Richard Coughlan: Musician

Drummer with psychedelic rock band Caravan who influenced a new generation of progressive musicians

Richard Coughlan was the driving, swinging, powerful drummer with Caravan, the British rock band whose pastoral, psychedelic, progressive pop came to epitomise the Canterbury sound throughout the late 1960s and most of the Seventies.

Like their fellow travellers Soft Machine, Caravan developed a substantial following, especially in mainland Europe, and provided the springboard for a coterie of musicians associated with groups as diverse as Gong, Matching Mole, and Hatfield and the North. Along with guitarist, singer and songwriter Pye Hastings, Coughlan was a constant in the six incarnations of Caravan that recorded nine albums and myriad BBC sessions for John Peel between 1968 and 1978.

The band reconvened briefly in the 1980s and early Nineties, and became a going concern from 1995 until the present, though Coughlan’s progressive rheumatoid arthritis curtailed his involvement. When they recorded a Legends Concert at Metropolis Studios in London in December 2010, the founder member was replaced by Mark Walker on drums, and mostly contributed percussion.

Born in Herne Bay, Kent, in 1947, he went to school in Canterbury and played the marching drums in the Sea Cadets after making the switch from the bugle; military drum rolls and precise fills became hallmarks of his style. By 1963 he had a full drum kit. “All my mates were into scooters and cars, and all I wanted to do was play on a drum kit all the time,” said Coughlan who gigged with a couple of local trad and dance bands, including the Stour Side Stompers. In the spring of 1966 he was drawn into the orbit of The Wilde Flowers, the seminal Canterbury group whose various line-ups included Kevin Ayers and Hugh Hopper, who both went on to Soft Machine, as did Robert Wyatt, from whom he picked up drumming tips. “I used to lean over his shoulder at every opportunity!” recalled Coughlan, who was also influenced by Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Having added Hastings and organist David Sinclair, the Wilde Flowers refined their repertoire of soul covers but ground to a halt in October 1967, to re-emerge three months later as Caravan, a name suggested by Hastings, with the addition of bassist and vocalist Richard Sinclair, David’s cousin. “When we saw the Soft Machine had got a record deal, we set out with the idea of doing the same. My parents were a bit surprised that I was going to be a professional musician but they accepted it,” said Coughlan, who had trained as a dental technician. “Music beats a nine-to-five job.”

After supporting Fairport Convention at Middle Earth, the hippie club in Covent Garden, in June 1968 Caravan attracted interest from Witchseason, Joe Boyd’s production company. This should have led to a deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island but instead they became the first UK act signed to Verve, the American jazz label, which issued their eponymous debut. The album’s opening track, the dreamy “A Place Of My Own”, was released as a single, but despite an appearance on BBC2’s Colour Me Pop in March 1969 it failed to chart.

They moved to Decca for If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You, however, it was with their third album, the whimsical In The Land Of Grey And Pink, that they came closest to fulfilling their potential as exponents of a gentler, quirkier, less overblown strand of progressive rock. The songwriting of the Sinclair cousins matched Hastings’ own contribution, while David Sinclair’s fluid solos and fuzzy Hammond sound and Coughlan’s propulsive drumming jumped out of the mix on the complex suite “Nine Feet Underground”.

Caravan began making serious headway into continental Europe, appearing on German television’s Beat Club to promote the terribly English “Golf Girl” single in July 1971, and travelling to France regularly, including a headline appearance at the famed Olympia in Paris in September 1971. In The Land Of Grey And Pink has never been out of print and eventually reached gold status with UK sales of 100,000 copies. It remains a cornerstone of British psychedelia, influencing subsequent generations of performers such as Julian Cope, Super Furry Animals and Euros Childs.

In the autumn of 1971, David Sinclair left, sitting out the Waterloo Lily album, but returned in 1973 for the excellent Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night set, the Caravan And The New Symphonia live album recorded at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in October 1973 and issued the following year, and 1975’s Cunning Stunts, their first release to make the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic after they enlisted the services of manager Miles Copeland, later to mastermind the rise of The Police.

Richard Sinclair left after Waterloo Lily, leaving Hastings at the helm, with Coughlan his able lieutenant, if a lesser creative contributor on the aforementioned releases as well as the Blind Dog at St Dunstans album, which charted in 1976, and their last major label release, Better By Far, produced by Tony Visconti, in 1977.

“In the early days when there were lots of longer tracks and more instrumental tracks. I contributed quite a lot and the songs tended to be credited to the whole band. As the emphasis moved to shorter songs, I was less involved,” admitted Coughlan, though the 19/8 time signature on his favourite Caravan number, the orchestrated suite “L’auberge Du Sanglier/A Hunting We Shall Go” from Girls Who Grow Plump ..., showed his skill and dynamism as a drummer. That album marked the arrival of electric viola-player Geoffrey Richardson, a Caravan mainstay until 1978, and a regular in their various line-ups since the late nineties.

From the late Seventies, Coughlan ran The Sun Inn in Faversham, Kent, between tours and recordings with Caravan. In 2008, he took over The Cricketers pub in Canterbury. He had recently been treated for pneumonia.

Paying tribute to Coughlan, Hastings said: “What he gave to Caravan throughout the years was unique and completely immeasurable and the body of work that he leaves behind will be his legacy.” µ

Richard Coughlan, drummer, songwriter, publican: born Herne Bay, Kent 1 September 1947; married Sue (one daughter); died  Broadstairs, Kent 1 December 2013.

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