The Band of Holy Joy

TrackAlbum / Single
What The Moon SawManic, Magic, Majestic
Evening World Holiday ShowRough Trade RTT233
Hot Little HopesPositively Spooked
FishwivesMore Tales From The City
Tracksuit VendettaTracksuit Vendetta
It's Lovebite CityRough Trade 45rev11
Maybe One DayThe Big Ship Sails
NightjarsManic, Magic, Majestic
The Death Of LoveLove Never Fails
ZombieRough Trade RTT223

The Band of Holy Joy photo



Band of Holy Joy playlist



Contributor: John Hartley

If you took the 100 most popular ‘100 albums you should hear before you die’ articles I would be surprised if you would find anything by The Band of Holy Joy. Unless it was written by me, in which case, somewhere in the top ten, you would find Manic, Magic, Majestic. In theory I could write this entire Toppermost based on that one album alone; in more dramatic moments I have proclaimed that at one particular stage in my life I lived the tales told in this album by proxy. After one such declaration a Twitter friend asked jokingly when I had been involved in joyriding (the track Killy Car Thieves, as its title would suggest, details such escapades). I studied in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, living in some of the less salubrious areas. Saturday evenings were spent flicking between BBC1 (“Casualty”) and the front room window (police helicopter hovering overhead, spotlight searching and tracing the latest TWOC-ed vehicle along the main road on which we lived). My housemates and I were rudely awoken in the small hours of another morning by a ‘borrowed’ car forgetting to turn either left or right at the junction opposite, and coming to a stop in the front of the off licence next door. Johny Brown – singer and lyricist with The Band Of Holy Joy – grew up in Newcastle. I could see exactly where Manic, Magic, Majestic was coming from.

To write a Toppermost based solely on one album would not be very clever, or helpful, or fit for purpose. It would just be a very long album review, and that’s not the point. That said, I’m going to start with a track from Manic, Magic, Majestic, because that is sort of where the story begins. I say ‘sort of’, because at this stage I hadn’t heard the album. In fact, I hadn’t even heard a single thing by the band. They just happened to be the support band for James, playing at Manchester Apollo on December 3rd 1989, the gig filmed by SNUBTV featuring the Sit Down stage invasion. By now, James had grown into a seven-piece. Any doubts the stage would be big enough were put to rest when The Band of Holy Joy ambled on stage; seven of them too, but with double basses (that would have been Jub), trombones (Adrian Bailey), Alfie Thomas and his accordion; a sonic and visual cacophony not normally found in your average band. Amongst the rag-tag skiffle-y punk on show shone one pristine diamond: What The Moon Saw. Heart-tugging strings from Karel Van Bergen introduce a lyrical tale of betrayal and rejection (“one moment of lust shattered my trust”), with a crescendo of instrumental and vocal emotion bursting into life half way through and carrying the song to its conclusion: “I was led astray, I was led astray … that’s what all you innocents always seem to say.” Three and a half years later I’d find myself living that song.

Back to the gig, though. Three thousand Mancunians, all present to give a hometown welcome to local heroes who were, finally, about to make it big. James had just released Come Home on Rough Trade and were about to sign to Fontana from where the rest, as is said, would be history. With this in mind I was quite surprised to hear a smallish whoop of delight from up in the stalls (imagine Exeter City away at Carlisle United on a winter Wednesday night…) when Johny Brown introduced the band’s recently-released single Evening World Holiday Show. It’s the only other song of theirs from the gig that I can definitely recall; the rest of their set was part shrouded in awe at the raw emotion and orchestral swayings of The Band of Holy Joy, and part in eager anticipation of the headliners. Evening World Holiday Show was a boisterously rampant, sometimes breathless, pop song the likes of which I could not previously have considered existing without at least two guitars. The Band of Holy Joy had precisely none. The single version was produced by Martin Hannett and sounded like the party I saw on stage; a less exuberant Nick Tauber-produced version would reveal itself later…

Fast forward a few months, and I can be found working in a bar/hotel/restaurant/take-away in the deep south of Ireland. Outside the temperature is nudging the mid-30s Celsius. With a degree of inevitability I am working in the take-away, tending chips and frozen portions of fish, pretending to talk knowledgeably about the British alternative music scene. This basically involved boring anyone who would listen with me rambling on about Manchester bands, BOB and The Trash Can Sinatras. On a day off my hosts took me to Cork, a beautiful city in which lurked a second-hand record shop in which in turn lurked Positively Spooked, an album by The Band of Holy Joy. It didn’t contain that song I’d heard about the moon, but it did contain Evening World Holiday Show. For £4.99, it was worth a punt (or five).

Luckily for me my host family had a record player. Luckily for them, they also had headphones. I listened to Positively Spooked as frequently as my shifts would allow. Over time these songs would begin to take on greater significance. Hot Little Hopes described a scene that would become an all too familiar observation during the next three years of my student life in Newcastle; hopes disappearing “in a puddle in Pink Lane, week in, week out, week in, week out …” Unlike the city centre revellers, but like the narrator in the song, I would be looking for “more than just the obvious … looking for a friend: two minds, one thought, point of no return, this will be the one …” Hot Little Hopes provides many of the reasons I love The Band of Holy Joy in its four minutes and six seconds. None of the layers compete for attention; they all get their turn – witness the pizzicato calypso introduction, the sympathetic occasional acoustic strumming, Bill Lewington’s saxophone lead (the first time I had heard a saxophone and not been instantly put off a song), the way the drums percuss rather than hammer the life and soul out of the song, the yearnful way the strings pick up half way through, lyrics that have no rose-tinted pretentions, how the backing vocals are left to be the main voice as Johny Brown fades out at the end … I could go on.

Newly resident in Newcastle it was only to be expected that amongst my first ports of call would be the record shops. HMV in Northumberland Street provided the chance to purchase some back catalogue although frustratingly this chance would disappear within days of me making my first foray into The Band of Holy Joy’s pre-Rough Trade output. I was however able to pick up another long-player, entitled More Tales From The City. I’d have to wait until a return home to play the record but good things come to those that wait and contained within this collection was another song that showed the band at their best. Fishwives, the penultimate track, is an aptly-titled one-person take on a love-triangle bicker that probably takes place regularly on an estate near you: “I love you … You hate me … Who are you to call me a whore? …You beast … You sow … You bastard cow.” Johny Brown’s narration takes on raconteur proportions as the band build to a crescendo that peaks – for me – with the dramatic flamenco strums of an acoustic guitar at 4 minutes and 25 seconds accompanying instrumental wails and vocal pleadings. Many bands struggle to capture magic moments from live performances in the studio; conversely I have yet to hear a better version of this.

Coinciding with my stay in Newcastle was the collapse of Rough Trade. The two aren’t connected, I hasten to add, but the latter threw a spanner in the works of The Band of Holy Joy. Would we ever see them again? Well, they’re still going strong to this day so I suppose that is a bit of a giveaway. However, when they next appeared it was as Holy Joy, on a different label, and with an unlikely friendship with Top 40 alternative popsters The Primitives. This friendship would involve production by Paul Sampson and backing vocals by Tracy Tracy. Tracksuit Vendetta was the name of the album spawned from these sessions and its title track was another beautifully arranged slice of life on the seedier side of the tracks. Violins waver and quiver whilst the lolloping introduction mirrors the heavy feet of a man on the run. Johny Brown whispers his lyrics to add to the chill; “portending last night I had a dream, a black helicopter shining down its bat beam” he starts, later to add an unsuspecting mother’s retort that “eeh, there’s not a bad bone in his body, you know.” Meanwhile, you know the sweeping string sequence of seven notes providing the instrumental hook in R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts that make the song resonate? Well, The Band of Holy Joy pipped them to it by a few months in this track and found it criminally obscured by the last cries of Madchester, the emergence of grunge and the ubiquity of the Athenean rockers.

Nobody could ever accuse The Band of Holy Joy of being shirkers. There was a ten month gap between their first two Rough Trade albums; there was a two and a bit years gap between the second and Tracksuit Vendetta but much of that time was taken touring the UK, Western Europe, the Eastern Bloc and recording and scrapping an album’s worth of material (later to show up on a 40-copy only self-released CD, I have just learned). The shock of them not being around would be quite stark, especially after a particularly raucous hometown gig at The Riverside in Newcastle. This followed the release of a limited 7″ single on the Rough Trade Singles Club label. Despite a cover photograph portraying a gaggle of sandalled-Euro-tourists more than a band of some repute. It’s Lovebite City saw Holy Joy in fine form, describing staying in as the new going out before anyone else did, with a swirling chorus and chillingly threatening staccato strings. If ever there was a song that showed a band about to implode, this most definitely wasn’t it. But implode they did, and no more would be heard from them for nearly a decade.

The obvious thing to do in such a lull would be to scour the second-hand record shops for more music, but of course I had already been doing this. A track on a Sounds-sponsored EP here, a white label promo of Who Snatched The Baby? there (complete with handwritten instructions that the disc was strictly not for review). And what treasure do we find tucked away in the ‘B’ section of ‘Indie albums’? Why, it’s a ten-inch mini-album, entitled The Big Ship Sails. Purchased in Manchester one rainy December day, it would provide my soundtrack for the next week of rainy December days. One track in particular stands out to this day. I think it is more than just the timing of purchase associated with this Maybe One Day that brings that warm fuzzy glow of Christmas back to the pit of my stomach, but I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what. Perhaps it’s the heavily reverberated brass squeak at the beginning; or the undulating keyboard melody; possibly the little drummer boy drumming; whichever, to this day I can’t listen to the song and not feel the nostalgia of a young childhood Christmas Tree.

On heavy repeat throughout much of this time remained Manic, Magic, Majestic, and by the end of 1993 I had managed to convince myself that I had just emerged out of that whole album condensed into one single emotion-packed year of my life. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but hey, I got a B for Eng Lit GCSE you know. Of the many songs that resonated for a variety of reasons, Nightjars often stood out. For all I have written above about the wide-ranging and multi-instrumental content of the band’s output, here was a track whose minimalistic existence added that extra frisson of underlying eerieness. A childishly twinkly keyboard and Johny Brown’s voice are the only thing you hear for the first minute, before a shimmer of cymbal and vitally smothering hugs of Karel’s violin “that you could feel it would swallow you up” accompany the beautifully sweet melody. And a solemn tale to accompany such haunting orchestration: “we brought you flowers, we brought you sweets, you looked so young wrapped in hospital sheets.”

The Band of Holy Joy’s return in 2002 was as surprising as it was welcome. Their album Love Never Fails in principle seemed to encapsulate everything that I had loved about the band. Something intangible didn’t seem quite right, however. Maybe The Band of Holy Joy were trying too hard to be The Band of Holy Joy. Or maybe, and more likely, I was willing them to transport me to a time and place to which I could never return. However, compared to much of the alternative music I encountered at the turn of the century this was still a cut above. The Death Of Love stood out in particular, with its bittersweet lyrics (from a verse of selling sorry guts and dissecting used hearts to a chorus of loving the way ‘you’ walk, talk and stir the sugar in your coffee) and its near-triumphant musical arrangement which suggests anything other than death.

Fourteen years on and The Band of Holy Joy continue to release music; sometimes from the archives (their bandcamp site contains an unreleased Martin Hannett production of Because it Was Never Resolved that trumps the eventual album version, and digital versions of very early cassettes) and sometimes of newly written stuff accompanied by gushing praise from The Quietus and other reputable sources. And rightly so. They still perform, too; browse YouTube for excellent renditions of old and new material. However, the final track of this Toppermost is again one from the vaults; a quirky track even for a band as odd as The Band of Holy Joy. Zombie appeared on the B-side to Tactless, the band’s first single for Rough Trade (and again a very different version to that on the subsequent album). My old band Echolalia used to come on stage to it. It’s magic and majestic, if not manic, and I love it.




Band of Holy Joy official website

It’s Lovebite City (on YT)

The Band of Holy Joy biography (Apple Music)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

Here are some of John’s recent topperposts: BOB, The Family Cat, James, McCarthy, My Life Story

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