Always more popular in continental Europe than on home soil, the British band Barclay James Harvest played a pastoral, whimsical, occasionally bombastic style of progressive rock laced with vocal harmonies, medieval folk references and orchestral arrangements, and were often overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries, Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Nevertheless, fans of a certain vintage treasure their enchantingfirst four albums issued in the early 1970s on Harvest, the EMI progressive label whose name they inspired, and in particular 1971's cosmic, epic offering Once Again.
The multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter Woolly Wolstenholme was a mainstay of the group from its inception in 1966 until 1979, and a major contributor to their Harvest albums as well as their more successful subsequent releases on Polydor, including the double Live set, Time Honoured Ghosts, Octoberon, Gone To Earth and XII. He had a brief solo career but quit music to become an organic farmer, first in his native Lancashire, and then in West Wales. Wolstenholme thus missed out on the high point of BJH's career when they played A Concert For The People in front of the Reichstag in the then divided city of Berlin to a record audience of 250,000 people in August 1980, an event captured on a best-selling live album.
Born in 1947, he picked up the banjo and played the tenor horn in a brass band as a teenager, but switched to 12-string guitar and harmonica as a member of The Sorcerers and The Keepers, two beat groups led by the guitarist John Lees, whom he had met while studying at Oldham School Of Art. In September 1966, Lees and Wolstenholme joined two other local musicians, bassist Les Holroyd and drummer Mel Pritchard, to form The Blues Keepers, who pulled the hipper-sounding name Barclay James Harvest out of a hat the following year after spending several months perfecting a new direction at Preston House, a run-down farm in the Lancashire Moors. It was at this juncture that Wolstenholme became a pivotal member, a "Jack of all trades, master of none" as he put it, but in actual fact a fine vocalist, consummate arranger and deft multi-instrumentalist. Notably he mastered the Mellotron, an electronic keyboard whose warm tones and quasi-symphonic sound became a BJH trademark as they attempted to bridge the gap between Gustav Mahler and Vanilla Fudge.
In April 1968 BJH issued their first single, "Early Morning", on the EMI subsidiary Parlophone, but by the June 1969 follow-up, "Brother Thrush", they had moved to Harvest under the auspices of the fomer Beatles engineer and Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith. Wolstenholme composed some of the best tracks on the group's eponymous 1970 debut and Once Again – which contained The Lord Of The Rings-referencing "Galadriel" written by Lees and famously recorded with John Lennon's Blond Epiphone guitar – as well as And Other Stories (1971) and Baby James Harvest (1972). The move to Polydor for Everyone Is Everybody Else (1974) signalled an improvement in their fortunes, while Time Honoured Ghosts (1975) contained Wolstenholme's elegiac composition "Beyond The Grave".
However, many critics remained immune to their charms and tagged them the "poor man's Moody Blues", a put-down cleverly turned into one of their best songs by Lees, though it was eclipsed by "Hymn", another of the guitarist's compositions on Gone To Earth (1977). Wolstenholme contributed the excellent "In Search Of England" and "Harbour" to XII (1978) but left soon after. Fans had a lot of affection for him and rightly felt BJH lost their unique character at that point, platinum sales in France, Germany and Switzerland notwithstanding.
"I'd never been satisfied with my involvement with the band," he told the BJH archivist Keith Domone. "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: to be more West Coast. We went into rehearsals, and it just felt so pointless. My heart just wasn't in it any more. It had become a bit like a nine-to-five job."
He released an album, Maestoso, supported Judie Tzuke on tour, composed music for film and television and collaborated with David Rohl in Mandalaband. In the late '90s he joined Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes of John Lees, a splinter version of the group. He subsequently recorded and gigged with both Lees' BJH and his own Maestoso project, and compiled a two-CD set of solo material entitled Uneasy Listening.
Wolstenholme had a madcap sense of humour and ready wit and enjoyed recalling the days spent recording at Abbey Road in London or 10cc's Strawberry Studios in Stockport in the '70s. But for many years he had suffered from a severely debilitating form of depression and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. He took his own life.
Wolstenholme considered his finest moments with BJH had been "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," he said. "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."
Stuart John Wolstenholme, musician, singer and songwriter: born Chadderton, Lancashire 15 April 1947; married (marriage dissolved); died 13 December 2010.Reuse content