Friday, May 18, 2007

Colonel Moseley's Brummie Heroes: Harvey Andrews

What ho! Nowadays, people don’t seem to have heroes. Perhaps it’s not cool to admit admiration for anyone else. Years ago, heroes abounded - in sports, the arts and even politics. Today we have celebrity instead. Ordinary folk are interested in the famous simply because they are well-known. They envy glamour and wealth and don’t need to think beyond what they read in Heat or see in Pimp my Crib on MTV. They don’t necessarily admire the person or his or her achievements.

To counterbalance this, I want to flag up some men and women from our area who have succeeded in putting together an impressive body of work and whom we should celebrate for being brilliant rather than just famous.

For a long time one hero of mine has been Harvey Andrews, described as “unquestionably the most influential English songwriter of the past twenty or so years: a consummate entertainer, craftsman and raconteur” (Stables Theatre programme).

Over forty three years, Harvey Andrews has produced fifteen albums and written songs recorded by more than fifty artists, ranging from Christy Moore and Max Boyce to Mary Hopkin. His numerous television appearances include The Old Grey Whistle Test, Rhythm on Two and specials, The Camera and the Song and The Same Old Smile. On BBC Radio 2 he has hosted Folk on Two and on Radio 4 a Kaleidoscope special was devoted to his work. He also performed sessions for John Peel.

As well as appearing at virtually every folk venue throughout the country over decades on the road, Harvey has performed at five Cambridge Folk Festivals and many abroad including Denmark and Canada. He has appeared in North America and throughout Europe and given a solo concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.

He wrote and sang the theme tune for the TV series Golden Pennies and The Haunted School and the songs for the musical depicting life growing up in Birmingham in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Go and Play up your own End which enjoyed sold-out runs at Birmingham’s Rep, Hippodrome and Alexandra Theatres.

Born in the Sorrento in Moseley during the war, Harvey’s roots are pure Birmingham. From childhood he enjoyed singing and became interested in American folk music whilst at college training to be a school teacher. He emerged onto the scene with his appearance at Ian Campbell’s Jug O’ Punch in 1964 and appeared on an EP with folk revivalist Martin Carthy in1965. Turning full-time professional in 1966, he released his debut solo album Places and Faces in 1970.

After his first appearance at the Cambridge Festival in 1970, his reputation grew with his well-received follow-up Writer of Songs in 1972. This landmark album contained a strong selection of tuneful melodies in varying styles with perceptive lyrics that were to become his trademark. Many star musicians are credited on the album including Ralph Mc Tell and Rick Wakeman.

The most controversial track on Writer of Songs is Soldier. It was written after the renewal of violence in Northern Ireland in response to the death of Sgt Michael Willetts, caught in a bomb blast whilst trying to evacuate a room of civilians. It was reported that the crowd abused his remains as they were later removed. Although Harvey made it unambiguously clear at the time that the song was only about the senselessness of violence, some incorrectly interpreted it as a pro-establishment glorification of military heroism.

When released, the song was banned by the BBC - lest feelings be exacerbated in the nationalist community. I understand that soldiers are still advised not to sing it in pubs where it might cause trouble. A song-writer runs risks when trying to address such moral dilemmas where art and politics necessarily overlap. Soldier provides a salutary warning of how a song intended to transcend sectarianism can be kidnapped and used for the purposes of others. One can only respect Harvey for his humane motives and sympathise with him over the unfair resultant flack.

Also reflecting the politics of the time, Hey, Sandy recollected the shooting of Sandra Scheuer by National Guards at Kent State University in the anti-war demonstration of 1970. These songs of protest contrasted with the lilting domesticity of Gift of a Brand New Day, written to welcome home his wife and new baby and the gently lyrical Boothferry Bridge.

Years later Harvey explained he was driving to a gig in Hull and musing on the fact that Americans had evocative place-names like Wichita that lent themselves to song. Crossing Boothferry Bridge, its name hit him: full of vowels, it sang well, symbolised travel and made a very romantic song. The only problem is it was a rusty old swing bridge near Hull and not the Golden Gate!

In the following year Harvey toured with art rock band Focus and completed his third album Friends of Mine. The critics again reacted positively, recognising the quality of Harvey’s voice and his way of saying things that most of us feel but few are able to explain.

1975 saw Fantasies from a Corner Seat with Graham Cooper and in the following year, Someday. Harvey subsequently formed his own Beeswing label which released his Margarita, Old Mother Earth and PG.

After Brand New Day, 25 Years on the Road was released in 1989 featuring only Harvey and his guitar - like they see on stage - with no backing musicians. The 1990s saw Spring Again whose title track celebrated the newly-won freedom in eastern Europe and Snaps, which Harvey called a Brummie album from top to toe. It is one of my favourites: an absorbing trip into the past with family sketches ranging from his bookie and entrepreneur great grandfather George Pearce of Digbeth to Punch and Judy Man redolent of summer hols in Blackpool and Aberdovey – although Harvey preferred darkest Shropshire – where he now lives!

Snaps deals with diverse topics and emotions ranging from the World Wars, a girl in trouble and the sadness of family separation to the jolly Jowett Javelin and happy family sing-songs. The secure life of the young Harvey is reflected in Birthday Boy authentically evoking Saturday morning children’s pictures and The Old Tin Bath. The enchanting Blue Moon Memories touchingly recaptures his parents’ special song “incorporating Blue Moon” – an early and superior form of sampling.

What really comes through this truly family album is nostalgia for times when a bus to town on Saturday morning meant shops to call at before cakes and tea - whereas now it’s a ghost town with charity shops and boarded windows.

The album is crowned with Fifty Years On dedicated to Harvey’s parents and those who at war’s-end voted for a promise of health and education now being betrayed. It makes for a bitter but truthful ending.

The sounds, faces and places of Harvey’s childhood are also recalled with warmth and insight in his recently-published book, Gold Star to the Ozarks. This beautifully-written musical memoir charts a journey beginning with singing cowboy Roy Rogers through many by-roads such as Gilbert and Sullivan, film musicals and Family Favourites on to rock and roll and folk. The real heart of the book lies not just in music but in its depiction of family life after the war. It explains the importance of education as a means of escape. Harvey and both parents are vividly portrayed in a memoir which is actually about aspiration and fulfilling personal potential.

Since 2000 Harvey has released The Gift, a fond and occasionally wry retrospective of the folk scene. This was followed by The Journey which opens with Manet and Monet, a transcript of the minutes of the Yardley Arts Club's outing to Ludlow in 1949. In his cover notes Harvey refers to the members (which between 1947 and 1977 included his father Victor whose lino cut is on the cover) as innocent, dedicated, self-educated working class men and women who believed in the power of education and art and used their miserly leisure time to the full. As so often in Harvey's work, it is warm, funny and uplifting.
Harvey's most recent album Somewhere in the Stars concludes with his evocative lines about his trips to Shropshire years ago and unusually the American David Mallett's song about lost yesterdays Can't go home Again. He makes the song his own in a wistful understated rendition with a stunning string arrangement.
With his standing as a lyricist firmly established, Harvey’s lyrics have been used in course work for the national GCSE English examination and included in the Oxford University book of English Traditional Verse.

Harvey’s influences from this country and the USA are too numerous to list. I single out Buddy Holly, Phil Ochs and Harry Chapin and also Hoyt Axton and Tom Paxton as Harvey did, perhaps because they rhyme. It was only recently that I realised Harvey was a close friend of the sadly-missed Jake Thackray, the French-influenced, Yorkshire Noel Coward, whose work I have also long admired and enjoyed. Jake called his friend Harv the Marv. By your friends are you known and if the great Jake Thackray said he’s Harv the Marv, that’s more than good enough for me.

By any standards Harvey Andrews has an impressive body of work covering many themes and styles. They range from the social and political to the artistic, from the domestic and romantic to the humorous and nostalgic. He is recognised as one of the most powerful song-smiths England has produced. In live performance he creates real intimacy with his audience with impeccable delivery, accomplished musicianship and engaging humour.

One columnist observed that since his first gig in October 1964 Harvey has been using his native wit and clear insight to lay bare the English soul with songs having the ability to strike right at the core of the matter. Another remarked that he examines our lives and reminds us what it’s all about. Tuneful melodies and intelligent lyrics will never go out of fashion and Harvey Andrews was and still is a master of both.

Born in 1943, Harvey was a pre-Baby Boomer. His formative years as a performer were in the Sixties – which, as Joe Boyd said in the Prologue of White Bicycles, began in the summer of 1957 and ended in October of 1973. Many of his early songs reflect the idealistic mind-set of those changing times. For me, his most lyrical work points to the values and integrity of better times. It has been a pleasure to observe his journey. To his credit, Harvey has continued to reflect his values without succumbing to cynicism. He has honoured his origins without becoming, as others have, a professional Brummie.

Back in 1972, the title track of Harvey’s second album spoke of his ambitions as an artist. Tellingly, he admits his ultimate contentment just to be a writer of songs and modestly concludes with the understated hope that someone will rate them and maybe some day, investigate them - seriously.

Surely it’s now long overdue to do exactly that and give even more serious recognition to an all-time great writer and performer of songs: a worthy Brummie hero.

“Gold Star to the Ozarks ~ a musical memoir” by Harvey Andrews (Haska Books 2007)
*a version of this profile has appeared in Birmingham 13



Blogger ab said...

Nicely observed and accurate tribute to Harvey whose songs take us backwards and forwards along a familiar journey

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


7:40 AM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

Glad you liked the piece. Harvey has his own website at My review of personal favourites amongst his repertoire is also on this blog. There is an enjoyable video of Harvey singing his excellent song "Able Baker" at the Accoutic Routes venue in Cambridge on Youtube.

Another Colonel Moseley view on the world today should be added to this blog shortly.

11:30 PM  

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