Perfect Sound Forever

Barclay James Harvest

Early publicity photo from the BJH website

Don't Call Us The Moody Blues, Dammit!!
by Marc S. Tucker
(September 2005)


Art-rock acts have historically enjoyed the same jagged heights and depths as straight rock ensembles, basking in glowing success or trudging through the woes of indifference and invisibility. Sometimes however, the two paths have intermarried in a weird perplexing condition and such occurred with the still much-ignored Barclay James Harvest, a dodgily recognized band despite prolific backlog (well over 30 original releases, anthologies, and solo records), a fanatically devoted core audience, and the release of live and documentary DVDs. The group has been one for whom things have never really gone quite right, distorted fate perhaps responsible for what should have been a far more solid registration in the annals of music. Little has gone according to expectations despite innumerable merits.

BJH began in a situation we Yanks have long become habituated to when peering at Brit rock lineages: art school associations; in this case, Oldham Art School. Therein, John Lees and Stewart "Wooly" Woolstenholme became acquainted and quickly grew to be friends, forming a garage group first dubbed The Sorcerors, then The Blues Keepers, and finally just The Keepers. Banging around for a period of time, constantly looking for ways to refine and define their sound, eyes always on the far goal of fame and riches (as all young hopefuls tend), they kept their ears and eyes open. Soon, they recruited a couple of blokes heard in a rival band, Heart and Soul and the Wicked, a blues-rock affair that arrogated, rather dubiously, to be "the first real blues band from North England." This pair, Les Holroyd and Mel Pritchard, themselves childhood friends, tucked in amongst the Sorcerors foursome, expanding the home-group to a sextet, but would prove to be mainstays after two of the troupe departed. By the time the core quartet was decided, the rudiments of Barclay James Harvest had been hammered out. Despite myriad legends of deep ontological pensivity, their odd name was decided by dropping into a hat suggestions written on a slip of paper and going with whatever was pulled. The year was 1967.

1968 - 1973: Earthbound and Straining
The Robert John Godfrey Era

The lads had the great good fortune to luck into managership by a local businessman, John Crowther, who planted the group in Preston House, an 18th century farmstead which provided solitude, ample time to rehearse, and little else. That a beginning band would experience such salad days was nothing new, but that they would do so in so unique a fashion was. Coming to the attention of the local media, a short documentary was made of the situation for Granada TV. Not many ensembles ever experienced such a plum incident, especially since BJH had nothing in the market, but Crowther was a serious fellow and worked his tail off to curry a commodity he fully intended should be successful. ‘Ere long, the boys were working a long string of live gigs, eventually coming to the attentions of EMI-Parlophone, precisely what the manager had been working at. That rapidly yielded a one-off single, "Early Morning" (April 1968), a well-received piece in the industry and one that ushered the Barclay lads into the studio to record for the legendary John Peel, who possessed excellent ears for innovative sounds. The upshot of the twain, single and sessions, was a label signing. EMI knew talent when it heard it and correctly estimated that the quartet had a momentous quality that could break out nicely. What was of concern, though, was the medium itself: how would the new band do in the rough world of charts and radio play?

In fact, they first bombed. "Early Morning" went absolutely nowhere. Greatly disheartened - not just the group but, more importantly, the sponsors - BJH headed back to Preston House to re-hit the writing boards, coming up with three more songs... which didn't even make it to vinyl. Nonetheless, the label was still sure of its initial estimation, deciding to retain them as the charter act for a new sub-label, Harvest, around which a small controversy swirls: some say the epithet was chosen to reflect confidence in the group's potential while others claim the matter was sheerest coincidence. The truth hardly matters, though such a christening would indeed have been highly complimentary, perhaps even singular, in the industry. In any event, the musicians were now being patronized in exactly the way they'd hoped for.

Their resemblance to the already-established Moody Blues was often remarked upon, still is, and it would be foolish to try to usurp the parallel: EMI also saw it (in an avalanche of ironies and temperament, BJH and the Moodies are, it should be noted here, friends). Justin Hayward's rampantly successful group had racked up such sales that would make a Wall Street financier salivate in erotic abandon, so the idea of indulging the ensemble's desire to record and perform with a chamber group (cello, woodwinds, brass), indeed an entire exclusive collaborative small armada, the Barcay James Harvest Symphony Orchestra, was not objectionable- it was an artistic decision that would be met with rock-solid resistance nowadays. The side-aggregate was an assemblage of very capable music school students formerly known as the London Symphonia, captained by one Robert John Godfrey. He would later put together an obscure but prolific band, The Enid, a highly changeable outfit that would achieve a glorious apex for only a short period then glide roughly through many years, trying desperately to resurrect initial solidarities, failing chiefly not through a lack of talent but of the usual: insufficient resort to money and personnel (not to mention more than a few horrible synth patch choices and uneven vocals).

Though Barclay James Harvest was leagues from plagiarism, the match-up to the Moodies was impossible to avoid. This lied not only in the orchestral echo to Days of Future Past but just as much in a heavy use of progrock's most beloved instrument, the mellotron, as well as a blanketingly cosmic tenor, ethereal vocals, and gentle Blake-ian approaches to philosophy. The boys were capable of weighty explorations and early wrapped up their trademark in a fantastic opus, "Dark Now My Skies," a sprawling 12-minute symphonic masterpiece that thunders and whispers in gorgeously realized complexity. It opens with an almost-embarassingly ham-fisted take on the Moodies' penchant for spoken intros carrying strange twists, a narrative wallowing in the Theatre Of Agonized Self-Inspection that was sophomorically endearing straight off the bat but became even more so as the years went by, gaining weight through nostalgia. It hurtled straight into a roiling tsunami of musical prowess, orchestral madness, and violent beauty. Hearing that song amongst the treasury of incredible musics of the first year of the '70's was a revelation. It stunned the listener with its power and cyclonic majesty, a Dantean tour of cyclonic Hell come to Earth, spiced by existential lament and fragile calms.

The song was the centerpiece of the initial release, a mixed bag, exposing the group's broad range, establishing them as comers, muscularly so, and gentlemen to be watched. "Iron Maiden" was another tune that would draw Moody Blues comparisons ever closer. A wistfully sparse ode, it first appears to be a melancholic paean on love's bitter pleasures but is actually a regretful indictment of the hazards of allying with a manipulative and destructive femme fatale - decidely a non-Moodies subject. As a matter of side attention, the second guitar in "Taking Some Time On" is commonly held to be Lees tracking himself but isn't. Wielding that auxilliary axe is James Litherland from Colosseum, going uncredited, a practice that would prove to be a little too common for this band and one that would land them in a position that would much later return to bite them, as we'll find.

Where Hayward & Co. were known for cosmic artwork on each LP jacket, Barclay James Harvest (1970) cryptically also heralded a trademark: a butterfly, in this case artfully worked (four of them, we may note) into a fetchingly faux stained-glass design. All seven songs were highly attractive but "Dark Now My Skies" remains the monster pick, cipheric of everything that identified progrock then: vaulting themes, orchestra, wailing guitar riding heaving swells of tempestuous music like a doomed ship out of Coleridge, lyrics arising from areas other than the crotch, and a dexterity that would turn most composers and players on their heads. The release was unignorable...

...but not unneglectable. Where it may have set a number of intellectuals on their cerebral ear, listening circle and critic alike, it didn't do well over the counter. For such a breath-taking release, it's acceptance was slow, mostly due to the difficulties of securing play time on the air. Boasting no lack of airable material, it fell prey to the radio milieu. Jocks back then were frequently on the take, not playing their own preferances quite so often as has now been mythologically claimed - one need only read interviews with past DJs and books like Frederic Dannen's The Hit Men to understand this. Confronting such an obstacle, gross disappointment would be understandable and, indeed, probably riveted the hearts of the quartet, but BJH was nothing if not persistent, as their later history would amply show.

Thus, they once more retired to the sticks and, this time, pulled out all the stops, producing Once Again (1971), an even more sterling example of the genre, again roaming territory from the mellow "Galadriel" and "Vanessa Simmons" to the overpowering "She Said," logical successor to "Dark Now My Skies." It providentially contained the song that would become the band's signature, "Mockingbird," surviving the changes that would later erupt. As ever, John Lees' distorted guitar and Stewart "Wooly" Wolstenholme's mellotron dominated the album, accompanied by Lees' and Les Holroyd's airy vocals, so that the Moody sound was ever more invoked. BJH, however, struck out for territory the Blues would never cover: "She Said" was so heavy it verged on metal, rescued by a pervasive side reality dotted by ethereal interpolations.

One of the abstracted butterflies was lifted from the first LP and composed the entirety of the second's cover, a gatefold, writ large to let the world know where the visual trademark lay. Pastorality, despite the sturm und drang of some of the material, was the group's calling card. Nor should Pritchard's and Holroyd's instrumental contributions be ignored for the more in-your-face eruditions of Lees and Wolstenholme. They worked in relative simplicity, in start contrast to the flashier pyrotechnics of their compeers. Holroyd's bass lines should especially be paid attention to, having much in common with the better designwork-fretsmen of the time. Once Again opened into what would increasingly encroach upon the secularly spiritual nature of the poetry in each song: a cloaked but evident Christianity (unless I'm mistaken, BJH never wrote an instrumental - the only available such thing being a non-vocal version of "Victims of Circumstance" on Endless Dream, a rescue from the archives). This accorded well with the degree of compassion displayed in the oeuvre. By no means absent elsewhere, BJH employed a much more humane tack. Of course, much genre predilection was apocalyptic or sardonic - as in King Crimson's screamingly cynical and laconic ditties or Genesis's sci-fi lampoons, Orwellian takes on modern society's foibles sculpted in medieval haberdashing - but there was more than enough room for a genteel voice. All this naturally made for an improved sales account.

It did not, though, pay Crowther back and neither was Robert Godfrey tremendously happy. Crowther bowed out and Godfrey, from what few accounts there are, wasn't terribly hospitable and so was shown the door (he'd sue and, after a prolonged court fight, find a rough justice but little sympathy in the judiciary) while the symphony's leader, Martyn Ford, found himself yanked into the conductor-arranger spot, from whence he'd thenceforward lord benevolently over a number of choice sessions for many groups for years and years, well beyond BJ Harvest.

Rushing to capitalize on increased success amid growing pains, Barclay James Harvest and Other Short Stories (1972) issued after only nine months and got pretty much trounced, unfairly but understandably. It and its successor, Baby James Harvest, were both under the gun. The lack of studio time devoted to the former and the near-complete abandonment of original intent in the latter caused innumerable problems and much frustration. Short Stories was an excellent LP but measurably sparer in contast, not only in orchestrations, which it certainly had and used well, but also in its starker flavor, an overpowering melancholy that seemed almost defeatist. Oddly, the LP, despite being obviously prog, was richly folkish, shown most clearly in "Little Lapwing," nearly CSNY at moments. Also, the engineering could've been a hell of a lot better while the compositions seemed less considered. The first song, "Medicine Man," fairly epitomized it all: the beat is sluggish, the atmosphere morose, and the mood defeatist. Gloriously so, what with the strings and horns sweeping and blaring, but dispiriting, a weird narcotic bath in an almost anaesthetic cloud chamber, thrilling in its plaintive crafting but inevitably depressing. It would later be re-tooled into one of their most memorable songs and a standard in concert fare, with a dynamic and insistent guitar line replacing the central orchestra. "Someone There You Know" then didn't lift spirits any, lonely in its longing for a familiar face. The mix is uneven, the sound tinny, defeating what should have been a more spectacular lament, a close and energetic cousin to the Moody Blues' mellifluous "Watching and Waiting." Throughout, Pritchard's drums are too much to the front of the image and Holroyd's bass muddy. The vocals are out of timbral joint with the accompaniment and Wolstenholme's frequently recessed. Still, it's a tarnished gem, just one not destined for chart-climbing, indicative of the whole release. It was also, we may archly note, the first LP without Godfrey.

Baby Jame Harvest (1972) was originally planned to be a unique 2-LP set somewhat patterned after Pink Floyd's infamous Ummagumma, similar to the later ELP Works, wherein each member was to receive an entire side to play around in. The label decided the double-LP and its concept were too risky, forcing the group to scramble in making up the difference. The folky "mistakes" of the previous LP were noted and remedied - Baby reached back to the Once Again sound but wasn't engineered well, too thin in many places. The cosmic strains returned, leaking through in the initial tune, "Crazy (Over You)." "Summer Soldier" was a lengthy (10:24) opus that opened upon the Vanilla Fudge's idea for The Beat Goes On, with a collage-history intro. A stripped-down new aspect of the group was most apparent here, a wrinkle both good and bad. On the one hand, it forced the group to show itself more rawly; on the other, the climate shift from the lusher first two LP's was a bit unsettling. Lees especially benefited in this period. His electric guitar is Gilmourian, bluesy and psychedelic, highly expressive and individualized, and he's playing more acoustic lines than ever. Crazy was the latest in a string of three: following "Dark Now My Skies" and "She Said," fascinating in its barren frame, spooky and dry, buttressing an internal theme on the human toll of war.

Aficionados argue over these two LP's but they're generally considered a lower point in the first half of the group's canon. This isn't to say they're in any way ignorable. Especially Baby is rich with surprises and pleasures, but every group goes through a lull in potency; this was theirs. In fact, Short Stories is almost as from another group entirely, though its character would appear once more in the second half of their long and varied career.

At this point, not only was the situation with label execs tiring but the demands and expense of traveling with an orchestra impossible. Combining those with a dismal record in singles sales and moderate LP success created a recipe for disaster. Harvest dropped them. The front-office penguins, however, hadn't noted a very important peripheral matter: the gents were quite successful live. Their audience had grown with every album until attaining respectable, even enviable, numbers. Ticket sales alone were nothing to be sneezed at and that factor seems to have weighed most heavily in competing label Polydor's decision to quickly pick the group up... minus orchestra. Even better, luminary Roger Bain, most noted for his work with metal groups Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Budgie, and others, was assigned the production task. This wasn't an insignificant matter, resulting in the group's most cohesive work to that time. Bain would be retained for the band's first concert LP, Live, as well.

1974-1979: Flying
From New Wings to Harsh Plummet

Everyone is Everybody Else (1974), a strangely zen title for gents with distinctly Christian leanings, began a long and fruitful relationship with Polydor. Everyone nailed together portions of various things BJH had been working on. Bain proved to be a wise producer, melding their numerous attributes into a compelling whole dominated by the lazy lamentative stratosphere running so markedly throughout their history. The LP milestoned a significant departure point: though some songs from here on out, such as "Paper Wings," would be speedy and insistent, the ensemble would never again indulge in near-metal compositions like "She Said." That day was gone. Too bad, as such had promised a confabulation, were it to have been pursued, that might have resulted in an LP akin to Uriah Heep's Salisbury or Gun's first effort. Still, Everyone was a sublime masterpiece of this little practiced corner of the prog universe. Few groups had the delicacy of soul to weave the tapestries here produced: Jonesy, Gravytrain, the Moodies, as well as a few dabbling here and there (Master's Apprentice, Alquin, the later Rare Bird, etc.), but the turf covered was exclusively Barclay's.

Showing that Polydor had gambled wisely, Live (1974), finally catching the band up to an industry standard, became their first visible success, a charting album announcing they'd edged into the Big Time. Issuing it was a canny move, showcasing not only recent declensions but roaring with the power and majesty of the past - except for "Dark Now My Skies," which they'd never again do: without an orchestra, it seemed impossible and none of the writers were inclined to re-transcribe for quartet (however, in 2002, a CD of 1972 performances appeared, with the orchestra; "Dark" appears, albeit in a weirdly interesting state of dishabille). So "She Said" remained their earthshaker while other tunes received extended treatments delivered with relish and authority. The two-fer showed why the band had grown to be an in-demand concert pull, stepping back into their founding tone, drenched in mellotron and Lees' chilling guitarwork, drawing every moment out into a theatrical display, stretching aching emotions. Pritchard had fully matured into his drumwork, slipping well past the simpler Graeme Edge function he'd served before (and would permanently resume in their later mainstream game) while Holroyd remained the bedrock he'd ever been, if anything more gauzy and expansive, not entirely done justice in the miking. However, the sympatico between Lees and Woolstoneholme always most epitomized the group and the segue here between "Summer Soldier" and "Medicine Man" shows just one of many examples of this. Normally, such a move would be a trifling way to get on with the program but this made it a moment to send chills up listeners' spines. Live launched them in the public's eye so well that it'd be quite some time before their star faded.

Time-Honored Ghosts (1975) was their next release, an overtly Christian collection, thematics thought long since sent packing, as Everybody had seemed to dispel the latency and Live was completely devoid of it, but no, the boys had Jesus on their minds and would have their way, one cut even being titled after him ("Sweet Jesus," which has Les Holroyd singing like John Batdorf). Well, what the hell, the proclivity had gifted some marvelous spirit-oriented work elsewhere (Phil Keaggy, the Resurrection Band, Larry Norman, etc.), so not much complaint would wriggle its way through anyone's lips. "In My Life" kicked off the sermon with a reflection on greed, perfectly transitioning from Everybody, missing neither beat nor note. Tributes were also big this time around. "Titles" was a strange and cynical mash-up of cribbed lines from the Beatles and "Jonathan" yet another in a tiring string of the era's Livingston Seagull weepers cobbled from Richard Bach's wretched bestseller. However, BJH's takes were fanciful, catchy, and lugubrious. Elliot Mazer (producer for Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and such) had taken Bain's spot with nary a hitch, leaving a winning formula to sell itself, stepping up several rungs from Live's gratifications. The band would never shake its Moody Blues yoke, but they presently sounded like a cross twixt that shining band, Batdorf & Rodney, and Glass Harp. Happy with the elpee, fans were nonetheless nervous what the Christ-consciousness might portend.

As it turned out, they needn't have fretted. Octoberon (1976) became another amalgamation of past tendencies and new explorations, drawing an orchestra back in, this time conducted through velvet by Ritchie Close. To call the album a concept LP might be slightly off the mark, the songs don't really cohere through narrative except in the loosest fashion, but the atmosphere is homogenous and each cut flows like liquid gold. Much of the lyricality is a downer but poetically so, the chorales and brass decorations gussying them up in homey and classical familiarity. There's a void being described here, winding to its end in the final cut, "Suicide?," where the death spoken of is not physical but spiritual, concluding in the clever pseudo death-leap "Felt the quick push / Felt the air rush / Felt the sidewalk / Fell in line," a condemnation of herd consciousness as cold as it is merciful. This time, the band produced itself, obviously hip to their own game and as smooth as they'd ever be. Were they desirous of escaping the Moody Blues imprecations, they couldn't have picked a worse song than "Ra" to do it through, with its haunting "Nights in White Satin" refrains.

Throwing in the towel on the subject, in Gone to Earth (1977), Lees scribed a cut to a moniker laid by many crits, accusing BJH of being, as he mocked back, a "Poor Man's Moody Blues." The song neither confirmed nor refuted the epithet but provided yet more "White Satin" melodies tightly packed into a threnodic cosmic ballad. In Gone, we were also back in church. The group seemed to have leaped completely over to Christianity, as half the songs explicitly entertained questions of faith, virgin birth, Jesus, God, salvation, and the usual gaggle of holy Western oddments. Still no complaints, though; Gone completed a trio of luxuriously somnolent song cycles. In a markedly different way, BJH had become as dependable as in old. In West Germany, the release sold 100,000 copies and became, overall, their world best seller. Wolstenholme had always professed a love for Mahler ("Moonwater," in Baby James Harvest, had been struck from Gustavian models) and these last few albums carried that lovely death-pall, the dolor that so readily marks the Austrian composer's work. Something in the cross between trad progrock values and the subject of redemption amidst a world gone horribly pale and decadent appealed to listeners and not only the LPs but their concert schedule did brisk business. BJH appearances were well-favored across the continent but especially in the Rhineland, which has always had a special love for prog bands who fared less well on their own turf (as witness the partiality to Saga, Fish, etc.).

Because the tide had turned so noticeably with the last live album, it was decided another would cement their momentum, thus Live Tapes was issued, something of a vindication against a small lament that the ensemble had completely abandoned the muscularity of old. It opened with a powerful rendition of "Child of the Universe" and illustrated how perfected the band had become. As a continuation of the earlier Live, little more could be asked. The documentation was better, more sensitive, and Wolstenholme was at his absolute height as a player, composer, and improv artist, throwing in innumerable ameliorations to BJH standards. So as not to reduplicate the ‘74 gig, only a few oldies were included, concentration was made on the recent triad of studio releases... and a good thing, too: the group was about to change, as we'll see. Tapes carried the smoother era well but heavied it up. Where Wolstenholme was painting vast pastoral environments, Lees' guitar burned and keened, sparking fire atop each tune, digging into the compositions and lighting up modal corridors. Progrock had few finer moments than in BJH's live sets, keeping alive a sound that was already shifting from its origins. Each side of the double-release carried only three songs; extensions and jams were the order of the day, perhaps not as rapturously prolonged as fans might have hoped - the lads were not aping Deep Purple, after all - but delicious and forlorn, elaborating, via Hesse-ian insights, the sadness inherent in existence. Naturally, sales were very gratifying.

See Part 2 (of 3) of the BJH article

Also see our follow-up installment in the Barclay James Harvest story

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