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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Barclay James Harvest


BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST (1970)

1) Taking Some Time On; 2) Mother Dear; 3) The Sun Will Never Shine; 4) When The World Was Woken; 5) Good Love Child; 6) The Iron Maiden; 7) Dark Now My Sky.

With a little extra luck, Barclay James Harvest, formed in late 1966, could have had their names entered into the «founding fathers» list of UK art rock. As it happened, the band did not manage to find a proper record contract until 1970, and spent its first three years admiring the recording successes of their peers rather than working out their own individuality. On the other hand, it is not very likely that, had they been given a chance to release their first album before Days Of Future Passed, they could have invented that Moody Blues sound on their own.

Indeed, few albums on the British market as per 1970 were as blatantly derivative as BJH's debut. Just about every song on here has a well-identifiable proto-type: the list of influences includes the Beatles, the Bee Gees, the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Traffic, and King Crimson — I could probably dig up some more, but on the whole, this list seems pretty exhaustive. Being influenced per se, of course, is never a problem: what is a problem is that BJH were never a particularly, let's say, «intelligent» band, and, unlike many of their competitors, they were unable to, or did not care about, masking, or even «assimilating», these influences in any way.

All the more amazing is the fact how unbelievably good this debut album turned out — derivative or not, in my world this will forever remain the definitive BJH record, the «one BJH album to get if you only have to get one», and, even more importantly, one of the most consistently satisfac­tory art-rock albums of 1970. Ironically, BJH started losing it once they began attempting to de­velop a personal identity — as long as they were just aping their superiors, the aping process was irreproachable. Perversely, the band would later seem to be almost ashamed of the album, quickly dropping all of the material in their live shows — probably regarding it as one of those inade­quate, embarrassing teenage activities that are best forgotten upon reaching adulthood (but for­get­ting that only idiot adults are consistently ashamed of their teenage days simply because every­thing you did in your teenage days must be embarrassing, right?).

But as far as my perception is concerned, all of the seven songs recorded for the album, at worst, have their likeable moments, and at best, count as catchy, resonant, emotionally effective «little brothers» of better known compositions, recorded by the band's predecessors. Altogether, they are still more in the «late 1960s» vein than in the «early 1970s» one — art-pop songs with extra­neous influences rather than complex progressive compositions — but unless we happen to think that the Moody Blues were only there to prepare the red carpet for ELP and nothing else, there is nothing wrong with a little extra poppiness and naïveness, is there?

Of the four band members, three are credited with individual compositions, but not with individu­al styles: at this point, it is too early (thank God!) to speak of a «BJH sound», let alone a «John Lees sound» or a «Woolly Wolstenholme» sound. Thus, guitar player and, at this point, more or less active bandleader John Lees gets credited for four out of seven songs, and they are all quite different. His are the only «rockers» on the album that open both of the album's sides: ʽTaking Some Time Onʼ is a half-folk, half-psychedelic sing-along anthem very much in a Traffic vein, whereas ʽGood Love Childʼ arguably takes its inspiration from the heavier stuff on Revolver (I can almost imagine the entire band putting on dark shades before the decisive take). Both have simple, but attractive riffs, plenty of energy, and magnificent production values — the sea of gui­tar overdubs on ʽTaking Some Time Onʼ, in particular, is totally worthy of the bestest in British psychedelic blues-rock, and ʽGood Love Childʼ is just a load of unassuming pop-rock fun.

On the other hand, it is also Lees who is credited for ʽMother Dearʼ, a folksy Mellotron / strings / acou­stic guitar ballad in the vein of Justin Hayward — sentimental as heck, but with a stunning chord change from verse to chorus that adds nervous tension to basic prettiness and a pinch of uneasy darkness to the general lightness. And it is also Lees who takes credit for the «magnum opus» of the album — the huge Crimsonian epic ʽDark Now My Skyʼ (Crimsonian, I say, be­cause I am pretty sure it must have been inspired by stuff like ʽEpitaphʼ), with wailing, soaring dis­torted guitar melodies, gargantuan piano and organ chords, choral vocals, spoken theatrical intros... in short, with every requirement for «progressive» status fulfilled, even if something is still lacking (maybe something very basic, like instrumental prowess).

Keyboardist Woolly Wolstenholme's ballad ʽThe Iron Maidenʼ is in the same ballpark as ʽMother Dearʼ, although it is somewhat closer in style and structure to straightahead British folk — and no, the title does not have anything to do neither with heavy metal, nor even with any creepiness normally associated with iron maidens. (Not even sure that the band members themselves knew properly what an «iron maiden» is — the title is to be taken purely figuratively). His other contri­bution is ʽThe Sun Will Never Shineʼ, which sounds more like... one of those symphonic pop numbers by the Bee Gees on 1st, only puffed up to five minutes. Nice epic chorus, cool guitar lines, soulful attitude — no problem there.

Bassist Les Holroyd probably offers the most blatant rip-off: his ʽWhen The World Was Wokenʼ in almost every single detail, from the high-pitched breathy vocals to the Bach-style organ parts to the overall manner of crescendo producing, replicates the approach of Procol Harum (only the heavy use of orchestration is novel: Procol Harum themselves would not start piling up brass and string parts until the departure of Robin Trower). But the melody itself is not ripped off, the cre­scendo is thought out meticulously, and the rhythmic bass pulse is a toe-tapper's delight.

In short, you get my drift: there is not a single genuine clunker on the album. If there is anything that «betrays» this band, other than this blatant inability to hide their ingredients, it is probably the lyrics — which are normally very simple, accessible, and clichéd: "Dark now my sky / The sea of peace has left my shore / No birds sing / The silent spring will overflow / Oh you'll never know / I love you so / You'll always be / A part of me" is definitely not something you could ever expect on a King Crimson album. But BJH had never, from the very beginning, positioned them­selves as a «highbrow entertainment» band — and although this attitude would eventually drag them down much lower than a good band should be able to tolerate, on Barclay James Harvest it all works, even with all the trivial wording.

For accuracy's sake, a large part of the success should be credited to the band's producer — none other than Norman Smith, the creative engineer behind the Beatles' early records and also the producer of Pink Floyd's early stuff: he is also responsible for the lush orchestral arrangements. The very fact of recording at EMI's Abbey Road Studios must have also been quite inspiring. Un­fortunately, neither the producer nor the environment helped prevent the band's steady downhill course from there on, but in 1970, that course was completely unpredictable anyway, and the al­bum gets a certified thumbs up from me — a highly underrated treasure that every fan of the band's chief idols should be able to enjoy without reservations.

Check "Barclay James Harvest" (CD) on Amazon

8 comments:

  1. "a stunning chord change from verse to chorus"
    GS, one genuine advise. Don't listen too dissonants and atonal stuff too much. I can witness that you'll lose the ability to recognize and appreciate little things like this. For honestly I don't hear it. And I realize it's a loss. Of course I think the gains greatly outweigh it, but the catch is: it wasn't a choice I deliberately made and now I couldn't go back if I wanted to.

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    1. Can you even tell the difference between a major and minor chord? That progression just screams to be noticed.

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    2. Who knows? Maybe playing the violin for more than 15 years, from which 6 or 7 in an amateur orchestra (including stuff from Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn) was lost on me. Or maybe you post as an anonymous because you know yourself it's a silly question.
      So at the other hand - can you even tell the difference between tonal and atonal music? Because you seemed to have missed my point - I have been listening to strong dissonants and atonal stuff for 30 years. And there is a price to pay.

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    3. Oh, knock it off.

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  2. My CD copy has 13 (!!) bonus tracks on it, all of them short pop songs, derivative, but catchy. Check them out, for they apparently consisted the bulk of BJH's concerts circa '68. Their inclusion multiplies the number of good melodies on the record by at least three.

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  3. "The very fact of recording at EMI's Abbey Road Studios must have also been quite inspiring."

    Not to mention quite reliable. That's the part most people conveniently ignores when gushing over the quality of analog recording: in the analog era, the quality leap not only between average and good studios, but even between good and state-of-the-art studios, DID matter.

    Just compare the sound of, say, Fritz Reiner's classic recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (1956) or Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1969) with your average rock'n'roll single from New Orleans or Memphis. Sam Philips or Art Rupe were geniuses precisely for their ingenuity and their ability to make an exciting production with equipment that although leagues beyong consumer grade, was crap compared with big studio material.

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    1. I agree with you that the role of the producer and the engineer was crucial back then. In classical music you never can go wrong with Deutsche Gramophon - no matter how big the orchestra, sound quality was always first class. I'm not nostalgic about the analog era because I know some records with crappy sound quality as well. And even if the master tapes were good things could go wrong; a prime example is Deep Purple's Machine Head.

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  4. Oops, typo, Kind of Blue is 1959.

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