BJH Live sums up their most prolific progressive period with a double-album, double exclamation point. If you were ever going to make the case for Barclay James Harvest as a great progressive rock band, these two discs of plastic would be your opening and closing arguments. Drawn from performances in London (6/30/74) and Liverpool (8/31/74), Live collects many of their best songs and gives them an epic sendoff. Some of these songs were already mini-epics (“Summer Soldier,” “She Said”), but everything here is elevated to a grand sonic statement on stage. There is the real sense that songs like “Medicine Man” and “After The Day” only reach their full potential on this album. The arrangements are not markedly different from the originals; in fact, the guitars often sound like they could have been lifted from the studio recordings note for note. The difference here is that the songs are given room to breathe. “Crazy City” and “Paper Wings,” for example, always felt a little too tightly contained in their studio versions; I prefer the live versions (even with their blurry sonic detail) in both cases, and I’m rarely an aficionado of live albums. You won’t find extended drum solos or radical re-treatments on this album. You also won’t find a lot of musical fireworks. There are extra solos from John and Woolly, but not anything that will drop your jaw. This isn’t about effulgence, but indulgence; never have BJH fans been served so rich a feast of progressive rock in one seating. Imagine if Uriah Heep had released a live abum that focused on The Magician’s Birthday and Demons & Wizards with a few of their proggier cuts from recent albums to flesh things out. That’s what BJH Live feels like. I wouldn’t say it’s the first BJH album you need to own because live albums are better after a song has been living in your head for a while. It is a must-own record for BJH fans, however, and would probably make my list of the top 20 prog rock live albums of all time.
If my affections for BJH are marked by an arid inconstancy, it’s because of albums like this. I thought EIEE was a terrific record, but Time Honoured Ghosts goes right back to the shortcomings of Short Stories. Wooly (and where the ‘ell did the other L go anyway?) delivers a brilliant song in “Beyond The Grave,” which is a classical rock piece on a par with ELP’s “Pirates” (although far too short at four minutes). The rest of the record is uneven and, at times, far too derivative for a creative band like BJH. I mean, “Moongirl” pilfers “Stairway to Heaven” for crying out loud; I thought people got sued for stuff like that. And “Titles” is almost literally just a bunch of Beatles song titles strung together (although it’s a lovely melody that connects them). The rest of the record basically covers the same ground as previous albums: “In My Life” is a lot like “Crazy (Over You),” “Sweet Jesus” is similar to “Poor Boy Blues.” Even the better songs feel patterned on familiar artists: “Song For You” sounds like Les channeling John Entwistle, while “One Night” finds John channeling James Taylor (although it is a really good song). Most of the things that made EIEE a great album are missing here: the ambitious arrangements, rich harmonies, futuristic guitars. Oddly, Rodger Bain had the band sounding more like CSN&Y than Elliot Mazer. Go figure. The album cover is also something of a red herring, since this is their least proggy album to date. Having said all that, Ghosts became their highest-charting album to date. So much for the vox populi.
For years, I was ambivalent about this record, but it seems I may have thrown the moonwater out with the baffling baby theme. Song for song, this is one of BJH’s strongest records. The album was apparently recorded under unusual circumstances, with Woolly largely in absentia while he worked on his classical opus, “Moonwater.” Despite the separation, all of the different pieces from John, Les and Woolly work very well together. Les in particular fires off two great tracks: the opening “Crazy (Over You)” and “One Hundred Thousand Smiles Out.” The first track follows their number-one-song-with-a-bullet ethos of powerful opening statements, and would have been my first choice for the album’s single. (“Thank You,” honestly, would have been my last choice.) The second song from Les combines elements of “Space Oddity” and “Bungalow Bill” for an out-of-this-world tale. It wouldn’t be the last time that BJH was lost in space; they’d revisit the theme again on “Negative Earth.” John Lees writes half of the material (Les is mistakenly credited with “Thank You”), including one of their greatest anti-war songs, “Summer Soldier.” The first half of that track is your standard acoustic folk fare, but the second half transforms into a chrome-plated sci-fi nightmare complete with crimson streaks of mellotron. “Delph Town Morn” is a nice midtempo piece featuring an impressive 13-piece horn section. “Thank You” is something of a novelty track that name-checks family and friends, including three-fourths of 10cc (whose “gizmo” device is feature prominently on the guitar parts). Like the band, I’ve left the best for last: “Moonwater.” In many ways, this is Woolly’s magnum opus (noting that I haven’t heard the deferred “Maestoso” yet): a dreamlike classical/lyrical composition that transcends what the Moodies and other bands had sought to do by fusing orchestral and pop music. Most of the time, an orchestra adds pomp to pop forms; here, Woolly inverts the formula by weaving a pop song into a classical structure. You’d have to go back to their first album to find a BJH record with so much personality, although the band had clearly honed their sound since then. I would still give Once Again the nod as their best effort, but any conversation of “classic BJH” would have to include Baby James Harvest early on—with the caveat that I reserve the right to change my opinion about this album again.
Sporting a title that only a Nektar fan could love, BJH’s first album for Polydor is handily the best thing they’ve done since Once Again. Those two albums form the fantasy and science fiction bookends (respectively) within which the discussion of classic BJH is framed. On Everyone Is Everybody Else, everything comes together: the grotesque guitars, classically inspired arrangements, otherwordly keyboards, rich vocal harmonies, unorthodox drumming and the familiar themes of a society lost at war and lost in space. The opening “Child of the Universe” is probably the last thing that listeners were expecting from an album produced by Rodger Bain, heretofore known as the spiral, sonic architect of Black Sabbath’s early works. It’s an innocent, spacey song that laments how children are often the victims of war; a message that, sadly, is as relevant today as it was forty years ago. Lees closes the album on a similar (and high) note with the anti-war “For No One.” In between, you’ll find some of the band’s best songs: “Negative Earth” (which returns to the lost-in-space theme, this time through the plight of the Apollo 13 mission), “The Great 1974 Mining Disaster” (with more references to Mr. Jones) and “See Me See You” (with gizmo in tow and shades of 10cc’s demented pop smarts). Also notable on this album are vocal harmonies that point directly to the work of Crosby, Stills and Nash; a connection that would be made clearer on their next album, which engaged the services of Neil Young producer Elliot Mazer. You’ll hear those harmonies on “Crazy City,” “Poor Boy Blues” and “Mill Boys.” Of course, I’d be remiss in noting that, while BJH was finally finding its wings, the songwriting/vocal talents of Woolly (whose name isn’t even spelled correctly on the album credits) had been noticeably grounded. From this point forward, Lees and Holroyd would write nearly all of the material, alternating between them much as Justin Hayward and John Lodge would in later years. Polydor had to be happy with the results; and, hopefully, Harvest (the label) was kicking themselves.
This is an early compilation that collects several of the band’s standalone singles plus select tracks from their first, second and third albums. EMI may have had Pink Floyd’s Relics in mind when they released this, since there wasn’t any external event to suggest that the world was waiting for an early harvest of BJH songs. By focusing on the band’s first five singles, Early Morning Onwards serves as a kind of best-of compilation; a premature one, to be sure, but maybe EMI couldn’t wait to share their harvest with the world. It was intended as an affordable entrée into the band (thus the budget Starline issue), so if it brought more butterflies into the net, I’m fine with it. It is not, however, a cohesive case for BJH’s greatness. The band was trying out a lot of different styles in the beginning, so it’s unlikely you’ll like everything on here—and if you do, there’s a good chance you already have a butterfly tattooed on your body. I was familiar with all of these songs except for the “I’m Over You/Child of Man” single, which is one of their least interesting singles. (Unfortunately, the pseudonymous Bombadil single released in 1972 didn’t make the cut for EMO; that would have been cool.) If you don’t own “Early Morning” and “Brother Thrush” (which is to the BJH canon what “Dear Father” is to the Yes canon), then I would forge onward (or, if I were forging in the UK, onwards) to find this. You can also hear the first two singles as part of the expanded reissue of their first album, if you’re headed in that direction anyway.
The band’s first full-length record was produced by Norman Smith, engineered by Phil McDonald and recorded in Abbey Road Studios—ideal circumstances for an English quartet, wouldn’t you say? Smith was currently the producer of Pink Floyd and Pretty Things; Harvest labelmates who were known for aggressive psychedelic rock. BJH, heretofore known for a pair of psychedelic but pastoral singles, adopted a more aggressive and ambitious stance on their untitled debut. The opening “Taking Some Time On” (recorded at the end of the Abbey Road sessions to give the record some punch) and “Good Love Child” showed a heavier side of Barclay James Harvest. More typical of the band’s mellotron-rich meditations and Moodies-inspired orchestral epics to come were “The Sun Will Never Shine” (maybe a half stone under “Seven Stones” in terms of progressive weight), “When The World Was Woken” and “Dark Now My Sky.” Rounding out the record are a pair of nontraditional and eerie love songs, “Mother Dear” and “Iron Maiden.” The band softened (some would say “refined”) their approach on subsequent albums, but song for song this is one of my favorite BJH albums. It’s an ambitious, auspicious debut, even if it’s not exactly on the vanguard of progressive rock. (Remember that King Crimson, The Nice, The Moody Blues and others had already planted the progressive flag on a higher peak.) A prototypical BJH album it isn’t, but their debut does score high in terms of excitement and energy, and is recommended to vintage psych/prog collectors.
The third time really wasn’t all that much of a charm for BJH. I was prepared for Once Again again, but it never materialized. Short Stories features a by-now-familiar assortment of orchestral rock, tales of lost love, apocalyptic warnings and bird songs. It’s even got a dead parrot sketch. What it doesn’t have is the tasteful production and orchestration of their last album. Norman Smith had abdicated the producer’s seat for Wally (Allen) Walley, the bass player for The Pretty Things (Smith had produced both bands for EMI/Harvest). Martyn Ford had also replaced Robert Godfrey as orchestral conductor/arranger. So you have a new team that just doesn’t gel on this record. There are still a handful of good songs to be heard on here: “Ursula” (which sounds like a lost Ray Thomas track), “Blue John Blues” (apparently a knock at their previous manager), “Medicine Man” and the closing pair of “The Poet/After The Day.” But it never builds the cumulative goodwill that Once Again did. John, Woolly and Les are different songwriters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Short Stories has harmony (Les), energy (John) and threnody (Woolly); not a recipe for disaster or rock and roll stew. The odd thing is that I can remember liking this album more in the past. I even wrote an enthusiastic review of it for AMG. All of which goes to show you that I didn’t know anything, and that what I know now should in no way be taken as knowledge. It’s true that this is classic-period BJH, but it’s not a classic BJH record. Fortunately, the band tightened up the loose ends for their next elpee, Baby James Harvest, which I’ve grown fonder of over the years even as my fondness for Short Stories has faded, suggesting some kind of law of conservation of critical energy at work.
Barclay James Harvest would achieve fame as purveyors of pastoral, orchestrated progressive rock featuring fantasy and science fiction themes, a journey they begin in earnest on Once Again. It’s a very different record than their debut, which seemed to try a little of everything (rock, orchestral epics, folk songs) in search of an identity. Here, they find a workable formula: dark subject matter lightened with rich orchestral elements and clever musical interplay that suggests a cross between King Crimson and The Moody Blues. On this album, John Lees and Wooly Wolstenholme split the songwriting and singing; Les Holroyd (argubaly their strongest singer) doesn’t take a single lead vocal or write a single track (although it appears he did write half of the brilliant “She Said”). That fact alone may account for the consistency of the material; Woolly’s muse is clearly death, while John is more of a white knight. And so you have an album that balances between light and dark, love and death, while maintaining an elevated, almost ethereal quality. Once Again remains a fan favorite, and it’s easy to hear why; “Mocking Bird,” “Vanessa Simmons” and “Galadriel” maintain an evergreen beauty despite the passage of time. The opening “She Said” is also a minor masterpiece of progressive rock in my book, and probably as close as BJH has come to capturing the contained fury of King Crimson. Of note, the album reunites the sound team of Norman Smith and Peter Brown from Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, and you’ll definitely want your headphones for Once Again too.
“Early Morning” b/w “Mr. Sunshine”
I have eyes in my eyes, and the bees surmise that the blissful dawn of day is breaking on, not a May of my own making, but one of a different shape and size, where a dark sun casts the whitest lies and the millipedes of mellotrons dance as they land on the sunlit lawn. I had a thought, raised it, ushered it into the world with an attaboy, along the lines of “Early Morning” being the dawning of some great commotion that eventually fizzled into a porridge of pale shadows and pastoral prayers, and “Mr. Sunshine” starring as caster of shadows and payers unanswered, but that thought grew dim in the dust of time and gave its bones to the likes of lime, and both of these reasons are why I’m stopping.
“Brother Thrush” b/w “Poor Wages”
BJH signed with EMI’s new Harvest imprint (coincidence, not nepotism) and released a second single led by the soaring “Brother Thrush.” The A side introduces what would become a familiar theme of Nature over Man, with the realization that life is, in fact, for the birds. To my ears, BJH reaches new progressive heights on this song, particularly in its near-celestial chorus. Woolly’s “Poor Wages” is a slightly dramatic retelling of lost love that could be seen as an early and agitated relation to “Iron Maiden.” Both tracks were produced by Norman Smith (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Pretty Things), who would go on to direct the band’s next two albums.