Still pretty in pink

With founder Pye Hastings in the driver’s seat, ’70s prog rock band Caravan will perform in honor of its 40th anniversary at Tel Aviv’s Reading 3.

Caravan 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Caravan 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
If you’ve heard of Caravan, you’re probably either a scholarly fan of old-time progressive rock music or you’re related to Pye Hastings. Hastings is the Scottish 64-year-old founder of the cult band, which for a few years, in the early 1970s, was considered to be one of the finest groups to emerge from England in a wave that came to be known as the Canterbury scene that included such contemporaries as Soft Machine, Gong, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, and Hatfield & the North.
“At the time, there wasn’t a feeling of a ‘scene’ at all. We were just making our music and competing with the other bands,” Hastings said recently from his home in Banffshire, a village in the highlands of Scotland which he described lightheartedly as “beautiful but bloody cold.”
“We were all young and just having a good time. Only after some of us achieved some success, there arose something called the Canterbury scene. It was a journalist invention – ‘we’ll have to call all these bands coming out of Canterbury something.’ But there was no unifying theme among the groups, just a collective desire to write and perform our own music, and luckily, people were prepared to listen.”
Caravan formed out of the ashes of another Canterbury band, the Wilde Flowers, which featured at various times in addition to Hastings, future prog rock icons Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. When Wyatt and Ayers left the Wilde Flowers to form the seminal Soft Machine, Hasting set out with musicians Richard Sinclair, Dave Sinclair, and Richard Coughlan to launch Caravan in 1968.
Mixing psychedelic rock, folk, classical, and jazz, intermingled with droll Pythonesque humor and lyrics drenched in Stonehenge-crazed fantasy, the band attracted fans to their live shows in England but barely made a dent in the charts despite releasing accomplished albums like In the Land of Grey and Pink. And thanks to free form FM radio in the US, which was willing to play 20-minute spacey album tracks, Caravan’s music earned its admirers on the other side of the ocean as well.
However, the band and its music stayed on the fringes during its entire initial lifetime which sputtered out in the late 1970s.
“We never got that big break,” said Hastings.
“We didn’t really write singles and unlike other progressive bands like Pink Floyd, we weren’t that commercial. Most successful bands start off with a hit single early on, but we went straight for albums. It was probably a mistake on our part, but we didn’t really know how to write singles.”
It also didn’t help that the band named one of their album Cunning Stunts, which when turned around reads as a profanity. “It was a lark, but that’s the way we were,” said Hastings.
“When the record was printed in Belgium, the cover actually spelled the title the wrong way and it got into the stores. That was a good laugh.”
Despite taking on future manager of The Police, Miles Copeland, and enjoying a successful US tour in 1975, the band’s fortunes sagged, and soon not only did they disband, but Hastings left the music business entirely.
“I was broke and got a job with a builder,” said Hastings of the early 1980s.
“Then I went into engineering and later formed a small tool-renting company. After four or five years though, I began to pick up the guitar again.”
In 1990, the original quartet of Hastings, the Sinclair brothers and Coughlan reunited for a one-off concert for a British television special. The performance and the sales of an accompanying live album enticed Hastings to carry the ball and relaunch the band properly. Later in the decade, the band’s 1970s albums were reissued in expanded form, including some which had been out of print, thus making the band’s music more accessible than ever before.
Hastings attributed the band’s ability to please old fans and attract new ones to their organic form of music.
“Music has gotten to be more and more controlled by computers. I think audiences at shows miss the interaction of a good live band playing and bouncing off the audience. You do something and the audience gives something back and it lifts it to another level,” he said.
“You don’t get that from a programmed track or from a record. It’s a fixed thing, once it’s done, it’s done.”
Caravan, which will be performing In the Land of Grey and Pink in its entirety on May 7 at Reading 3 in honor of its 40th anniversary, still has an adventurous bent to it, despite Hastings being the only original member in the group.
“Some of the members have been in the group for 20 or 30 years, and at the other end of the spectrum, our drummer, Mark Walker, has only played one show with us,” said Hastings.
“He’ll do one more in Portugal before we come to Israel. As soon as you have a new person in the group, it begins to change slightly and there’s a different twist on the music. That keeps things quite fresh. Because someone in the band usually changes every few years, there’s a new spark there that everybody can bounce off. It’s still fun.”
Despite his years on the road, this will be Hastings first visit to Israel, and he’s gratified that there are enough Caravan fans in the country to justify their trip.
“It’s a great honor to come to Israel. We’re looking forward to it tremendously. I owe everything about the band’s rebirth to the fans. And if we go down well, I’d like to come back again, see more of the country and drink