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Alan Freeman Interview, December 1987
This interview was conducted by Keith and Madge Domone for the official BJH fan club magazine, Nova Lepidoptera, and first appeared in issue #1 of NL in May 1988.
"Fluff" Freeman, veteran DJ on London's Capital Radio and enthusiastic BJH fan, talks exclusively to NL:
NL: First of all, how did you get started in broadcasting?
AF: Well, I actually started in Australia, being an Aussie - I'm now semi-pom, I think, because I've been here just over thirty years. I was working for a timber company as an assistant paymaster; all the clerical bit, but I could never remember anything, you see, so academically I was quite a dead loss. Then in 1951, a friend of mine was working in a commercial station in Melbourne, and he said "How would you like to audition as a radio announcer?" In those days you weren't talking in terms of disc jockeys - you did everything, you read news, you were compère of a quiz programme, you did serious musical programmes and you played the popular music of the day, which was Rosemary Clooney and Kay Starr and Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Guy Mitchell and all those people. I thought he was kidding, but he was deadly serious, so I auditioned and I got the job!
In 1952 I started working at a station called 7LA Launceston in Tasmania, then I came back to mainland Australia and worked in an all--night station called "3AK, The Voice Of The Night" from midnight to seven in the morning. I think my only listener was my mother; she was a devoted fan. One night I put on a Frank Sinatra album, and actually went to sleep. About half past two in the morning the phone woke me up, and I said "Hello", very confused, and she said "Dear, I think it's finished." I looked at the album, and it had finished, and I think within a week I was fired: I was a bad risk at night!
Then I joined a commercial station in Melbourne called "3KZ, The Brighter Broadcasting Service" and worked there until 1957, then I decided on a trip round the world for 9 months, as most Australians do. I arrived here, and it was all great fun, and I realised very quickly that I didn't particularly want to go back after the 9 months. Very slowly - come to think of it, not so slowly, even - I found myself on television, I found myself working for Radio Luxembourg as a summer relief announcer, disc jockeying. Then the BBC cottoned on to me and gave me some work, bless 'em, and I worked for them for 20 years.
NL: What made you come to Capital Radio?
AF: I really felt I needed to breathe again, go out in the street and see what was happening, because when you're so safely employed by the BBC, you really are very much cocooned - I'm so delighted that I had 20 years nationally with the BBC, and when I quit in 1978, I thought to myself, "it's all been marvellous, and what shall we do now?" Then, while I was thinking about that, Capital Radio 'phoned me up and said "Why don't you get off your fat...bottom, and come over here and talk to us?" So I came over, we talked, they employed me and I've been here ever since. Capital is very different to the BBC, because the BBC is a little more stiff, more staid - here it's all very much a family affair.
NL: Do you still enjoy playing records?
AF: Oh, very much so, yes. If you're not enjoying it, and in some way communicating that excitement or that love of it all to an audience, you mustn't be there doing it. I would think there's nothing worse than for you to switch on the radio and me say "Hello, I'm here and I've got a very bad headache and I don't feel too good." You'd say "Oh, we need all that like a hole in the head." We all have days when we feel bad, but you get through it the best way you can. I get as much thrill out of it and enjoyment from it as I always did. The moment I found that that wasn't self-generating, I'd call it a day. If it finished tomorrow, one could never moan - it's been 35 years!
NL: When you're playing records on the chart shows like Pick Of The Pops, Take 2, there must be records in there that you can't stand ...
AF: Oh, sure, but no disc jockey can do a chart show and play the Top 20 and tell the whole British public that have bought them in their millions that they're wrong. For instance, perhaps one of your favourite records of all time is "Mocking Bird" by Barclay James Harvest. If it had been in the Top 20, if I were to play it and then say "well, that was pretty dreary, wasn't it, and I don't know why they bought that", you're immediately going to say "what's he on about - I think it's a beautiful record". I mean, I think one of the worst records I ever heard was Clive Dunn singing "Grandad" - it sold three million copies. Who's right and who's wrong?
NL: Capital played Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax", but the BBC banned it; have there been any records that you didn't want to play for that sort of reason?
AF: No, records are fun, we're talking about entertainment, aren't we? Records that have sexual connotations and all that sort of thing, I mean you've really got to laugh at them.
NL: But some people do take them very seriously.
AF: Oh, of course, but it's stupid, isn't it - there's a very old song that you may have heard, and it's got to be the filthiest lyric I've ever heard; it's called "I'm In The Mood For Love", and he sings "I'm in the mood for love, simply because you're near me." I think we're talking about fornication, aren't we? What does "Help Me Make It Through The Night" mean? Does it mean sit with me and drink coffee, or does it mean climb into bed and give me one? So "relax, don't do it, when you want to come" and all that sort of thing, I don't know why people get so uptight about it all - it's a harmless gramophone record. There was a record by Serge Gainsborough and Jane Birkin called "Je T'Aime", and it was banned, as you well know, and one of the newspapers rang me up and said "What do you think about the banning of "Je T'Aime"?" and I said "I think it's the funniest record I've heard in twenty years" and they said "Why?" - I said "Well, can't you just see Serge Gainsborough, who's producing the record, saying "Jane, listen honey, can you just give us a bit more 'aaah'. All right, take a hundred and forty-three"?"
NL: There's been a lot of fuss in the States recently with particular reference to heavy rock records, with the 'Moral Majority' saying that they're encouraging Satanism - do you think there's anything in that?
AF: Yes, well, with due apologies, that's a load of bullshit. All kinds of records encourage all kind of things, and if you're so unintelligent as to take it all so literally, that's really your problem. I think the great shame is that not enough heavy metal and rock music is played on air at all - not enough Barclay James Harvest, which is very, very sad. I think, you know, if we're talking about the scarcity of plays for very consummate artists, then Barclay James Harvest have got to be a great objective case, because they make just beautiful records - I mean, I love them, as you obviously do, and the great problem today is that there's very, very little in the way of specialist shows. I also think that programme controllers are still not quite aware of the vast popularity of heavy metal and rock music. What we actually need is one national channel that just plays rock music.
NL: What kind of music do you listen to at home, for pleasure?
AF: Every kind of music: rock, opera, soul, a bit of jazz now and then. You see, I've lived for sixty years, and I've heard a lot of music. I have many favourite records, Barclay James Harvest, Randy Crawford, the famous 'Una Voce' from The Barber of Seville. We all have so many records that have very special memories for us, we have a lyric that all of a sudden touches us.
NL: Do you remember when you first heard Barclay James Harvest?
AF: I can't remember the year - I should have looked it up to be terribly smart, and pulverised you with my accuracy! I just remember that I was on the BBC, and I can almost see that green label - I think it was Harvest, wasn't it - and I remember listening to the album and hearing "Mocking Bird", and I was knocked for six. That memory has never left me, and I just became a fan and have remained a fan, and have always played their music. And they're lovely boys too; they just make great music, and I love it. I get a bit weepy sometimes when I hear their music - like "Child Of The Universe", and I remember that track they did, "Suicide" - what album was that on, again?
AF: Octoberon, yeah. I played that to death on the BBC, and when I came to Capital I also played it, it's a great track, and frightening, that drop at the end, isn't it?
NL: You mentioned "Child Of The Universe", which has got lines in it about Northern Ireland and South Africa. Do you think there's a place for politics in music?
AF: Yes, I don't see why not. If politicians have the freedom to make all their statements about the world, then why shouldn't musicians have the right of reply by making records? Did a record ever make a greater statement than "Feed The World?" The Beatles changed the world - they didn't say "Yes sir, no sir" - they said "Stuff you!"
NL: On their last album, BJH did a track called "African", which was probably the most outright political statement they've ever made, about the regime in South Africa. What's your view on that?
AF: I don't really want to get into politics - can't really, but I think they have every right if they're concerned about it. Yes I think political statements should be made. I'm very lucky, because when Barclay James Harvest, or whoever, have something to say, I can listen to it and think, "must pass that on." I think that's terribly important, and I think that's my role.
NL: Have you seen the band play live?
AF: Oh yes, several times.
NL: Did you ever see them in the early days with the orchestra?
AF: No I didn't, but they now use masses of keyboards to substitute for an orchestra, because if you employ an orchestra today you finish up bankrupt.
NL: Quite a few bands have tried to mix rock and classicla music; do you think many of them have been successful?
AF: I think it's only been dabbled at. I remember a journalist 'phoning me up once, it must have been three hundred years ago, and he said, "Well, where do you think rock bands will go from here?" and I said, "I think they'll start playing with symphony orchestras" and he said, "Oh, yeah?" and I said, "Yeah", and he said, "Yes, fine. Bye," and thought 'There's a tosser who has nothing to say'. I think it was six months later that Deep Purple appeared with the Royal Philharmonic at the Albert Hall. It's enormously interesting the way musical barriers are being broken down today.
NL: Is there anything you'd like to see BJH attempt in the future in that direction?
AF: I don't know - you see it's very hard to speak for musicians: it would be very silly of me to suggest that Barclay James Harvest get involved in some Debussy, because they might hate Debussy. I think that at this stage one's just got to go along with the manifestation of what bursts in their minds to record.
NL: BJH are huge in Europe, but they've never sold that many records in Britain - why do you think that is?
AF: It's because they get very little play here - I'm constantly very surprised at the lack of play they get in this country. Their concerts always sell out, but their record sales have never been enormous. On the Continent they're huge, absolutely huge. I know they have their admirers amongst presenters, but then I imagine there might be a few jocks around who think that because they've been around such a long time they're a bit passé, and they don't bother to listen. I find it very, very sad indeed - that's why we need a national rock station.
NL: It does seem, more and more, that bands have a short life, they're built up on a massive wave of publicity, and then the music papers say, "Right, they've had their five minutes, knock them down".
AF: They've had their five minutes; they're now talking about Tiffany taking over from Madonna - anybody could take over from Madonna, you know; I think my little niece could, if she was well marketed. For Christ's sake, what's new about Madonna, doing her Marilyn Monroe poses, and she's no great singer by any means. I'm not knocking the current scene at all - I mean, I think one of the most sensational records I've heard in the last year is Whitney Houston singing "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" - I think it is a great single, and a lot of the current music is - the Pet Shop Boys are excellent, New Order, excellent.
NL: And yet in this climate, BJH may not have done really well, but they've survived for over twenty-one years now.
AF: Oh, I think they've done exceptionally well - I think it's just fans like us who are a little frustrated that the proper crossover hasn't happened, but you've got to be careful, because the moment a band of any rock status gets into the Top 20, you'll find a legion of fans saying, "Oh, they've sold out". It's because Barclay James Harvest isn't played to a bigger, mass, audience all the time - if they're not so good, not so popular, why do a quarter of a million turn up at Berlin? Why? There is a question to be answered.
NL: What about the accusation that Barclay James Harvest are a "poor man's Moody Blues"?
AF: If you would like a direct answer - a load of shit. The Moody Blues were magnificent, and are magnificent, I think, but you will find them making not quite the music they were making years ago, but you find Barclay James Harvest still making the music they were making many years ago. To say that Barclay James Harvest are the poor man's Moody Blues is just rubbish, O.K.
NL: Is there anything you regret that you've not achieved?
AF: No, there's no point in regretting. What I am very grateful for is that, so far, I've kept my health, that people have seen it right and fitting to employ me as a disc jockey, which I enjoy tremendously, and so therefore I'm very blessed. At sixty I guess I'm seven eighths of the way through, so why spend the last eighth regretting what I didn't do?
NL: What would you like to be remembered for?
AF: I don't think I've achieved enough to be remembered. My talent, I think, is very limited, but within that spectrum of what I do, I do it very professionally and very well, I think. No, I don't wish to be remembered - there'll be nothing to remember me by, you know - I've only ever been a disc jockey.
NL: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to say to BJH fans, readers of the magazine?
AF: Long live Barclay James Harvest, O.K.! Keep on buying those albums!
NL: Well, on behalf of the band, their fans and ourselves, thank you very much.
AF: Oh, my pleasure, my pleasure - it's been great! By the way, when's the next Barclay James Harvest album out?