Keyboard player Peter Bardens first achieved wide recognition as a member of UK prog band Camel, but prior to their formation in 1971, he had already taken major steps towards a full time musical career. He was first a member of Peter B’s Looners – a blues and soul band that eventually became Shotgun Express and featured future megastars Mick Fleetwood and Rod Stewart – before joining Irish rhythm and blues band Them in time to record their debut album. By 1969, he’d become a member of the short-lived band Village, which also featured future Sutherland Brothers & Quiver bassist Bruce Thomas, later to achieve genuine stardom as a member of Elvis Costello’s Attractions. For anyone with a keen interest in the history of British R&B, these musical ventures would be enough alone to secure Bardens a place within a pantheon of cult musical figures.
It wasn’t until launching a solo career in 1970, however, that Bardens appeared to put down some more obvious roots. His two pre-Camel solo releases (1970’s ‘The Answer’ and 1971’s ‘Peter Bardens’) are very interesting affairs. They share very little ground with the sounds that Camel would take to glory on their 1973 debut and 1974’s ‘Mirage’. There are many times when the music contained within doesn’t conform to obvious “70s Prog” tropes, but they are progressive in the sense that the material has no real boundaries. For the bigger Camel fan, these are records that provide a fascinating glimpse of an emerging talent, and of a musician unafraid to cast his musical net widely. Collected together on a 2CD anthology, ‘Long Ago, Far Away’ in 2022, they’re albums that still haven’t reached the kind of audience they so very much deserve.
The more immediate of the pair (though not necessarily the more enjoyable), ‘The Answer’ (released in September 1970) opens with a really quirky number courtesy of its title track. It features R&B organ bursts, wandering basslines and bursts of reverbed blues guitar that, at first, all appear to have different musical interests. They’re thematically linked by a dancing piano line that sounds like a future echo of Madness man Mike Barson – a superb testament in itself to Peter’s natural talent – before everything finally settles into a dark, bluesy workout worthy of Terry Reid. Steve Ellis’s lead vocals give the heavier, bluesier parts a genuine menace that defiantly contrasts the moments of sprightly piano, and in doing so, it creates a genuine musical melting pot. Always darting back and forth between the piano and angry blues bursts, it’s the kind of track that gives a different mood depending on which instruments the listener places their focus. It’s certainly an interesting place to dive in, especially for the unsuspecting first time listener who might have been expecting a forerunner to ‘Six Ate’ or ‘Lady Fantasy’.
Opting for some heavy blues, ‘Don’t Goof With A Spook’ finds Bardens taking more of a backseat as the rest of the band indulge in something that mixes the core of Blue Cheer with the British blues of Black Cat Bones and The Spirit of John Morgan. A brilliant showcase for guitarist Andy Gee, the arrangement is heavy on the wah-wah and reverb, and he appears to channel a sound that isn’t a million miles away from the angry acid rock at the heart of Peter Green’s 1970 opus ‘End of The Game’, before ‘Can’t Remember’ works a Latin rock jam over ten minutes, sounding like an obvious homage to Santana. Again, Gee plays up a storm, but Bardens proves to be very much his musical equal, piercing through the lengthy instrumental parts with busy organ swirls that could rival Brian Auger. It’s much more in line with Peter’s then recent R&B past than future prog endeavours, but the playing is absolutely first rate, making it a very enjoyable listen for lovers of blues rock and 70s jams alike.
Having now warmed up, ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’ mixes the bluesy elements with a hazy, almost psychedelic pop feel. The reverbed guitars weave in and out of busy congas (played by Rocky, clearly conveying moods from Traffic’s Rebop Kwaku Baah), whilst flutes and treated vocals call back to the otherworldly sounds of 1968. Female harmony vocals on the chorus accentuate the pop heart, at this point so desperate to burst through the psychedelic blues, and although this is one of ‘The Answer’s slighter affairs, there’s still much to love. It’s very much of its time, of course, but the retro vibes constantly supplied by the busy flute and percussion are enough to see it through. And those reverbed guitars? They’re supposedly played by an uncredited Peter Green…
Reverting to punchy rhythm and blues grooves, ‘Let’s Get It On’ provides a great showcase for some stabbed piano from Bardens and a walking bassline from Bruce Thomas throughout a melody that’s only three steps removed from ‘The Hunter’ at all times, before Bardens pulls out the big guns with the epic ‘Homage To The God of Light’. The thirteen minute track will be very familiar to Camel fans everywhere, having been part of the band’s live set in their early years (a version can be found on the remastered/expanded edition of the debut), but this early take is much darker and occasionally bluesier, thanks to the echo and reverb applied. Also, the choir of female vocals tackling the main hook gives something familiar a slightly different feel. It’s also a number where the assembled band get to apply all of their previously demonstrated chops in one massive tour de force. The main riff combines heavy blues and latin grooves; the driving riff that cuts through becomes so repetitive, it’s almost like a proto-stoner jam, and Peter’s heavy organ work – whether parping through an elephantine sized fanfare or swirling through jazzy solos – is every bit the match for Jon Lord at a similar time. It’s all still more psychedelic blues than prog rock, of course, but it’s clear to hear Bardens reaching for new ideas throughout.
Less than a year later, ‘Peter Bardens’ hit record shop shelves. In the intervening ten months, Bardens had clearly had a rethink, and a lot of the straighter, bluesier elements of his debut aren’t that obvious on the follow up. ‘North End Road’ begins the album with a particularly off beat workout. An instrumental number, Barden’s hits upon a striking melody that falls somewhere between ragtime jazz and pub rock piano, his keys dancing throughout with an almost cheeky abandon. It’s the sort of track that you’d expect to find tacked onto the end of an album such as this, so to use it as opening bait was either sheer balls on behalf of the musician/record company, or a lack of care. ‘Write My Name In The Dust’ then turns everything around in a heartbeat. Easily the greatest offering from either of these early Bardens albums, it encapsulates a late 60s/early 70s singer songwriter soulfulness with ease. Bardens lays down a blanket of keys, clearly channelling the great work by John Paul Jones on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Thank You’, whilst the natural lead vocal occasionally sounds more like something from the Phillip Goodhand-Tait catalogue. The slow, smoky melody grabs the listener and refuses to let go, and by the end of the first verse, it sounds like a truly beautiful piece of retro pop/rock. The brassy vocal style applied to the chorus is a different matter; a choir of female voices [including Liza Strike, who would also appear on Elton John’s ‘Madman Across The Water’ in ’71, Judy Powell who’d previously featured on the Stephen Stills debut, and Linda Lewis, who’d later score four UK top 40 hits of her own] sound at odds with the soulful feel, throwing out massive sounds never a million miles away from Elton’s ‘Rotten Peaches’ and ‘All The Nasties’. Given time to attune, it’s rather striking – very of its time, but striking nonetheless – and actually gives what might have been a rather wandering number a brilliant sense of contrast. With a few pleasing guitar fills from Vic Linton, a great, a natural vocal from Bardens and the constant underscoring from his retro organ, this number leaves behind a genuine (if largely unheard) classic.
With a compliment of louder guitar parts, elements of ‘Down So Long’ sound like a throwback to ‘The Answer’, especially with a couple of Santana-ish rhythms at play. There’s a much darker feel here with huge proto-metal chords cutting through the more melodic elements and an aggressive vocal bolstering a constant sense of unease. It’s more about the musicianship than the song itself,
though, and for fans of Peter’s R&B inflected organ, it could be standout, with the future Camel man absolutely punishing his instrument in a couple of places, as if channelling Ken Hensley and Keith Emerson simultaneously. He’s almost outshone by Linton at times too, with the oft-forgotten guitarist indulging in some top notch fuzzy lead work, reviving the more psychedelic elements of the British blues scene. It’s all far closer to the Edgar Broughton Band than Camel, but those willing to invest time in getting to grips with Bardens in a dark bluesy groove will find plenty to love within this track’s inherent ugliness.
In the true restless spirit that ‘Peter Bardens’ (the album) has already shown, its then all change again with ‘Sweet Honey Wine’, a number that mixes taut sixties pop rock with slight R&B overtones and a hazy chorus. When focused, there’s plenty to enjoy here: bassist John Owens pushes forth with a muscular tone reminiscent of Herbie Flowers, Bardens adds dancing piano lines and a terrific organ solo that conveys the lightness of a KPM library music theme, and a contrasting hook brings in half asleep female vocals. A real highlight,‘Tear Down The Wall’ shifts the mood into something much sharper. After jolting the listener with a sharp vocal refrain, the band drops into some hard and funky rhythm and blues where the core melody appears to have been inspired by Marsha Hunt’s 1969 cover of ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’. Obviously, this doesn’t offer much that’s in any way groundbreaking for the time, but it’s great to hear Bardens dropping into an effortlessly superb groove and to hear drummer Reg Isadore really cutting loose. As the track progresses, the main riff appears unshakable, but this allows the repetitive vocal hook and swirling Hammond organ sounds to get progressively angrier, leaving behind a fantastic and exciting slab of blues rock in the process. Along with ‘Write My Name In The Dust’, it’s the kind of performance that makes you wonder how this album slipped through the cracks upon release.
In an unfortunate piece of sequencing, one of the album’s greatest numbers is followed by its worst. ‘Simple Song’ is a fingerpicked folk rock number; very much the kind that held up the backbone of children’s TV in the era. The playing occasionally has the strengths of a Ralph McTell performance, but song-wise, the jovial nature of the vocal makes it a little irritating. Sure, there’s a weird nostalgia here – bands and artists have very much left this kind of folk frivolity in the past – but it’s the kind of track that calls for the skip button after one or two spins. ‘My House’, meanwhile, offers a slow blues-prog hybrid that takes some very obvious cues from Procol Harum, but despite its derivative style, there’s a real treat to be heard when mournful guitar lines soar above a punchy bass and Barden’s showcases an easy knack for applying swathes of organ and an occasionally bright piano counterpart. It’s deeply rooted in the late sixties, arrangement wise, but it still sounds great.
‘Feeling High’ opts for something very moody applying a heavy wah-ed guitar to a riff that sounds like a slowed down Hollies’ ‘Hey Willy’. …And then, at the point that its bluster begins to feel a little laboured, it drops into a verse that’s much quieter but no less ominous. The way Bardens uses an unsure vocal to sketch a melody across a floaty piano comes far more from the early Argent school of arrangement, and eventually the constant push and pull between the two moods leads to a rather pompy affair that works the band rather hard. It’s one of those tracks that harbours a good idea, but never seems to reach its full potential. Maybe the absence of a more buoyant middle eight, or an important shift into something more melodic is to blame but, whatever it is, this ends up feeling like a half finished affair. In closing, ‘Bluesier’ applies a short coda, where Peter throws out various blues licks from the piano, before the band fades in on something that sounds like a loose jam on Little Willie John’s ‘Need Your Love So Bad’. It plays like a performance that only happened by chance while the tape was rolling, and as such, probably isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. That said, it allows the album to wind down in the most natural way possible, giving the listener time to reflect after a couple of fairly intense offerings.
Joining the two albums, a selection of bonus cuts ensures this anthology covers all of the important bases from this period of Peter’s work. The single edit of ‘Homage To The God of Light’ (originally presented on the A & B sides of a 1970 single) show how much faith Deram Records had in Bardens at the time, and although the release merely chops the album track in half for ease of use, it comes under the category of “nice to have”. Both sides of the earlier 1969 single by The Village are a much more interesting proposition. ‘Man In The Moon’ opens with a tinkling keyboard riff that hints at the era’s psych boom before exploding into a mid tempo R&B workout that sounds like ‘Ain’t Nothin’ But A House Party’ played at half speed. With a natural vocal and busy bassline working against a heavy organ, it has a hint of things to come from the two Bardens solo discs, but definitely has more of a sixties heart. Its original b-side, ‘Long Time Coming’ is a much faster workout – at least at first – where shrill keys and a heavy beat group drum sound aren’t a million miles away from the works of Deep Purple MK1. Having established a great groove, a middle section mangles elements of Holst’s ‘Mars: The Bringer of War’ before returning to the original arrangement for another blast of supercharged R&B. Retrospectively, it’s easy to hear why Village wouldn’t have had a breakthrough with these tracks – there would have been far too much similar competition in ’69 – but there’s certainly nothing wrong with the musicianship in hand. They had all the right ingredients and sound like really tight unit. Given the amount of great music that came from these musicians in Village’s wake, though, their early demise was certainly for the best.
This double set provides a very welcome reissue for a pair of albums that haven’t always been the easiest to find on CD. Back in the 90s, they were available as expensive German imports via Line Records, and later were given a limited reissue via Cherry Red subsidiary Esoteric, but this deluxe package finally provides a definitive release for two works that often supply some very adventurous and interesting music. Although it would be remiss to recommend this release to the more casual Camel fan, anyone who has yet to pick up on these albums but has a keen interest in the dustier corners of 70s rock will certainly find ‘Long Ago, Far Away’ a most enjoyable experience.
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