Phew, what a month December has been – and it’s not finished yet. A phenomenal number of you will already have been wished the compliments of the season in person during our runaway international box office smash Yuletide revue, Carmen’s Capital Christmas. Some of you, however, still have that treat in store, I know.
After a brilliant start in Brussels, we were, they said, awesome in Oslo. We gave them hell in Helsinki, played a stonker in Stockholm, had a corker in Copenhagen, a bon temps in Berlin, a right royal beezer in Berne and – as Ron put it in his own inimitable way – a vinner in Vienna. And we still have an unbelievable twelve days of Christmas sold-out run in London to complete before the festivities are over.
I must confess that when the idea of playing as many European capital cities as possible as a sort of, if you will, Biryani Advent-ure was first mooted a few years ago, I thought it was a tad over-ambitious. But our esteemed tour co-ordinator, Al Garvey, who plots our transplanetary peregrinations from his new home amid the golf courses of southern Portugal, can be very persuasive and the whole operation has – by and large – once again been baby’s bottom-smooth.
There have been occasional hiccups this time. For instance, we were mad in Madrid when the merchandise pantechnicon was unavoidably detained, leaving our enthusiastic Spanish fans deprived of signed-in-situ stocking fillers. Sticks then went a bit huffy in The Hague because he made his own way there to visit some old flame. Luckily she promptly told him to get his unfondled carcass up the autostrasse to Amsterdam, which is – as he just won’t be told (drummers; can’t live with them, can’t detonate them) – Holland’s happening capital city.
And boy did it happen when the Biryani troupe turned on the performance of the tour so far. Not that we’ve had a substandard night, you understand - this was just one of those occasions when Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree rocked the whole f-f-fir forest. Then, when we turned the house lights up during Have Yourselves A Merry Little Christmas, the smiles on everyone’s faces told us that either we really were taking them to a veritable Winter Wonderland or those canal-side cafes’ pre-theatre menus had done pretty good business, too.
Of course, Siobhan Siobhan got all carnaptious in Cardiff when the Scribe of the Far Seas had to cancel his trip down to Wales due to his editor sending him to – of all places – Paris to do a follow-up story on the Crazy Horse craziness that seems to have re-ignited. As Sticks pointed out, it was the Scribe’s unrivalled local knowledge that earned him that commission. Being the brick that she is, Double Shiv eventually took our mirthful responses to such ironic misfortune in reasonably good part. All the same, Ron’s presentation of a rather oddly shaped advent candle by way of consolation might have been better taking place backstage than coming as it did during Shiv’s heartfelt rendition of Blue Christmas (Without You). This nearly resulted in a Siobhan Siobhan shove-off.
These were all minor irritations, however, and the only real letdown for all of us is that our itinerary has managed to side step at every turn that of the Biryani band’s all-time favourite combo, Caravan, who have been back on the road too these past few weeks. There they were, playing hither and yon while we were playing, well, yon and hither, it seems.
We missed them by a whisker in Edinburgh when we sold out the Usher Hall and, in retrospect, should have offered them a support slot instead of them having to slum it in the Liquid Room. We were a few weeks too early and too late, respectively, for them in Dublin and London. We had just left town when they turned up in Paris, I believe. And horror of horrors, we actually had an enforced stopover in Warsaw on the very night when they were due to make their Polish debut there and dear old Pye Hastings, Caravan’s main man, had to call off due to a throat infection. We were all devastated because, by all accounts, the latest edition is playing some of the best live gigs of the group’s thirty-five years long and counting career.
Long-term Biryani followers will know, of course, the great affection in which we hold Caravan. This gets us damned as old hippies by some people, but we don’t care. I still recall with fondness the squillions of times that we must have played the title track from their classic album, In the Land of Grey and Pink, as our fifth and final encore while leading the whole audience in a special Biryani conga. We even restored this song to the Carmen’s Capital Christmas set-list, inserting our own lyrics (“In the land of frost and snow where all the Santas ‘ho ho ho’…” – and so it continues with poetic inspiration), in hopes of the boys turning up at one of our gigs to join in.
They still might, if they can make it along to one of our London nights, and I’m sure they’ll want to. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a combined Carmen-Caravan version of this song became the front-runner for next Christmas’s number one single spot. Heaven knows it’s about time both of us made a re-appearance on Top of the Pops. The last time, Pye and the boys were performing their classic If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You. And the Biryani bonce could clearly be seen in the corner of the screen, nodding appreciatively to the Caravan beat and in recognition of Pye’s wisdom in adding my name to the TOTP guest-list.
Of course, Pye and I go back much further than that. In fact, our paths first crossed when he was a young lad in the small Banffshire village of Tomintoul and my late father used to be seconded to the local church there for the summer while Tomintoul’s minister took over dad’s flock in Comrie.
Pye didn’t play guitar then – that came later when he met that charming rogue Kevin Ayers, who taught Pye to play guitar and, well, I won’t tell you what he taught me to play with. There must have been a music gene in the Hastings pool, though, because I remember my father enthusing over Pye’s boy soprano in the Tomintoul Sunday School choir. Then there’s his older brother, Jimmy, who in next to no time would progress from the Beach Ballroom Band in Aberdeen to playing saxophone for Frank Sinatra. This made Jim an immensely romantic figure to a young country lass like me.
It’s always tickled me that one of the most quintessentially English of rock combos should be fronted by a Tomintoulian. Certainly, when both Hastings boys turned up on TV one Saturday night in the late 1960s, playing in a beat combo, my father spilled ink all over what by necessity became the second-last draft of his next day’s sermon. I, for my part, had rushed out and bought the combo’s first album after hearing them perform Place of My Own live on the late John Peel’s radio programme, I believe it was, and became a confirmed Caravanner.
Indeed, membership of the ’Van’s fan club has been virtually a prerequisite for joining the Biryani band. It’s one of the reasons why we’re such a happy family. Play the sublime Nine Feet Underground through any house PA, even today, and whatever ills might have befallen us en route, you’ll have a smiling Biryani orchestra instantly.
Our good friend Eric, who is responsible for Caravan’s newsletter – a sort of equivalent of these epistles, I like to think – recently sent us all copies of the band’s re-issued Back to Front album on CD. Its evocations of Hollywood idols and Herne Bay idylls spill out of every dressing room nightly as we get into costume.
The only drawback has been that this has reminded Sticks that the yummy Richard Coughlan, Caravan’s own Mr Sticks, did the spoken part on Proper Job (“What did you say you earn, a billion pounds a night? What, each?” – such bons mots). He’s since been angling for a vocal role in Carmen’s Capital Christmas. He’ll be lucky. He’ll just have to settle for his usual Yuletide walk-on part as our very own Father Christmas on Christmas morning, I’m afraid.
Although we all spend Christmas Day together, we don’t exchange extravagant gifts. I generally arrange for the special Christmas jumbo crossword-bearing editions of all our favourite newspapers to be gift-wrapped, and Sticks distributes them - with considerable ho ho ho aplomb, it must be said. The Dickensian vision of contentment that ensues makes the Cratchits, post Ebenezer’s goodies-bearing visit, look like Les Miserables on Mogadon by comparison.
And with that happy thought, I’ll wish you all a very merry Christmas from all of us here in Biryani Wonderland.