Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme: An Appreciation

Stuart 'Woolly' Wolstenholme, April 15th, 1947 - 13th December, 2010

Tributes from all over the world are pouring in for Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme, keyboard player, vocalist, composer, guitarist, arranger, raconteur, wit, poet, and gentleman. Woolly was never a 'household name', his greatest prominence being as a founder member of English band "Barclay James Harvest" - yet the news of his tragic and untimely death has produced an astonishing outpouring of grief from fans and fellow-musicians alike.

In the mid-sixties, a group of young musicians retreated to a run-down farm-house in the Lancashire Moors to write, practice, rehearse, and bring a band together. Carrying an array of classical instruments as well as the standard rock-equipment of the day, John Lees, Woolly Wolstenholme, Les Holroyd and Mel Pritchard hid in the unheated Preston House, honing the craft that would emerge in 1967 as "Barclay James Harvest". From Preston House, all kinds of music flowed - much of it from the pen of Wolstenholme who also handled lead vocals in those days. Medieval, folk, rock, classical, CSN-esque, prog, psychedelia, pop, delicate guitar ballads and grandiose orchestral works all appeared in the bands first four albums. Sales didn't reflect the critical acclaim the band generated, and expensive experiments in touring with a full orchestra cost the band dear. As the band matured into the 70s, with Preston House, orchestras and musical experimentation a fading memory, Wolstenholme became a foremost exponent of the Mellotron, the early electronic keyboard that used taped sounds to generate all manner of effects. Wolstenholme was able on this instrument to create the grand orchestral sound that did justice to the Barclay's classical influences. The 1974 "Live" album is acknowledged to be amongst the finest examples of the Mellotron in full flight - and features the four members of BJH as an incredibly tight unit, at the height of their powers, with Wolstenholme at the core.

As the 70s progressed, Barclay James Harvest developed into a fine mainstream rock band, who by the time of the "Gone to Earth" album in 1977, and "XII" in 1978, had largely shelved their experimental edge and classical aspirations in favour of a more accessible body of work. Although they were rewarded with the vast sales and enormous tours which had eluded them in their early years, Wolstenholme was creatively frustrated. He was also no longer the pivotal figure in the band, as he had been in the early days, and found it hard to get much of his material onto their albums. In 1979, when BJH were on the cusp of the success that would earn them huge financial rewards, Wolstenholme left to make his own records.

This first YouTube clip is one of Woolly's final contributions to Barclay James Harvest, "In Search of England" - along with illustrations by Lloyd Ezra Fortune. By this stage, Woolly was fighting a loosing battle against the musical direction of the band. Listen for the final chord, a resolution which is a little bit of Woolly-magic.

Woolly's contribution to Barclay James Harvest is apparent when the output the band produced after his departure is assessed. Although very 'trendy for its time', it has dated badly and sounds thin and lacking substance compared to the Wolstenholme years. Keyboard sounds from the DX7 replaced the warm tones of the Mellotron and the throbbing of the Hammond organ - while arrangments without the Woolly-touch, became disappointingly predictable. Wolstenholme's contribution to the band was more than musicianship however - he had always been the entertainer, the front-man, the joker in the pack and the raconteur. All the early recordings of the band are graced by Wolstenholme's rich Lancastrian burr, introducing songs, band members and chatting between numbers. He was more outgoing than Lees & Holroyd the other two singer/songwriters with in the band, and his abilities as a communicator meant that it was natural that it was his wife who ran the fan-club, and he a unique place in the fans affections.

Not that any of this unduly distracted the remaining band members whose careers were taking off, especially in Europe. Wolstenholme's solo career (with his new band Maestoso) was sadly short-lived. Polydor records faced a dilemma when BJH's "Berlin" album began selling in unprecedented numbers. With BJH and Woolly on their books they appeared to be trying to market two versions of the same band - producing rival products. Polydor decided to back just one horse, failed to promote Maestoso and quietly dropped them. As usual, Woolly took the time to express his personal feelings in his lyrics. This next clip is a late bootlegged live version of "Deceivers All", a song dedicated to that record company!

I first heard Woolly's music as a teenager. I stumbled upon Barclay James Harvest, as a youthful headbanger on a hillwalking holiday in North Wales with a group from my Sixth-Form college. At the outdoor centre, one of the instructors presented a slide-show of his favourite photos from years spent climbing, walking, and canoeing around the world. An excellent photographer who was soon to go professional, he spent hours sequencing his images to music, courtesy of a bank of slide projectors - in those pre IT days! The finale of his show was a triple-helping of BJH. I had never heard anything like it before, and was instantly hooked. It was the songs of John Lees which I loved initially - and Woolly's contributions to albums like Octoberon and Time Honoured Ghosts, I couldn't quite manage! My appreciation of Woolly though grew over time, as I began to appreciate his skills as a musician and arranger - especially of the other songwriters pieces. This became abundantly clear when Woolly suddenly returned to music after two decades in farming - teaming up again with John Lees, to form his rejuvenated version of BJH, following the demise of the original band in 1997. Seeing that original band in its final years was not a completely happy experience, although technically superb and surrounded with high-class guest musicians, there was a spark-missing. I didn't realise what that spark was until I saw John Lees Barclay James Harvest, live in Edinburgh in 2006. From the moment that they came on stage, smiling, laughing and plunged into a classic Mellotron-soaked rendition of their 1974 classic song "For No-One", it was apparent all that had been lost was recovered. The next YouTube clip comes from that tour, and features Wolstenholme singing and Mellotron- powering guitarist John Lees' apocalyptic song "After the Day".

After 1997, both John Lees and Les Holroyd formed their new respective versions of BJH, and both saw a revitalisation of their creativity. In John Lees version, not only was there a musical revival, but also a return to the humour that had enlivened the proceedings during the seventies. Wolstenholme and new bassist Craig Fletcher's verbal comedy sparring between numbers might threaten to de-rail a gig at times, but was riotous fun. At a special one-off gig on Easter Sunday 2009, Woolly greeted the enthusiastically applauding audience with a shake of the head, and "ah - all the usual tired faces, I see!". On the Barclay James Harvest band forum, there is a whole thread devoted to Woolly's wit, put-downs, one-liners and gags - many of which were satirical references to other band members, past and present! He also endeared himself to many fans with his interest in them, his ludicrous blogging of album progress, his hilarious multiple pseudonyms, many kindnesses and endless ability to entertain.

It was however during the John Lees Barclay James Harvest era that fans first became aware that Woolly was sometimes not well. Projects were sometimes sidelined, all activity on hold, and worried messages appeared on fans websites from Woolly's close friends. Worsening bouts of a severe depressive illness had blighted Woolly's life for many years, finally ending up with a period spent in a mental hospital. Fans wrote cards and letters to Woolly during this period, and read with dismay reports from those who had visited. Woolly's recovery was amazing, and over the course of the next few years he was highly productive and creative - not only touring with John Lees Barclay James Harvest, but also re-assembling his old band Maestoso for three final albums, One Drop in a Dry World, GRIM and Caterwauling.

These final three pieces of work form a remarkable end to an extraordinary career. The days of big recording budgets, record-company targets or the constraints of band-meetings were long-gone, which allowed Woolly to really let loose his creative talents. What emerged was a veritable carnival of sound, music, poetry, tragedy, hilarity, absurdity, and deep, awful melancholy.

Blood and Bones, from "One Drop" is a powerful musical epic, featuring the tender Requiem middle section. In this great song, Woolly meditates on death, and its meaning with great feeling. His complete mastery of composition and instrumentation brings these lyrics home with tremendous effect:

Standing on the Bridge of Sighs
And looking down, the water's out
We've had our run, there is no doubt
We're all washed up with the tide

Hanging from the Bridge of Sighs
The whole thing's gone and can't be had
From "Don't Look Now" that something bad
Is all washed out with the tide

Seems to me there's more to this than meets the eye -Something more than just this life we're living, Without a soul, we're nothing more than Blood and Bones.

Requiem Aeternam. Requiem, Requiem

The following Album GRIM, is a quite indescribable record, which is infinitely more than a mere bunch of songs. It is a world in itself - an amazing journey through the mythical Northern town of Grimroyd. The next YouTube clip is a glimpse of life in that strange and wonderful place: Through a Storm - again featuring Lloyd's artwork. Listen particularly for the way in which the contrasting jarring and soothing keyboard sounds are used and the shape of the whole piece, with its alternating moods of sorrow and anger.


The final selection of songs on the album "Caterwauling" is full of allusions to mental illness, of hospitals, doctors, medicines, delusions, fantasies, aliens, the madness of war, shellshock and Woolly's view of the futility of faith in a disintegrating world. Recorded on a shoestring budget, it features all the elements that made fans adore Woolly. Power, pathos, musical surprises, humour as black as night, and playful comedy. It is a fabulous record of remarkable depth - and following his death, heart-rending lyrical confession.

Woolly had never made any secret of his private battles - they come through in all his writing, right back to the earliest days of BJH. In the last three great albums, as well as his one post-retirement studio collaboration with John Lees; references to darkness, despair, illness, mortality and fragility are writ large.

The sublime "2AM", from "One Drop...." is musically as melodic as it is melancholic, giving perfect voice to lyrical imagery such as:

Can't hear the ticking of the clock -It seems for me all time has stopped.
Like grey smoke in a greyer sky- Here's where our wrecked past purpose lies
An endless jigsaw that just mocks - Lacking a picture on the box
No stars, no moon and what is more - No dawn to creep around the door
Some things to bother lesser men
It's 2 a.m

Whilst previously on Nexus, he had penned:

It seems I've fallen off the earth
No sign of hope, no sense of worth
And in my mouth a bitter pill
It makes me sleep, it keeps me still
I can't explain the words they miss
If there's a point in all of this
Why can't the gods who planets make
Just give me peace for pity's sake?
It's not those years and years I spent
Within a world without event
It's not these things that make me weep
It's more the devils that I keep.

Woolly's final album, Caterwauling contains numerous lyrical gems, not least the amazing song, "Shoes". In "Quicksand" Woolly pulls no punches about the experience of severe clinical depression. The soul-wrenching lyrics describe sinking into an abyss with no hand to pull him out to where there is air to breathe. An ammendum to the album is "Pills", a goon-show or Python-esque musical comedy in which a lunatic psychiatrist recommends pills, lunacy, and failing that, suicide. When this record was released, all the band's followers laughed uproariously at the tragi-comic madness of this finale. That track is now unlistenable, unbearable, too-painful, too dark, too horrific to contemplate hearing. The sad truth is that in November 2010, it was reported that Woolly was too ill to perform. On December 14th we were devastated to learn that during a catastrophic episode of mental illness on the previous day, Woolly Wolstenholme ended his own life.

Those of us who had the privilege of meeting Woolly will always remember a funny, kind, friendly joker - with a madcap and outrageous sense of humour. Those of us who love his music will always be affected by the breadth and power of his arrangements, the savagery and delicacy of his lyrics, which more than offset the occasional vocal-frailty - and his ability to conjure-up sound-scapes that sent songs spiralling skywards.

And now, the sadness for his fans - but especially his partner, friends, and band-mates is that that fevered creative mind, with all it's brilliant fragility is no more. The pen that wrote with such lyrical cunning, is laid down not to be picked up again. The great Mellotron that propelled good songs, and made them magnificent, is now silent; the tape stilled - to thrill us no more. The wit and the words have all fallen to the ground, the creativity stiffled, the stage is vacant the stalls are empty, the lights turned out. The tragedy is unspeakable - and marked with many tears. How bitter that Woolly lost - and his illness won; that the dreadful disease of the loss of hope, drained all the colour from life until he could bear it no more. How crushing the thought that someone who brought so much joy to so many lives, could be in so much pain, that he could leave behind so much pain on his passing?

In his lyrics, Woolly Wolstenholme searched for God, even railed against God, but ultimately couldn't believe that there was a God present in the universe. Certainly belief in God is severely tested by tragedies such as this, and by His apparent absences and inactions. For many people, theism is not compatible with suffering and darkness of this magnitude. For all the difficulties of belief, I continue to find greater difficulties in unbelief. What are music and words of the grandeur and quality we find here - but glimpses of the creativity written into our nature courtesy of having been cast in the image of a creative God? "There is something more than meets the eye, we are more than just blood and bones". Likewise, what makes this tragedy actually matter so much? If we are but the result of a billion collisions on a rock, tumbling through a void, with no inherent meaning - then the only insane people are those who invent hope for themselves - as neither life nor death actually have any meaning. Conversely, if we are made by a God, and endowed with His image (ie, creativity, personality, intelligence, conscience, love, knowability etc), then this explains why loss is so profound, and so deep. It matters not in purely localised or subjective terms, but in ultimate terms. The loss we sense is not trivial, but deep. For all the difficulties for belief that Woolly Wolstenholme's passing causes, I still find giving thanks to God for all he contributed, less problematic than denying God for all he undoubtedly suffered. I know that many see it differently.

There is so much more that could be written about the wonderful music, and joyful memories that so many people have of Woolly Wolstenholme. The Barclay James Harvest on-line discussion forum is already bursting with posts of wonderful recollections of the man and his music. No doubt the stories and recollections about both the man himself and the unique musical legacy he leaves behind will continue to build up, along with the book of condolence which people all around the world are signing. The grief of so many fans is unusual, striking, deep, and is in itself a testament to the remarkable person we have lost.

As fans of the music, we are at best acquantences of Woolly. He may have had endless amounts of time for fans, both at gigs and posting messages to them on -line; but our loss is minor compared to that of his immediate family, his close friends and band members in John Lees' Barclay James Harvest. While I have a wonderful record collection to delve into, and great memories to savour; they have an enormous personal loss to endure, particularly as they deal with the nature of his passing. This will no doubt be a slow process, and so my thoughts, love and prayers are sincerely with them as they negotiate the road ahead.

In memory of Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme. April 15th, 1947 - 13th December, 2010


Kecske said...

A lovely tribute Gavin - I really enjoyed reading it.

Even Johan said...

This was a fantastic read. I've posted this tribute to Woolly on YouTube

Even (Norway)

Ian said...

Excellent tribute to a great bloke.

Anonymous said...

A fund in memory of Woolly has been launched at:

All proceeds will go to the Mental Health Foundation

Roger Pearse said...

An excellent tribute - thank you.

RJ Neil said...

Well said - thank you.

Trevor said...

A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man, Woolly touched the hearts of the many who met and knew him.
Woolly was my friend, my insperation, my hero as well as my music publisher (Musica Realis). I wrote my own tribute to him, Troubadour, a Song for Woolly on
I just read your tribute as I sit here counting down the seconds, I have Woolly's car for sale on Ebay, we are going to put the money into a web site to keep his music alive, the songs he did away fro BJH.
Thank You again

Jeffrey Hickey said...

Saw BJH at the Troubadour in Los Angeles sometime in the late 70's. Between sets, there was Wooly at the bar, so I offered to buy him a Guinness and talk some mellotron, and as it turned out, gardening. We had a few, got to giggling, and I convinced him to play Mockingbird in the second set using choir instead of strings. He did it, smiling all the way through, and it worked. Those were the days, folks. Thank you for a memorable evening, Stuart (by evening's end, we were far past nicknames, and calling each other our full birth names), some brilliant mellotron playing, and your tip on fish guts that benefit my tomatoes to this day. RIP

Madwoollyfan said...

Just come across this, what an interesting and lovely read Gavin.
Farewell Woolly, you will never be forgotten, because your music lives on for future generations.

facepaint_paula said...

I was looking for something to post on my fb page tomorrow, as it would have been his birthday…..
I will share your lovely article.
I was lucky enough to call him a friend & miss him hugely. Thanks for such a well written tribute to the man & some great choices of his music - I love through a storm!