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Woolly Wolstenholme Interview,
This interview was conducted by Keith Domone for the official BJH fan club magazine, Nova Lepidoptera, and first appeared in issue #3 of NL in November 1988.
NL: Can you remember your earliest musical influences?
Woolly: A vast collection of 78s that my father had - I still have some of them lying around, but I don't play them, because I think the thirties was the thirties and should be left like that; the banjo, bits of experience with playing in a brass band, and really that's it. Then later, of course, The Slab Four came along, and everyone wanted to be in a group. The blues, only because it was the musical vernacular of the time - I suppose that was important, but if it had been trad jazz I suppose I'd have been involved in that sort of thing.
NL: What about classical music?
Woolly: Nothing until...well, I'll go back to school: we had a music teacher that liked Gilbert and Sullivan a lot, and that's all we got. Every lesson was about Nanki-Poo, and we'd have to enthuse, so now I hate Gilbert and Sullivan. Apart from that, of course, the stock repertoire; The Planets came up in my life, and perhaps a bit of Tchaikovsky. Let's just say I was aware of what it sounded like without knowing too much about it specifically.
NL: Going right back to The Sorcerers, do you remember how you first met John?
Woolly: Let's have a think. I first met him at Art School, so he was there before music, if you see what I mean. He was in a sort of group, which I then got roped into as a sort of tambourinist and 'singist', and we did a few things like talent contests at the Empire Theatre in Oldham. As people left the group, which was then The Sorcerers, other people came in and we became The Keepers. Heart And Soul And The Wickeds was Les and Mel's band, and John was going to go in them, but he said - I don't know whether to thank him or not! - "Yes, but if you take me, you must have him as well". Kind of, "You must have my pet idiot"! So we both ended up in that band, which at that time was a six-piece. From then on it was just as the history has writ it, which is fame, fortune and age!
NL: Why did you change the name from The Blues Keepers to BJH?
Woolly: The Sorcerers, when they sort of fragmented, became The Keepers; because it's a new band, you change the name. When it went blues, it became The Blues Keepers, and when we went up to the farm in Diggle, pre-Trafficking Traffic (sorry, I must get that in!), it wasn't going to be the same band, so it had to be something new. I can't really remember the origins of the name, it was very long-winded - we did all sorts of strange things like pulling names from a hat. Obviously at that time, when 'flowerdom' was just arriving, you couldn't really go around being "The Blues" anything, unless you were The Moody Blues, and they didn't do very well, anyway!
NL: Why did you specialise in keyboards - was that deliberate?
Woolly: No, no, jack of all trades, master of none! I started off being a singist tambourine player, then harmonica - the supply of black, blind harmonica players in Oldham was short, so I managed to fill that gap! Then the folk-rock thing hit, and I got into the twelve-string, and then, following on from that, the keyboard thing happened with the Mellotron. Until the end, I still played guitars and I still played harmonica - I played it on "Streets Of San Francisco" - so all the things I'd done at some time came in useful. There was also the other thing, where I remember we were playing our little ensemble within the band, which was things like Les playing cello and Mel playing glockenspiel, when we did our mediaeval numbers. I played tenor horn, 'cos I picked that up in the brass band, and John had an oboe and he played saxophone. I mean, no-one was any good, let's be honest, but at least the ethos was there for having a go at everything.
NL: Some early reviews describe you as the frontman of the band...
Woolly: I used to speak more, because I wasn't then quite such a bibber of alcohol, so if anyone was going to be in reasonable condition in the morning it was me: John didn't speak at all; in fact, in the early days, he didn't used to sing. That's why most of the material in the early days has me very high profile, singing-wise, and then gradually, as people either got more confident, or saw what a bad job I was doing, they decided to do it themselves! Yes, it just happened that I was more up-front, without being the frontman.
NL: What were the circumstances surrounding the South Africa tour?
Woolly: There weren't any, until we got back. We went out there, did a few scrappy things like playing with the Durban Symphony Orchestra, and it wasn't anything big deal; an audience is an audience, so I don't think anyone asked what colour they were. I think Shirley Bassey's played to more people in segregated halls, and certainly Cliff has been down there a thousand times. When we got back, all the radical people at Leeds University decided to get us through the colleges. We'd do gigs and people would have to come through a row of pickets to get in, and then we'd have about five bomb threats on the 'phone, and every time it happened, you'd have to leave the stage. So, a strange performance, when the band leave after every number.
NL: Did it surprise you, though, that reaction?
Woolly: A little, a little, especially in the light of what other people were doing and getting away with it. Our importance as a visiting cultural experience was minimal, it didn't warrant the attack.
NL: Rather than it being a question of your status, though, surely it's the principle of the thing?
Woolly: Well, all right then, if the principle was right to pillory us, why weren't they pillorying everyone else? It was only because we were a college band. Naivety comes into it - we were less aware of things then, we just wanted to play a few gigs in some funny country somewhere, and then you come back and it's like all hell's broken loose. I'm still not absolutely convinced what to do about South Africa - I don't have that kind of information.
NL: On "Baby James Harvest", you dedicated "Moonwater" to 'Gustav and The Countess'. Was that Mahler?
Woolly: Yes it was, and the Countess was a Polish woman who worked at a publishing company in London - she was actually a real Countess. Yes, "Moonwater" was one of those experiences where I did all of the stuff poring over a piano or an organ for months, then went into the studio and did a demo of it. I then had a couple of acetates cut, which were given to Martyn Ford and John Bell, and they went away and ruined...er, did an orchestral version of it. It's technically all right, but compared with what I felt was happening on my demo - a bad sound, out-of-tune instruments and inept playing - there was more of the essence on my demo. It should have been more like space music, and less like the Black Dyke Mills Band!
NL: What happened when BJH were dropped by EMI?
Woolly: We had two managers, who were the successors to John Crowther. They were former social secretaries, who set up in business as The White Agency, working out of Manchester. They weren't happy with the deals with EMI Records, and they wanted EMI to sack us so that they could do something else. Whatever plan they had, of course, didn't happen, because as soon as we started getting no gigs and nowhere to make records, we thought, well, we'd better be off. So we ended up having no management, no record company, no agency and some gigs we hadn't completed - one and a half years later we had to do them at discount, and we were only getting seventy-five pounds in the first place, so we were doing them for fifty quid just to fulfil contracts. So we got this thing with Kennedy Street in Manchester, they got a new deal with Polydor and we set off again. There was some kind of vast scheme, I think, that we weren't necessarily in agreement with, and that was why we left EMI; it ended up with us being in limbo-land for years.
NL: While you were recording "Time Honoured Ghosts" in America , did you play any gigs there?
Woolly: No, another large scale cock-up! Some of the band thought it might be some kind of extra injection of energy or whatever if we went over to The States and made an album there. So we did that, and I wasn't really happy with it. Neil Young-type laid back and spaced out was the order of the day, and you felt a bit like that, I must confess, but we weren't producing English music, so it seemed a bit of a waste of having a natural resource and then trying to do something else with it. We went out again with the idea of making a second album with Elliot Mazer, and we did a short tour then - a lot of territory, but not many dates - and then we went to San Francisco and sat around waiting for something to happen. It never actually happened; we came home and we said "we've got to do an album", so that's when we went into Strawberry. We went straight from Los Angeles to Stockport!
NL: So, presumably it was during that second spell that you went into the studio with David Soul?
Woolly: I think it was during the first album in 1975; he was just doing the "Black Bean Soup" track, and we went "soup, schloop, soup, schloop"! We thought, well, we haven't got paid for it, so at least we'll get a mention, and it came out and it says "backing vocals: The Persuasions and everybody"!
NL: When did you first meet Davy Rohl?
Woolly: On a train. He was collecting the tickets - no, he wasn't: We'd come back from London after doing "I'm Over You" or something like that. We met him on the train, through that we did a few things at a place called Indigo Studios in Manchester, and then by the time we came round to doing "Octoberon", he was ensconced in Strawberry.
NL: How did the Mandalaband "Eye Of Wendor" LP come about?
Woolly: For Davy to do "The Eye Of Wendor", he had to be an engineer/producer, because it meant his services were free to himself, and he had to be working in a studio, which meant he got all the duff time, which was cheap rates, and he got a lot of musicians in for nothing. There was a thing in NL saying that the project was probably so expensive that it didn't go on from there, but it wasn't - it was the cheapest thing anyone could have done, because everything was free. I worked overdubbing string parts on keyboards, reinforcing brass parts and giving my ideas for arrangements. I even thought I was going to be singing "Florian's Song", but Justin (Hayward) sang that. Some of the stuff had Sad Café on it, and later all of Sad Café were gone one by one, and Graham Gouldman and all of Barclay James Harvest would be on it, and then one of us would be wiped and Eric Stewart would be on it - I mean, if Stevie Wonder had been in town, we'd have all been gone, wouldn't we?
NL: When "The Talking Parcel" came out, there was talk of an instrumental album. Did anything ever come of that?
Woolly: No. If it was like Camel did "The Snow Goose", then at least that had Camel on it; when you get to "The Talking Parcel", it hasn't really got anybody on it. You know, there's no band and on "The Eye Of Wendor" there was no band, it was whoever was best and cheapest and around at the time. So, really, if you're going to be changing personnel, there's no reason for having an extended album.
NL: When you started recording "XII", that was with Davy Rohl originally - why did he get the boot?
Woolly: We had a preamble to the stage performance, which involved Mel playing some rototoms, and if you listen to a track called "The Tempest" on "The Eye Of Wendor", there's a vast amount of rototom work, which is the very same piece! That was really the end of it; he'd obviously decided that his project solo was more important than working with us. Martin Lawrence was around at the time, so he was sort of drafted in and finished it. I don't think fundamentally there was much different about "XII" - it was very much like it would have been if Dave had finished it.
NL: Just out of interest, in the poll we did, "XII" came fifth in the 'best BJH album' category.
Woolly: There's some extremely flavoursome stuff on it, it's got loads of character. It's got "The Closed Shop", which I like very much, and "Streets Of San Francisco". There's some interesting material on it, and I think that's why it's popular.
NL: And yet, shortly after that, you decided to leave BJH. Why?
Woolly: I think, generally, there'd been a bit of a peak; it isn't always easy to sustain things when you reach some kind of plateau, and I certainly thought that with "Gone To Earth" and, to a degree, with parts of "XII", they were good things. When we went into a huddle to produce the material for the next album, I think we were just beating the same drum. I'd never been satisfied with my involvement with the band - I'd always felt that I was either trying to maintain old values musically, some sort of classical English-sounding thing, or, on the other hand, I felt I was a lead weight, I was holding people back from doing what, apparently, they must have wanted to do: that is, to be more West Coast or whatever. So we went into rehearsals, and we started to trot through "Capricorn" or something, and it just...the bottom went out of it all, it just felt so pointless. It had been something, perhaps, that I'd been running up to for a while, and my heart just wasn't in it any more. It had been tested several times, after twelve years or something I was in the band - we'd had ups and downs all along, but suddenly it became too much, it became a bit like a nine-to-five job, and I just didn't want to go on.
NL: What were the songs you presented for the follow-up to "XII"?
Woolly: "Lives On The Line", "A Prospect Of Whitby" - "Maestoso: A Hymn In The Roof Of The World" had been around since 1973, and it had actually started to be done for "Time Honoured Ghosts", but never actually achieved it, and I had loads of stuff like "White Sails", "Gates Of Heaven" and "American Excess".
NL: "White Sails"? - doesn't that go back to about 1970?
Woolly: It's an orchestral track, yes, that was a "Once Again" non-eventer. There's been a few like that. As you go along, you're looking at things which are five years old, sometimes, and saying, well, this is the best thing that's come up this time. So I had all these tracks lying around, any one of which could have made an album. John had the chance to go ahead and do his solo album with tracks he didn't feel other people would have been happy with, and so I was really presenting what became certainly a third to a half of what became my solo album.
NL: How many songs would be presented at that sort of gathering?
Woolly: In my case, probably about eight, at that last one, and John might come out with ten or twelve, a lot of which you'd probably heard before - he had a vast output, but you'd have to sift through it to recognise some of them. Les, perhaps, five or six, maybe more, so there was a lot of material to listen to, and you ended up having to select four of John's, four of Les's and two of mine, or some other combination, to keep the balance there. Sometimes I only presented one song, and that became "The Woolly Song" - I remember I did this thing called "Open", which was semi-churchy sounding, and the comment wasn't "fab" or "poor" or something, it was just "very Woolly"!
NL: Did you ever feel strongly that a particular song of yours should be included?
Woolly: Certainly. I think you offer up your six songs and it's a bit like The Eurovision Song Contest after that; you're quite happy to settle for third, even though your best song didn't get anywhere at all, because you put your six songs in and two are chosen to be worked on, so you're relieved about your aspect. Yes, there were some things you wanted on, but they were stored, perhaps, for a future idea, or you'd take them away and re-write them sometimes, speed them up, slow them down, change key - do anything with them if you felt they were worth carrying on, so it was never the end of the line for the songs.
NL: Did songs by John or Les ever get on albums when you didn't want them on?
Woolly: When it comes to other people's songs, you were trying to be as fair to them as they'd been to you. In a band where three people write, everyone, really, finds their own niche and writes their own style of music, and, if you're lucky, there's enough other influences, not just in the performing side, but in the appreciative side, to make the album balanced. I may not have liked some songs; there are songs which make you cringe, but, luckily, they're usually over with in three or four minutes!
NL: On to your own LP - was "Sail Away" about leaving BJH?
Woolly: Yes. In fact, even though a lot of the stuff was written before, the essence of the album just seemed to be one of parting. Well, "Patriots" isn't, that was written especially for the album, and it isn't about the band, but "Sail Away" is and "Waveform" is. They're sort of both ends of the thing; one is saying, if you listen to it, "I'm waking up and having a wonderful time being a musician, and everything's wonderful", and next time it's really 'orrible and it's lost its lustre, and you get so fed up, and then suddenly you think, well, there may be something out there, and then "the earth smiles".
NL: Did you enjoy touring as support to Judie Tzuke?
Woolly: Yes, probably one of my better decisions after leaving the band. It was fun, it was like touring should be. Of course, financially, it was a complete waste of time, and then I made the mistake of doing a European leg with Saga, which cost more money and was about 1% of the enjoyment. We actually did well in Vienna, we blew them off - it's very hard for supports to blow top acts off, because you usually find that some of the bass bins have been turned off, so your act is very weak! But we did something, and we could have gone back there, but on all the tours I did there was no album in the shops, and when the album was in the shops there was no touring going on, so the whole thing was a complete waste of time. At that point, I think, despite the fact that we came back and I carried on going through the motions, I think I'd had rock and roll beaten out of me.
NL: Was it difficult going back to being the support act, having been a headliner for so long?
Woolly: It was doubly difficult, because they say there's no turning the clock back, and despite the fact that Jill was career manager and mother for the whole entourage, and that took a lot of weight off me, I was the man paying the bills, I was the main motivation behind the operation, so the people I was taking round didn't have the same kind of expectations, I don't think. They were going round with someone who was trying to repeat a previous success, or at least trying to go back twelve years, which was when it all started for me, and of course it wasn't the real world any more.
NL: Do you think that Maestoso could have become a permanent band, if that first album had been successful?
Woolly: Well, not after Steve (Broomhead), the guitarist, left. I know people who are in bands now; they're in this band this week, and then three people have left and formed another band and the history of Barclay James Harvest has been exactly like that, there's no continuum until it's gone through various stages. I was expecting to be able to assemble a few people I liked and who could play well and expect it to stick but it doesn't work like that.
NL: Did you feel that "Maestoso" wasn't adequately promoted?
Woolly: Yes. When we were touring, you sort of understood that nothing was going to happen, and certainly on the European one I felt like we should have turned around and saved me a lot of money. I was signed to German Polydor, not UK, and they did everything they could to make me feel good; I think perhaps they did a lot of work, but at the end of the day, they still had both bands on contract, and BJH were making the most money. I mean, me going out and doing that, or the "Berlin" album? There's not really much of a choice there, is there? So, I expected 50,000 sales, and we're looking at about 12,000, something stupid like that. If it'd been 50,000, there would have been a second album, and who knows what would have happened after that? But it died on the first album, and at about the same time as me running out of money, I ran out of interest as well, luckily.
NL: Why wasn't the "Gates Of Heaven" single released?
Woolly: Who knows?
NL: Was it a different version for the single?
Woolly: No, the same. The only thing that was different was the B-side, "All Get Burned", which didn't exist in any other form. It was always meant to be a novelty item for the other side of the single, so it didn't really have an album place or anything.
NL: Why did you decide to quit the music business?
Woolly: Altogether? Leaving the band was because I couldn't deal with it, or I didn't want to be involved in that kind of thin which didn't mean to say that I wanted to be out of music - I still had a lot to say. But with songwriting you have deadlines, you have reasons to do things, you have a schedule to work to. If somebody said "you've got an album coming out" or "we'll go into the studio in a month's time", I'd write music. It'd pour out, probably, but because there's no outlet for it beyond these four crumbling walls (get that in, because people'll send me money then!), I don't have a reason to write music. There's enough music lying around to make an album: there's no album to be made, therefore I don't make any more, it's supply and demand.
NL: After you left the band, did you follow their activities?
Woolly: We had no choice. I would, for instance, go to Germany for some kind of presentation, and they'd put us in this nice little hotel, and you'd put the television on and there'd be a news item about them arriving somewhere - the whole thing was like a failed love affair. To start with, it was very much like that, saying "it's all wrong, why aren't I up there?", but eventually it's all mellowed.
NL: What do you think of their albums since you left?
Woolly: I don't know, I haven't listened.
NL: Do you listen to any contemporary music?
Woolly: I'm still getting some pleasure out of things like U.K., the records I was listening to when I was in music. I like chunks of INXS, sometimes they're very good....Billy Joel...
Jill: He listens to Peter Gabriel...
Woolly: No, I don't listen to that any more, I'm fed up with that; I think he should write a new one.
Jill: In the last year he has listened to - Peter Gabriel, U.K., Eric Clapton, Nik Kershaw, Dire Straits...
Woolly: I object to the Dire Straits!
Jill: You have to listen because I listen to them!
Woolly: Oh, yes, I'm in the same room, that's the only qualitative assessment I make!
Jill: The last single that we bought was "Relax"
Woolly: "Relax" by Max Bygraves - "Relaxalongamax"!!
NL: What do you think was your finest moment with BJH?
Woolly: I liked being on stage with the orchestra - when it worked it was fantastic. When you're on stage and there's four of you thrashing for dear life and the crowd is going "Yeeaaah", your importance is overblown, but when you do that with the orchestra, you're just like a little piece of the whole spectacle, and that felt good for me. Apart from that, the good things have been to do with having the occasional brilliant moment on stage - when something sounds just right or you just feel good about something.
NL: Have you got a favourite out of all the songs you've written?
Woolly: My songs?....No. Only because I have different kinds of writing, I have the little pieces, which are the "Iron Maiden"s and the "Prospect Of Whitby"s, and then there's the drawn-out , angst-ridden ones like "Patriots". I can't compare them. I like "Sea Of Tranquility", I think, not necessarily how it sounds but there's some writing on there which I like.
NL: If you could do it all again, would you change anything?
Woolly: Socks, probably! No, not while it was happening. I'd probably change what I did after BJH, not for the music's sake not because I didn't enjoy meeting people and doing different things, but because I think it was a waste of time and money. I don't think you can say, "I liked the bits where we had a wonderful time, played great shows and made loads of money, I didn't like the bits where we had horrible times, played terrible shows and didn't make any money!", because they were all part and parcel of it. So there's nothing I'd change, I don't think.
NL: Finally, do you think there's any chance that "Maestoso" will ever be reissued, or that you'll bring out a new album?
Woolly: Only if you do it: How about that?
NL: There's a challenge! OK, that's all - thank you very much.