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Melvyn Paul Pritchard, better known to his friends as Melve and to legions of Barclay James Harvest fans as Mel, was one of the great rock drummers. Born in Oldham on January 20th, 1948, he met Les Holroyd, with whom he would enjoy a life-long friendship, at a very early age:
"It was in the sandpit, because it was at infants' school, it’s that far back. He used to live in the next street – our parents knew each other."
Mel took up drumming after borrowing his father’s ukelele-banjo and deciding that it made better sounds when he took the strings off and hit it! Mel and Les stayed together at Derker Secondary Modern school where they joined the school band then went on to form Heart And Soul And The Wickeds. The band gained a good reputation playing semi-professional gigs on the live circuit, which Mel juggled with his day job as a central heating engineer. In 1966 The Wickeds lead guitarist left to pursue a career as a teacher, and Les and Mel's approached John Lees of The Keepers, another local blues group, to fill the gap. The end result was a new band including Les, Mel, John, and Woolly Wolstenholme, also from The Keepers.
In the spring of 1967 the band, now known as The Blues Keepers, caught the attention of local entrepreneur and boutique owner John Crowther, who persuaded them to turn professional. Mel gave up his job as a central heating engineer and went to live with them in John Crowther’s farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors near Diggle. To mark the occasion, the band members came up with a new name for the group and Barclay James Harvest was born. Mel said:
"Oh well, that'll last for a month at the most."!
Mel's early heroes included Simon and Garfunkel, John Lennon and The Band, and drummers who influenced his technique included Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge and, later, Jeff Porcaro from Toto. His style rapidly became an essential part of the BJH sound, as distinctive as the Mellotron and soaring lead guitar which became their trademarks on early classics such as "Mocking Bird" and "She Said". Listen to the recently issued recording of a BBC concert of band and orchestra from 1972 and the combination of power and subtlety in Mel's work is evident.
In 1969 he was paid a big compliment when he was approached by Fairport Convention to audition for the drum seat made vacant by the death of Martin Lamble in a road accident. Mel turned down the opportunity, though, as he later explained in typically modest fashion:
"First of all I think my ego was given a good massage by them asking me. To be perfectly fair I don’t think I came up to the standard they were looking for, being absolutely honest. Certainly Fairport were getting the better gigs, the better money. At the time Fairport were a big band and a damn good band as well, and it was just this thing that permeates all the way through BJH, this kind of loyalty. You can’t put a price on it."
In 1973 Mel married his girlfriend, Janet, and Barclay James Harvest signed to the Polydor label. Some of Mel's finest recorded moments came over the next few years. Everyone Is Everybody Else contains some stunning examples of his work, not only in terms of his drumming, but also lyrically. The coda to "Paper Wings" features a superb multi-tracked drum part, and some of the best lyrics on the album came from Mel's pen:
"I wrote all the lyrics to "Paper Wings". On "Negative Earth" Les had got this thing that I couldn’t get out of my head, and I wrote everything except "For fifty-five days". It struck a chord with me, and I like the alliteration of "here in sycopated time, while my tangled web of rhyme….". I just thought about the isolation of this guy. With "Paper Wings" I was up the Eiffel Tower and I’m not gifted with a head for heights, so I got to the first stage. The rest of the guys went up and I came down, and there’s a plaque at the bottom and this dent in the floor – it’s like "Suicide", was he pushed or did he jump? It was basically that he was "a broken man without a dream" because if he jumped and he couldn’t fly it was a broken dream, or if somebody pushed him then it’s still a vision that finished up as a bump in the floor. I’d like to do more. On "Turn Of The Tide" the lyrics aren’t mine, but I put some initial ideas down like "I’m like a train off the tracks". "Back To The Wall" was a bit like that, as well. I like lyrics, but with such good lyricists as we’ve got it’s very hard."
1974's "Barclay James Harvest Live" and "Time Honoured Ghosts" from 1975 are superb showcases for Mel's work. From the driving power of "Medicine Man" to the subtle cymbal work on "Hymn For The Children" or the drum rolls on "Moongirl", Mel rarely put a foot (or hand!) wrong, and established himself as one of the finest drummers of his generation. Following the departure of Woolly Wolstenholme in 1979, Barclay James Harvest continued to sell huge numbers of records in continental Europe, particularly Germany, with a softer, more commercial style. Mel continued to provide the foundation of the band's rhythm through the 80s and 90s, even after an accident left him with a permanent limp. With the coming of the digital age he switched to an electronic drum kit which was less strenuous to play, although many fans regretted the absence of his unmistakeable acoustic kit sound.
After a poorly-received 1997 album and tour, the band fragmented, and guitarist John Lees set about making an album under the agreed name of "Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees", together with original keyboard maestro, Woolly Wolstenholme. Mel was invited to join the project, and initially said yes, but then had second thoughts. Instead, the band effectively split back into the original partnerships from the 1960s, and Mel joined bassist Les Holroyd for his 2002 Revolution Days album and tours under the name Barclay James Harvest Featuring Les Holroyd.
Mel was supported on the tours by a second drummer, initially Chris Jago and later Roy Martin, who took a great deal of the workload off his shoulders and allowed the band to use both acoustic and electronic drums. Even though he sometimes looked tired and unwell in the latter years, he continued to be the life and soul of the tour party, and right up to the last concerts he played, at the "Art On Ice" spectacular in Zurich, he had the rest of the band in stitches backstage with his wit and repartee.
The rock star lifestyle eventually took its toll, and Mel was divorced by 1990, living alone in a flat in the village of Greenfield in Saddleworth. His hobbies included reading science fiction, particularly Frank Herbert, playing squash and watching sport - he was a lifelong follower of football club Oldham Athletic. He had many friends locally, who will remember him for his genuine warmth and sense of humour. There was no rock star posing with Mel - what you saw was what you got, an honest and down to earth man, who would laugh off his own talent with a self-deprecating joke. When he was found dead at home of a suspected heart attack on the morning of January 28th, 2004, there was an outpouring of grief not only amongst those who knew him, but from the fans who had grown up with his music and seen his great live performances.
Mel leaves a wonderful recorded legacy of his work, as well as a joy in his life as a musician:
"You get to go on stage, you get to play music that you like, you get to go into a studio, you get to meet people. We’re all from the working class and it’s a one-way ticket to paradise, isn’t it? I’d like to think that I’ve put as much back as the industry has given me. The other thing about the music industry is that you can live a life that’s honest to yourself and I mean that in the nicest way. In this business you’ve got the freedom to be whatever you want."
He took full advantage of that freedom, and our world is a better place for it. Thanks, Mel.
Keith Domone, 2nd February, 2004