Barclay James Harvest
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Mel Pritchard Interview, 1990
This interview was conducted by Keith Domone and Kevin Goodman for the official BJH fan club magazine, Nova Lepidoptera, and first appeared in issue #10 of NL in July 1990.
NL: First of all, "Welcome To The Show" Ė are you pleased by the reaction to it?
MEL: Yes, very much so. Iím pleased especially that we got a vibe out of the English record company, which hasnít happened for a long time. The Germans seem to be taking to it, the French reaction is a bit slow, but thereís new territories like Italy that seem to be getting into it. I particularly like the album. I think it went a long way into what the idea of the album was, which was maybe a cross between "Gone To Earth" and 1990 Ė the melody and feel of those songs but yet putting modern things with it.
NL: A number of the fan club members have said that itís the best one since "Gone To Earth"Ö
MEL: I think it is. When it was done I listened to it incessantly and as you grow into it thereís a nice cohesion with it; thereís a lot of different things happening on it. You get some albums Ė not naming names Ė but they have a sound, a snare drum sound or a guitar sound or a new synthesiser sound and itís on every second track, whereas I think with this thereís been a lot of separation. A song is an entity and has moved along on that direction, without losing sight of what the song was about.
NL: Itís been said that your drumming on the LP is the best youíve done in ages. do you feel youíve improved over the years?
MEL: To be frank a lot of that was actually sat down and written and put into machines with Jon Astley. In terms of hands on I didnít do that much, but in terms of putting my ideas into the machine a lot of it was mine. Theyíll all be reproducible on stage, but there wasnít an awful lot of live playing.
NL: Weíve had a lot of favourable comment about the break in "African Nights".
MEL: Yeah, that again was Steve Piggott Ė he had this idea of doing something with the end, so we sat down and worked this thing out. Itíll be interesting if we do it on stage to find out if I can do it; I mean, I can do it in my head, but the test is in the stage music. In fact I know I can do it! If itís going in the act itíll be fun, because hopefully weíll have a percussionist with us, so we could do a full number with that ending.
NL: John said that he felt that you were all really enjoying recording the album, that thereís more of a group feeling.
MEL: Yes thatís absolutely right. Itís just that I think weíve been together for so long now, you go through phases; itís like in marriage or any consortium. With this one everyone seemed to have their head on doing exactly the same thing, and going back to it I think the record company being involved helped a lot. Itís alright having all this success in Europe and everything, but if your English record company or peers get involved in it, it helps everything to gel a little better. Itís all reflected, I think, in the closeness of the band and the direction that everybody wanted to go in.
NL: What was it like working with Jon Astley and Andy Mac?
MEL: I quite enjoyed it. Jon Astley was there on the pre-production and actually putting the songs into shape, and that gave me more time to work on ideas to do with drums and everything. Once they were in a kind of rough outline shape with no vocals on or any of the top colours, then it would be taken upstairs, because we were working downstairs with the programming, and then weíd all get involved with it. Jon Astley set songs in directions that possibly they wouldnít have gone without him but thatís always the case with producers. With Pip Williams there were some songs that went in ways that never in our wildest would have gone that way, but the record company got Jon Astley and ourselves together, and we decided we wanted the classic Barclay James Harvest brought up to date, and I think itís worked.
NL: There seemed to be one or two last minute changes.
MEL: Well, one of the things was John had written "Origin Earth" and at the same time Les had written "Shadows". "Origin Earth" had been put down into a rough idea with programmes and everything, and Les had got another song, but he didnít want to use that Ė he wanted to use "Shadows". Jon Astley was back down at his place in Twickenham, because he was working on his solo album, so Les, myself and this other guy went in and put the basis of "Shadows" down. It was based on a Zulu chant; it could have gone a little bit further than that, but there again if we do it on stage there is room for more African-type percussion. The song that was going to be on was virtually finished and that was just put on one side for this new thing at the last minute. That always goes on: itís something youíve to set within time schedules, but a lot of the time someone just gets a better idea.
NL: So what happens to songs like that one of Lesís that was almost ready?
MEL: Thatís really up to Les: it might come up on the next album with a totally different concept, or he might take it away and write a song about that. It didnít have a name, it was just a rhythm track with very moody chords. It had got a melody which heíd hummed to me and Jon Astley had programmed it to the format Les wanted, but he came up with "Shadows", then within the last three weeks John arrived with "Origin Earth" Ė itís an ongoing thing.
NL: Do you enjoy live work?
MEL: Yes. Albums are pleasing but sometimes itís almost like being in an audio office! When you go out there it can be tiring, but when you get to that stage when the butterflies start going and you hear the response of the audience, thereís no other feeling like it. Itís just that youíve got to do recorded work to reach out to people, and hopefully when we do recorded work people that along out of interest come out saying "Oh, Iím going to get the album": a fan, or a potential fan.
NL: How will you prepare for the tour?
MEL: First weíre going to have to start looking at the set list. I spoke to Les about it especially because I thin "Spirit On The Water", which was offÖ. If any can remember which album that was offÖ[NL: "Gone To Earth"], is so relevant now Ė it was relevant then, but it just sums up everything thatís happening. Iíd like to do that in the stage act and Iíd like to do "After The Day" Ė that could be a stunning track, with the keyboard players that weíve got, but Iíve also got another three that Iíd like to do. With John and Les with another three theyíd like to do, weíre going to have to put a stage act together. What we have got to do is sit down with the new album and see how many we can do off it; I know the fans wonít like this, but weíve found from painful past experience that if you do the whole of the new album, even for the most ardent fans itís a bit unacceptable. I thin five or six is optimum, but in between the songs that people know.
NL: The next magazine will have another readersí poll in it, including five songs that youíd like to see the band do liveÖ
MEL: Actually, it does help, that, if you have some kind of guideline. Weíve got to do the best set possible: I can certainly see maybe "For No One" or "After The Day", taking over. Iíll have to look at the old set list. "Hymn" has been around for a long timeÖ.
NL: Somebody wrote in the last magazine that "Hymn" shouldnít be the last encore, that itís getting too predictable.
MEL: Yes, thatís right, I agree with them actually. You kind of create a precedent and then once youíve done it, try and break out of it! The thing that people are now aware of is the fight that John, Les and myself had to get that as the last encore! People said itís nice to see "Medicine Man" back, and Iíll hold up my hand and say that I was against that for a long time!
NL: Do you prefer playing in Britain or abroad?
MEL: I donít mind, as long as the dressing rooms are clean! I suppose sat the back, hidden, I never seem to feel a different reaction. Because it is Barclay James Harvest and weíre not the flavour of the month, a lot people go because they want to see us anyway, so you get that glow or whatever it is. It can be terribly depressing at a gig, but when itís ten minutes to go and you start psyching yourself up, all thatís forgotten. Weíve done tents and everything Ė weíre just a bunch of old journeymen, really, but we still enjoy it! Iíll play anywhere, anytimeÖ.
NL: Have you done any session work outside bjh?
MEL: No, I havenít. The only thing, that I think everyoneís aware of, was the Davy Rohl Mandalaband thing, thatís really it. Iíve got a confidence problem in terms of working with other musicians. Iíd like to Ė I used to enjoy the jams with Kevin and Bias and Colin when we were there at soundchecks.
NL: What drum kit do you now?
MEL: Itís a "Pearl Export". Iím in the process of arranging a new one before we get into rehearsals. Itís just the more modern one Ė itíll be an acoustic. It depends on the set, I might be using electric ones as well. Colin will probably be using drum machines through pads, but Iím going to stick to the old acoustic.
NL: I know that you and Les go back to schooldays; whatís your earliest memory of him?
MEL: Heíll like this one, actually: it was in the sandpit, because it was at infantís school and everything, itís that far back. He used to live in the next street Ė our parents knew each other.
NL: Do you still socialise a lot now?
MEL: Not really, Iíve got my own friends. Obviously when youíre out working itís back to how it was, but in the early days we were in each othersí pockets for such a long time, we just used to go out and drink and do everything together, but as you get a bit older it just becomes your separate life.
NL: What effect do you think Woollyís departure had on the band?
MEL: Itís difficult to assess. I think at the beginning there was this terrible shock, and then, we had to go in the studio. The thought then was to get the album and the keyboards done, Les and John did quite a bit, I think we got Ritchie Close in, whoís on the latest album. I think we were all a little bit petrified about going into the studio, because itís like one of your legs has gone or something. Obviously it left a massive hole, but I think as often happens you tend to close ranks. Woolly used to come up with ideas on other peopleís songs, heís got a very fertile mind, so itís not just a matter of a missing musician. He was a good ideas man; that side more than any was missed.
NL: Did you blame him for leaving you in the lurch?
MEL: No, I think I understood what Woolly was going through, and I think that he felt that his music was relevant to the band and I think that the band was going away from what he regarded as his ideal. I wasnít angry at all, I understood absolutely what he was saying Ė on the other hand, and Iíve got to say this, Woolly, I think that a lot of the way it was going was pretentious and too floral. Iím not saying Iím glad he left, but it then created a more direct way for us to go. I donít think San Francisco helped, he didnít like that all, because the producer there was very much an American producer, and a lot of Woollyís ideas were just so alien to him musically Ė you can imagine, a West Coast producer meets Mahler Mark IV!
NL: Yet ironically the new one is probaly closer now to the way you were with Wooolly than at any timeÖ.
MEL: Isnít it weird? I donít think thereís that overbearing string effect, but certainly thereís that colour about it. Jon Astley is a very similar personality to Woolly, theyíre out of the same kind of mould. Going back to Jon Astley, we were all sat around this massive computer which does your every whim, which is wonderful, itís a musicianís dream, but I think that did bring the band together as well, because it started ideas going. Woolly was a bit like that; he liked to sit around the piano. I think we were lucky in getting Kevin pretty quick. Musically heís totally different to Woolly; he doesnít get involved that much in the actual production or arrangement, but heís throw in ideas.
NL: You never thought of getting someone like Kevin in as a permanent replacement?
MEL: It was out of respect for Woolly in the early days, when the absolute heartfelt answer was, "No, thereís nobody going to come in and take Woollyís place." Itís just so happened that Kevinís always worked with us, not on this album but live work-wise.
NL: I read years and years ago that youíd been offered the drum seat in Fairport Convention.
MEL: Yeah, when the drummer [Martin Lamble] Ė he was a lovely guy as well Ė was killed in a van smash. They invited me to audition.
NL: What made you stay with BJH, then?
MEL: First of all I think my ego was given a good massage by them asking me. To be perfectly fair I donít think I cam up to the standard they were looking for, being absolute honest. Certainly Fairport were getting the better gigs, the better money. At the time Fairport were a big band and a damn good band as well, and it was just this thing that permeates all the way through BJH, this kind of loyalty. You canít put a price on it.
NL: and that kind of loyalty goes through the fans as well.
MEL: I know. Iíd like to think that thereís an honesty that shows through all the music, thereís no hype, thereís no pretension, thereís just something there that you canít put a finger on. Itís the heartfelt honesty thatís in the music.
NL: on "Negative Earth" and "Paper Wings" you had co-writing credits. what did you actually contribute?
MEL: I wrote all the lyrics to "Paper Wings". On "Negative Earth" Les had got this thing that I couldnít get out of my head, and I wrote everything except "For fifty-five days". It struck a chord with me, and I like the alliteration of "here in sycopated time, while my tangled web of rhymeÖ.". I just thought about the isolation of this guy. With "Paper Wings" I was up the Eiffel Tower and Iím not gifted with a head for heights, so I got to the first stage. The rest of the guys went up and I cam down, and thereís a plaque at the bottom and this dent in the floor Ė itís like "Suicide", was he pushed or did he jump? It was basically that he was "a broken man without a dream" because if he jumped and he couldnít fly it was a broken dream, or if somebody pushed him then itís still a vision that finished up as a bump in the floor. Iíd like to do more. On "Turn Of The Tide" the lyrics arenít mine, but I put some initial ideas down like "Iím like a train off the tracks". "Back To The Wall" was a bit like that, as well. I like lyrics, but with such good lyricists as weíve got itís very hard.
NL: What are your own musical tastes like now?
MEL: I still like Don Henley, I still like the Eagles. Iíve got to say I havenít heard anything really new come out Ė a lot of it is regurgitated. The guy that I listen to most at the moment is a guy called Gino Vannelli, an American guy. Heís got a great voice, a great bunch of musicians, his lyrics are quite nice as well. I always go back to Steely Dan and Donald Fagenís "The Nightfly". Iíll tell you who I do like of the new stuff Ė Hue & Cry, I think theyíre really, really good, Level 42 are good. Prince, I think, is the governor recently.
NL: These days is Barclay James Harvest a job for you or is it still a pleasure?
MEL: Sometimes it can be a pain, but 90% is fabulous. You get to go on stage, you get to play music that you like, you get to go into a studio, you get to meet people. Weíre all from the working class and itís a one-way ticket to paradise, isnít it? But, for all those people out there, itís not that easy, thereís a lot of heartache. I didnít have a teenage life from í67 to when I must have been 27. I was involved very quickly in paying debts to do gigs to pay debts to sign deals. Iím getting an old man now, and I find myself saying "when I was a kid", but things were different. Having said that, thatís the input that you put in to get everything back out; Iíd like to think that Iíve put as much back as the industry has given me. The other thing about the music industry is that you can live a life thatís honest to yourself and I mean that in the nicest way. In this business youíve got the freedom to be whatever you want.
NL: So it was worth all that hassle in the early years?
MEL: Yes. I really feel for bands now, because the industry works in such a mechanical way. When we were doing it, it was all about experimentation and you were allowed to. The first album wasnít a major success and the record company gave us carte blanche to use a full orchestra, whereas now if they havenít had a hit in the first three they could be the best potential musicians in the world but thatís it. Things were easier in those days, looking back: they used to throw bricks at you because you had long hair, but that was the fun of it!
NL: How do you spend your time when youíre not working?
MEL: At the moment Iíve got this house that Iím gonna make into my little rehearsal room, but a lot of the time I donít do a lot. I read a lot, I like watching films, and Iíve started doing quizzes a couple of nights a week. Playing soccer, talking about music and life. I like to watch soccer, I play a bit of squash.
NL: Finally, any message for the members of the fan club?
MEL: I think all of the messages are on all the Barclay James Harvest albums Ė the main one is just look after each other.