Exclusive interview with Barclay James Harvest founder Les Holroyd
In a rare interview, BJH founder Les Holroyd tells Prog about leading the UK’s progressive scene, that falling out with Robert John Godfrey, and why he never wanted to be a star
Les Holroyd has his own theory as to why Barclay James Harvest never got the respect or recognition they deserved in the UK during the 70s.
“It seemed you had to be based in London and hang out with everyone else at places like The Speakeasy if you wanted to be noticed. But that wasn’t something we wanted to do. None of us wanted to be rock stars so we never played those London games.”
The bassist, a founding and ever-present member of the band until he left in 1998, looks back at the formative years as a time when the four musicians were left to develop their own style without interference.
“Harvest, to whom we were signed at the time, really didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect from us. The idea of progressive music was totally new, and we were right at the forefront of what was happening. So, we were left to our own devices, just to write songs and create albums. We stayed in our farmhouse and just got on with the job of writing.”
There were so few who appreciated how to handle a band like us.
Holroyd now feels the music business wasn’t prepared for the progressive explosion. “The labels were all used to dealing with commercial, mainstream artists. There were so few who appreciated how to handle a band like us.”
While a lot of musicians in the late 60s and early 70s had a strong bond, Barclay James Harvest were a little removed from this notion of being part of a movement. In fact, Holroyd recalls, there was just one band with whom they had any rapport. “We got on really well with Argent. We did a lot of gigs with them. But we had very little to do with others, like Yes, Genesis or any of the names getting attention at the time. Musically, we were often regarded as a cross between Genesis and Pink Floyd. Personally, I never quite got that comparison. We were also seen as being close soundwise to The Moody Blues, but a lot of that was down to the fact that both bands used the mellotron.”
Usually, Barclay James Harvest were regarded as being a second-rate version of The Moody Blues, and this led to them recording the song Poor Man’s Moody Blues.
“I met [Moodies frontman] Justin Hayward a long time after we’d done that song and we had a chat about it. He wasn’t too pleased about that song. I can understand why. For me, it was never funny or clever in the first place. John Lees [guitar/vocals] wrote it, and I was uncomfortable recording the song. I wish we’d never done it.”
While Poor Man’s Moody Blues generated an undercurrent of controversy, it was the strained relationship with Robert John Godfrey that created the biggest waves of rancour over the decades. Godfrey was the band’s musical director on their first two albums, but the split was so acrimonious that The Enid founder still bristles over what he perceives as a lack of recognition from the band. In particular, Godfrey believes he should have been given a songwriting credit on Mockingbird. Holroyd, though, offers little sympathy.
“The business side of things should always be sorted before you go into the studio. It has to be made clear who gets credit for what. But Robert just assumed he would get this, and never did anything to confirm it. Sorry, but that was his problem.
“Robert wanted to become the fifth member of the band. But that was never gonna happen. We had nothing in common with him. He went to a private school and none of us did. He was trained at the Royal Academy Of Music and we didn’t have that type of musical education.”
Holroyd does admit that within the band, he was closer to one member than the others.“I was very friendly with Mel [Pritchard, drums]. But we’d known each other since the age of five. I suppose I wasn’t too close to John and Woolly [Wolstenholme, keyboards/vocals]. But on a musical level, that made no difference. We were equal partners. The four of us saw the band as a co-operative.”
Overall, Holroyd regards that period as being highly successful. “We followed our own musical journey. Being commercial never worried us. All that mattered was being true to our vision.”