Lees is right, of course, as many associate the group with their 70s heyday but their story started in Oldham in 1967 when two blues groups joined together to form Barclay James Harvest.
The ambitious group attracted an early patron in local fashion entrepreneur John Crowther, who had bought Preston House, a semi-derelict farmhouse in nearby Diggle, into which the group moved en masse. “We all more or less quit our jobs and threw holiday pay and final pay into a pot, and with his help we were going to write the hit single,” Lees recalls.
Crowther hawked a demo tape around record companies and the band were briefly signed to Parlophone, then moved to EMI’s new progressive subsidiary, Harvest, whose name was suggested by the group.
Initially they played in a melodic, folky style and experimented with chamber ensemble instrumentation such as tenor horn, oboe, recorder and cello, both in the studio and onstage. “We were looking for something very different,” says Lees.
But in the questing spirit of the era, the band were determined to work with an orchestra. They had met up with Robert John Godfrey, who worked for the group’s agents, Blackhill Enterprises. Godfrey orchestrated some of the songs on Barclay James Harvest (1970) and Once Again (1971), and they also worked with orchestral leader and orchestrator Martyn Ford.
Barclay James Harvest were one of the first rock groups to tour with an orchestra, from early 1971, but things weren’t as grand as they might have appeared. “It was a disaster,” say Lees. “It was a [London-based] student orchestra who were hard to work with. We needed to pay for extra rehearsals when they weren’t up to speed, because what we were doing was groundbreaking at the time, marrying a rock band to an orchestra.”
Lees recalls that their budget dictated that the orchestra would get smaller as they played further away from London. The venture practically bankrupted John Crowther, souring their relationship, but it had its benefits.
“It probably made the group, because then we had to pay for it all and that meant gigging for as many days as we could, every week for a year and a half to two years, doing universities, clubs and colleges,” Lees explains. “And that gave us a name and really cemented our career.”
Barclay James Harvest were virtually unique in progressive rock in that their songs were full of social commentary and even politics. “I’m fortunate in that I can explore my anxieties and fears in songs, but there was always a caveat with me that I don’t really want to ram it down anybody’s throat: if you get the lyrics, then great. If not, it still stands up as a song.”
Lees’ The Great 1974 Mining Disaster references the Bee Gees’ 1967 single New York Mining Disaster 1941, updating it to reflect the miners’ strike that brought down Edward Heath’s government. Holroyd’s Negative Earth is a tale of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission set to a swooning melody, while Lees’ Child Of The Universe and For No One are statements against war and for peace and universality.
Half of the songs on Everyone Is Everybody Else fed into the double album Barclay James Harvest Live, released in 1974, which took many by surprise as it showed that in concert, they were one of the most powerful progressive groups in the UK, their songs elongated and swelling into huge choruses, all powered by Mel Pritchard’s spectacular drumming. It was their first UK chart success, breaking into the Top 20.
Barclay James Harvest released their eighth studio album, Gone To Earth, in 1977. How does Lees feel they had progressed musically over the decade since forming? “I think it was a great learning curve through the whole of that era,” he says. “Take Hymn. We are producing, from a simple beginning, this huge, climactic number, with what appear to be massive brass and strings, which was in fact just us using synthesizers, mellotron and guitars. Sea Of Tranquility was an orchestral thing Woolly had done, so there’s quite a level of sophistication creeping into the arrangements when you get to Gone To Earth.”
Lees continued his rather cheeky rearrangement of songs with Poor Man’s Moody Blues. Written after a snide music paper review of the group, it’s a pastiche of The Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin. “I wish I hadn’t penned it – it’s haunted me ever since,” admits Lees. “It might sound similar, but musically it’s not the same at all. The Greeks use it as a wedding song. When they have the first dance, they play Poor Man’s Moody Blues. How that figures, I do not know.”
“On one of the later tours we did in Germany, in 1979-80, we sold a million tickets,” says Lees. “It’s ridiculous! I’ve got a platinum ticket at home. Then we went on and played to 185,000 people in front of the Reichstag.”
Barclay James Harvest may have never had the hit single they wanted at the outset, but they’ve more than made up for that with album sales. “We’d sold something like seven million albums back in the late 70's – I hate to think of how many we’ve sold now,” laughs Lees. “It’s fantastic really. We’ve just always had massive support.”
Why review a live album that was originally released in the year 1974. Well first of all Barclay James Harvest was one of the pioneers of the Symphonic Rock. And in my opinion this album is one of the best live albums of the seventies. At that time the band lost their record contract with Harvest, had no manager and had a hugh debt to EMI. After a complex deal Polydor released this double live album for a special price and it became the band's first ever chart record, making number 40 in the UK album chart. It was recorded at the Liverpool Stadium and at London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The Drury Lane performance was close to perfection ... only the Mellotron was speeding up and slowing down in the middle of songs and producing some interesting if unmusical wailing sounds. The decision was made to salvage everything possible from the Drury Lane tapes, mixing down the offending Mellotron as far as practicable, overdubbing a minimum of new parts in the studio, and to use the Liverpool tapes only for songs which could not be saved from the Drury Lane concert.
|Live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London|
“After the Day” has a very emotional opening with a soaring guitar part and that great Mellotron carpets. After a slow delicate vocal part the passionate guitar and the Mellotron strings return in this very melodic track. This live album was a kind of best of album in those days. “The great 1974 mining disaster” is for me one of the classic BJH compositions. A slow vocal opening is followed by a delicate melodic guitar solo. “Galadriel” is a short and delicate ballad where the vocals are put on top of a layer of Mellotron strings that reminds of the early King Crimson sound.
“Negative Earth” is also a typical BJH song with a lot of melody and delicate vocals. A song in the tradition of the later albums that brought the band commercial success. It goes seamless into the beautiful love song “She said” where the electric guitar of Lees is competing again with the Mellotron of Woolly. John Lees also plays the recorder on this track. Next is “Paper wings”. After the sad opening this piece reminds me again of the “Mirage” and “Snowgoose” period of Camel. But that has to do with the sound of the Moog. In those days you had only the Hammond, the electric piano, the Mellotron and the first Moogs. For me the golden era of progressive rock. Amazing to hear the emotional and intense music of those days.
And after the beautiful “For no one” it is time for my favorite BJH song “Mockingbird”. A piece with broad Mellotron sounds and melodic guitar work. The strength of the composition is that the tension of the music is very slowly building up towards a great climax. After more than 30 years it can still bring me into tears. It is so beautiful. What does this mean? ... well it must be a great piece of music ... if it has such an impact after more than 30 years. [extract from Progvisions Website]
1. Summer soldier (10:17)
2. Medicine Man (10:25)
3. Crazy City (4:58)
4. After The Day (7:27)
5. The Great 1974 Mining Disaster (6:30)
6. Galadriel (3:18)
7. Negative Earth (6:20)
8. She Said (8:33)
9. Paper Wings (4:19)
10. For No One (5:53)
11. Mockingbird (7:37)
Barclay James Harvest were:
- John Lees / vocals, lead guitar, recorder
- Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme / vocals, electric piano, Moog, Mellotron
- Les Holroyd / vocals, bass, rhythm guitar
- Mel Pritchard / drums
Barclay James Harvest Live Link (176Mb)