BY THE time Camel went into the recording studio for their third album in 1975 they had garnered quite a reputation.
The quartet surfed the progressive wave, with complex and thoughtful songs, emotional guitar and keyboard solos and a rhythm section that excelled. Their 1974 offering, Mirage, was critically acclaimed, and with live performance an absolute strength, the quartet’s pulling power was growing.
Things were about to get better, notwithstanding a hurdle or two.
Buoyed by the success of writing songs inspired by books they enjoyed, the band settled on Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose as the basis for their first stab at a concept album.
Gallico himself got wind of the plans to honour his work, and just didn’t dig it. According to one rumour he hated the idea of smoking and feared Camel were linked to a famous cigarette brand. Another simply has it that he didn’t think an album of songs of his story would be good enough. As he was a prolific smoker, the second theory probably has the edge, but the end result was the same.
With legal battles in the offing, the title of the album was changed to Music Inspired By The Snow Goose and lyrics based on the book got binned.
It was now to be an instrumental disc, with the four musicians joined by the London Symphony Orchestra.
It proved a brave move, but one which paid dividends as it troubled the charts, went silver and led to a landmark sell-out concert, with the LSO, at the Royal Albert Hall. That in turn was recorded and a live double album brought more success for the project.
Snow Goose is a masterpiece, high on emotion, with the solos of guitarist Andy Latimer and keyboard player Pete Bardens front and centre, yet underpinned by the rhythm section of bassist Doug Ferguson and drummer Andy Ward.
Ferguson’s performance is perfectly understated, but Ward has a hand in almost everything, his jazz-influenced drumming acting like a narrator, setting the scene, turning the page and leading the way.
He’s a busy drummer, rarely still, revelling in the chance to hit everything in reach, to throw in rolls and fills, but he manages this with such a deft and controlled touch it doesn’t detract from the overall. That’s not to say it’s subtle. It doesn’t have to be. He locks in with Ferguson so well, despite a difference in musical temperament. In fact, live footage from the time show the whole band looking so isolated from each other, yet knitting together so well. It’s as if each player is a limb that comes together to propel the whole to special heights musically.
Latimer and Bardens, the principal writers, came up with sensitive soundscapes for this epic, rather than overblown prog symphonies. The longest track, Dunkirk, is 5.25 minutes long. On Mirage, four of the five tracks were longer than this. On 1973’s debut, Camel, five of the seven songs were longer.
On Snow Goose, the average song length is under three minutes , the shortest being 1.05 minutes. There are stand-out tracks – Rhayader Goes To Town, The Snow Goose, Dunkirk and La Princess Perdue – played with such precision, feel and certainty that is understandable why it remains a favourite in the prog community to this day.
It’s an album of soaring beauty, of emotional highs delivered by sensitive guitar playing topping off a stunning ensemble piece. At the back of it all is Ward’s jaunty playing – at times laid back, driving, gentle, powerful; all angles covered. On Snow Goose, he’s a man for all seasons, a jack of all trades and master of everyone.
It was to be a highpoint for the original incarnation of the band, with Ward seeking a more jazz-oriented sound at odds to the desires of his rhythm section partner. One more album in and Ferguson departed, with Camel moving sonically in a different direction. While Ward thrived initially, many consider the ‘classic line-up’ days to be his best, most innovative and stylish.
While Andy Latimer, who kept the group going through court battles and serious illness, has belatedly been recognised for his musicianship and services to prog rock, Ward remains a forgotten hero.