April 25, 2022

The vast landscape of lesser-known albums from the 1960s and 1970s is dotted with gems of varying degrees of brilliance. It’s easy to get lost down slippery YouTube rabbit holes or dig through rows of records and CDs, combing for worthy relics to discover and add to our collections. It’s even easier to have the leg work done for you; these old recordings polished, compiled, and served up on a silver platter (literally). Such is the case with Esoteric’s new release showcasing the entirety of Peter Bardens’ early solo work. Long Ago, Far Away: The Recordings 1969 – 1971 gathers together the Camel keyboard legend’s early solo albums The Answer and Peter Bardens (U.S. title: Write My Name In The Dust) and presents them in a comprehensive and remastered 2 CD anthology, accompanied by goodies from the period including singles, restored artwork and a newly-penned essay. Of course, big time Camel-heads will be familiar with some of this music already, but more casual fans may have never heard a note.

Bardens, Peter Green and company get down to some serious jamming…

Digging in, we find a surprising array of styles ranging from bluesy hard rock to psychedelic pop, cosmic stoner ditties, and ferocious instrumental workouts. As the 60s drew to a close, Bardens found himself moving away from the styles of his previous groups such as The Cheynes, Peter B’s Looners (with Mick Fleetwood), and even a stint with Van Morrison’s Them, and drifting into the growing progressive/psych scene. The two albums that marked this transition period had only a little in common with those outfits, and didn’t foreshadow much of Camel’s later works of grand symphonic beauty either. The vibe was more on the ‘far out, man’ side with a healthy dose of silliness tossed in for good measure, but the playing is often spectacular, especially when Bardens and company really get down to the serious jamming. These merry men include Peter Green, Bruce Thomas, and Reg Isidore, among others. No slouches, to say the least.

‘I must be stoned again/out of my brain’ chants Bardens relentlessly in the epic marijuana-scented jam I Can’t Remember, with twinned organ and guitar lines branching off to do battle. The more soulful Feeling High revisits that lyrical theme, while The Answer finds former bandmate Green at the forefront with his fluid and electrifying guitar work. The sunny I Don’t Want To Go Home merrily bounces along, highlighted by playful flute and percussion, while Write My Name In The Dust is a mid-tempo organ-driven piece with a leisurely atmosphere.

The blues-rock hybrid of Don’t Goof With A Spook is accented with popping congas and drenched in squealing guitar, with Barden’s one-two punch of organ runs and sneering vocals giving the track a touch of menace. In the 2003 Camel documentary DVD Curriculum Vitae, Bardens recounted the band’s disapproval of bigwigs from the Camel cigarette company turning up at the studio while they were making an album, and offering unwanted suggestions like naming one of the songs Pack Of Twenty. ‘That hardly sounds like a song title’, quipped Bardens with some distaste. But apparently Don’t Goof With A Spook was considered titleworthy, so I suppose taste can improve over the course of a few years.

Speaking of song names, the charmingly pretentious title Homage To The God Of Light adorns the 13 minute psychedelic freakfest that closed The Answer, a piece which had in fact been carried over from Bardens’ most recent band Village, where it had been a staple in that trio’s live sets. This whirlwind of energy is a huge highlight, built on distorted Hammond organ and dazzling with all-around wizardry, and had quite the lifespan, brought forward to be showcased in Camel’s early gigs. It had also been issued as a shorter edit, spread over both sides of a 1971 French single, and that version is also included as a bonus in this collection.

Village managed to record one studio single before folding. The Barrett/Floyd-tinged Man In The Moon was released in the summer of ’69 on London’s Head record label, and was backed with Long Time Coming, a spirited Holst-inspired instrumental that also radiates glimmers of early Yes and Deep Purple. Like most of the music here, these pieces sound very much of their time but are still enjoyable listens today (one wonders how many songs released this year will still be listenable in the year 2075). Both of these tracks are once again included here, carried over from Esoteric’s initial 2010 reissue of The Answer.

While there aren’t really any ‘skipper’ tracks, not every song is a sure-fire winner either. The piano-based Sweet Honey Wine jumps between jaunty and dreamy, and while likeable enough, it’s somewhat dwarfed by the stronger cuts. Simple Song has a good ol’ singalong quality but feels like more of a b-side, and the instrumental My House, while containing some nice sections that hint at Bardens’ future band, ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere despite its length. But any two hours of music is going to have peaks and valleys.

Bardens would never sound this way again…

Another major highlight, though, is the lone group composition Down So Long, with its doomy riff, Bardens’ vocals oddly reminiscent of Alice Cooper, and a vibrant instrumental section with grooving Hammond and guitar pyrotechnics. Maintaining this quality is the nine minute instrumental Long Ago, Far Away (surprisingly left off The Answer) which is loaded with killer playing from everyone, but none more so than Bardens who stretches out with some sensational piano. This rarity of course gave this new collection its appropriate moniker.

Mere months after releasing the self-titled album, Bardens joined The Brew, who quickly became Camel and the rest is history. These two early albums were to be the last solo releases he made until 1979’s Heart To Heart, by which time he’d left Camel, and the dawn of a new age had dictated a broad change in sonics and style. He would never sound this way again.

Looking back through the impossibly long lens of 2022 to these dusty, yellowed antiques, we find a pair of albums simultaneously naive and engaging from an artist we lost much too soon. Fortunately Esoteric have seen fit to compile this tasty set, which proves to be an inexpensive way of getting all these songs in one shot, and sounding pristine thanks to a solid remastering job. Oddly enough, even at two hours it doesn’t overstay its welcome or become a chore to get through. It’s actually a boatload of fun and a treat to kick back and listen to with headphones on and your drink or substance of choice in hand. Pun fully intended, it’s high time this music was thrust back into the spotlight it never had enough of in the first place.

Long Ago, Far Away is released 27 May.