BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST FEATURE
REVIEWS IN THIS ISSUE:
Barclay James Harvest is a band that really should need no introduction. One of the classic progressive rock acts, they emerged in the late 60’s along with fellow contemporaries like Yes, Genesis, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and King Crimson. Although all accomplished musicians they eschewed flashy instrumental soloing in favour of a melodic, tightly structured symphonic sound the relied on strong song writing, meticulous arrangements and harmonious vocals. This was suitably demonstrated with their self titled album debut on the Harvest label in 1970. The bands sound however was considered to be too lightweight and classically orientated by some and possibly as a result in the popularity league they languished for a spell in the prog second division along with the likes of Renaissance, Caravan and Gentle Giant.
The earlier albums found the band working with an orchestra which was eventually ditched after the fourth release due to escalating costs. By way of compensation keyboard player Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme developed his Mellotron sound complimenting the bands style perfectly. Vocalist and guitarist John Lees who is also one of the bands principal song writers has a fluid guitar style that has a similar appeal to players like Hackett, Latimer and Hayward. Vocalist and bassist Les Holroyd rivalled Lees in terms of song writing and band dominance which would eventually lead to an acrimonious split in 1998. Completing the quartet was Mel Pritchard a solid unpretentious drummer of the old school. Sadly Mel passed away following a suspected heart attack in January 2004.
With a move to the Polydor label in 1973 they embarked on what is considered to be a vintage period for BJH finding increased success as both an album and touring act cementing their popularity all over Europe. Whilst many of their peers found prosperity on the other side of the Atlantic success in the USA eluded BJH throughout their career. It seems that the sound of four lads from Oldham, Lancashire was just a little too English for American tastes. Although not unique for a prog act they were also out of favour with the UK music press prompting John Lees to write the self mocking Poor Man’s Moody Blues. The bands sound changed however from its recognisable prog heritage of the 70’s to a more AOR style of the 80’s and 90’s. Sensing changes were in the air keys man Woolly Wolstenholme jumped ship in 1979. These five reissues chronicle part of that transitional period.
Originally released between 1978 and 1990 Live Tapes, Eyes Of The Universe, A Concert For The People (Berlin), Face To Face and Welcome To The Show have all been expanded and re-mastered. Each album reviewed below appears in order of the original release date. The collection includes three studio and two live recordings one of which is a double CD. They do not represent the bands total output from this period omitting three studio, one live and four ‘best of’ releases. They are however generally considered to be the highpoints of this twelve year span, a view I would largely agree with.
Eclectic Discs the label responsible for the re-masters has become something of specialist in reissues and they’ve certainly done an impressive job here. The sound on each disc has been superbly re-mastered from the original master tapes by engineer Paschal Byrne. All CD’s include bonus tracks although the majority of these have been previously available. It would have been a plus if they’d unearthed some hidden gems by way of previously unheard songs or demos. The repackaging includes an expanded booklet with additional artwork, photos and excellent liner notes. These were written especially for the reissues by long time fans and all round BJH experts Keith and Monika Domone. The cover artwork remains faithful to the originals although with some minor changes.
As I’ve covered each album from scratch in some depth I decided to end the review with two ratings. The first is for the original release taking into account the quality of the songs and the performances whilst the second reflects the improved sound, packaging and bonus material of the reissues. In truth these albums with the exception of
Live Tapes do not represent the best of Barclay James Harvest although they all have their moments. In fact as I worked my way through the collection it felt like the law of diminishing returns. The final assessment is still influenced by the original material which is why only one of the five receives a DPRP recommendation. All the albums however benefit from the enhancements as reflected in the improved rating for each.
To allow each of the albums to be seen in context I’ve endeavoured to provide a little background information regarding the original release. For historical information I’m indebted to Keith and Monika Domone whose insightful sleeve notes proved to be invaluable source of reference. Finally, for those wishing to bring themselves fully up to date with BJH, and I strongly recommend you do so, they currently exist as two separate units. They are John Lees' Barclay James Harvest teaming once again with Woolly Wolstenholme and Barclay James Harvest featuring Les Holroyd. The former has returned to the vintage prog sound of the 70’s material and the latter mixes older and newer songs whilst continuing down the AOR route. You pay your money and you take your choice.
Barclay James Harvest – Live Tapes
Disc One: Child Of The Universe (6:40), Rock And Roll Star (5:11), Poor Man's Moody Blues (7:08), Mockingbird (7:14), Hard Hearted Woman (4:28), One Night (6:09) The World Goes On - Bonus track (6:09), Medicine Man - Previously unreleased bonus track (11:55)
Disc Two: Taking Me Higher (4:30), Suicide? (6:24), Crazy City (4:27), Polk Street Rag (5:25), Hymn For The Children - Previously unreleased bonus track (3:29), Jonathan (5:35), For No One (5:46), Hymn (5:42)
The mid to late 70’s was certainly a vintage period for live albums. Progressive rock bands in particular had perfected their song writing and stage craft through the late 60’s and early 70’s and recording techniques had suitably advanced to do justice to the performances. Not necessarily one of the most acclaimed but certainly one of the better efforts from this time was Live Tapes. Originally released in June 1978 as a double LP (remember vinyl?) it captured the band during their ‘76 and ‘77 European tours promoting the Octoberon and Gone To Earth albums. Although generally regarded as a superior recording, it did not sell as well in the UK as Barclay James Harvest Live released four years earlier. Live Tapes was especially successful in Germany however where it reached the top 20 album chart. The original line up was still intact at the time namely John Lees on guitar and vocals, Les Holroyd bass and vocals, Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme keyboards and vocals and Mel Pritchard drums. Wolstenholme departed the following year making this recording a fitting testimony to his time with the band.
There are three bonus tracks included on this reissue The World Goes On, Medicine Man and Hymn For The Children. All three were recorded during the ‘76 tour but dropped from the original release of Live Tapes when it was decided to include four songs from the ‘77 tour instead. For the benefit of continuity they have been thoughtfully inserted within the play list rather than simply being tacked on at the end. With the two longest of these appearing on disc one it does however leave a slight in balance in terms of playing time. Their reinstatement and the fact that these discs have been re-mastered from the original master tapes makes it an absolute must for all self respecting BJH fans. A sonically good recording to begin with, it is given a new lease of life where every note and word is rendered clear and sharp. Performance wise the band were at a peak helped by an impeccable choice of material that opens and closes with two undisputed BJH anthems namely Child Of The Universe and Hymn.
Disc one clearly highlights the two distinct but complimentary writing and vocal styles of John Lees and Les Holroyd. Lees favours a majestic symphonic sound typified by
Poor Man's Moody Blues and Mockingbird (the oldest song here) two of the bands most famous tunes. They have both been played more times than probably any other BJH songs and the versions here are as good as any I’ve heard, especially the latter. Whilst the soaring guitar and Mellotron are present and correct as you would expect Mockingbird also features some stand out bass playing. The anti war Child Of The Universe shares an epic like quality with both these songs. Rock ‘N’ Roll Star and The World Goes On demonstrate Holroyd’s melodious west coast rock leanings with C S & N and The Byrds influences clearly evident. In the same vein Lees’ One Night evokes The Eagles with its superior vocal harmonies.
Hard Hearted Woman is possibly the weakest song of the set with a tone much lighter than the title suggests. A better choice in my opinion would have been Wolstenholme’s neglected Sea Of Tranquility a track it rubbed shoulders with on the Gone To Earth album. In comparison the rocking Medicine Man includes excellent harmonies plus blistering guitar work from Lees. The songs extended treatment allows the band to engage in some lengthy soloing, a rare indulgence for BJH. Holroyd in particular demonstrate his bass prowess in a section that sounds remarkably like a certain live Yes track featuring Chris Squire. The band is firing on all cylinders and for my money this track alone is worth the purchase of this release. You can really sense the creative juices flowing as disc one draws to an end.
Except for Hymn and For No One both featured in the encore, disc two is made up of mostly lesser known songs from the bands repertoire. Pick of the crop and one of my all time favourite BJH songs is the bittersweet Suicide? even though it has a passing resemblance to Sailing. When I saw the band play live last November this was one of the highlights and it never fails to move me. The beautiful Taking Me Higher which closed Gone To Earth opens here with a hint of Brian Wilson in the vocal arrangement and a stately guitar solo to close. Crazy City also penned by Holdroyd includes some impressive vocal gymnastics normally associated with Spock’s Beard. Polk Street Rag has an uncharacteristic edginess and is clearly the bands homage to The Who which works brilliantly in a live environment. In contrast the elegant
Hymn For The Children finds the band in Moody Blues territory. Sorry about the comparison guys but this time it fits. Jonathan continues in the same vein and is elevated to symphonic heaven by Lees’ inspirational guitar work and Wolstenholme’s Mellotron which never sounded grander. The aforementioned For No One is a sweeping prog classic leaving the unashamedly spiritual Hymn to close in true crowd pleasing fashion.
I believe that BJH have never been given due credit for influencing the neo-prog scene in the same way as contemporaries like Genesis and Camel have. One listen to this collection and the oversight is apparent. All the elements are there including lush vocals, melodic guitar and keys interplay, and a rhythm unit as tight as the come. The bands richly melodic and tightly structured music is conveyed with just the right amount of conviction, grace and grandeur. If I had to add one note of criticism then it would be that on the more up tempo tunes the lead guitar adopts a fuzz effect that’s a tad overused and sounds a little dated. But hey, it was recorded thirty years ago after all. Otherwise Lees’ guitar rings sharp and clear, Wostenholmes’ keyboards are convincingly orchestral, Holroyd’s bass work expansive and Pritchard’s drumming incisive. This comes unreservedly recommended to all lovers of classic symphonic rock.
Original release: 7.5 out of 10
Remastered release: 8.5 out of 10
Barclay James Harvest – Eyes Of The Universe
Tracklist: Love On The Line (4:38), Alright Down Get Boogie [Mu Ala Rusic] (3:53), The Song [They Love To Sing] (6:11), Skin Flicks (6:52), Sperratus (5:00), Rock N’ Roll Lady (4:29), Capricorn (4:33), Play To The World (7:02) Bonus Tracks: Sperratus [Previously Unreleased Single Edit] (3:23), Rock N' Roll Lady [Previously Unreleased Single Edit] (3:23), Capricorn [Single Edit] (3:37), Play To The World [Previously Unreleased Single Edit] (3:52)
Originally released in November 1979, Eyes Of The Universe followed the departure of keyboardist and founding member Woolly Wolstenholme earlier that same year. And it’s not hard to detect the cause of the dissatisfaction that prompted his leaving. The simply structured songs are a far cry from the elaborate arrangements associated with Wolstenholme and the bands earlier albums. Sound wise is comparable with many albums appearing at the end of the 70’s and the re-mastering if anything only serves to highlight this. On its original release it failed to chart in the UK but was hugely successful in Germany where it consolidated their popularity reaching number 3. With Wolstenholme out of the frame the song writing was split equally between guitarist John Lees and bassist Les Holroyd contributing four songs each. Together with drummer Mel Pritchard they elected to remain a three piece with Holroyd and Lees playing most of the keyboard parts themselves. The result is a leaner more economical sound enriched by session keys man Kevin McAlea who contributed to two tracks.
Love On The Line gets off to a good start with a menacing synth bass line that predates the same sound in Vangelis’ Blade Runner theme by three years. Sadly it’s joined by a disco beat jumping on the Bee Gees band wagon of white funk which was hugely popular at the time despite the onslaught of new wave. This was the first song from the album to be released as a single and curiously became a live favourite. Alright Down Get Boogie continues in a similar vein and has to be one of the worst songs ever penned by Lees. This embarrassing affair was justified as a tongue in cheek pastiche of 70’s disco music but either way it’s hard to excuse lines like “Get down boogie alright”. The Tangent did it much better recently with The Sun In My Eyes which was closer to the mark and a lot more fun. From the ridiculous to the sublime with the beautiful
The Song (They Love To Sing) which is actually one of Holroyd’s best ballads ever with haunting keyboard effects from McAlea.
Skin Flicks is a curious combination of C S & N west coast harmonies and repetitive symphonic synth punctuations that plagiarises Question by The Moody Blues. It works in part but the song never really goes anywhere and hardly justifies its near seven minute length. It’s also surprising that the band should seemingly go out of their way to invite further comparisons with the Moodies. Better is Sperratus (an anagram of “Superstar”) which opened side two on the original vinyl disc. McAlea again shines on keys along with Lees’ soaring guitar in a driving instrumental break which is one the albums few prog moments. Rock N' Roll Lady is another song that became a live favourite although this studio original is weaker than later versions. Owing a debt to The Eagles One Of These Nights, it does at least benefit from Lees’ spacey guitar sound. The overtly commercial Capricorn is a nod in the direction of More Than A Feeling by Boston released three years earlier. It does admittedly have a catchy chorus and so it’s no surprise that it was released as a single the following year.
Closing the original release is the sublime Play To The World another memorable song from Holroyd featuring a majestic saxophone coda from guest Alan Fawkes. The four bonus tracks are all single edits of songs already included on the album. So in truth they are really of no benefit other than fleshing out the playing time. The fact that three of them were never actually released is a telling indication of the commercial success of the albums previous singles. Sperratus in particular suffers missing the instrumental break which is the songs best part. Play To The World suffers a similar fate fading just as the sax solo starts. If you already have a copy of the 1984 CD release I could not recommend this disc on the strength of these tracks alone. What elevates this version is the superiority of the re-mastered sound and the expanded booklet. Interestingly the artwork includes a 1979 festival poster showing the bands name headlining over Dire Straits.
Listening to Eyes Of The Universe twenty seven years on it would be easy to dismiss it as a contrived attempt by the band to gain mainstream appeal. However seen in the context of what was happening musically in the twilight of the 70’s this is a fair stab by the band at a more commercial song driven direction. Several institutional prog acts were attempting the same thing with variable results. And to be fair BJH were never the most complex of prog bands to begin with. The accent was always on melody as opposed to intricate instrumental interplay. Although many of the songs sound derivative there are some very tuneful moments with strong hooks and is helped by the bands glossy production assisted by Martin Lawrence. This is not vintage BJH however and an album that I cannot seriously recommend to present day prog lovers or indeed BJH fans who bailed out when Woolly Wolstenholme did.
Original release: 6.5 out of 10
Remastered release: 7.5 out of 10
Barclay James Harvest – A Concert For The People (Berlin)
Tracklist: Love On The Line (6:35), Mockingbird (7:24), Rock ‘N’ Roll Lady (4:39), Nova Lepidoptera (6:14), Sip Of Wine (4:41), In Memory Of The Martyrs (7:42), Life Is For Living (4:00), Child Of The Universe (5:41) Berlin (5:35), Loving Is Easy (4:34), Hymn (5:28)
A Concert For The People (Berlin) is an album that under normal circumstances would have never been released. But these were not normal circumstances. Recorded live on 30th August 1980 in front of an estimated 250,000 people it was the bands biggest gig ever. The concert came about as a result of the Berlin Senate Cultural Committee’s desire to stage a free event in the city that summer. The venue chosen was the Platz der Republik a grassed area in front of the Reichstag, the famous old parliament building located just a short distance from the Berlin Wall. Whilst the event was considered to be a huge success it was dogged by technical problems. John Lees’ main guitar was knocked over backstage prior to the show forcing several frets into the wood of the neck. This coupled with a bad hum during the show meant that large chunks of the recording were unusable. However due to the large investment by several parties including the band themselves plus the presence of a mobile recording unit and a film crew meant that an album was virtually inevitable.
Following extensive re-recording and overdubs in the studio during the latter half of 1981 it was eventually released on vinyl in January 1982. Starting out as a limited edition eleven-track LP titled Berlin - A Concert For The People it entered the German album chart at No.1. In July that same year it was released in the UK minus two tracks achieving the bands highest ever chart entry in their home country at No.15. This re-mastered edition reinstates the two missing tracks Love On The Line and Rock ‘N’ Roll Lady which have also been absent from previous CD releases. The poor quality of the original master tapes however prevents the full two and a quarter hour concert from being salvaged. The lost tracks include some of the bands finest including Poor Man's Moody Blues, Crazy City and Suicide? What’s left is a rag bag affair with a handful of classics mixed with some of the bands more recent and less inspired songs. The excellent photographs in the expanded booklet that accompanies this CD provide a good indication of the enormity of both the crowd and the stage production. It’s all a far cry from the intimate 500-seater venue where I saw John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest play last November.
Following a rousing countdown by the crowd John Lees, Les Holroyd and Mel Pritchard take to the stage accompanied by guest keyboardists Colin Browne and Kevin McAlea. They open the proceedings with Love On The Line one of six songs included in the set from the then most recent studio album Eyes Of The Universe. Only two of these however were recovered from the master tapes, the other being Rock ‘N’ Roll Lady. Ironically these were the two songs that were deleted after the original limited edition pressing. Although this version of Love On The Line has a harder edge than the original and some nifty guitar work it’s still a very average song and given the magnitude of the event makes for a lacklustre opener. The evergreen Mockingbird follows and although the two keyboardists make a convincing effort the sterile synth sound lacks the orchestral majesty that Wolly Wolstenholme brought to the song.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Lady would become a live favourite over the following years and has a welcome bite not present in the studio bound original. The compelling riff is borrowed from
Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper. Nova Lepidoptera and Sip Of Wine are two songs from 1978’s XII album. The former is a ponderous affair which reminds me of Chris de Burgh which is not so good but improves in the second half with an impeccable guitar solo from Lees. The latter is a lightweight pop song that does the band or the event no favours although Lees comes to the rescue again at the end with a lively solo. In Memory Of The Martyrs and Life Is For Living were two new songs at the time and would eventually appear on the following studio album Turn Of The Tide. The first is a beautiful slow burning song with dual acoustic guitars in memory of those that lost their lives attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. A lyrical synth line adds to the atmosphere. The second is a bubbly pop song that sounds like a combination of Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkel and Concrete And Clay by Unit Four + Two.
The stirring Child Of The Universe is a perennial favourite and although I’ve heard better versions it’s a welcome reminder of an earlier BJH. Berlin and Loving Is Easy are two more songs from XII. The piano led ballad Berlin is obviously apt for the occasion and is reminiscent of both the Beatles’ The Long And Winding Road and Elton John’s Daniel. The up tempo Loving Is Easy however is a mediocre and repetitive song although to be fair the band does inject energy into the performance. The ever popular Hymn is the inevitable closer and finally Lees encourages a little audience participation that’s lacking elsewhere in the show bringing the most prestigious event in the bands history to a rousing end.
It’s difficult to be subjective about A Concert For The People (Berlin). Given that this was a crowning moment in BJH’s career makes this a must have release for fans and remains one of the bands best sellers twenty five years on. However taken on its own merits as a live recording the cracks are all too obvious. Firstly the extensive studio overdubs are apparent on a good hi-fi system and even more transparent on this re-mastered version. Secondly the choice of songs is far from the best of BJH with an over reliance on the then more recent and in my opinion weaker material. Finally, the fact that nearly half of the set is absent leaves it wanting as a complete souvenir of the concert. On final reflection this release does not stand-up to comparisons with 1978’s Live Tapes which remains the definitive Barclay James Harvest live album.
Original release: 6 out of 10
Remastered release: 7+ out of 10
Barclay James Harvest – Face To Face
Tracklist: Prisoner Of Your Love (4:35), He Said Love (5:03), Alone In The Night (5:06), Turn The Key (4:46), You Need Love (4:09), Kiev (5:25), African (5:51), Following Me (4:22), All My Life (5:31), Panic (4:30), Guitar Blues (5:17), On The Wings Of Love (5:55) Bonus Tracks: He Said Love [7" Single Edit] (4.15), Panic [12" Single Remix] (6.05), On The Wings Of Love [7" Single Edit] (5:31)
Originally released on vinyl and CD in January 1987, Face To Face sees the bands transition from symphonic prog to melodic pop-rock virtually complete. In truth if this wasn’t a Barclay James Harvest album it would be hard to justify its inclusion on a prog centred website like the DPRP. The band also seemed determined to play down their very name which appears in small print on the cover and a then new ‘BJH’ logo featured prominently instead. The modernist artwork completes the make over. Inside the expanded booklet reveals several group shots of Les Holroyd, John Lees and Mel Pritchard in their not so cool 80’s attire looking more and more like the Bee Gees with every successive release. On the plus side there is archive poster and singles cover artwork included together with the usual excellent liner notes by Keith and Monika Domone.
The three band members are joined by a host of guest musicians and backing vocalists including percussion legend Frank Ricotti and three additional keyboardists credited. Production is by BJH and regular engineer Gregg Jackman with further input from Pip Williams. On the evidence of this re-mastered version they did a more than creditable job between them. Holroyd and Lees once again share democratic writing honours with six songs apiece. They certainly packed plenty in with an original playing time of over sixty minutes which was generous by 80’s standards. The songs are pretty good as a whole although the style and sound doesn’t stray far beyond typical 80’s soft rock. With the word ‘love’ conspicuous in four of the song titles you would be forgiven for thinking that this was mostly a collection of ballads which would be partly true. Songs like Kiev and African however demonstrate that they hadn’t abandoned their social consciousness stance.
Holroyd’s opening tune Prisoner Of Your Love is a pure slice of 80’s synth pop. It’s a catchy song all the same with an infectious chorus that would have sat comfortably on a Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw record. Synths and acoustic guitars dominate He Said Love a Lees Christian celebration from the same stable as the perennial Hymn. The memorable anthemic chorus makes this one of the albums better songs. Alone In The Night is the first song to feature a decent electric guitar break from Lees. That’s the best thing about this track which has a rockier edge that sets it apart from most of the material here. Turn The Key is a Chicago influenced AOR ballad that Holroyd seemed to be producing with more and more regularity. Towards the later part of the song the swirling synths and excellent backing vocals sound remarkably like
You Need Love is an insipid MOR ballad by John Lees normal standards that could have easily came from the pen and voice of Justin Hayward on an off day. Kiev is a tribute to the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a worthy subject for any song. It’s let down however by cloying lyrics and a ponderous pace that’s reminiscent of, but not in the same class as A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum. Lees’ African has lyrical similarities with Child Of The Universe although this time the theme is apartheid rather than war. The biting lyrics, strident keys, massed vocals and incessant riff ensures it lingers in the memory. Following Me is a telling indicator of the increasingly lightweight pop route that Holroyd was taking that would eventually lead to his split with Lees. There’s no denying the song has charm however and hit potential had it been released as a single.
The atmospheric All My Life is another quality song helped by tasteful tenor saxophone from guest Dick Morrisey. Panic, along with Alright Down Get Boogie from Eyes Of The Universe has to be one of the worst songs written by Lees. It has a tedious chorus and dated production techniques borrowed from Yes’ 90125 album. Lees redeems himself with Guitar Blues an album highlight although the Moodies influences are still there this time in the shape of the Blue Jays Blue Guitar. The majestic guitar solo and melodic string effects by guest Andrew Jackman provides the albums most authentic prog moment. The reflective On The Wings Of Love is another AOR influenced song from Holroyd with shades of Elton John’s Rocket Man. To its credit it’s a faint reminder of his better ballads of old.
Like Eyes Of The Universe the bonus material comes in the shape of single release versions of songs already included on the album. He Said Love preceded the album by two months evidence of the record labels confidence of its hit potential due to similarities with the ever popular Hymn. It’s forty eight seconds shorter than the album version although you would be hard pushed to tell the difference. Panic is given the 12" single (remember them?) remix treatment making this the longest track here. Originally released in Germany only it has a punchier rhythm, less emphasis on the guitar and an exaggerated drum sound which basically means you can dance to it. As a song however it still does nothing for me. On The Wings Of Love featured on the B side of He Said Love and differs hardly a jot from the album version.
If you already have the original CD release of this album then it will be the re-mastered (and improved) sound and expanded booklet that will attract you to this version. The bonus tracks to be honest are not worth the additional outlay unless you have a burning desire to dance around your lounge to the Panic remix. If however you have it on vinyl only then You Need Love and On The Wings Of Love, two songs omitted from the original LP are an added incentive. That of course all depends on how much you liked the album to begin with. To those new to BJH and to this album there is little to recommend to prog fans even though it does include several well crafted songs. The majority of the bands pre 80’s output has a timeless quality that remains very listenable today. Unfortunately much of the material here is as dated as the fashion and hair styles sported by the band in the CD booklet. I shouldn’t be too unkind to BJH. Many bands including Yes, Genesis, Camel, Kansas and Asia turned their back on prog at some point during the 80’s and produced some inferior albums. A product of its time Face To Face is no better or worse than most.
Original release: 6.5 out of 10
Remastered release: 7.5 out of 10
Barclay James Harvest – Welcome To The Show
Tracklist: The Life You Lead (3:49), Lady Macbeth (4:35), Cheap The Bullet (4:29), Welcome To The Show (4:15), John Lennon's Guitar (5:41), Halfway To Freedom (4:37), African Nights (5:26), Psychedelic Child (3:41), Where Do We Go (5:09), Origin Earth (4:57), If Love Is King (6:02), Shadows On The Sky (5:25) Bonus tracks: John Lennon's Guitar [Live] (8:17), Alone In The Night [Live] (5:53), Poor Man's Moody Blues [Live] (7:18)
Originally released in March 1990, Barclay James Harvest stepped smoothly into the new decade with Welcome To The Show a release generally mellower in tone (if only marginally) to their 80’s output. This album is not as the title would suggest another live recording but a collection of twelve then new songs with Les Holroyd and John Lees taking alternate writing credits. It’s a pity that they never saw fit to write songs together as the contrasting styles could have produced some interesting and listenable results. By now the bands name had completely disappeared from the cover artwork with the eponymous BJH logo solely displayed. Was this a last ditch attempt by the band or record label (or both) to completely distance themselves from their prog past? And with their popularity declining at this stage was this really such a wise move anyway?
Holroyd’s uninspiring opener The Life You Lead is little more than a bouncing pop ditty that finds the band back in Bee Gees territory sounding like a blatant attempt at a hit single, although it never was. Fortunately at a little over three and a half minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Better is Lady Macbeth with its biting lyrics, Beatles harmonies and atmospheric keyboards from guest Steve Pigott. A short but inspired guitar solo from Lees is a welcome addition. The up tempo Cheap The Bullet continues the bands fondness for Who style songs with a solid Townsend style riff and strong harmonies. The songs anti violence stance couldn’t be more pronounced. A song that Lees obviously favours as it still appears in the bands live set.
The title tune Welcome To The Show is an example of one of my pet hates, songs about the hardships of the music business. When I’m not a scribe for the DPRP my day job frequently takes me into areas of industry where the working conditions are far from good. So I personally find lines like “Though it’s heartbreaking we must go on” pretty hard to swallow. It’s a pity that the mellow Gallagher and Lyle style vocals couldn’t be put to better use. The otherwise excellent John Lennon's Guitar has a haunting quality reminiscent of earlier classics like Galadriel (the subject of this song) and Mockingbird aided by a strident synth string accompaniment. The lyrical structure is its Achilles heel however with “The producer was Norman Smith who’d engineered with The Beatles and John whose guitar was to be instrumental that day when I came to play”. It sounds like Lees is reciting the words of a press release to music. John Lennon may be in the title but the sound is more Paul McCartney and I was also left with a question, where’s the guitar?
The lukewarm Halfway To Freedom has a pleasant enough chorus but it’s the kind of anthem you feel the band could dash off in its sleep. Only when Lees’ expressive guitar enters to play the melody does it take a step in the right direction but its short lived as the song soon fades. Holroyd’s song was based on the then East Berlin as the band continued to ally their sentiments with the country that more than any other had supported them. The atmospheric African Nights is one of Holdroyd’s better contributions here thanks to the evocative lyrics and compelling rhythmic work. Authentic sounding African percussion in the first half gives way to excellent full on drumming in the second. Even more remarkable when you realise that Mel Pritchard didn’t play live for the recording rather his drums were sampled through a Fairlight by Steve Pigott.
Psychedelic Child is a rousing testimony to Lees’ youth which he delivers in fine style although musically it’s grounded in the 80’s sounding like a pure slice of
ZZ Top. The lush Where Do We Go continues Holdroyd’s penchant for
Chicago style AOR ballads who he matches vocally and in the arrangement. Guest Andy Hamilton adds a “blink and you’ll miss it” sax break which is very effective all the same. Even more laidback is Lees’
Origin Earth a track as light as air and once again the Moody Blues comparisons spring back into my head. If Love Is King is let down by a disappointing chorus, with a short repeated synth line providing the only real hook. It’s Lees’ guitar however that comes to the rescue once again providing a stirring solo coda. Shadows On The Sky a song omitted from the original vinyl release is an unremarkable closer with its obviously sampled drums and Holdroyd sounding far too close to Cliff Richard for comfort.
In terms of bonus material they’ve done a better job here extending the original playing time by over 20 minutes and without the superfluous single edits. Instead three live tracks recorded at The Town and Country Club, London on 16th February 1992 are included. Admittedly two of these have already appeared on a CD single released in May 1992. Possibly realising that a song with “guitar” in the title is missing one important ingredient John Lennon's Guitar upgrades the studio version with the addition of a lengthy and moody solo from Lees. Alone In The Night originally featured on Face To Face three years earlier and this version again improves on the original. Atmospheric keyboard effects set the scene before breaking into a punchy guitar and piano driven rock anthem. Poor Man's Moody Blues made its first appearance on 1977’s Gone To Earth album and has been a firm live favourite ever since. With muted keyboards and curiously uninvolving vocals this version doesn’t rank with the best. The melodic guitar is still effective however and it does make a change to hear a 90’s version.
Once again Eclectic Discs have done a magnificent job with this reissue in terms of sound and packaging. The bonus tracks are possibly the real highlight of this release and it’s certainly hard to fault the generous eighty minutes playing time. The band with their then new producers Jon Astley and Andy MacPherson did a pretty neat job of combining 60’s pop sensibilities with 80’s AOR influences, picking up just a hint of 70’s prog on the way. The mostly successful results see some generally colourful songs mixed with a few anaemic ones. If you bought this album when it first came out you will almost certainly have it on CD unless you remained a diehard vinyl collector of course. Either way if you’re a serious fan I can recommend this as an excellent upgrade. Everyone else should approach with a little caution although you may be pleasantly surprised, just as I was at times.
Original release: 6.5 out of 10
Remastered release: 7.5+ out of 10