With his time as a touring musician coming to an end, John Lees previews a pair of historic symphonic concerts by his incarnation of Barclay James Harvest.
What made you decide that 2023 should be your final year of touring?
I want to quit while I’m ahead, while I can still play guitar and sing. I’ve got two grandkids and it’s difficult to balance music with that. The three years of covid didn’t help, and Brexit has made things so, so difficult. There will be occasional gigs, but as far as organised touring goes, that’s it.
The BJH website tells us that these concerts with the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra mark the first time any incarnation of the group has performed orchestrally for more than 50 years.
Actually, that’s not correct. We played a gig in Athens with an orchestra four or five years ago. But apart from that, in Britain it’s the first in a long, long time.
What made you want to revisit the format?
Apart from being a scientist, my son is also a musician. He has played the cornet in a brass band since he was a kid. I’ve got a lot of good friends in that same brass band who also play in orchestras, including the conductor, and they all wanted us to do it. I took ages and ages to consider doing it, but in the end I agreed.
Has that consent opened a can of worms?
Those gigs are not the easiest to do but, like I said, we did it not too long ago in Athens, so we know what to expect. There is one particular number that we’ll do called Dark Now My Sky which hasn’t been played orchestrally since a BBC concert [in 1971] – maybe never at all. So that’s going to be a biggie.
The Slaithwaite Philharmonic is an 80-piece ensemble. Will everyone fit on stage at Huddersfield Town Hall?
I think so. It has a massive stage, so we can fit the full monty onto it. It’s an extremely inspiring place.
BJH were among the first rock bands to work regularly with an orchestra, notably on their first two albums from 1970 and ’71. What was the attraction?
We had started listening to the folky American soft rock. Then we heard the Mellotron. Once we adopted that into our sound and made it work, then it led to orchestras, which really affected the arrangements ofthe songs we were writing.
When BJH took an orchestra on the road with them in 1971 it all went tits-up.
It was a student orchestra, and they weren’t very co-operative. It was also extremely expensive. Because of that, the further north we got the smaller the orchestra became.
It’s one of several things that BJH never received full credit for. Another is a willingness to write about real life and so-called ‘politics’ from within progressive music.
You’re completely right. We never moved to London, that’s why. It seems ridiculous to me now that if we had a couple of gigs in London we would play the first night, drive back home [to Oldham], and the following day return to London. That was financially driven. We couldn’t afford to stay in hotels. Because of that we never became part of the scene, and ended up pretty overlooked.
A few years ago you told Prog magazine that as younger men BJH could hold their own in the partying stakes. What’s the most rock’n’roll thing you or the band did back then?
At a hotel in Munich one of our crew rewired the lifts so that if you pressed the button for the fourth floor it would take you to the eighth, and so on. We thought that hilarious, until realising that we were stuck in this hotel for another two nights. Fortunately I was on the second floor, so I could use the stairs.
During the same interview you revealed that at the funeral of original drummer Mel Pritchard you put aside a lengthy feud with Les Holroyd, another original member who leads a ‘rival’ BJH, to exchange a few words. Did a subsequent conversation ever take place?
No. But life’s too short, so I made a point of going over to ask how he was. He plays my music, which I suppose is quite flattering. I think he lives in Germany now and the chances of us running into one another again are very, very slim.
It doesn’t sound like the two of you will ever bury the hatchet.
The music is so different. We’ve both gone in different directions. Mine is always full of social comment. Besides which, the guys I work with now have been together longer than the original band.
A new album from John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest is in the works. How is it coming along?
It’s about two-thirds done. It might be conceptual. The idea is to finish it next year.
John Lees' Barclay James Harvest play Huddersfield Town Hall this weekend, with European dates in November and December. For full dates, visit the Barclay James Harvest website.