born, Andy was smoking a joint, and in the middle section you can hear all this inhaling going on. It was all very hippie, I suppose, but very funny.”


It’s hard to deny that the four songs dedicated to the four members of Camel in 1976 are among the band’s greatest pieces. As Andy Latimer recalls, the process of encapsulating each member of the group in musical form was hugely enjoyable. It also enabled Camel to venture into territories that they hadn’t previously considered, particularly with regard to drummer Andy Ward, for whom Latimer and Bardens wrote the album’s wild and dynamic instrumental closer, Lunar Sea.

“Let’s just say that Andy, at that stage, had an excessive personality, so he was always being silly,” Latimer chuckles. “He was an incredibly talented drummer. Because he’d worked with us from the beginning, he always knew what we wanted. He was incredibly inventive, very funny, but was always the quiet guy of the band, in an odd kind of way, and that’s somewhat against what you might think!

“But Andy was into a lot of things, especially jazz. So when we started writing stuff, we knew that his song was going to be fairly jazzy and fairly complicated. Not jazz in the proper sense, because none of us were proper jazzers, but it was what we considered jazz, I suppose!”

Nine minutes long and, by any sane reckoning, one of the most exhilarating prog epics of all time, Lunar Sea exudes a euphoria that speaks volumes about the unity and shared enthusiasm that drove Camel forward in the mid-70s. As Latimer remembers, it was a piece of music that stretched the band to the edge of their abilities.

“It had some complexities in it, absolutely. We’d just been on a tour supporting Soft Machine for a week and that had made quite a big impression on Andy and I. We used to sit at the side of the stage because they had John Marshall on drums, who Andy really liked, and Allan Holdsworth on guitar. Obviously I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing?’ [Laughs] 

“I think at that stage I thought that to be a good guitar player, you had to play a lot of notes. So I was trying to play a lot of notes on Lunar Sea. A couple of albums after that, I felt, ‘Hang on a minute, I’m never gonna be that fast, my brain doesn’t work that fast!’ so I started to just be me and play melodic stuff. But that was where Lunar Sea came from. 

“It was a lot of fun, with a lot of energy from Andy, because it wasn’t easy to play as a drummer. He loved it because it was such a challenge.”

For bassist Doug Ferguson, Latimer and Bardens wrote the strident and punchy Another Night. The most straightforward song on Moonmadness by some distance, it was a direct and affectionate tribute to Camel’s resident safe pair of hands.

“Doug was the organiser and was the peacemaker too, when Pete and I were going at it!” grins Latimer. “Because Doug is very solid as an individual, very organised and a bit Sergeant Major-ish, he was the one that picked up the money and drove and got us organised. We were a bit of a handful for him, if I’m honest. But he was also very solid as a bass player and he always had an amazing amount of stories. I couldn’t tell you many of them because they’re a bit risqué, to say the least! But he was always disappearing at night and walking the streets, doing silly things, so we came up with Another Night.”

Significantly, today’s Camel line-up are currently performing a version of Another Night that, while still relatively true to the original, packs more of a straight-ahead punch than the revered recorded version. As Latimer explains, the new version is an attempt to play the song as the guitarist originally intended it to sound. 

“I wanted it to be heavier and more straight-ahead rock’n’roll, but when we got together with the band, Andy and Doug put this little skip beat in there, which sort of took the power away from it,” he remembers. “It wasn’t what I wanted but you compromise in a band. As a writer, sometimes that’s a challenge because you see a picture in your head when you write something, but you respect what the rest of the band bring to the table too, so it worked out fine. We had fun doing it. 

“Pete and I put in this middle section that’s a little bit sideways, but mainly it’s meant to be solid, simple rock’n’roll. It didn’t come out like that, but that was the intention. We never did quite get it right!”

Having successfully summed up their rhythm section, Latimer and Bardens’ next task was to write about themselves. For Bardens, they wrote the intricate and mischievous Chord Change, one of the most overtly complex songs in the Camel canon and one that Latimer feels neatly sums up his late, great friend.

“I always found Pete could be very changeable, so I thought we needed a piece with a lot of changes in it,” he explains. “Writing our songs was very loose for Pete and I because it was really difficult. We just decided to do something like that, with the complexities in Pete’s writing coming through. 

“Although we were writing together,” Latimer continues, “each one of us was stronger in different areas, if that makes sense. So the beginning part of Chord Change is mainly Pete, and I wrote the more melodic stuff, the guitar breaks and things, but it was still a very good joint effort.” 

One of the most beautifully mellow of Camel’s songs, Air Born is a shimmering, hazy affair that almost casually sums up Latimer’s famously laid-back and humble demeanour. In fact, the song was meant to portray its subject as the prog rock equivalent of a Vaughan Williams symphony: windswept, rain-bothered and English to the core.

“Looking back it was all a bit pretentious, but at that stage I wanted to be incredibly English because I thought that made sense to me,” Latimer laughs ruefully. “So I wrote the beginning of Air Born and I thought, ‘Okay, this is what I feel is really English!’ I was imagining woods and fields and all that stuff, just trying to capture more of an English feel. We were trying to write about ourselves and that was hard, because it’s difficult to look at yourself and think, ‘Who am I? How do I come across to people?’”

The remaining songs on Moonmadness may not have fit into their neighbours’ vague concept, but they all exude that same sense of a band hitting their artistic stride with great aplomb. In particular, Song Within A Song is a fairly safe bet for Camel’s most popular track of all, its mellifluous drift a definitive snapshot of what the band were all about in 1976. Written while Latimer and Bardens were still mulling over ideas for the follow-up to The Snow Goose, it’s a song the guitarist attributes to one of those precious moments of magic, when great ideas collide.

“It was something that Pete and I just wrote, at a time when we worked really well together,” Latimer states. “When he had a great idea I’d just let him go with it, like, ‘Go on, more of that! Keep that bit! No, not that bit!’ [laughs] and then if I’d got the bit between my teeth, he’d let me go. So it was very much a give and take sort of relationship. 

“That’s how Song Within A Song came together. We jointly wrote it, so it was a mixture of both our writing skills, so that was great. It wasn’t about anybody so it’s just another song, really.”

Similarly, the album’s gentlest moment, Spirit Of The Water, was simply a piece of music that Peter Bardens had written and that Latimer loved so much, he demanded that it was included on Moonmadness

“The only thing I contributed to that was the title. I’d just read a book by Henry Williamson called Salar The Salmon and there was a line in it, something about ‘the spirit of the water’. I told Pete and said it would make a good title. So he went away and wrote this song and it was fantastic – he didn’t need to change anything. I suggested we put recorders in between the verses, but that was it.

“Also, Pete wanted to sing it. His voice was a bit like Mick Jagger’s really, not really very proggy, so we thought, ‘Let’s stick his voice through a Leslie,’ which you hoped would disguise the voice, and in the end the effect was like the sound of a river. It was very atmospheric and redolent of water and gave something extra to it, a bit of mystique. It was just a small interlude, but it was so good I said to Pete, ‘Come on, we’ve got to do this!’”

Finally, or perhaps firstly, there’s Aristillus. Arguably one of the most recognisable album openers of all time, the eccentric Wurlitzer intro provides Moonmadness with a suitably perverse and mischievous starting point. Written and performed by Latimer, with some slightly unorthodox assistance from Andy Ward, it fit perfectly with the album’s title.

“I’d just written that piece at home and I didn’t have a title at the time. I took it to the band and Andy came up with Aristillus. I said, ‘What’s Aristillus?’ and he said, ‘Well, it’s a crater on the moon.’ I said, ‘Really? What a great title!’ 

“Then Andy found another crater, right next to Aristillus, called Autolycus. So he said, ‘Let me try to say the words really quickly all the way through the track,’ which was incredibly difficult to do! He kept on laughing. He was going, ‘Aristillus, Autolycus, Aristillus, Autolycus,’ all the way through the track. It comes and goes and you can hear it. But we were in absolute hysterics!”

Moonmadness was released on March 26, 1976. In the UK and Europe it arrived       adorned with its iconic, subtly psychedelic sleeve, designed by artist John Field. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the record emerged with a complete different cover, its cartoonish artwork depicting a camel wearing a spacesuit. On the moon. Luckily, the band saw the funny side.

“We had a lot of trouble with the sleeve in America. We had a sleeve that we were happy with in England, and it was a gatefold too, which is something the record companies put a stop to eventually because it gets expensive after a while!” Latimer laughs. “But we were really happy with it. Then we heard back from America: ‘Oh no, it’s too subtle, we don’t like it!’ so they came up with this camel in a spacesuit, which we thought was incredibly funny. We used it on a lot of merchandise later on!”

Although its initial sales were a little disappointing in light of The Snow Goose’s success, Moonmadness eventually reached No.15 in the UK album charts, seven places higher than The Snow Goose had achieved, and has since gone on to become Camel’s bestselling album. At the time, the critical response was distinctly mixed, with some claiming Camel had lost their way and others hailing the band’s ongoing evolution. For Andy Latimer, the process of making Moonmadness had been so enjoyable, and the results so satisfying, that any criticism or murmurs of record company disquiet were easy to shrug off. 

“From what I can remember, the response was okay, although it didn’t do exactly what The Snow Goose did, but you know what it’s like. You’re Fleetwood Mac and you make Rumours and sell 20 million and then you make Tusk and it only sells five million, and that’s not as good as 20, but it’s hardly a failure, is it? So it was a bit like that. 

Moonmadness didn’t really do as well initially, but we didn’t care if we had flops or if things didn’t work out the way we wanted. We just went, ‘Oh well, let’s move on and do something else!’ you know? It wasn’t really a major blow to us if something didn’t sell. 

“On reflection, it’s easy to look back and think, ‘Well, that was a mistake.’ When you critique your own albums, you look back and go, ‘Hmmm, that wasn’t as good as I thought.’ But it’s all part of growing up, I think, and I don’t feel that way about Moonmadness.”


Back to 2018, and Andy Latimer has been demonstrating his love of Moonmadness by performing the album end to end, just as he did with The Snow Goose five years ago. Although several songs from Moonmadness have been staples of the band’s set for a long time, Camel have never performed the album in its entirety before. Consequently, Latimer cheerfully admits to having gained a renewed appreciation for the record and the musicians that made it – himself included.

“It’s over quite quickly when you play it onstage because it’s a fairly short record, but the moods change quite drastically between numbers,” he says. “We do something like Spirit Of The Water and then into Another Day, back down for Air Born and then up again for Lunar Sea. So there are a lot of ups and downs when we play it live. We don’t have any announcements in between the tracks – we try to play it as faithfully as we can so it’s one piece, if you like, and it all runs together quite well. But it has been a challenge. 

“Before we started rehearsing for this tour, I was listening to Lunar Sea, listening to my solo, and I thought, ‘I can’t play that! What was I doing?’ [Laughs] I just can’t play some of those things any more. But you do your best, of course.”

Now 42 years old and still fresh as a daisy, Moonmadness has never lost its magical appeal, and Camel’s current touring exploits seem to be further enhancing its reputation. Reluctant to pinpoint exactly what made the album such an ageless prog milestone, Andy Latimer simply notes that there is something inherently uplifting in the sound and feel of Moonmadness, both for the musicians playing it and for those listening.

“The band were in a great place at that stage. We were still getting on, moving in the right direction and playing bigger gigs, getting more recognition, so it was a nice time. It’s an uplifting sound, I think. People really seem to love it. We must have done something right!” 

Camel tour the UK from September 7-17, 2019.
See
www.camelproductions.com for full dates and more information.

The story behind Camel's The Snow Goose