In terms of the UK, ‘Barclay James Harvest’ are possibly the most underrated and best band many people have never heard of. By rights I shouldn’t even know who they are judging by my age, but they are an outstanding, awe inspiring 70s/80s prog rock band from Saddleworth, Oldham, who’ve played a huge part in my musical upbringing having been astutely aware of them for the past twenty five years or so. To understand where the affiliation came from we’d have to go back years before I was born, specifically 1974. One evening, back in the days when TV finished around midnight (imagine that!) and closed off to current music breaking through, ‘Barclay James Harvest’s’, ‘For No One’ played out the day’s screening, prompting my Dad to buy the record the following day. This sparked an avid interest that eventually resulted in both my parents attending numerous gigs over the years, including one in 1976 which my Mum attended whilst pregnant with my older brother, coincidentally resulting in ‘BJH’ being his favourite band in the years that followed. Fast forward to when I was a child in the 1980s, back when our family holidays consisted of endless drives through the scenic French countryside and picturesque Spanish coastline! Memories are a little blurred from that period in time, but what stands out the most is that along with ‘Fleetwood Mac’, it was ‘Barclay James Harvest’s’ music that dominated the cassette player on these gruelling long haul drives for days on end, and that’s how my own interest was born. The main two albums played back then were ‘Everyone is Everybody Else’ and ‘Eyes of the Universe’, both albums that now hold a deep sentimental value in my music collection.
In adulthood, I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed to see ‘BJH’ live three times before, and all gigs more than lived up to the hype. The original line-up was no more, but with John Lees and the late great Woolly Wolstenholme forming the core, the distinct sound of ‘BJH’ brought the memories flooding back, instantly transporting me back to those drives through the pitch black mountains in the South of France. Today, the opportunity to see and review childhood idols wasn’t going to be missed, this time with my girlfriend, and strangely whose father taught the late original drummer Mel Pritchard to play. Fate??
Tonight at the HMV Ritz they appeared onstage earlier than a usual main act, playing two sets over the course of three hours till 10pm. The trademark ‘BJH’ butterfly shone high on a banner behind the stage and looked great being subjected to hypnotic and psychedelic lights bombarding and swirling around it throughout the show. John Lees is joined by long term bassist turned recent vocalist Craig Fletcher, with Kev Whitehead on the drums. Jez Smith is on keyboards, replacing Woolly Wolstenholme who tragically died in 2010, and is still sorely missed amongst the ‘BJH’ fan base! Their last gig was in Tokyo, giving some idea of the impact they have on a global scale, although later on, Craig Fletcher joked that they only went to get a spare part for John Lees’ Nissan. Playing a host of tracks from the past such as ‘Child of the Universe’, coupled with one or two exciting sounding new ones that’ll feature on a much anticipated new album in the future, the first set seems to fly by. If you’re not familiar with John Lees’ guitar playing then you’ve really missed out, being one of the best I’ve ever heard! It’s such a distinct sound and style, instantly recognisable like a Hendrix number, but played in a different, calmer, more touching and poignant tone. It’s simply sublime and oozes some sort of heavy spell binding potion that magnetically drifts into the soul to be easily embraced.
There’s tremendous chemistry between John Lees and the ever joking Craig Fletcher, who takes on more vocals these days with some of the original tracks of the 70s and 80s. Going forward I believe he’ll feature heavily in this role on the new album. It’s a shame not to hear John Lees’ voice all the time, but if he can only perform half the tracks he used to, it’s still worth it, possessing such a beautiful harmonious voice that invokes so much raw emotion. There’s such an “olden days” northern influence about some of their lyrics in the songs they choose to play nowadays, possessing so much depth and meaning, particularly emphasised on the ‘Everyone is Everybody Else’ album which highlights conditions and attitudes for people working and living in the industrial revolution and the hardships endured, fitting considering they hail from one of the pioneering towns of that era. In parts it’s beautifully depressing, which sometimes we welcome into our musical hearts when the time is right. Conversely, their prog rock, long theatrical songs can almost soundtrack a Shakespearian play such is the dramatic nature of their music, but they are so much more than that, classically emotive with some wonderful melodies that are cool and upbeat, very fitting for that era! Although they play numerous songs that depict the historical time of the birth of industry, several albums have a different style and flow, quite psychedelic and 70s Beatles/Pink Floyd-esque in parts, showing a great range in musical avenues.
The highlight of the first set was the full compilation of ‘Poor Boy Blues’, ‘Mill Boys’ and ‘For No One’. Usually, it’s only the latter track played at a live show, but when all three are brought together it tells a much more powerful story. With ‘Poor Boy Blues’ and ‘Mill Boys’ preceding, it gives a build up to the explosive crescendo and ingenious guitar work ‘For No One’ brings, a wailing infatuating and hugely influential song that is the pinnacle of ‘BJH’. It has to be one of the best guitar structures ever, unbelievably compelling and thought provoking with lyrics that are grossly important and extremely inspiring! I was so pleased to hear all three played together as one, the way it should be! For me, this is one of my personal top five tracks of all time and I urge everyone to listen to this track in full!
After a twenty minute interval or so, the second set begins with ‘Crazy City’, where Craig Fletcher fills in again on vocals. By being in this current line-up for fourteen years he’s certainly trained well in the ‘BJH’ method and slots in perfectly as if he was part of the original formation. The build-up of monumental hits follows till the shows end. Firstly, ‘Mockingbird’ is played, received with a tirade of applause when it becomes apparent after a different keyboard intro. This is such a striking song with an undercurrent of eerie sorrow flowing through the heart of the melody. The rockier, ‘Taking Some Time On’ from their debut album is played, and sounds so fresh and modern that the lively guitar suits any young band looking for that killer riff to make a song unique. ‘Poor Man’s Moody Blues’ is defining as always, so heart felt, so passionate and possibly the saddest song ever written. If this song doesn’t touch a nerve then you’re heartless! Equally as sad, ‘The Great 1974 Mining Disaster’ follows, the sadness evident by the songs title. ‘She Said’ is a long, slow, psychedelically enchanting track that strangely has the use of a recorder in the middle, the only time this is tolerated in rock, but also giving evidence of the “Shakespearian Rock” tag that works so well in the prog rock scene! ‘Medicine Man’ has such freedom in the guitar that screams and howls, firing at you from all angles so you’re unable to escape its clutches, especially with John Lees’ vocals being as haunting as ever!
For the final song, the crowd join in as timeless classic and fans’ favourite ‘Hymn’ is played, a tremendous and cleverly written ballad that brings religion into rock, making it cool enough to sing without the risk of feeling like you’re in a church. In fact, the song is so meaningful it should be played in churches on Sunday mornings. Maybe more people would attend if this was on offer to bellow out! Endless applause forced an encore where they played ‘The Poet/After The Day’, which is a typical prog rock song that’s played in two parts and times well over ten minutes. Once it finishes the crowd are disappointed having to watch them leave for curfew purposes, but we all could’ve sat there till the early hours of the morning given the choice. As a live act they’ve still got it, and even though John Lees takes a slight step back from vocals these days, Craig Fletcher more than fills in. The only thing I would like to see is songs played off the ‘Eyes of the Universe’ album, but that’s for more selfish, nostalgic reasons! BJH’ are a band that have somehow escaped British commercialism in their 40 year existence, strangely having more popularity in Europe, in particular, Germany, where at the height of their fame in 1980 they played a free concert to 250,000 people outside the Reichstag in West Berlin. Tonight they proved they still have exceptional talent and a devout following in the UK that should be increased tenfold. I will never understand why they aren’t considered one of Britain’s greats, and being from Greater Manchester where an appreciation of talented bands is in our blood, it makes it all the more puzzling. If my parents taught me nothing else then it was introducing ‘BJH’ to my early childhood, and I whole heartedly thank them for that. To give you some idea of their impact, my Mum once stated that, “John Lees’ voice is the only voice that can make me cry!” This coming from a real 60s rock chick who lives and breathes music! That really says something!