Barclay James Harvest Discography
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Barclay James Harvest
and other short stories
5th November, 2011 -
the 40th Anniversary of the band's third album
It's well documented that 1972's Baby James Harvest was originally conceived as a two LP set to be called Four Winds, but in fact the idea of a BJH double album goes back to at least May 1971, when Woolly told Melody Maker, "We are planning a double album of one LP featuring the group on its own and the other with the group augmented by a full orchestra." A week later Martyn Ford, who had recently taken over from Robert Godfrey as the band's orchestral arranger, was quoted in the same paper as saying that the album would be recorded with the Boston Pops Orchestra orchestra in New York in June. The piece reported that the band already had a fair amount of material ready, and would be working "flat out" on new numbers before the two day recording session. It all came to nought, though, most likely at the point where the EMI executives saw the proposed budget, and plans were hastily scaled back to recording with the band's own orchestra at EMI's own Abbey Road studios.Although Norman Smith had produced the first two BJH albums at Abbey Road, by June 1971 he was a pop star in his own right, as "Hurricane" Smith, with "Don't Let It Die" reaching number 2 in the charts. Nominally he was also in charge of the new BJH recording, and was eventually credited as "Executive Producer", but in practice the real work would fall on the shoulders of Wally Allen, bassist with labelmates The Pretty Things and now Norman's protégé as a new EMI Staff Producer. Norman's direct involvement in the recording process was, says Wally: "None at all. The emergence of "Hurricane Smith" as a career choice changed everything. I did, as a matter of courtesy play him a couple of rough mixes - he tried to appear as interested as possible, but his world his been hit by a sea change, and his thoughts were no longer centred on other artists' musical output." For Wally, Barclay James Harvest and other short stories was his first major project as a producer, and as he freely admits, he wasn't very familiar with the band's music:
"Naturally, when I was handed the brief, I listened to their previous album before I met them and started work. In my own defence, I should say that I am not a great listener - I would always doodle around on a guitar or something, rather than put on an album, to amuse myself. I'm not sure whether that's good or bad, but it's just the way it was, and still is. I'm a willing participant, but not a very good spectator. If I am influenced and affected by other people's music it is in an almost subliminal way, and I think that is probably more profound."
Those rough mixes are very likely the same ones which appeared on the All Is Safely Gathered In box set in 2006 - mono mixes of "Medicine Man", "Ursula" and "Someone There You Know" with early vocal takes and before the orchestral parts were added.
For the band, it was a challenge working with an inexperienced producer, but John was pleased enough with the results to work with Wally again on his solo album a year later:
"The noises were excellent, and the only bone I had with Wally was that he'd come in fresh so he did not know what we were trying to achieve. It wasn't until after we'd recorded 'other short stories' and he'd seen the different arrangements we'd got for stage that he realised what we were trying to do."
Wally also ran up against cultural differences with the north/south divide:
"I remember the band's absolute incredulity that I'd never heard of Vimto, which apparently was a kind of Northern version of Tizer. I've seen it around since, but in the early seventies (and being a Southerner born and bred) it had never crossed my path, and every time I see a bottle of Vimto now, it always gives me a little chuckle. Funny how little things like that can stick in your mind."
Key to the end product of the recording sessions was Martyn Ford, who would be responsible for the orchestral arrangements and recordings as conductor of his own Martyn Ford Orchestra. For him the experience was a dream come true:
"Firstly it was Abbey Road, which was a legendary place, and it was sessions, and sessions were like Hollywood, it was the peak of your career. Here I was in my last year at the Royal Academy of Music, and I was already doing sessions. Here we were in Abbey Road Studios, with an orchestra and a band, trying to make a great album. It was a good album, but it could have been a lot better.You just assumed that everybody must know what they're doing! Norman just wafted in and out, and was like a waste of space. That was the first realisation when I thought, "I could produce records". Luckily the band and myself just hauled it together."
Recording began on 5th July, 1971, and first track to be recorded was "Little Lapwing" - unique in the annals of BJH in that the music was all written and mostly played by Les (all guitars, bass and piano) but the lyrics were penned by John. The orchestral coda was recorded later and edited on.
The enigmatic lyrics of "Harry's Song" were finally explained by John about twenty years later, much to the surprise of many a lover of the song. Some things are, perhaps, better left mysterious:
"It was written after the death of a much-loved family pet, a blue-fronted Amazon parrot, which gave us a lot of pleasure."
The whole album had to be recorded in a relatively short time to fit in with the band's schedule and EMI's financial constraints, and some songs suffered as a result. Mel told Zig Zag magazine that:
"One track, 'Harry's Song', was left unfinished because we just didn't have any time left to put on the piano, another guitar and all the vocals we wanted."
Woolly's "Ursula (The Swansea Song)" and "Someone There You Know" were both written about the break-up of a relationship, one which had a profound effect on Woolly, and was even the subject of one of the last songs which Woolly ever wrote, when he finally achieved "Closure". Both "Ursula" and "Someone" had already been heard on a Bob Harris radio session, first broadcast on the day the band began recording the album, and "Ursula" was a brand new composition, as Woolly explained:
"We came to the end of the session and were scratching around for some new numbers to record. I'd just written "Ursula" and the arrangment hadn't really been thought out, but we let the tape machine roll and managed to put something down!"
The barely there but rather gorgeous piano-led session version of the song contrasts starkly with the finished arrangement on the album, where it is transformed into a kind of jolly sea-shanty, the music rather at odds with the poignancy of the lyrics. The beautiful ending, with an F# major chord coming after an A major finish, was Woolly's attempt to link "Ursula" with "Little Lapwing" in a seamless segue, but to no avail, as on the finished pressings a standard three-second gap completely neutralises the intended effect. "Someone There You Know" featured Les on piano, whilst Woolly played the Mellotron parts.
Les's ethereal "Song With No Meaning" perfectly captures a lazy summer's day - Les was again helped out in the lyrics department, this time by his girlfriend, Christine, and Mel. Les played nearly all the guitars on the recording, with the exception of some twelve-string courtesy of Woolly.
By way of contrast, John's gritty "Blue John's Blues" was recorded on the same day as "Song With No Meaning". A sideswipe at the music business, the song expresses John's frustrations on the position the band found themselves in at the time. The deceptively simple opening piano chords give way to a rocky chorus and the whole thing ends in a gloriously chaotic boogie.
The recording sessions had to be interrupted for rehearsals for the band's appearance at the now-legendary Weeley Festival near Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, where Martyn Ford conducted band and orchestra in a triumphant performance which is still fondly remembered by many who were there.
Buoyed by their success, they returned to Abbey Road to finish the album in the first week of September, completing "Blue John's Blues" and recording a brand new song, "Medicine Man". John explains the inspiration behind the song:
"The song is based on the book 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' by Ray Bradbury, which I read while flying to Germany for a holiday. After I'd finished the book it so affected me that I wrote "Medicine Man" immediately."
Martyn Ford's orchestral arrangement complemented the acoustic opening of the song, and the tale of a sinister travelling fair and a carousel which can make the riders of its flying horses grow younger or older inspired some of John's most evocative lyrics, creating an instant BJH classic. The song has been through many incarnations in the ensuing forty years, and still makes regular appearances in John's live sets, where it is transformed into an amazing twelve-minute psychedelic prog rock work out.
John's apocalyptic closer, "After The Day" was preceded by a delicate, introspective piece called "The Poet", and described by Woolly thus:
"The song was written in 1967, and is really having a go at the self-importance of `the artist' - that kind of 'sit next to me and listen but don't touch or criticise' attitude. Toni and Martyn did the orchestral link between it and 'After The Day'".
Martyn Ford describes how the wonderful orchestral transition between the two songs was achieved:
"There was a very talented musician and horn player at the Academy, a friend of mine called Toni Cooke, and I asked her to write (the arrangment for) "The Poet" and I think I did "After The Day". We kind of did it between us, and she wrote the link between the two songs, and I was a bit twitchy about it!"
Martyn's anxiety was unfounded, as the combination of his and Toni's efforts worked superbly.
Wally Allen also made a musical contribution to "After The Day":
"I had an idea for the harmony on "After The Day", I sang it to them, and they liked it. I think we tried both Woolly and Les on the part, but it wasn't sounding right. Finally, I think it was Woolly who said 'I think you'd better sing it, Wal, it suits your underground voice.' I'm not quite sure what an underground voice is or was, but anyway, when it came to mixing the track I kept it well to the rear!"
Like "Medicine Man", "After The Day" became an instant BJH classic, and the pairing of the two songs is still performed live in concert to this day, to rapturous crowds.
Athough Barclay James Harvest and other short stories does suffer slightly from having been rather rushed in the studio, it still sounds extraordinarily fresh, and contains at least two bona fide BJH classics. It has tended to be overshadowed somewhat by its highly-regarded predecessor, Once Again, so the occasion of its fortieth birthday provides a welcome opportunity to reassess what is actually a very fine album in its own right, and to hear why to a significant number of the band's aficionados, this is Barclay James Harvest at their very best.
And finally ... we mustn't forget the wonderfully, er, period sleevenotes from the original LP,
penned by Roy Hollingworth of Melody Maker:
If you've ever travelled on a sleezy football special, ankle
deep in brown ale and Woodbines, and through a peek-hole
in the window, caught a glimpse of a field of Yorkshire
sunshine - you'd be getting close to what Barclay James
are all about. Not that the Barclays are Woody-chuffing boozers (although some may dispute that!) - they are the other, that field of warmth, that causes the eye to squint
a little, makes the present atmosphere frost, stand still,
In this heaving, milling restaurant of rock, Barclay's present another room, just a turn-off from the main eating hall. There's a good oak table, skeely steel knives, fresh napkins, and a different menu. Golden, weaping butter, no smarmy marg, brown bread, and something tasty. Yeh, something tasty.
. . . . . . ."Eeee lad!, where's thee at", grits Ned Slack, up from the pit and smelly. "Tha's wafflin" like a sherried Curate. Thou knows Barclay's are as goo-lookin' as 'the back of a Sheffield tram, but by, they sling out a good tune or two. Speak sense lad, and less of this woman's tongue. "Ned, leg-strings in a tangle, falls in a lump . . . . . . .
Now Hard Groin play loud music that tears flesh from sturdy bones, and has the effect of Strontium 90. We dig it. But we also have other sides to our emotions, sides that can be stimulated by a gentle, yet strong catalyst. Barclays
are that catalyst. They create peaceful, lotus emotions. They are that ?eld of sunshine, that slow, graceful movement. Laze down real low. Pump it through your ears. Let out the day, and slip in the Barclays. Hope you understand.
"By lad, thee does try".