January 22, 2002 – Peter Bardens was born in Westminster, London on 19 June 1945 just weeks after World War II came to an end. The name of Peter Bardens is best known from the success of Camel, the progressive rock group he led in the early 1970s.
The keyboard player’s greatest influence on the British music scene, however, took place in the previous decade, when he was a formative member of London’s art school R&B scene and a figure of irrepressible spirit and energy. The son of Dennis Bardens, a writer of mystery novels and biographies, he was born in London in 1945, was brought up in the then Bohemian district of Notting Hill and attended the local Byam Shaw art school, where he studied Fine Art.
Fired by the burgeoning blues movement in west London, Bardens recruited an apprentice drummer called Mick Fleetwood whom he had heard rehearsing in the garage of a house three doors away from where he lived. With the intention of joining a group, Fleetwood had moved to London in 1964 to stay with his sister: “There was a knock on the door. ‘I’ve been hearing you play: would you like a gig?‘ He literally kickstarted me into the music business.”
Bardens and Fleetwood formed the Cheynes, playing pop R&B of the type popularized by Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, securing a residency at the Mandrake club off Wardour Street in Soho, and releasing a couple of singles. The group split up when Bardens was offered the job of keyboard player with the Irish R&B group Them, which featured the vocalist Van Morrison.
Then he formed an instrumental group performing material by the likes of Booker T and Mose Allison that he named Peter B’s Looners: Mick Fleetwood was once again on drums; Dave Ambrose, whom Bardens had met at the Byam Shaw, played bass; and on guitar was a player Bardens had discovered called Peter Green. The group released one single, “Do You Want to Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life”, and played the circuit of mod soul clubs.
“Although I preferred Pete as a pianist,” said Ambrose, “the revolution of the arrival of the Hammond organ and the sound of people like Jimmy Smith made him study the instrument and he became very good on it.”
Peter Bardens then brought in a pair of singers, Beryl Marsden and an unknown, Rod Stewart, and renamed the group Shotgun Express. A hardworking roadshow soul revue, playing Motown-type covers, Shotgun Express had a minor hit with “I Feel the Whole World Turn Around Underneath Me”. After Bardens had fired Stewart for being “awkward” and John Mayall had poached Green to join his Bluesbreakers, the group split around 1967: Mick Fleetwood followed Green to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, soon departing with John McVie to form Fleetwood Mac; and Dave Ambrose joined the Brian Auger Trinity – later, as an A and R man, he would sign the Sex Pistols, Duran Duran, and the Pet Shop Boys, among many other acts.
For a time Bardens played in a group with Bruce Thomas, who later became one of Elvis Costello’s Attractions. With the bassplayer Doug Ferguson, the drummer Andy Ward, and the guitarist Andy Latimer, he formed Camel in the spring of 1972: dominated by Bardens’s keyboard-playing, Camel was an archetypal progressive rock group, capable of selling out concert halls all over Europe after they successfully adapted a Paul Gallico children’s story, The Snow Goose (1975), for their third album.
Camel had three more hit albums, Moonmadness (1976), Rain Dances (1977) and Breathless (1978), before punk rock rendered their style of music redundant in the UK. Although Camel continued to be successful overseas, Bardens left the group at the end of the decade, and for a time once again played with Van Morrison.
Bardens formed a group called Keats, whose only album, released in 1984, employed the talents of the conceptual producer Alan Parsons. But he left London in 1985 to live in Malibu, California, releasing a relatively successful solo album, Seen One Earth (1987). Reuniting with his great friend Mick Fleetwood, he worked on soundtracks, which amply suited the visual sense he brought to his keyboard work; he continued to perform around southern California, and completed another record, The Art of Levitation.
Six months before his transition, at a 2,000-seater venue in Los Angeles, Peter Bardens played his last show, after having been diagnosed as suffering from a brain tumor: on stage with him were John McVie, John Mayall, Sheila E, Ben Harper and Mick Fleetwood. “He never became a huge star,” said Fleetwood, but he was always known as one of the better keyboards players in the world. He also was a great talent scout: he found two members of Fleetwood Mac and was my mentor. And he was an incredibly funny guy.
He died from lung cancer in Malibu, California on 22 January 2002 at age 57. A double CD Write My Name in the Dust: Anthology was released after his death and included tracks recorded throughout his career.