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Camel’s Masterpiece, The Snow Goose

Camel_SG_OriginalCamel’s entry into the concept album format, The Snow Goose, entered the UK chart in May 1975, gradually climbing as high as No. 22, staying on for a very respectable 13 weeks and earning silver certification. In October 1975, at the height of their powers, Camel performed the entire suite with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, later released on their first live album, aptly titled A Live Record, in 1978. Mike Barnes just penned a compelling, must-read article about the band and this work titled “Camel: Timeless Flight,” published in the most recent PROG magazine 17 April, 2015.  Herein are some additional notes and reflections on what is, to this writer, Camel’s most enduring masterpiece.

Contemplating a follow up album to Mirage, Camel determined to take the story telling aspect from many of those songs to it’s logical conclusion, and tell a complete tale in a multi-movement suite – their first concept album. By 1974, the concept album and lengthy song suites were commonplace for more progressive artists and it seemed time to play the card for Camel. As the story goes, keyboardist Pete Bardens liked the idea of composing a piece based on Hermann Hesse’s Sidhartha or Steppenwolf, while bass guitarist Doug Ferguson introduced the band to The Snow Goose, written by American Paul Gallico. Guitarist Andrew Latimer notes that he and Pete agreed on the choice, given there were three characters for which appropriate themes could be built, and that it was a powerful, inspiring story.

Written by Paul Gallico, The Snow Goose, was originally published by The Curtis Publishing Company in 1940, and was also printed with illustrations by Floyd Davis in the Saturday Evening Post on November 9th, that same year. In touching, simple prose, this short story tells the tale of the reclusive Philip Rhyader, his friend Frith, and the titular snow goose.

As the story begins, Rhayader purchases an abandoned lighthouse and surrounding marshlands along the Essex coast. He is described as “…a hunchback and his left arm was crippled, thin and bent at the wrist, like the claw of a bird.” Of his demeanor, Gallico writes, “Rhayder did not hate; he loved very greatly, man, the animal kingdom, and all nature…He was a friend to all things wild, and the wild things repaid him with their friendship.”

Camel_SG_FloydDavis_RescueOne day Frith, a young girl about 12 years of age, and “timid as a bird”, wanders into Rhyader’s life carrying a wounded snow goose. Gallico states, she “was pure Saxon, large-boned, fair, with a head to which her body was yet to grow, and deep-set, violet-colored eyes.” Frith brings the third character to Rhyader, a wounded Canadian snow goose with immense black-tipped pinions. The new friends mend the goose, building a shared bond between them. The goose returns to the marshlands over the years bringing Frith to visit the lonely lighthouse.

Camel_SG_FloydDavis_DunkirkBy the end of the story, Rhyader lends his support to soldiers trapped at Dunkirk, carrying them to safety in his small boat. Sadly, he is killed during the effort, and the friends are separated. The snow goose makes one last visit to the lighthouse, and Frith watches it soar into the sky away from the great marsh, imagining the soul of Rhayader taking farewell, crying “Godspeed!” After many weeks the old lighthouse is blown apart, mistaken for a military target, and then after Gallico concludes, “Only the frightless gulls wheeled and soared and mewed their plaint over the place where it had been.” So ends the bittersweet story of Rhyader, Frith and the Snow Goose.

Camel_SG_BBCTVThe Snow Goose was also made into a short film for BBC TV in 1971, with a screenplay by the author, and directed by Patrick Garland. It stars Richard Harris and a young Jenny Agutter, who won an Emmy for the role, and is known among other things for her roles in Logan’s Run and An American Werewolf in London. At just under 50 minutes, this production does well with the source material and Harris’ quiet, unaffected portrayal of Philip Rhyader. It’s a sweet, simple film that remains true to the source material.

As realized by Camel in 1975, the music to the Snow Goose follows the story of the book, sounding tones at turns beautiful, jubilant, haunting, and melancholy. The large-scale composition is in the form of a multi-movement suite. Changes in instrumentation, texture, meter, key and tempo provide contrast between the sections. Each of the three sympathetic characters from the story is portrayed by a musical passage, as are places and events, including the marshlands and the battle at Dunkirk. Songs range from the lonely cry of “The Great Marsh” to the flute led theme for “Rhyader” the gorgeous blues guitar of “Sanctuary” the exciting “Flight of The Snow Goose” and the dramatic “Dunkirk”. One of Pete Bardens’ prettiest solo piano pieces of all time “Fritha Alone” sounds a lovely, melancholic tone that nonetheless inspires a feeling of hope.

The band, consisting of original members Andrew Latimer (guitar), Pete Bardens (keyboards), Doug Ferguson (bass) and Andy Ward (drums), is backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, producing one of the best examples of orchestrated progressive rock in the 70s. David Bedford was brought in by producer David Hitchcock to write the arrangements for the LSO to augment the compositions, and the band were justly excited about the results, as the studied blending of instrumental rock music and orchestra shines throughout the piece. As one example, after all the characters are introduced musically, the playful song “Friendship” paints an image of the tottering goose with a quartet of winds – one of the most evocative musical moments on the album. The suite follows the tale to its dramatic conclusion with the celebratory “La Princesse Perdue.” Within this up-tempo piece, moog synth and guitar lead atop strings playing an ostinato (short repeated phrase) are followed by lush strings, winds, and percussion, building in intensity before fading away into the sounds of the great marsh reprise.

Camel Live at the Royal Albert Hall


As performed live at the Royal Albert Hall, October 1975, the work brims with confidence, all elements combining brilliantly throughout a stellar performance of the complete album. Pete Bardens introduces the piece:

We are just about ready to launch into our “magnum opus” the Snow Goose. I’d like to say what a pleasure it is to have the London Symphony Orchestra leader John Brown and also to have the pleasure of, company of, David Bedford conducting. For those of you who don’t already know, this was originally based on a short story by a gentleman called Paul Gallico – written during the war – all the thanks and credit go to him for providing us with the original inspiration – I think that’s all that needs to be said…

Camel_SG_LiveRecordCoverNot released by Decca until 1978, the double live album simply titled Camel – A Live Record (p) 1978 Gamma Records Limited, for The Decca Record Company, includes the complete performance of The Snow Goose from 1975 at the Royal Albert Hall, paired with a disk containing a handful of songs from other Camel albums, recorded on their 1974 and 1977 tours. The live presentation of The Snow Goose is a wonderful example of a rock-based, orchestrated, multi-movement piece that weaves acoustic and electric together to make a greater whole. As a package unfortunately, the materials include few live visuals other than a handful of distorted shots of the band. The music itself and the dramatic performance is the centerpiece. The sound is relatively crisp with ample bass tones to match shimmering strings.

There are no known films of this show, but there are clips of Camel performing three selections from The Snow Goose, as a four piece, and on the song “Friendship” with a wind quartet. This was shot at the BBC studios for the television series Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975. For the last many years, this was the best way to get a glimpse of the original band performing the material. It is available on the DVD production, Camel – Footage, @Camel Productions (22 November, 2004).

Camel: In From The Cold, (c) Camel Productions, UK Ltd.

More recently Camel played the piece in its entirety as a five-piece band at the Barbican Theater in London, 28 October 2013. The show debuted a spectacular new, slightly expanded, version of the original work. Andrew was joined there by long time bassist Colin Bass, drummer Denis Clement, keyboardist Guy LeBlanc, and Jason Hart supporting on keys and acoustic guitar. A film of this concert, titled In from The Cold is now also available from Camel Productions UK Ltd on DVD.

Camel_SG_InFromPik72DPIThe concert came after Camel had taken a long break from recording and performing, while Andrew healed from a serious illness. The show was a huge success.  The audience stood to applause for what seemed minutes before the band could play the first note.  Tears were shed.  Notes wound out of Andy’s Gibson Les Paul like plaintive siren songs.  The band played beautifully leaving the audience enraptured.

The second half of the show included tracks from throughout the bands long recording history, starting with a half pace rendition of a song from their first LP, “Never Let Go” – wonderfully executed, bringing to mind the struggle and triumphs of life:

Man is born with the will to survive,
He’ll not take no for an answer.
He will get by, somehow he’ll try,
He won’t take no, never let go, no…

An apt sentiment as Camel continues the journey after such a long break, playing again this July in the UK and Europe. Sadly, keyboardist Guy LeBlanc, who performed with Camel at this show, passed days ago, just this April. I recall being impressed by his talent, and at how quickly he learned the parts, coming to them so near the event.
Godspeed, Guy.