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Barclay James Harvest

Quintessentially English and ever so autumnal and pastoral, contemporary prog-rock outfit BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST proved a hit with the student fraternity throughout the 70s and transitional 80s. However their heavy use of mellotron proved none too popular with the critics of the day, who, at times, lambasted the band for their neo-classical pretentions, which led to them unfairly being described by the music press as “the poor man’s MOODY BLUES”. Closer to the likes of STRAWBS, The BEATLES, TRAFFIC or The BEE GEES, Messrs Stuart “Woolly” Wolstenholme (vocals/keyboards), John Lees (guitar/vocals), Les Holroyd (bass/vocals) and Mel Pritchard (drums), couldn’t cut it on a global scale, but Old Blighty and parts of Europe (especially Germany) couldn’t get enough of BJH’s close-knit harmonies and solid melodies; `Mocking Bird’, `She Said’ and `Medicine Man’ are classics by any standards.
Formed September ’66 in Saddleworth, Oldham (in Greater Manchester), art school students Lees and Wolstenholme graduated from the Blues Keepers, combining forces alongside Holroyd and Pritchard to emerge as the short-lived Wickeds. Fresh from signing a deal with Parlophone/EMI Records, BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST saw their debut single, `Early Morning’ (b/w `Mr. Sunshine’), flounder among the post-psychedelic generation, but the record’s hymnal, Moog-flavoured pastorals saw comparisons to the aforementioned MOODY BLUES. Label executives duly moved the quartet along the corridor to their aptly-named Harvest imprint, a label who could concentrate of the emerging prog-rock scene. Sadly, their follow-up single, `Brother Thrush’, failed to generate interest in 1969, but there was at least potential in their folky meanderings.
Exactly a year on, their eponymous Norman Smith-produced debut album, BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST (1970) {*7} – recorded with a full orchestra conducted by future ENID maestro Robert John Godfrey – brought forth their typically prog-rock sound. `The Sun Will Never Shine’, the genteel `Mother Dear’ and the counter-productive flop 45, `Taking Some Time On’, were matched with the bombastic `When The World Was Woken’ (a leaner and whiter shade of PROCOL HARUM) and the symphonic 12-minute concept, `Dark Now My Sky’, characterised their warts ’n’ all tapestry of delights.
BJH’s follow-up, ONCE AGAIN (1971) {*8}, featured, what was to become their best-known track, `Mocking Bird’, one-that-got-away and a combination of both tender harmonies and quality instrumentation. Ditto the opening 8-minute salvo, `She Said’, an emotional but hard-driving tearjerker for head-bangers that received unwarranted short-shrift by some “Moody”-biased critics. Okay, the album had more than its fair share of melancholy moments, but heavenly highlights came thick and fast by way of `Song For Dying’ (showcasing Lees’ axeman-styled licks), the fragile `Galadriel’ and the voodoo beat of `Ball And Chain’.
The 4-piece carried on in the same vein with third album, BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST …AND OTHER SHORT STORIES (1971) {*7}. Relying this time on Baroque BEATLES touches and the odd Americanised infiltration, opener `Medicine Man’, `Someone There You Know’ and the double-headed curtain closer, `The Poet – After The Day’ (medley), proved beyond doubt they could match organic pop with orchestration.
While steps towards a UK pop hit, `Breathless’ (as pseudonymous Tolkien story, Bombadil) proved futile, BABY JAMES HARVEST (1972) {*6}, ended their Harvest years in fine, if not overpowering form. Predating a similarly-titled and themed HEART track by a few years, `Crazy Over (You)’, commenced the slightly underwhelming set, powered on by epic prog pieces, `One Hundred Thousand Smiles Out’ and the KING CRIMSON-esque `Summer Soldier’; an outtake 45, `Rock And Roll Woman’, died in its attempt to create a hit.
A lucrative contract with Polydor Records finally yielded some critical appraisal for album number five, EVERYONE IS EVERYBODY ELSE (1974) {*8} – it remains a mystery to most why it didn’t chart. Softer and aimed towards a more mainstream audience, prog-like heavies were almost abandoned for CROSBY, STILLS & NASH-like harmonies, albeit with their trademark Mellotron/PINK FLOYD-esque soundscapes. `Child Of The Universe’, `Paper Wings’, `Poor Boy Blues’, the fuzz-friendly `Crazy City’ and the exquisite `For No One’, found global appeal, while there was probably fun times through procuring a revised version of `The Great 1974 Mining Disaster’, updating The BEE GEES’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941”.
By this stage their live appeal was such that Polydor Records duly rush-released a concert double-set, LIVE (1974) {*8}, a masterful retrospection that encompassed everything they’d been working towards during their career. One of the greatest live collections of all time for a relatively unknown but workhorse band, extended versions of `Medicine Man’, `Mockingbird’, `For No One’, et al, were just the ticket to draw in old fans, as it cracked the elusive Top 40.
Although the States had somehow ignored them, they’d won over many converts in Britain and beyond, who would appreciated the finer points of prog or symphonic rock. Taking their mantle from BEATLES classics through the song-checking `Titles’, TIME HONOURED GHOSTS (1975) {*6}, also made inroads into the charts, stalling at No.32. While `Moongirl’ and `In My Life’ also provided backlash from Fab Four acolytes, there was substance in the moribund `Beyond The Grave’ and `Song For You’.
A little more mystical and PINK FLOYD-ian in their Top 20 breakthrough, OCTOBERON (1976) {*6}, the BJH harmonies were all ever-present on the folky `The World Goes On’, `Ra’ and `Suicide’; a “Live” EP featuring `Rock & Roll Star’ dented the Top 50 the following spring. With the onset of the “new wave” explosion, the group were forced into the margins, although they retained a loyal family of fans for the religiously-motivated GONE TO EARTH (1977) {*7}. Opening salvo, `Hymn’, might well’ve been better aimed at the Xmas market, while there was room for a bit of jiggery-pokery in the majestic “Nights In White Satin”-like, tongue-in-cheek, `Poor Man’s Moody Blues’. `Sea Of Tranquillity’, `Leper’s Song’ and harmony-THE BEACH BOYS-laden `Spirit Of The Water’ (and `Taking Me Higher’) drew in the odd comparison once again, while Woolly’s distinctive Mellotron looked to be sacrificed for conventional instrumentation. Updating the obligatory concert double, LIVE TAPES (1978) {*4}, fell short of its predecessors magnificence, as the band now looked to the future through near Top 30 studio follow-up, XII (1978) {*5}. By way of the very “Wishing Well”-FREE leanings of the generic ballad, `Loving Is Easy’, and the simple, laid bare escape of `Berlin’, BJH looked to be struggling to find something fresh and inventive among their slick pack of delicacies.
Without Wolstenholme to stem the tide of discontent among the critics and fanbase, EYES OF THE UNIVERSE (1979) {*4} and TURN OF THE TIDE (1981) {*5}, were met with mute response, only the live-at-Reichstag set, A CONCERT FOR THE PEOPLE (BERLIN) (1982) {*7}, managing to take the once glorious BJH back to their heyday.
Both RING OF CHANGES (1983) {*5} and VICTIMS OF CIRCUMSTANCE (1984) {*4} careered into the Top 40, but these were albums big on pomp and arrangement rather than quality songs. Ditto 1987’s FACE TO FACE {*3} – their last UK chart effort – the Berlin update GLASNOST (1988) {*4} and the BJH-credited WELCOME TO THE SHOW (1990) {*4}. CAUGHT IN THE LIGHT (1993) {*5} and German-only comeback album, RIVER OF DREAMS (1997) {*3} marked time before the trio gave up their time honoured ghostly aspirations.
Post-millennium , BJH split into two confusing factions, one fronted by John Lees on the THROUGH THE EYES OF JOHN LEES (2000) {*4} double-set, the other as BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST FEATURING LES HOLROYD: REVOLUTION DAYS (2002) {*4} and LIVE IN BOHN (2003) {*4}. Of the two, John Lees’ BJH outfit had the more staying power, echoed on mainly further live efforts only pleasing to their most loyal of supporters. Sadly, both Pritchard and Wolstenholme have passed on to the other side, the former on 28th January 2004, and the latter solo artist on 13th December 2010.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Dec2012

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