Cult Heroes No. 42: Woolly Wolstenholme
This week, we take a look at Woolly Wolstenholme, who so sadly died a couple of days ago. Never given the wider respect he deserved, his work with Barclay James Harvest makes him a worthy Cult Hero. You can check out all past Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
Weird isn’t the word for it. Over the last few weeks I’ve been mulling over the idea of introducing Woolly Wolstenholme into this series. Each time, I put it off, only because something else would come up, and well…he’s not going anywhere, right?
Then last weekend I resolved to take the plunge and write this piece – only for the terrible news to break on Tuesday (December 14) that the previous day the keyboard player had taken his own life. Now, I knew he suffered from depression, something that had kept him out of the recent tour by John Lees Barclay James Harvest, but for this to happen…sheesh! The news was appalling. And I did think that maybe now isn’t the right time to fete Woolly in such a manner.
But then I thought, ‘OK, it has to be a little bit more like a obituary but now is the time more than ever to celebrate his life and works’. So, here I am, having scrapped most of what I’d originally written in order to bypass much of the factual stuff, and try to give a flavour of a man I genuinely liked – even if he could be a touch curmudgeonly.
Not to be beat about any stray bushes, Stuart ‘Woolly’ Wolstenholme was an undervalued member of an underrated band. I should qualify that word ‘undervalued’, because he most certainly wasn’t thought of in that way by anyone in Barclay James Harvest, or by the fans. No, it was more the outside world that tended to bypass him, in favour of more flamboyant keyboard players. And while you can never suggest he was as big an influence as, say, Jon Lord, Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, nonetheless he was a superb musician (a multi-instrumentalist, actually), and his craft and style were so crucial to the early success of Barclay James Harvest, the band he helped to found in 1966, alongside John Lees (guitar), Les Holroyd (bass) and Mel Pritchard (drums).
I first interviewed BJH (for Kerrang!) in the mid-1980s, by which point Woolly had left, quitting in 1979 because he was disillusioned with so much that was going on around, and in, the band.
“For me, it wasn’t much fun anymore,” he once said. “I just thought I’d rather be a farmer than carry on in a band where the music was beginning to mean less and less to me. I had to be honest with myself.”
So, as the remaining three Barclays went from commercial strength to commercial strength (reaching an astonishing zenith by playing in front of an estimated 250,000 people in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin in 1980), Woolly quietly slipped away. Content to till the land rather than jump to the ring of the tills.
Anyway, when I initially met the band they’d just released Victim Of Circumstance in 84, and were preparing for a major British tour. They were rehearsing on a sound stage at Shepperton Studios that I think had just been used for a James Bond movie (Octopussy, I believe) – or was next door to it. That’s how big they, and their stage show, had become.
Woolly might have been gone at that point for five years, but his name did come up in conversation, albeit briefly. And you could sense the feeling that all three were slightly uncomfortable he wasn’t there. I hate to make comparisons, however his impact on BJH was probably not too dissimilar to the one that the late Cliff Burton had on Metallica – he was someone the others could look to, and without him… the remaining trio weren’t exactly rudderless, but they missed his input. And all of them knew it.
Still, this was a golden era for them, only brought to a juddering halt when in 1998 internal differences (that old chestnut) reared up, bit the individuals in the arse and left scars so indelible that we suddenly had two camps: Lees in one, with Holroyd and Pritchard in the other. And it was at this juncture that Wolstenholme returned, joining the guitarist in the ludicrously named Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees (oh, the joys of the legal minefield). And it was around then that I encountered Woolly.
For someone who’d spent years shunning the limelight – unless he regularly entered his pet marrow, called Ernest, in the local Farming Gazette Marrow Of The Year contest? – Wolstenholme was remarkably articulate and at home in front of a microphone. Whereas Lees was quiet and diffident, Woolly was outspoken and sharp. He had a ready wit as well, even turning this in on himself when the mood suited. He was actually very funny.
“I’d like to think that Harvest Records took their name from us, because they were desperate to have the band on the label,” he once said. “You can just see all those EMI big wigs sitting there trying to think of a good name for their young progressive label, and then one of them says, ‘Have you heard about this amazing band called Barclay James Harvest? We should sign them’. And then someone else says, ‘What a great idea for a label name: Barclay’s’.”
That was Woolly, a man who could appear miserable and misanthropic on occasions – well, if you didn’t know him that could be the way he consistently came across – but inside he was a person of great warmth and affection, and his sense of humour was always flying high.
“When we first worked at Abbey Road Studios, there were all these technicians walking round wearing white lab coats and looking self-important. You could see them looking at us and thinking, ‘Long-haired layabouts. When are you gonna get proper jobs?’,” he once recalled of the band’s early recording sessions at the famed studios. “And you couldn’t play your instruments in the cafeteria – oh, no. One of them caught George Harrison strumming away, and said to him, ‘Oi, that’s enough of that, sonny’. Someone else piped up, ‘Don’t you know that’s George Harrison from the Beatles’, and this bloke just responded, ‘I don’t care if he’s George Formby, this isn’t the place for music’.”
You really had to hear Woolly telling this, in his delightfully sly Lancastrian, accent to get the full effect. He had the sort of manner that brought to mind both leadership qualities and also the inner loner. I always thought he’d have made a marvellous character in Last Of The Summer Wine.
I’d meet Woolly quite a lot over the next decade. Sometimes it was on official business (doing interviews around tours or releases), at others times on social occasions. A few years ago, the estimable Esoteric Records held a Christmas party at the 100 Club in London. Now, he knew a lot of the people there, but you could sense he felt alone in a crowd, as it were. When I arrived, he grabbed hold of me and said, “At last, a friendly face.” Not that I’m suggesting I was particularly a close friend, but it was a real inkling of the sort of emotional confusion in which he appeared to live. For someone who’d easily enrich and enliven any party, he could also be intensely introverted at times.
A lot of people suffer from these mood swings. What made him different is perhaps a lack of the sort of mental shield most can successfully erect to protect themselves. He was too much of an artist to do anything of the sort. To put up barriers would have impaired what made him such a talented songwriter and gifted musician, and to be true to himself he had to allow his feelings to be so exposed as to leave him a victim of his own uncertainties – well, that’s my theory.
Woolly could sometimes act like a gloomy sod, almost for its own sake and for his own amusement. On two occasions, I persuaded he and Sue, his partner (and I can only guess how she’s feeling right now) to come down to the famed Crobar in Central London, the rock ’n’ roll bar. Both times he complained that it was too noisy, too smokey (this was before the smoking ban) and too crowded. Yet, I had the slight suspicion he wasn’t that unhappy about being there, despite his proclamation that, “This is no place for an old git like me!”.
Ultimately, though, he will live on through his music. Yes, that is a cliché, but so accurate. Listen to any of the Barclay James Harvest albums on which he features, and his deft musical touch and clever songwriting ability are there for all to witness. As I said, his talent has always been undervalued. Despite all the problems, you do get the impression that he was probably at his happiest, and most cathartic, with the music. It’s here that he spoke in the most open, free manner. Through the band, and also on his own material, he could relax and be himself, being allowed to express his gamut of emotions without fear. And he was such an elegant player and writer that his songs came to mean so much to so many.
There’s a fervent, if forlorn, hope that his death might bring John Lees and Les Holroyd together again. Not that the passing of Pritchard in 2004 did anything to smooth the path. But who knows? Maybe they could be persuaded to do a one-off show together, or at least to appear on the same bill. Like Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, they are the last two standing – and that must mean something.
I started out to write this as a celebration of a Cult Hero. Circumstances have dictated that it’s turned into a tribute. Rest calmly in the Sea Of Tranquility, Woolly. Oh, and by the way I did make it down to the Metropolis Studios show on December 4 – still waiting for you to buy me that drink (a private little joke we shared the last time I talked to him!).
And lest we forget, here’s a reminder of some of the wonderful music with which he’ll always be associated:
Find out more at http://www.bjharvest.com/.
Feel free to leave your tributes to Woolly below. We’ll make sure they’re seen by the right people.
Tags: Barclay James Harvest, Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees, cliff burton, Cult Heroes, George Harrison. Beatles, John Lees, John Lees' Barclay James Harvest, Jon Lord, Keith Emerson, Les Holroyd, Mel Pritchard, Metallica, Paul McCartney, Rick Wakeman, Ringo Starr, Woolly Wolstenholme