Published on 5th March 2020
Camel – Breathless
As we all know, there are albums that divide opinion. Sometimes these opinions are so extreme as to make the uninitiated think that different albums are being discussed. In this first of a possibly semi-regular feature, depending on, you know, stuff, two TPA correspondents will step into the ring to discuss the pros and cons of said album. This one concerns a divisive entry in the Camel catalogue, 1978’s Breathless, so without further ado it’s seconds out, over to ringside and Rob in the blue ‘pro’ corner…
Originating in a period of upheaval and change, Andrew Latimer acknowledges Breathless was perhaps the most difficult album Camel recorded. The record label was exerting significant pressure for radio-friendly songs with hit single possibilities. Andy Ward was agitating for more technically complex music whilst Richard Sinclair was pushing in more blues-oriented directions. To cap it all, the songwriting relationship between Latimer and Peter Bardens had become fractious and suffocating.
Bardens left the band upon completion of recording, being replaced by Dave Sinclair and Jan Schelhaas (ex-Caravan) for the subsequent tour. On release, there was no small degree of dismay, which still persists to this day with fans disheartened by the seeming incoherence of the album in comparison with previous releases – The Snow Goose and Moonmadness being mentioned in particular – accompanied by accusations of ‘selling out’ toward more pop/disco style songs.
Yet I believe the criticisms are unwarranted and unfair. In Summer Lightning you have a magnificent guitar solo which rivals anything fan favourite Ice can offer and an extended keyboard solo from Bardens which is simply mesmerising. In Echoes you encounter the quintessential Camel of previous years and now a regular tour favourite which amply demonstrates hard-driving rock with multi-structured time signatures and segues. And in Down on the Farm the label got their wish with an albeit tongue-in-cheek ‘radio-friendly’ track penned by Richard Sinclair, alongside the richly melodic Wing and a Prayer written by Bardens and Latimer.
Breathless is a beautifully imaginative album which sees the band pushing further and harder in exploring the experimental aspects of their music, blending strong elements of jazz and blues with pulsating, technically sophisticated rock, topped off with a wonderful sense of wry humour. The Sleeper, in particular, is Camel at their very best, an exemplary track full of technical sophistication and musical brilliance which is rarely bettered in any of their other albums.
It also marks an important milestone in the band’s evolution. On the one hand, it seamlessly continues the musical thrust started with Rain Dances in 1977 and the laid back melodic vibe criss-crossing with experimental vocal arrangements. On the other, it lays the foundations for 1979’s I Can See Your House where the band continue to develop the pop/art-rock direction. Your Love is Stranger Than Mine evolves again in The Single Factor (1982) with No Easy Answer which in turn evolves again in Stationary Traveller (1984) with Cloak and Dagger Man, which was released as a radio single.
Breathless is a happy, diverse, feel good album which certainly reflects the influences of its time. I grant it is not by any means perfect; but nor is it lacking any of the artistry and sophistication which you usually associate with a Camel album. I will also confess to a certain fondness for this release: it was, after all, the first prog album I ever bought. It has remained a firm and constant friend down through the years and I heartily believe it is always well worth spending time with.
Picture the scene – a teenager in the late ’70s with limited pocket money but a great hunger for new rock records. New LPs back then were a rarity, only received at Christmas and birthdays, or rarely when saved pocket money allowed. Getting a new LP was a truly special event – listening to it repeatedly and obsessively was almost a religious ritual, poring over the lyrics and sleeve notes, gazing in a trance-like state at the artwork as the music transported you to other places beyond your sad, smelly teenage bedroom. That was how it worked… so when you got a ‘duff’ album, Boy, did that hurt! Well, there I was pondering what album I should invest my meagre pocket money on. I had already entered the world of rock through my brothers so I was familiar with The Who, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. I was starting to explore the world of Genesis and Yes. I also loved Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and another favourite instrumental album was Snow Goose by Camel. I absolutely loved that album, and still do to this day. It’s nigh on perfect. Therefore, I turned to Camel to expand my repertoire. It wasn’t easy back then finding out about albums – the main way was to just get one and see how it sounds – revolutionary idea these days! I eventually plumped for the fairly recent album Breathless, surely that would be on a par with Snow Goose?
I took it home in my hot little hands with great anticipation and excitedly placed it on my trusty record player, ready to be similarly transcendentally transported like my only other Camel album. The title track chimed in rather pleasantly… but what’s this? Vocals?! And not just vocals but rather weedy sounding vocals to be quite frank! The Snow Goose didn’t have vocals – what devilry was this?!
However, even my teenaged brain could cope with the idea that they may have expanded into the vocal department – such was my juvenile ignorance of Camel that I was unaware that there were vocal albums prior to The Snow Goose. I vaguely recall Echoes putting me a little more at ease as it drove along in quite a groovetastic fashion – this sounded more Snow Goose-y… and even the rather ‘beige’ vocals did not spoil it. There was hope. Then came Wing and a Prayer… well, my teenaged brain shrank away in horror – this was a… this was a… POP Song! There were NO Bloody POP songs on Snow Goose!! Things were getting very worrying.
Maybe Down on the Farm might put us back on track? Well, it started off with some power chords not unlike The Who – ‘good’ my brain said… little did I know what horrors were about to assault my ears. Suddenly the song plunged into the foul Stygian depths of a ‘quirky’ little ditty with awful ‘humourous’ (??) lyrics. There were even animal noises. My soul just shrivelled and a sense of enormous disappointment overwhelmed me. What in the name of Satan’s testicles were they thinking of when they put that enormous cowpat of a song together?!
The damage was irreparable for me. NOTHING on God’s Earth could have saved that album for me then. I don’t even remember hearing the rest of the album… I just kept thinking ‘Why?’ and ‘Down on the Farm… WTAF?’
I vaguely recall trying to like the album after that but it was utterly hopeless – I hated it with a passion that only a teenage lad can direct towards musical heroes who have heinously betrayed him. Of course, that may sound harsh, based on my adoration of one previous album… but it was the ’70s and my collection consisted of about 10 albums – this hurt! Camel had wasted one of my album experiences and I was bloody stuck with it for the next few months.
Breathless? I was F…ing Speechless!
A few repeated listens only seemed to confirm my deep depression about the album. I can safely say that listening experience put me off Camel for about the next 30 years until others explained that Camel DID actually do other good albums (but still none as great as Snow Goose, in my opinion) and I had just been unlucky to pick a rubbish one… a really rubbish one.
For this exercise, I was asked to listen again and see what I thought now. Hearing it with more adult ears I can understand they didn’t want to just do ‘Son of Snow Goose’. I can also understand that in the late ’70s, during the ‘Punk Wars’, there was a lot of label pressure on early ’70s bands to be more concise and ‘commercial’, which may explain the lightweight and jolly Wing and a Prayer – an ‘OK’ sort of pop song. I can also hear their more jazzy inclinations coming into the equation, such as the groovy, sax laden The Sleeper – but I’m no fan of Jazz to be quite honest. Echoes still sounds like the one really classy song on the album to my ears these days. To be fair, Starlight Ride sounds beautifully lush and gentle… I think I was still in too much shock after Down on the Farm back then to feel the beauty in that track.
What about the second half? Summer Lightning and You Make Me Smile certainly didn’t make me smile. To me, they still reek of the worst elements of the ’70s – the musical equivalents of polyester trousers and nylon shirts with uninspired melodies and insipid lyrics. There’s no magic or poetry in these songs – they plod with all the inspiration of the UK’s ‘3 day week’ and ‘Winter of Discontent’ of that decade. The Sleeper breezes along jazzily – OK if you like that sort of thing. Rainbow’s End brings proceedings to a more sonorous and elegiac ending with some emotive music, but I am afraid that vocal deficiencies are really exposed here, especially on the high notes.
How about Down on the Farm? How has about 40 years since hearing it affected my view on this song? Well, time has not changed my opinion one iota – it should be buried very, VERY deep underground in a lead-lined, soundproofed box to never reach the ears of humans ever again. There are some things my teenaged ears knew even back then – it’s utterly dreadful.
In conclusion, Breathless is not quite as awful as I remember. These days I can understand the context in which it was recorded, and I can appreciate that a band cannot and should not endlessly repeat the successes of previous albums. Maybe I was very harsh, partly because it didn’t sound like the album I loved by them, which may be a little unfair. However, it’s impossible for me even now to forgive an album which includes the festering dung of Down on the Farm. Most of this album belongs to that decade of garish wallpaper patterns, decaying industry, Mother’s Pride bread, Babycham with On the Buses or Terry and June on the telly. It has no relevance to today (and probably had very little relevance back then) and has completely and utterly failed to withstand the test of time.
But I’ll forgive Camel – I’ll always consider The Snow Goose to be in my top 10 ever albums and they’ve done so much else which is great. Additionally, these days live they sound magnificent… funny old world – just don’t ever play Down on the Farm, PLEASE!
Thank you pugilists, other opinions are no doubt available, therefore, whilst prepping this piece for publication I’ve given Breathless a spin for the first time in decades, so here’s a bonus (and brief) Editor’s Ear View:
Breathless – Nice.
Echoes – Brilliant.
Wing and a Prayer – Light.
Down on the Farm – What the hell were they thinking? Nice Mel Collins flute though.
Starlight Ride – Weedy, but with some nice twiddly bits.
Summer Lightning – Disco! But Latimer excels.
You Make me Smile – Odd funk-disco-pop mash-up.
The Sleeper – Classy and different.
Rainbow’s End – Stickily saccharine.
Overall – The Camel album I reach for least, two keepers in total with a few other bits to savour amid a swamp of cringy embarrassment. Sorry Rob! 🙂
01. Breathless (4:16)
02. Echoes (7:22)
03. Wing and Prayer (4:41)
04. Down on the Farm (4:20)
05. Starlight Ride (3:20)
06. Summer Lightning (6:03)
07. You Make me Smile (4:13)
08. The Sleeper (7:02)
09. Rainbow’s End (3:00)
Peter Bardens – Keyboards
Mel Collins – Flute, Saxophone
Andrew Latimer – Guitar, Vocals
Richard Sinclair – Bass, Vocals
Andrew Ward – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Decca
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 22nd September 1978