A Social History Through the Songs of Barclay James Harvest
by Alex Torres
At the risk of sounding like an unfortunate individual who should get out more I have to confess that when I'm not listening to music I enjoy reading books on the subject. Ironically during the 1970s when prog was at its peak there were very few books dedicated to the subject. In the last two decades, however, despite the growth of the internet the literary world has given genre enthusiasts a wealth of fine books to choose from. These generally fall into one of three categories; academic analysis, history and biographies (or autobiographies). Recommended (if a tad intellectual) examples of the former include Edward Macan's Rocking The Classics and Kevin Holm-Hudson's Progressive Rock Reconsidered. Recent and expansive entries in the history section include Stephen Lambe's Citizens Of Hope And Glory and Will Romano's Mountains Come Out Of The Sky. Biographies, on the other hand, whilst plentiful are generally restricted to the more popular acts like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis.
Neatly sidestepping all of these categories is a new book, The Fifties Child, written by respected rock journalist and DPRP contributor Alex Torres. It chronicles the major social occurrences from the mid-20th Century onwards as interpreted through the songs of long-running British band Barclay James Harvest. Formed in 1967 at the end of their teens, 'fifties child' refers to the band's songwriters, guitarist John Lees, bassist Les Holroyd and keyboardist Stuart Wolstenholme, who along with drummer Mel Pritchard experienced the social events, both national and international that inspired many of their compositions. More than 125 songs are referenced together with related topics including the Cold War, the Northern Ireland troubles, South African apartheid, the Vietnam War, the environment and of course good old sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll.
Having established the parameters of the book, Alex begins each chapter with a detailed synopsis of a social topic and then illustrates with an in-depth analysis of the relevant songs. As such the songs do not appear in chronological order and if like me you prefer the band's early output up to the late '70s (coinciding with Wolstenholme's departure) it's a revelation how lyrically profound the later songs are, albeit against a commercialised AOR backdrop. And whilst the connection between subject and song is sometimes quite transparent (as in Summer Soldier and Child Of The Universe from 1972 and 1974 respectively) others are less obvious and it is here where Alex demonstrates his depth of insight into the band's writings. His exhaustive knowledge of late 20th Century history and politics is also impressive; each subject has clearly been painstakingly researched.
Whilst this is not a biography per se (it does include an appendix dedicated to the band's history) the author does dwell upon significant aspects of their career such as the musical and personal differences that led to the bands break-up in 1998. Given that BJH were a band with a social conscience there's a sombre tone that often pervades their songs which understandably manifests itself in this book especially considering the events covered. The songwriters were not without their own personal problems which sadly for one of them resulted in a tragic end. In the last part of the book Alex reflects upon the subject of 'Spirituality' to wisely conclude on a positive note and it is perhaps this chapter more than any other that provides the key to the psyche of the band members.
Alex Torres has to be congratulated for coming up with a unique approach to rock writing and seeing it through without compromise. For example, the best know Barclay James Harvest tune, Mocking Bird, is excluded on the grounds that the songs subject matter didn't match the books criteria. It couldn't go without a mention however if only for the fact that along with several other songs it led to litigation against the band from an unexpected source. You don't necessarily have to be a fan of Barclay James Harvest to get the most out of this book but it probably helps. That said if you felt you already knew the band, after reading this book you may have to think again.