The album art was always beautifully bucolic and evocative of simpler country days and ways… With this release, it wraps perfectly around the outer digipak sleeve, showing its full potential.
Time Honoured Ghosts (what a marvellously evocative title by the way!) has often been overlooked in the BJH catalogue, thanks to it sitting in between two of their best regarded albums, Everyone Is Everybody Else and Octoberon. When the album appeared in 1975 it received criticism in some quarters for lacking a stand-out ‘classic’ in the vein of For No One, Mockingbird or After The Day, and it is true that the album is a little more restrained than some of its near neighbours in their catalogue, with no tracks longer than five and a half minutes for example. However, while this lack of a standout can be criticised as a negative, the counter-argument to that is that Time Honoured Ghosts is one of the band’s most consistent albums overall. For example, the oft-lauded …And Other Short Stories had the rather turgid Blue John’s Blues weighing it down, while even Everyone Is Everybody Else had the forgettable likes of Poor Boy Blues and Mill Boys struggling to be remembered among the crowd. Time Honoured Ghosts, on the other hand, really doesn’t have a poor track on it – in sports judging parlance, while some of the other albums might have a couple of ‘tens’ balanced by the odd ‘six or seven’, this album tends towards eights and nines across the board. Anyhow, let’s dig in, shall we…
The five songs on the original first side remain, to me, the stronger half, with five winners in a row. John Lees’ opening In My Life is an uncommonly upbeat rocker for BJH, with some great lead guitar work worming its way into your brain. Holroyd’s Sweet Jesus, up next, is the polar opposite, being a yearning ballad utilising sparse yet supremely effective instrumentation, with a beautifully understated guitar solo. Two tracks which are like salt and vinegar – very different yet complementing each other perfectly. The most contentious song is the third one however, Lees’ unusual Titles, which constructs its lyric almost entirely from Beatles song titles, hence the name. Many down the years have dismissed this as ‘gimmicky’, and not worthy of taking seriously. If pressed I might be moved to suggest that some of those esteemed critics had either cloth ears or a severe lack of imagination, because the song, unapologetic tribute that it is (even credited tongue in cheek as ‘Traditional, arranged by Lees’) is actually an extremely clever piece of writing. The titles aren’t simply strung together, as they actually try to evoke the rift between Lennon and McCartney, with the wistful head-shake of ‘all you need is love… so they say’ – and the strident chorus line of ‘Lady Madonna, let it be…’ is an absolutely marvellous melody, triumphant and moving. The climax, in which the repeated chorus is interwoven with lines from Across The Universe, A Day In The Life and others is a beautifully arranged sound tapestry. For me, it’s probably the highlight of the album, once you look past its so-called ‘gimmick’.
Up after that we get the first real entry of Woolly Wolstenholme’s armoury of keyboards with Holroyd’s Jonathan, taking its inspiration from the book, and film of course, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There is a great instrumental climax, which is cut short just a little too soon – the album’s only real flaw for me, as this happens a few times. That quintessentially BJH use of the keyboards sweeps us into Woolly’s own Beyond The Grave, his only writing credit on the album. All mellotron and quasi-symphonic ‘orchestration’, and inspired by a horror comic, it’s the drama, darkness and general sturm und drang that the album cries out for and gets at this point. Now, it’s confession time here, as I have to reveal that I had heard this song way back when, before I first heard the BJH album, and all of that time I laboured under the firm but mistaken belief that it was by Procol Harum! It has the exact feel of songs like Whaling Stories from Procol’s Home period, and even now it sounds as if it could so easily have been conjured up by Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher. Again, it ends abruptly rather than fading, an effect that actually works perfectly, though it really should have been allowed to go on for a minute or so longer first – just over four minutes is cruelly short for such a track, and the original recording (since lost, sadly) was reportedly much longer..
The old second side has only four songs, with Holroyd’s opening Song For You a slight missed opportunity. It opens with a little touch of Who power-chording, and the first half of the five minute plus song is big and punchy proggy rock. It takes a nice change of pace into a more restrained, quieter section, but the problem is .. it just stays there, and drifts to its end, when it cries out to come big again. It’s by no means bad, but it had more potential for sure. Lees’ Hymn For The Children follows next, mining his rich ‘peace and love, stop the war’ lyrical vein, familiar from Child Of The Universe and For No One to name two. It’s a great song in that grand tradition though, and gets things right back on track. Holroyd himself comes back strongly, dragging Woolly’s keyboards with him again on the sumptuous Moongirl, while the album ends on a curiously reflective yet strong note with Lees’ One Night, a deep and thoughtful consideration of the issue of prostitution from the point of view of the potential customer, thoughtful as opposed to seedy. At first appearing a little anti-climactic, further listens place it perfectly in context, and it is a great album closer. The album is remastered, incidentally, and it is a tremendous job, giving the music more warmth and depth, while subtly trimming away one or two more distractingly trebly moments from the original. It’s the best I’ve heard it sound.
There is one bonus track on this disc, however, and it is inessential to say the least. An alternative, sub-three minute take of Child Of The Universe for an American single, it’s a hopeless version, losing all of the song’s power and sounding clumsy and lethargic – a sentiment Lees has readily concurred with. It’s a completist curio only. However, there is a second disc here, this time a DVD, and it contains that ‘holy grail’ of audiophiles, the Surround Sound 5.1 mix – and what better than a veritable shower-bath of mellotron and melodically powerful guitar work to luxuriate in? This is the sort of album that 5.1 was invented for. Not only that, but there are also five rarely-seen promo films of tracks from the album, which are fascinating, if occasionally slightly cheesy, to watch. A great addition! The Moongirl film is featured below.
Finally, the packaging. Oh my, the packaging. The album art was always beautifully bucolic and evocative of simpler country days and ways, with the autumn sun sinking on another working day. It was always hamstrung, however, by the original vinyl album (except in a couple of countries) having the full painting wrapped around a non-gatefold cover, so that the full effect simply couldn’t be seen without either having two copies or pulling the seams of your album apart! With this release, it wraps perfectly around the outer digipak sleeve, showing its full potential, while the whole package opens up further to well-designed four-panel splendour. Best of all, however, comes in the shape of a poster advertising the album from the time, which has the whole widescreen illustration almost at album-size. It’s a thing of beauty, and could result in a brain-turning struggle regarding whether to preserve it folded up within the package or to say ‘to hell with it’ and display it on the wall! Life may just be too short not to do the latter…
This is a fine way to revisit an album which has not always had its full and due recognition to these ears, and one which is ripe for rediscovery. A great job!