The embryonic origin of CAMEL was conceived circa 1964 when brothers Andrew and Ian Latimer got together with their respective friends Alan Butcher and Richard Over to form THE PHANTOM FOUR.Gigging extensively in their UK hometown of Guildford, The Phantom Four quickly achieved local notoriety. Rhythm guitarist, Graham Cooper soon replaced Richard Over and the band’s name changed to STRANGE BREW. The group performed mainly cover tunes until mid-1968 when Ian Latimer quit to get married. Graham Cooper left the band soon after with wedding plans of his own.
Andrew Latimer and Alan Butcher placed an ad in the Surrey Advertiser for a bass player to which Doug Ferguson responded. On 13th November 1968 Ferguson arrived for an audition and promptly impressed the duo with his confidence, a ‘fat’ bass sound, excellent gear (Fender jazz bass, 2 Vox T-60 cabs with amps) and his own roadie! He was offered the gig on the spot. The new blues orientated trio was called… THE BREW.
Shortly after joining THE BREW, Ferguson told Latimer about an exciting drummer he knew. Despite having not seen his drums for more than 3 months, the new percussive prospect more than proved his mettle and on 15th January 1969, Andy Ward joined THE BREW at the tender age of 14 and the heart of CAMEL had begun to take shape.
Ferguson rapidly proved himself to be a great asset with his talent for getting the band attention and gigs. He was also very good at coaxing the promised fees out of promoters, who often protested they didn’t have the money on hand. As a result, THE BREW enjoyed a steady stream of performance dates and recorded their first demo, ‘Crossroads’ in which DJM Records seemed to show interest but the trio were disappointed to learn that it was only in using them as a backing band for another of their artists, Philip Goodhand-Tait.
In 1971, they recorded an album with Goodhand-Tait, called ‘I Think I’ll Write A Song’, but the success was minimal and the trio were dropped. The experience, however, was enlightening. Phil Tait was a piano player. The three musicians agreed a keyboard player would broaden the sound of the band and they promptly placed an ad in The Melody Maker.
On 20th September 1971, Peter Bardens responded to the ad with an extensive resume (Shotgun Express [Rod Stewart & Beryl Marsden], Them [Van Morrison], Peter B’s Looners [Peter Green & Mick Fleetwood] to name but a few) as well as two solo albums under his own name. The four hit it off instantly. Bardens, who had been planning to depart England for what he thought to be “the more promising shores of the USA”, had previously arranged a few gigs in Ireland. Thus, on 8th October 1971, the group performed their first gig in Belfast under the name of “Peter Bardens On”.
Not long after they would collectively agree on a new name: CAMEL.
CAMEL played their first gig at Waltham Forest Technical College supporting Wishbone Ash on 4th Dec 1971.
By August of ’72, CAMEL were signed to MCA Records. They quickly entered the studio to record their first self-titled album, ‘CAMEL’. A collection of individual songs, chiefly from Latimer and Bardens, the album was greeted with muted success and MCA did not take an option for a second album. By now, the group had acquired management, Geoff Jukes and Max Hole of Gemini Artists (later to become GAMA Records), and moved to Decca Records where they would remain for 10 years. The push & pull relationship between Latimer and Bardens brought out the best from their compositional skills. They inspired one another with their individual solo work both in the studio and on stage. Energies were high. CAMEL gigged 9 months of the year and firmly established a reputation for their excellent live sound.
Their second album, ‘MIRAGE’, heightened their profile and the album sleeve attracted the unwanted attention of the USA branch of Camel cigarettes who demanded the band change the cover or face legal action. The USA record company quickly fashioned a new sleeve to avoid legal hassles. The original sleeve remained unchanged throughout the rest of the world as Geoff Jukes had already struck a deal with the European branch of the cigarette company to release tiny packets of cigarettes (5 cigarettes to a packet) using the CAMEL artwork, including track-listing. So enamoured were the executives in Europe, they visited the band in the studio trying to talk CAMEL into renaming the songs on ‘MIRAGE’ (e.g., “Twenty To The Pack”). They also wanted CAMEL to cover their amps with camel skins, allow advertisements and give away cigarettes at all the performances. The latter was successful as Jukes had struck a deal the band were never privy to. The band were getting ‘belligerent’ and a sarcastically amusing Peter Bardens suggested an album song-title of “Twenty Sticks Of Cancer”.
Thus ended the association twixt the beast and the leaf.
In 1975, CAMEL ‘concept’ album came about. For ‘MIRAGE’ Latimer had written ‘White Rider’ (inspired by Tolkein’s ‘Lord Of The Rings’) and Ferguson suggested doing a an entire album based on a book. All band members were fond of reading at the time so each set out in search of a good story. Bardens suggested ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Steppenwolf’ but when Ferguson suggested Paul Gallico’s ‘THE SNOW GOOSE’ the emotional appeal was strong. ‘THE SNOW GOOSE’ took fans by surprise. Entirely instrumental, ‘THE SNOW GOOSE’ earned them Melody Maker’s “Brightest Hope” award and firmly established the band with a strong and loyal fan base. It also took author Paul Gallico by surprise. Gallico, a fierce opponent of cigarette smoking, hated the name of the band believing it to be connected to the cigarette company and threatened to sue if the title was not changed. Legalities observed, the album title had the additional words “inspired by” and the threat was subdued. This behind-the-scene drama had no effect on the appeal of the album. On 17th October 1975, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra, CAMEL performed ‘THE SNOW GOOSE’ at The Royal Albert Hall to a sold-out crowd.
The lamentable brevity of this lineup is illustrated by the lack of recording output.
In early ’76, ‘MOONMADNESS’ brought greater critical acclaim in the USA. Producer Rhett Davies created an open, intimate sound for’MOONMADNESS’, and the ‘concept’ was more ethereal with inspiration derived from the individual musician’s characters. Yet’MOONMADNESS’ would become the swansong for some. A jazzy influence had impressed itself upon CAMEL and, during the European tour, the dynamic sound of saxophonist Mel Collins marked the first change in the sound of Camel after Ferguson had encouraged Collins’ inclusion in the band.
Not long after Andy Ward was pushing for a more complicated rhythm section, a style that matched neither Feguson’s ability nor interest. This would be the first major change CAMEL would see. In the early days of 1977, bassist Doug Ferguson left CAMEL never to appear with them again. The loss of Ferguson’s quiet strength would prove, in years beyond, to have the greatest impact on the band…
The first major shift in CAMEL’s lineup created ‘RAIN DANCES’. Although not an “official member” of CAMEL, Mel Collins would spend much of his time in the studio and on the road with the band. Preferring to maintain his independent status as a session player, Mel would continue to appear with CAMEL on and off until 1985.
Richard Sinclair, formerly from Canterbury’s Caravan, possessed the jazzier style Andy Ward had hoped for but the mix of personalities did not posses the balance of earlier days. Inevitable change began to gather momentum. Pressure for a hit single was brought to bear from the management and Decca Records.
Latimer and Bardens struggled with their opposing styles of writing, complicating instead of complimenting their relationship. Camel’s sound was further affected by a new producer, Mick Glossop. Upon release, ‘BREATHLESS’ proved a bit of a shock to fans with its unusual combination of pop, jazz and progressive. It was loved by some, hated by others.
‘BREATHLESS’ entered the charts and quickly exited shortly thereafter. But chart success was not the last change CAMEL would encounter in ’78. On 30th July, just before Camel’s tour and amidst a storm of disagreements, keyboardist Peter Bardens left the band…
The split with Peter Bardens had been acrimonious but unavoidable. Bardens went straight into rehearsals with former bandmate Van Morrison for an album, “Wavelength”, and tour. Bardens also promptly signed a lucrative solo deal with Arista Records and soon released ‘Heart To Heart’.
But Andy Ward and Andrew Latimer decided to embrace the opportunity to expand the band. Two keyboard players would create an interplay CAMEL had not been able to experiment with previously. They contacted Richard Sinclair’s cousin Dave Sinclair, and his former bandmate Jan Schelhaas for the ’78 tour to promote ‘BREATHLESS’. Although this lineup had no recorded output, Dave Sinclair had made a quiet appearance on ‘BREATHLESS’, performing keyboards on “You Make Me Smile” and “Rainbows End”, a song Latimer had written for Bardens.
The ‘BREATHLESS’ tour lasted 3 months. The pressures of live performing took toll. By tours end, Dave Sinclair would return to Canterbury and Richard Sinclair would be asked to leave CAMEL…
Upon hearing an album by a group called “Happy The Man” in 1979, Andrew Latimer and Andy Ward immediately agreed Kit Watkins was a keyboardist they wanted in CAMEL. Bassist Colin Bass had been highly recommended and became Camel’s lasting bassist. Jan Schelhaas had remained with CAMEL after the ‘BREATHLESS’ tour both for his playing skills and his easygoing temperament. Watkins and Bass arrived during rehearsals at Wood Farm, Suffolk, in early ’79. A remarkable technician, Kit impressed all who heard him; Colin’s solid, earthy sound melded with Ward in a seemingly perfect harmony.
For awhile, it appeared CAMEL would settle but, again, unavoidable circumstance would prevail. CAMEL worked nearly 12 months of ’79, enjoying only short breaks in-between recording and touring. Originally titled ‘Endangered Species’, this title would be changed at the last minute to ‘I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE’ a poor attempt at humour that would give the band problems, not only from their advertisers. The intensive schedule would create conflict and misunderstandings between the musicians. Watkins left the band shortly before CAMEL entered the studio to record ‘NUDE’ in 1981, but he would return for the tour and leave again immediately after.
The recording of ‘NUDE’ and the subsequent promotional tour would be the most devastating for CAMEL. In mid-1981, as he would tell ‘Q’ Magazine some 10 years later, Andy Ward succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse and attempted suicide, unsuccessfully to the relief of all. But it rendered Ward unable to play drums in the foreseeable future. In shock, the band dissolved, the remainder of the tour was canceled and recording for the next album was postponed in the hope that Ward would recover…