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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Gone To Earth


1) Hymn; 2) Love Is Like A Violin; 3) Friend Of Mine; 4) Poor Man's Moody Blues; 5) Hard Hearted Woman; 6) Sea Of Tranquillity; 7) Spirit On The Water; 8) Leper's Song; 9) Taking Me Higher.

Well, this record is certainly memorable. From the «ambitions» point of view, it is a step back from the relative complexity of Octoberon — more songs on the whole, and more simple songs in particular, with «soothing repetitiveness» as one of the key factors that determine memorability. But there are some cool songwriting ideas here, and the soft-rock atmosphere is still resonating with echoes of Sixties' art-pop idealism, and the formula still works.

Ironically, the song that helped make Gone To Earth into «the» BJH album of all time (their big­gest commercial success and the first pick of many a critic in retrospect) is... a joke song. Not only does ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ truly sound the way it is called, but John Lees actually de­signed it that way, as a slap-in-yer-face in the direction of many a reviewer who had previously derided the band as a cheaper imitation of who-do-you-think. Essentially, it is just one of those silly ideas — like ʽTitlesʼ — to tinker around with the old treasure chest. And, just like ʽTitlesʼ, it fails because it never really lets you know what it wants to be.

I mean, for somebody who has never heard ʽNights In White Satinʼ, ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ may be a stately, solemn, chivalrous love anthem rather than a senseless deconstruction of the original, subtracting most of its pluses (the inimitable Hayward vocals, the group harmonies, the flute solo, etc.) and offering nothing in return. For those of us who do know the original, this is, at best, a self-ironic statement, something like: « you thought we were all a poor man's Moody Blues? well, you couldn't be more wrong, because here is what a true poor man's Moody Blues really sounds like, and nothing that we did before is really that ridiculous!» But if such was the reasoning, it is doubly ironic how the song became a hit for the band, and ended up as a perennial favourite on their live setlist.

The other live highlight from the album is John's ʽHymnʼ, which can be easily mistaken for a loving retelling of the story of Jesus for kindergarten-age children, then correctly reinterpreted (with the aid of John himself, who would always clarify the interpretation in concert) as a war­ning for the simple folks not to use drugs as a means of attaining Godlike status. Then, finally, it becomes a Kansas-style moralization without the Kansas-style musicianship, and the final effect is — too much preachiness and pathos, but just not enough depth. Granted, it is hard to explain why something like ʽHymnʼ feels like pablum where something like George Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ, largely designed according to the same rules, is genius — either George uses the more ap­propriate tonalities, or has more soul in his vocals, but the feeling is unmistakable, even if it may not be shared by everyone.

John gets more interesting on ʽLove Is Like A Violinʼ, where folk verses are integrated with upbeat, disco-wise (but not really disco) choruses with an elegant resolution — this time, the fluff manages to be charming; and on ʽLeper's Songʼ, which sounds sort of like Supertramp (in fact, it is not the only song on the album that sounds like Supertramp), but in this context, it is more of a compliment than anything else. (The lyrics are allegedly inspired by reading Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene — well, at least this beats ʽHymnʼ, which must have been inspired by «The New Testament For Preschool Conservatives»).

Holroyd's contributions are a little bouncier this time, and not all of them emphasize the sugar-and-spice, as it was on Octoberon: ʽFriend Of Mineʼ is catchy, if hardly original, Eaglish country-pop, ʽHard Hearted Womanʼ is a dark, mildly brooding, Eaglish country-rocker à la ʽWitchy Womanʼ, and ʽSpirit On The Waterʼ, breaking the tendency, is a clear attempt to emulate the Beach Boys circa Sunflower and Surf's Up — and, if you look past the ugly synthesizer tones, an almost successful one: at least the harmonies are pretty well arranged; although, truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised (and would be very amused) to see the song titled ʽPoor Man's Beach Boysʼ, just to complete the circle.

Meanwhile, Woolly, true to his nature, goes on with the ʽPoor Man's Gustav Mahlerʼ project, this time in the context of a space-age song, about being either lost in space or losing the space race or something like that — ʽSea Of Tranquillityʼ is no better and no worse than ʽRaʼ, a stately project carried out with some dignity, but in a completely predictable fashion, with the usual fanfares in their usual places. The man does know his Mahler and his Strauss — too bad that, cruelly reduced to one contribution per album, Woolly decided to stick exclusively to these pastiches; perhaps he thought that this was the best possible antidote he could offer to the excessive soft-poppiness of his bandmates, but it would certainly have been nice to see him try out other styles as well.

Altogether, the reasons why Gone To Earth has achieved such a «special» status in BJH history, other than the accidental popularity of ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ — I wonder if the success of that song could have played any part in the Moody Blues themselves reuniting the following year, recognizing how much they were still missed? — those reasons remain a mystery to me, because for those who perceive BJH as an «art» band, Octoberon would be a much better choice, and those who think of them as primarily soft-pop, light-fluff artists, have no reason to worry about album favourites in the first place. With the exception of ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ, a song that makes me feel very stupid every time I listen to it, Gone To Earth is pleasant, inoffensive, and, as I said, occasionally «hooky» and memorable, so a thumbs up it is, but in retrospect, it is hard­ly a high point for the band, and definitely not up to their classic early standards.

Check "Gone To Earth" (CD) on Amazon


  1. BJH never had much success in The Netherlands; wasn't often played on the radio either. I only know the name because I saw their records in the music stores back then. Until recently I didn't know any BJH song (and the few I have listened too I have completely forgotten).
    I guess Dutch teenagers were thoroughly divided between punks and disco's, with the next generation of headbangers coming in third.

    1. But for some reason BJH were enormously popular during this same punk and disco age in (West) Germany.

    2. These guys didn't sell 2 copies in the USA, either. In fact, I don't believe they ever even toured here. It's amazing that they didn't at least try to break into the world's largest market for rock/pop music, especially in the 1970's, when the industry was at its peak.

      On the other hand, Supertramp broke huge in the USA, selling millions of records. And, on balance, this is an excellent argument for "redeeming" the intelligence of the average American record buyer. Who needs a "Poor Man's Moody Blues" or an "almost Supertramp" when you can easily acquire the real thing?

  2. I think "Hymn" is a good song with a good melody. Anyway, if they told the audiences what the lyrics were about it's a mistake, you simply don't explain those things.

  3. Disagree, slightly. This is the first BJH album I ever heard, back in late '77 ("Spirit on the Water" was the song, first played on local college radio), and I bought it based on that song. Think overall this is a decent compromise between their early "prog" stuff and their later mush-pop, with "Hymn" and "Poor Man's Moody Blues" the other high points. The rest is inoffensive but not stunning -- the closest they came to a solid album, even if it's really not that close. Their early albums can't match it, and later stuff like XII ain't even close. Can't wait to see what you make of XII, which I think is one of the most boring albums ever....

  4. I'm currently listening to Wolstenholme's solo album One Drop in a Dry World. It's not that inspired, if not particularly terrible. It reminds me of late period Jethro Tull for some reason. In any case, I don't know if any of the songs would be serious improvements to BJH's albums.

    Some macabre trivia on Wolstenholme:

    14th December, 2010
    Woolly Wolstenholme

    It is with profound sorrow that we have to announce the passing of Woolly Wolstenholme. In recent weeks Woolly's mental health had taken a turn for the worse and sadly he took his own life on Monday 13th December 2010. In this difficult time our thoughts are with Woolly's partner, Sue. We would ask all of Woolly's fans to remember his incredible contribution to popular music and his unique presence on stage.

    4th August, 2010
    On Tour with John Lees' Barclay James Harvest

    Woolly will be appearing live with John Lees' Barclay James Harvest again this year. The band currently have three dates planned in England, as follows:

    November 26: London Islington O2 Academy
    November 27: Manchester Academy
    November 28: York Grand Opera House

    For more information and ticketing details, please see the John Lees' Barclay James Harvest web site.

    So soon after a BJH reunion concert... I hope he wasn't haunted by memories of his time with the band, though who could tell I guess.

  5. Believe it or not, I just got around to listening to PMMB on Amazon. God, what a joke. And not a funny one. I love a good parody, and a wicked satire even more, but this thing is so mind-numbingly derivative it's not even ironic. Had he used a line like "Nights that I sat in..." that would've been a good spoof. Utterly humorless and pointless.