Camberwell Now
All's Well


It could be said they were the most innovative, meticulous, and communicative group among those who appeared in the United Kingdom during the "New Wave" era (and yes, it could be said that, as a compliment, this doesn't really mean much). A group whose music, about a quarter of a century later, still sounds as a successful mix of composition, improvisation, studio work, playing skills, and songs whose "political" lyrics were never banal (this is a much better compliment). Despite their being somewhat well-known, This Heat were always too difficult to be appreciated even by a niche (not to mention a mini-mass) audience. But it's thanks to their mini-celebrity, their being perceived as being part of that era's "zeitgeist", that some of their best albums - such as the more experimental This Heat (1980), or Deceit (1981), where those charming "English Melodies" are given more space - have been re-released more than once. And let's not forget the "box with everything", released just last year.

Camberwell Now could be defined as being a logical consequence of the more melodic (but not at all serene!) Deceit. They were just as meticulous, courageous, fascinating, and lucid as their predecessors, but in the end they were killed by the "friendly fire" that gave extra points (such as "Structuralism", "Derrida", and the like) to ZTT's 8bit samples. Hence, their work being perennially undervalued, then and now. Which is terribly unfair for a group that spent those terrible years of the Thatcher administration, from the Falklands war to the Miners' strike (maybe the episode that signalled the end of the "class struggle" in the United Kingdom), as an active witness.

It would be absurd, obviously, to think about the work done by Camberwell Now, of their use of an instrumental ability which had not been exactly overexposed in This Heat, in the pejorative terms of "prog". This is because every single musical gesture by the group is a function of the whole, never a sign of sterile virtuosity. It's also true that Charles Hayward's drumming style was quite original, and a distinctive part of their sound (Hayward was maybe the last specimen of "Excellent UK drummer", alongside the very different-sounding Simon Phillips). Quite differently from This Heat - which were always knotty, with a high vertical density of sound - Camberwell Now's musical approach favoured a development process that's more linear, where the drums' dry, highly dramatic performance is one of the key elements.

Released in 1983, the Meridian EP presented a melodic dimension that could be said to be not that far from Robert Wyatt's, alongside instrumental tracks that were quite different from the work done by This Heat. Besides Hayward's drums, vocals and keyboards, the group featured multi-instrumentalist Trefor Goronwy and tape wizard Stephen Rickard.

The "tape switchboard" built by Peter Keene and played by Rickard was the new element that, starting with The Ghost Trade (1986), played such a big part in Camberwell Now's sound, both live and in the studio, greatly enhancing the group's musical vistas. Destined to remain the group's only album, The Ghost Trade is one of the most beautiful pages in the chapter called "English Music". Many things stay in one's memory, from the urgent drums in Working Nights to the fractured development of Sitcom, with its excellent use of vocals (by Hayward, Goronwy and, as a guest vocalist in the final portion of the piece, by Mary Philips), to the solemn start and the thumping percussion at the end of Wheat Futures. Let's not forget the 11-minute-long, and absolutely perfect, The Ghost Trade, with its intelligent use of two different vocal timbres and an instrumental coda whose fascinating tension has lost none of its appeal.

Released the following year, Greenfingers was in a way a let-down. The EP's title-track is a gem, but the group sounded undecided about whether to cultivate the patient sound they had adopted for their previous works, or to go in the direction of an instrumental work more "in real time" - this could be the real sense of the addition of a fourth member, Maria Lamburn, here on saxophones and viola. Then the group split up. Survive The Gesture (1987), the not-really-so-well-known solo album released by Hayward, is an appropriate P.S. to the history of Camberwell Now.

Fans of the group greeted with open arms the release of the CD All's Well, which featured all the material by the group which had previously appeared on vinyl: released in 1992, this version by (Swiss) RecRec had been digitally remastered by Barry Woodward in the famous Townhouse studios, London. I still preferred the vinyl sound of Meridian, but I had to admit that the new version of The Ghost Trade sounded more 3D, more lively, more colourful.

And so we now have a new re-release: the same material, again the booklet featuring the lyrics, but we have a nice surprise in the form of a useful and interesting article about the mysterious "tape switchboard" - an article that, having appeared about twenty years ago in an issue of the ReR Quarterly magazine, is otherwise impossible to get. It goes without saying that the CD is a must. For what could go wrong with an edition that has been re-remastered by the group themselves? (Maybe the re-remastering?)

Big surprise, the CD stinks. Already the opening tracks, off Meridian, sounded to me as being a bit too harsh, too clean; the opening notes of the first track on The Ghost Trade terrorized me. In a nutshell: the sound is overcompressed, ugly, vulgar, flat, monotonous, fatigueing, inexpressive; it works against the material, robbing it of all its attractiveness and mystery. A sound that's almost techno - but this is not techno! Plus metallic-sounding drums, all the record nuances shown in full light (like the Mona Lisa shown in broad daylight in the open air!), while the attentive ear, which once went forward, trying to capture those subtleties, is now replaced by an arm that, fast-as-the-light, tries to reach the volume knob in order to decrease sound pressure. (What about now? Will everybody have to buy second-hand copies of the old RecRec CD on the Web?)

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Mar. 19, 2007