Interview with David Hitchcock (Producer Caravan albums in the Decca years)

Caravan signed a contract to Decca Records thanks to your effort. What attracted you to Caravan’s music? What is the biggest attraction of Caravan’s songs for you?
Caravan’s manager had approached my boss at Decca, Hugh Mendl, about signing the band after their original record label, Verve, had closed down. Hugh asked me to go and see them and tell him what I thought. I went to see them play a concert in Oxford I was vey impressed by their performance and how well they went down with the audience, especially their last number “For Richard” which was very exciting. I particularly liked their use of time signatures other than 4/4 and their obvious jazz influences and I thought that they were all very good musicians. The organ sounds that Dave created by putting the organ through a fuzz box and echo machine were also very exciting. They did not sound like anyone else although I could of course hear similarities with Soft Machine as both bands grew out of The Wilde Flowers and had common roots and Mike Ratledge also used a fuzz box and tape echo on his organ.

“In the Land of Grey and Pink” is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year! Your birthday is the same with this album, isn’t it?
Yes, it is, it was released on my 23rd birthday, something I had forgotten until this year.

I think this masterpiece is really an important work for you, how do you evaluate this album now?
I stopped listening to any of the records I produced once they were released as I could always hear things I was unhappy with or that could have been done differently. I haven’t listened to Grey & Pink for over thirty years so I was pleasantly surprised when I listened to it last week with this interview in mind. Yes, there are things I would have done differently but, overall, I think it stands up well as an integrated album. I really like the title track and think Winter Wine is one of Richard’s best songs, as does Pye. Nine Feet Underground was quite complicated to record; we recorded it in several sections and put it together in the control room by editing together some of the mixed master tapes and cross fading others from one piece into another. Nowadays that would be really simple with computer mixing and Pro Tools but it was very difficult then with the equipment we had to work with. The album was quite important to my career as it was because of it that I was asked to produce Genesis’s Foxtrot.

After producing “Grey and Pink”, what experience from “Grey and Pink” was useful for producing “Foxtrot”?
Firstly it was Caravan’s manager, Terry King, who introduced me to Genesis’s manager and record boss, Tony Stratton-Smith. Tony had heard Grey & Pink and liked it I assume. Making Grey & Pink I had gained a lot of experience in how to record a long piece of music consisting of separate sections and integrating them into a cohesive whole without having the band playing it in its entiety from start to fnish. Recording it in sections allowed for more variations in the sound, made it easier to fit more onto the multi-track when it came to overdubbing additional parts. It also meant that we could concentrate on one particular sections when mixing the multi-track on to a stereo tape before splicing it together or cross fading one section into another. I had learnt a lot about this from the recording engineers at Decca who had worked on the Moody Blues albums, particularlly Derek Varnals.

In this album, the number of the songs written by Richard Sinclair is more than in other albums. And there is only one song written by Pye Hastings. Are there any reasons for this?
There was no particular reason, those were the new songs that the band had at the time. Pye had contributed several to the previous album so maybe didn’t have that much new material whereas Richard and Dave did.

You also produced “Fuchsia” in 1971. Anne-Marie Anderson, who drew the album cover of this, also drew the fantastic illustration of “In the Land of Grey and Pink”. Is this due to your introduction? How did she come to get involved in designing the album cover of “In the Land of Grey and Pink”?
I asked about her to Dave Sinclair before, but he said that he had not met her. I met Anne Marie at a club called La Chasse which was almost next door to The Marquee in London’s Wardour Street. It was where musicians playing at The Marquee would go for a drink before and after their set and was also used by a lot of music industry people. I got talking to Anne Marie there one night and she said she was an illustrator and I asked if she was interested in doing album covers. I had worked in Decca’s art studio organizing sleeve designs before I became a producer and was therefore very interested in and involved in all the artwork for the albums I produced. I asked to see some of her work and it just seemed perfectly suited to this imaginary land that Richard had written about. I think we must already have agreed that The Land of Grey & Pink would be the title for the album. As for Fuchsia, Caravan’s manager’s, Terry King, had started a record label (Caravan records were released on it in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany) and had singed Fuchsia at the suggestion of Paul Conroy. (Paul had booked Caravan at Ewell Tech where he was the Social Secretary, he went to work for Terry as an agent after leaving the college and many years later went on to run Virgin Records in the UK.) Terry King also used to go the La Chasse and I would have introduced him to Anne Marie there probably, or maybe when she did the artwork for Grey & Pink.

Is the cover illustration of “In the Land of Grey and Pink” originally not drawn for the album?
Yes it was specifically drawn for Grey & Pink; her portfolio (the examples of her previous work) showed me that her style was very suited to what we had in mind. My approach to sleeve design was always to brief the graphic artist/illustrator as fully as I could and then give them a free hand to design the sleeve; they are the ones with the artistic imagination, not me. If the design did not suit what I or the band had in mind, we would start again. I do not believe in interfering with the work of artists that I respect as they know what they are doing and should be free to express themselves.

Was it you who came up with those fascinating cover designs of Caravan’s album? Such as “Waterloo Lily” or “Canterbury Tales” and so on……. Because you say that you were immersed in UK culture……and regarding those 2 albums above, both William Hogarth and Thomas Stothard were English painters.
I can’t take the credit for either I am afraid. The Waterloo Lily sleeve was designed by ROC Advertising (I can’t remember much about them except that they did a lot of sleeve design). The Decca art studio’s suggested design is shown on the inside of the original gatefold album sleeve and on the insert to the reissued CD. That was by Dave Anstey who did a lot of the sleeves for albums I produced for Decca. He also did the cover of Blind Dog at St Dunstans. I had no involvement in the The Canterbury Tales and the adaption of Stothard’s The Pilgrimage to Canterbury was done by Laurie Richards of the Decca art studio.

In relation to above, what is your favorite Caravan album cover?
I’d go for Grey & Pink for the illustration but “Girls” for the title. Blind Dog is a very strong third though as I love all the little details of Canterbury in that illustration and it reminds me of Dave Anstey who was a lovely and very talented man.

In the next album “Waterloo Lily”, Richard Sinclair and Steve Miller took a more jazzy approach to Caravan’s music, but Pye and Richard Coughlan went toward rock music. In the end, Richard and Steve left the band. How did you feel about Richard and Steve’s jazz approach at that time?
I really like jazz and am a huge fan of Miles Davis and the jazz rock of the 70s, especially Weather Report but I wasn’t a great fan of the direction Richard and Steve were taking the band to be honest and without Dave’s organ, it just didn’t sound like Caravan to me. I didn’t think the songs were as strong as those on Grey & Pink but it did seem to give Richard Coughlan’s more scope and it has some of his finest drumming on it.

Some songs on “For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night” were orchestrated and arranged by Martyn Ford. And this experience leaded to “Caravan and the New Symphonia”. I heard that your contribution was also very significant in this process. What do you think about the collaboration between orchestra and Caravan?
“Girls” is probably my favourite Caravan album and the one I felt most involved in. Dave was back in the band and the new bass player, John Perry, worked well with Richard and Pye as the core rhythm unit. It was also the first album with Geoff and his viola brought an additional tonal range to sound. I think the use of an orchestra on Backwards and the reprise of A Hunting We Shall Go worked really well and brought a new dimension to the track. John Perry’s knew Martyn Ford and suggested getting to do the arrangements and he did a great job for us. I am less convinced by Caravan and the New Symphonia as I don’t think the orchestrations added that much to any of the songs, just adding different tonal qualities to what the band are already playing.

I love “Cunning Stunts” because this album has the most various songs in Caravan’s albums. Were you conscious about how to provide uniformity to this album?
You always try to make an album flow so that you can listen to it as a single piece of work and a lot of thought goes into the running order and how the different keys and tempos work together. I personally was unhappy with a couple of the songs on Cunning Stunts, particularly after the strong collection on “Girls”, as they did not fit my conception of what Caravan was about and could have been written and recorded by any band. That is probably why there is so much variety I guess.

I always feel Caravan’s music has the atmosphere of the UK so much. I love it very much and I feel this atmosphere the most in the albums that you produced. What were you most careful about when producing Caravan’s albums?
My approach to production was always that I was there to get the best out of the band, not to tell them what or how to play so retaining the identity of the band was always very important and I didn’t want to try to turn any of them into copies of American rock bands, even though I loved a lot of the West Cost music of the late sixties. It was a time of great experimentation in the UK and there were no rules. We were focused on making albums, not singles, so we did not have to conform to the patterns demanded by the BBC in order to get airplay. (Album bands such as Caravan promoted their music by touring as much as possible and record companies supported that by funding tours.) I was not consciously going for a UK sound but as I was immersed in UK culture it probably just came naturally and many of the bands I worked with all had that quintessential English quality to their music.

I heard that Caravan was very popular in European countries in the ‘70s, especially in the Netherlands. You also went on tour to France many times. What do you think is the reason why Caravan's music was enthousiastically accepted by these European countries?
I think that it is probably the same reasons that they are popular in the UK, Japan, Italy and other countries. The combination of strong melodies and improvisation plus that Englishness that sets them apart from most other bands. Most British prog rock bands did well on the Continent (as we Brits call Europe) and Caravan toured a lot in all those territories you mentioned which helped promote their records which in turn helped promote their concerts, so it was a virtuous circle. If I were being cynical, I would say that their manager might have favoured those territories as his label released the records there.

How did you evaluate the position of Caravan in British music when they were signed to Decca Records?
Whilst they never achieved the level of worldwide success that other UK bands such as Yes, Genesis and King Crimson did, I think that they had an enormous influence on many other bands, not just their immediate contemporaries but some from quite a lot later on, such as Steve Wilson’s Porcupine Tree and The Mars Volta. Prog rock is still a thriving subculture in music thanks in part to the internet and like many musicians, prog-rockers are influenced by their parents’ record collections. This seems to be particularly so with the bands and musicians that come under the umbrella of “the Canterbury Sound”.

If you don’t mind, would you tell me why you didn’t get involved in producing Caravan’s album after “Blind Dog at St. Dunstans”?
I had made five albums with the band and it was time for a change; maybe I had lost my objectivity having been involved with them for six years. Their manager, Miles Copeland, wanted to make a breaktrough with the band in America and maybe he thought getting someone like Tony Visconti to produce their next album would help to do that. I wasn’t very happy about it at the time but that’s the music business, others have treated me a lot worse.

How do you feel about Caravan’s albums after their leaving from Decca?
After they left Decca and, more importantly, after Dave left the band for good, they became Pye’s band as far as songwriting was concerned. The live shows continued to feature some of the older material and Geoff was always an excellent showman as well as an excellent musician as were all the other musicians who joined. Pye was always more into rock than the others and that is reflected in the later recordings. The Decca recordings reflected the times they were made in and were collective efforts both in the writing and the recording arrangements whereas the post Decca ones were different because the band dynamic was different and Pye wrote almost all the material.

You also produced “Mirage” and “The Snow Goose” by Camel. When Richard, Dave and Jan joined Camel, did you introduce them to Camel?
I had no part in that, I’m afraid. They were very similar bands in many ways, although Camel was purely instrumental, so recruiting former members of Caravan probably just made sense to Andy Latimer.

You produced many masterpieces such as “Foxtrot” by Genesis besides Caravan. What was the hardest album for you to produce in your career?
That’s the hardest question so far! Recording Renaissance live at Carnegie Hall with an orchestra was very challenging because the mobile unit had very few channels and I had to cue the engineer to open and close mikes throughout to prevent unwanted spill from the band getting onto the master tape. Making Foxtrot was difficult because we had so little time to record it, 10 days I believe but the winner has to be The Snow Goose because we wanted to scrap the first set of recordings and I had to persuade the record company to let us do that and restart in another studio plus Andy Latimer and Pete Bardens were always disagreeing about something. There were also a lot of technical challenges with very long tape loops going all round the studio control room and editing different takes together on the multitrack. Caravan were always a joy to work with as they were such accomplished musicians and we shared a sense of humour which helped defuse those times when things got tense whilst recording.

Interview by Aoi Kaneko (23.03.2021)