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The Beauty of Simplicity - An Appreciation of a Great Songwriter
by Martin Almond
I was ambling down an aisle in a Chinese supermarket, looking for sweet basil leaves. A song was playing on the shop's hi-fi system. It sounded familiar, yet strangely unfamiliar. I was puzzled, stopped my trolley, and listened. A band I didn't recognise was doing a not very good cover version of a John Lees song: The Great 1974 Mining Disaster.
Then the scales fell from my ears: the Lees song was itself a parody of an old Bee Gees song. This was the Bee Gees' original! I had never heard it before, and listened intently.
John Lees' Mining Disaster song is neither plagiaristic nor unoriginal. It is a wholly original take on a pre-existing song. I am reminded of how Bach took concertos by Vivaldi, and, (to my mind, at least) made them into something greater. How the same Bach took existing German hymn tunes, harmonised them sublimely, and made them his own. Of course, in his day, plagiarism worked more on the basis of "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." They did not have our obsession with originality at all costs, at the cost of artistic integrity, and ultimately, at the cost of good music.
The Lees song is not a "version" of the Bee Gees original. It is a new song, with an entirely different feeling, a new melody, and a new rhythm. In my opinion, it also far better, deeper and greater than the song that inspired it. The bones, the skeleton, the structure and the outline of the lyrics come from the earlier version-but that is all. The greatness, the depth, the power to move the emotions, they are from John Lees. I have no great desire to listen again to the Bee Gees song, (I prefer most of their others) but John Lees' song is often on my ipod.
What was it about Barclay James Harvest, that peculiarly northern English band, formed in 1967 and still going strong, albeit in two different "versions"? What was so very good about them?
They emerged at a very productive time for British rock: the beginnings of the so-called progressive rock movement. They formed around the time Syd Barrett recorded the Pink Floyd's debut album, they released their earliest work around the same time as The Nice, Yes, Genesis and Led Zeppelin released theirs. But really they resembled none of these bands.
The label "Progressive Rock" is a rather ill-defined term which came into use largely after the genre it described had more or less had its heyday, and was in a slow decline. No one is really sure what the term means anyway, and it has been applied to bands with very little in common musically.
Broadly it seems to be applied to bands who, whilst remaining true to their rock roots, have experimented with classical structures and instrumentation, and recorded multi-sectioned, elaborately constructed songs. These bands often make considerable use of keyboards, particularly synthesizers and samplers like the Mellotron. Their songs typically include extended instrumental improvisations, dazzling solos and bold approaches to harmony, melody and musical structure. The musicians themselves often had classical training and a very good instrumental technique. One thinks here particularly of Yes, ELP, King Crimson and similar bands.
By the late 70's this kind of music had come to be seen by many as pretentious, excessive and very passé, and a contradiction of what rock was meant to be about. It was also felt by some critics that poorly written music was cleverly disguised beneath a flurry of dazzlingly clever virtuoso note-spinning. A sweeping judgment, but in some cases, painfully true.
BJH have often been saddled with the "Prog" label. I cannot help feeling that this does them a disservice, and is more of a millstone than a medal. On their earlier albums they had full orchestras, some elaborate, multi-sectioned songs (although not many, in fact) and keyboardist Woolly Wolstenholme certainly brought some echoes from classical music to their early work. His Moonwater is arguably the most successful classical/rock crossover of all time, and is brilliant and beautiful on its own terms, no matter what label is attached. Perhaps its success is down to the fact that Woolly did not really attempt to marry rock and classical in this piece: in point of fact, it is just classical and not really rock at all.
What makes me listen again and again to BJH, is not complex multi-sectioned pieces, many-layered, multi-instrumental backing tracks, weird noises, taped effects, musique concrete, or dazzling, virtuosic keyboard and guitar technique. Many of the so called "prog" bands did have these qualities, but BJH never really more than dabbled in the avant garde of strange Moog noises and classical structures, and technically, although they were very good, they were never showily virtuosic in the manner of Keith Emerson or Steve Howe. It's just not what they were about. What they had was something far better- a much rarer gift.
So what were they about? The key to BJH's success is quite simple: they knew how to write good songs. In fact, not just good songs, but often masterpieces that stand up well alongside those of Lennon and McCartney. And in my opinion, of the three song writing members of the band, the "greatest of the great" is lead guitarist John Lees. In my view, John Lees' songs are very fine creations indeed. They are among the best of the genre, and he is one of our finest living song writers.
What constitutes a good song? This is a very difficult question. Personal taste gets in the way of objective judgment. One could put a bad and a great song side by side and analyse them: chord progressions, melodic shapes, tempo, lyrics, structure and arrangements. Two songs could appear to contain the same basic ingredients on paper and yet one is great, moving, rich, the other dull, empty, boring. Attempting to dissect great music and find the "pearl of great price", the very thing that makes it great, is perhaps a futile exercise. John Lees' work contains identifiable, recurrent features and characteristic trademarks. His style is well defined and very much his own. And yet, as most writers on music have discovered, it is quite impossible to demonstrate the greatness of music through the written word, and ultimately, people must listen and make their own judgment.
Nova Lepidoptera from 1978 is a wonderful yet puzzling example of Lees' artistry. Its emotional power and depth are phenomenal. The lyrics were taken from the titles of sci fi novels Lees' had read, and have a random quality. They say nothing, save to throw around some images from the sci fi genre. Yet curiously, the music to which they are sung is a moving, emotional and slightly melancholic love song, with a sighing, descending vocal melody over richly romantic cords with added 2nds. These 2nds in the opening chords beautifully pre-empt the opening notes of the vocal line, which begins on the 2nd of the scale and drops to the tonic. Perhaps the words he really wanted to put to this beautiful melody could not be sung, and the sci-fi disguise had to serve.
In structure it is apparently very simple - a "chorus with middle 8" form. Note however, that the middle 8 on its first appearance starts as a 4 bar phrase, and is actually a middle 4, and the 3rd and 4th bars of it are quite different harmonically to the full middle 8 which comes after the next chorus. This "growing middle 8" is a feature that we find again in the much later song, the wonderful and heart rending Star Bright from 1999, in which the main chorus itself grows on its second appearance.
Here in Nova Lepidoptera the middle 8 is a powerful build up to the chorus which returns with a triumphant cadence. The chorus repeats, but this time it is given to the guitar playing in sweetly sentimental parallel thirds. A classic case, here, of the beauty of simplicity and economy. (Simplicity and economy? Hardly traits of the prog movement…)
Arguably the most powerful and memorable of Lees' songs from the 70's is Suicide?, an emotionally powerful piece featuring a recurring guitar-solo chorus and lyrics describing a depressed man who has lost his lover, and who contemplates suicide, only to be pushed off the tall building by someone (the girlfriend in question?) at the last minute, taking away from him the decision to end his own life.
The song begins, after a brief percussive lead in, with a searingly emotional guitar solo, a whole melodic chorus for the instrument, with those falling, sighing phrases, descending, stepwise bass lines, and appoggiaturas (i.e. where a melody line appears to momentarily get "stuck" before moving down to fall in line with the new chord), all devices well used in the classical-romantic world as means of heightening emotional temperature, and creating a sense of sadness or longing. They are also favourite devices of John Lees, when writing these more emotional songs. The guitar wordlessly tells of the emotion and sadness that words cannot fully express.
The voice comes in over a soft accompaniment, singing a melody very close in shape to the guitar tune, but not quite identical, somewhat cooler, perhaps. At the end of the second vocal verse, we have the guitar tune again, this time ending with a strange modulation to a new, higher key, the guitar playing strange descending broken chords as the bass line creeps up. This creates a distinctly alarming sense of impending doom and panic, as we feel the bass is about to collide with the other instruments. The voice sings another verse, and once more we have the guitar melody, another, panic ridden modulation and then, in the live version at least, the final, awful thud of death.
At the beginning of each vocal verse, the harmonic accompaniment is very light. Among the many subtle features of this beautiful, inspired song is the ingenious way that the keyboard intensifies the harmonic accompaniment half way through each of the verses (e.g. on the words "The loser" in, I think, verse 2) . It is simple, subtle, and immensely effective. The vocal harmonies from Woolly and Les through the song have a warm, almost angelic sound. This is a perfect song.
Mockingbird is a well known song from the band's second album, Once Again (one of those rare albums which have absolutely no "dead wood" on them.) It is a song which more than any other displays the subtlety of the band's work.
Writing attributions on record labels are famously confusing. Rock music is, by its very nature, part composition and part improvisation, and no matter who wrote the basic song, all of those playing on the recording take are in some measure writers and contributors to the overall effect of the song. With a richly arranged and complex song like Mockingbird, there are inevitably contributions from a number of people, although it is my understanding that John Lees was the principle songwriter on this one.
Not surprisingly, it contains many of his favourite devices, although it is worlds away from Suicide? in both mood and musical technique. This is a song grown from a simple germ: the opening guitar motif, a gentle rocking figure on two notes over changing chords and that persistent descending bass line.
The jangly Mc. Guinn-style guitar playing and the "walking" bass line set the mood, but in fact most of what follows is based on this opening hook. It is a simple 4 bar phrase, and in the 4th bar the guitar itself changes its notes (from F# / G to E / F#) as the chords move the music back to its E minor roots with a perfect cadence. This is almost ludicrously simple, but so beautiful, hypnotic and strangely fascinating that one could listen to it, mesmerised, for hours. The rocking figure, incidentally, is found again in the much later song Ancient Waves, a sort of protest song about the Iraq war, which can be heard on a recent DVD release by John Lees' Barclay James Harvest. Here in Mockingbird I like to think the rocking figure symbolizes the gentle swaying or rustling of leaves and branches in a forest.
In the verses, the voice takes over the rocking motif in a varied form for the first 4 bars, then at "There's a mockingbird, singing songs in the trees…" the voice sings a CBG descending motif twice, which seems to imitate a bird call. Unless I am mistaken, the only section not based on these two basic motifs is the rather curious trumpet interlude in between the second and third choruses.
The instrumental and vocal backing intensifies gradually through the song. The extended instrumental section that follows the last sung verse builds to a tremendous orchestral climax. It is mostly based on the opening rocking motif (based, that is to say, on the harmonic skeleton of the opening motif), built upon and added to layer by layer, with guitars, trumpets, wordless voices and various orchestral instruments all adding their unique sounds to the vast musical tapestry. Essentially what we have here is a good-old-fashioned passacaglia: a set of variations on a repeating bass line and chords. (Brahms' 4th Symphony ends with possibly the most famous example.) The passacaglia subsides with a quieter linking interlude and, at the end we are left with the quietness and solitude of the forest, and the same, simple guitar figure with which the song began.
Star Bright, from 1999, is another fine example of John Lees' more emotional style. It has much in common with Mockingbird. It opens with a solemn, sustained A minor chord, and the sadly sweet opening verse is a classic example of the step-wise descending bass line we find in Suicide? This is Lees at his slowest, most melancholic and most contemplative. There follows a partial chorus in the major mode, letting a bright ray of light (starlight, presumably…) into the gloom. This short chorus (ending with "Star bright love,") will recur after the next verse in a considerably expanded form.
This more developed chorus is one of the finest moments in Lees' output, a heartbreaking lament for lost innocence and failed dreams, and a plea for healing love, the words "Star bright love" being repeated 3 times, the last time in a minor mode: the love asked for has perhaps not yet come. The guitar then plays a solo over the chord structure/bass line from the verse, but this time in E minor, not A minor. The full chorus returns, this time staying in the major throughout. The long, slow instrumental coda is based once again on the descending bass line from the verse, and seems to die away in utter despair. Those readers who only know Lees' earlier work from the 70s would do well to give this song an airing. It is a genuine masterpiece, and the sadness, even despair with which it ends recalls for me the end of Tchaikovsky's last symphony.
Perhaps the above comments on some of John Lees' most famous creations do not in themselves tell us why his music is so good. There are many recurrent features that one can spot in his work: descending bass lines and sighing vocal phrases, an affinity with traditional English folk music, both melodically and harmonically, the rocking figures, and much more. The songs I have chosen do not represent the whole of his output. There are songs more obviously embedded in the rock genre, such as Cheap the Bullet and Medicine Man, folksy, socially conscious ballads such as Mill Boys, and much more. For me, though, the very best of his work is represented by those more emotionally intense songs, wherein he lets his feelings spill out into beautiful melodies tinged with folk-song modality.
I shall end with a plea to those who do not know his work, and also to those who do. Listen carefully to these songs, and see whether or not you agree with me, that they are masterpieces, and that John Lees is indeed one of our finest living song writers.
21st November, 2011