September 20, 2023

It’s never too late for a reappraisal of these dusty old gems…

One of my favourite aspects of expanded boxed set reissues of dusty old albums is the simple act of reappraisal. Those of us with a collection of thousands and too little time on our hands can easily forget these ancient relics as they get piled on year after year with newer releases, and our opinions of them can be easily clouded by outside sources or our own failing memories. Such was the case for me with Baby James Harvest, the fourth and final album Barclay James Harvest recorded for EMI’s Harvest label some 51 years ago. If one considers online ratings or reviews at popular websites, Baby James Harvest seems to rank slightly lower than its siblings; an apparent dip in quality from their first few records as well as the more well-regarded string that followed their shift to Polydor. And to be fair, those are great records. But this is where the aforementioned reappraisal comes in. Having thoroughly immersed myself in this shiny new edition since getting my mitts on it, it’s safe to say those ancient reviews and ratings no longer hold the same weight in 2023.

Esoteric are no strangers to the BJH catalogue and have been producing fine reissues of their titles for several years now. This latest five-disc volume finds Stephen W. Tayler at the helm, crafting brand new stereo and 5.1 surround remixes (something he truly has a gift for) as he did previously with the band’s second album Once Again. A Ben Wiseman remaster of the original stereo mix is also included, as well as singles from the period and a BBC Radio One In Concert performance with symphony orchestra that highlights the newborn Baby as well as a smattering of early classics. While the remastered album is surely an improvement over my long-gone vinyl copy, Tayler’s hi-res surround mix sounds spectacular. There’s a fine balance and more breathing space, and I find the drum sound in particular to be tremendously improved. You never know how well these things are going to turn out (‘Buyer’s remorse’ can be all too real), but in capable hands such as Tayler’s, these old recordings spring to life.

Back to 1972, and the band had bitten off more than they could chew with their original idea of recording a double album (tentatively titled Four Winds, with each LP side devoted to one band members’ compositions in a kind of Ummagumma-on-steroids approach). With both financial and time restraints looming, that ambitious project was reduced to a more manageable single LP, but with a somewhat divided recording process at multiple studios (much more on that in the informative booklet essay), and eventually the eclectic Baby James Harvest came kicking and screaming into the world in November 1972.

Oddly hypnotic opener Crazy (Over You) is built on a repetitive guitar melody and a ghostly, echoed vocal which greatly benefits from Tayler’s surround mix as it beams around the room, with the rhythm section of Les Holroyd and Mel Pritchard providing a solid foundation for John Lees to deliver some tasty axe work. The bright Delph Town Morn employs a brass section alongside its jangly acoustic and plonky piano with a kind of McCartney tinge. It’s a fun, toe-tapping little piece, though I’m not sure the extended squealing sax on the outro is entirely successful.

Likewise, Lees’ Thank You is one that might have benefitted from a slight re-think. Musically it’s engaging enough, but lyrics devoted to thanking a huge roster of people isn’t exactly the stuff rock ‘n roll dreams are made of. Fortunately the track is largely instrumental, and a good showcase for some extended guitar leads. Holroyd’s comparatively delicate One Hundred Thousand Smiles Out has more restrained playing, perhaps to illustrate the loneliness of space from an astronaut’s point of view. While a good track, the subject matter is obviously more than just a tad inspired by a certain Bowie number.

Perhaps most notably, this is the album that gave us the majestic Summer Soldier, the soaring mini-epic which is not only the centrepiece track here, but which also kicks off their brilliant classic Live double album and remains a highly regarded piece from BJH’s early years. The mellotron-laden suite goes through numerous changes over its three distinct sections (with a verse melody that seems to foreshadow the band’s 1977 song Hymn) and features various sound effects, memorable guitar lines, and a stirring finale.

Woolly Wolstenholme’s lone writing contribution to the album was the seven minute orchestral closing piece Moonwater, by far the most unique track and miles away from the more rawly-produced rock tracks (it was the only piece recorded at the exquisite Abbey Road while the rest of the band were bashing away at Strawberry studios, a necessary division caused by the paltry two week allotment the band had to get the album made). The dearly departed Woolly was apparently in his element constructing this grandiose piece and adding his crooning falsetto over top of the orchestra swells, and you wouldn’t be wrong in drawing comparisons to notable works of the day by bands like Deep Purple, not to mention that ‘other band’ BJH are so often compared to (I swore I wouldn’t mention them).

Remastered bonus tracks help flesh out discs 1 & 2, and some are also remixed by Tayler and included on the Blu-ray disc. The band’s single from April of 1972 preceded the album sessions and was intended to be used as a stopgap in between LPs. I’m Over You and Child of Man, both John Lees compositions, were decent enough songs, with Child of Man in particular having a nice thumping rock groove, and could have slotted in on the album had the band been short of material. A second pre-album single called Breathless was released under the band pseudonym Bombadil and is in reality a touch more listenable than its reputation suggests. But with its hand claps and over the top sunniness it likely won’t be much of a repeat listen, unless you’ve misplaced your Bay City Rollers albums. The far superior b-side was Woolly’s When the City Sleeps, which does prompt repeat spins and is probably the best of this batch of extras for my money.

Rock and Roll Woman, the last official recording for Harvest, was put together a few months after the album’s release and had a sensible arrangement based on a strong guitar riff. Lyrically it’s of little consequence but it’s a perfectly listenable track with some hummable melodies and fun percussion moments. The Holroyd/Lees composition The Joker was used as the b-side and is another that could easily fit on a BJH album proper. Also included here is the harder-edged re-recording of Medicine Man from the Barclay James Harvest And Other Short Stories album that was used as the b-side to the Thank You single. And while rummaging through the old tapes in compiling this set, a forgotten full band version of Lees’ song Sweet Faced Jane was found, complete with brass section, which was entirely different in style to the version later heard on Lees’ solo album A Major Fancy. This is the first ever release of this track.

Discs 3 & 4 give you the option of listening to the live concert in either the mono UK broadcast version or the stereo BBC Transcription Services version. This live performance was given shortly after the new album was released, and, accompanied by the BJH Symphony Orchestra, they premiered cornerstone tracks Summer Soldier and Moonwater alongside choice cuts from their earlier albums like Galadriel, Mockingbird, The Poet, After the Day, and the epic debut album closer Dark Now My Sky. A fabulous live document which acts as a nice companion piece to the official Live album. The 64-page booklet is loaded with photos and a substantial history of the band during this time. As a final bonus, the promotional video for Thank You is tacked on to the Blu-ray disc and wraps up the set nicely with a visual send-off.

While much time has passed, and the cutie pie on the album’s sleeve (cover photographer Julian Cottrell’s own daughter) is now in her fifties, it’s never too late to blow the dust off of these old gems and give them a fresh listen (or a first listen as the case may be). 1972 and Baby James Harvest was a charming – if odd – period in BJH’s career, the music full of quirks and strangeness, and while the band refined their songwriting after this point, they perhaps lost a certain sense of risk and adventure in the process. Speaking for myself, this terrific new package with Tayler’s revelatory mixes opened my eyes to an album I hadn’t held in the esteem I should have all these years, and it leapfrogged a few spaces in my own personal rankings as a result. Perhaps you’ll have a similar experience. Recommended!