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Camel: Timeless Flight

It was 1974, the age of the concept album, when Camel had the idea to set author Paul Gallico’s wartime love story to music.

Guitarist and mainstay Andy Latimer revisits the evergreen Music Inspired By The Snow Goose and shares a tale of fractious band members, honking horn players and bucolic English prog.

"I’d read The Lord Of The Rings like everyone does, and I’d written The White Rider on Camel’s second album, Mirage [1974], which was inspired by Gandalf and all that stuff,” says Camel guitarist, flautist and vocalist Andy Latimer with a chuckle. “As we were recording it we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make a whole album based on a story?’ So then we all went off trying to find a good book to base it on.”

By 1974 it was almost de rigueur for progressive rock groups to have written a concept album, or at least a sidelong suite. Latimer doesn’t remember any obligation or pressure from their record company, but he does recall that Camel had been thinking about doing something with an orchestra, following earlier forays by Deep Purple, The Moody Blues and Caravan.

Keyboard player Peter Bardens had favoured a novel by Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha or Steppenwolf. But bass guitarist Doug Ferguson came up with The Snow Goose, a poignant short story later expanded into a novella in 1941 by American novelist, Paul Gallico. 

“We saw more possibilities in The Snow Goose. It was more defined,” says Latimer, explaining the group’s choice. “There were only three characters and both Pete and I had a clear idea about where we wanted to go musically, so it was an easy task in a way. It was a very powerful story and quite inspiring.”

Its main character, Philip Rhayader, is a disabled outsider who lives in a lighthouse on the Essex marshes. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with a teenage girl, Fritha, centred on their rescue and rehabilitation of an injured snow goose. The subject matter was a perfect fit for the 70s with its themes of the still relatively recent Second World War and of transcendental spirituality. Rhayader dies helping  to bring troops back over the channel in his boat during the evacuation of Dunkirk. But when the snow goose returns to the marsh and circles around Fritha before flying away, she interprets it as Rhayader’s liberated soul flying free. _The Snow Goose _was made into a short film for BBC TV in 1971 starring Richard Harris as Rhayader and Jenny Agutter as Fritha, although Latimer admits he never saw the film at the time.  

Not a Camel fan: The Snow Goose author Paul Gallico, and (below) the book and offending LP.

Camel’s first concept album could, in theory, have been quite different. In 1974, the group’s manager Geoff Jukes had contacted the European office of Camel cigarettes with the idea of using the typography and imagery from their packets for the album cover of Mirage. The company jumped at the idea of free publicity and sent a small delegation over from Switzerland to meet the group. “They were asking us questions like, ‘Have you got a title for this song?’ We said, ‘No’, and they said, ‘Why don’t you call it Twenty To The Pack?’

“They were wanting to have girls walking up and down the aisles at gigs with cigarettes,” Latimer continues. “But as a band we were going, ‘No, no, no! This is very uncomfortable for us. We don’t want to have anything to do with this.’ So we told Geoff, ‘You’re going to have to put the kibosh on this.’ Also, the record company in America were uncomfortable about it, because Camel cigarettes were trying to appeal to the older man, so they stopped us using the sleeve. We had to hurriedly come up with another sleeve for America – so there’s a sleeve with some dragon on the front.”

The Snow Goose was

a very powerful story. We saw the possibilities.

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