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Roy Harper

Idiosyncratic and quintessential, poet and singer-songwriter ROY HARPER has straddled the fringes of both folk and rock music, never compromising his wayward spirit for commercial gain – well, maybe once or twice.
Born 12th June 1941, Rusholme, Manchester, England, Roy was raised by his father in Blackpool following the death of his mother during childbirth; his stepmother was a Jehovah’s Witness, leading to him becoming an atheist. As a young teenager, Roy played in a skiffle group (De Boys) with his brother David, but at fifteen, after leaving school, he joined the R.A.F. Not finding it to his liking, he feigned madness to escape further service and then underwent ECT treatment at a mental hospital, later being institutionalised in Lancaster Moor; Roy subsequently spent a year in jail at Walton Prison, Liverpool. In 1964/65, after busking around Europe, he moved to London and gained a solo residency at the Les Cousins folk club in Soho, a haunt for the likes of NICK DRAKE and PAUL SIMON.
Things looked promising for folk-blues fan HARPER when he was signed to Peter Richards’ independently-run Strike imprint, and they issued his debut LP, THE SOPHISTICATED BEGGAR (1966) {*9}. Augmented by only a simple reverb machine, the record depicted what it relayed on the proverbial tin, a progressive musical addendum to the work of DONOVAN and BERT JANSCH, and a precursor to the oddball psyche of SYD BARRETT. Reverberated opener `China Girl’ to the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND-like `Goldfish’, the first two tracks, kicked-in nicely. The deeper, bluesy, follow-on title track is somewhat offset by the maniacal false-start(s) of delicious acoustic cue, `My Friend’ – both, quite simply, plucking brilliant. Underestimated by both folk and pop communities, the more discerning musical ear fell in love with the album’s scrambled simplicity and cheeky charm through tracks such as `Big Fat Silver Aeroplane’, `Girlie’, `October 12th’, `Forever’ – and who could deny cult-classic status for `Mr. Station Master’ (was MARK E SMITH taking notes!) and fruit ’n’ nut, post-Syd/Floyd dirge, `Committed’.
Subsequently signed to C.B.S. Records, and with light orchestral touches from producer Shel Talmy, sophomore set COME OUT FIGHTING GHENGIS SMITH (1968) {*5} was found wanting on occasion. Apart from the 11-minute `Circle’ (another of his highly personal folk/blues confessionals), possibly the title track and the ever-so-shorter, `You Don’t Need Money’, this set tended to stifle the listener.
In the summer of ‘68, HARPER reeled off a handful of free concerts at Hyde Park, London, performances that found the busking bard a new underground audience. Sadly, album number three, FOLKJOKEOPUS (1969) {*4}, again veered him off the musical scale; at times unnerving and rambling, it nevertheless produced another epic opus, the 17-minute, `McGoohan’s Blues’ (referring to Patrick McGoohan of weirdo cult TV series The Prisoner).
Through producer Peter Jenner, HARPER signed to E.M.I.’s Harvest label, recording his fourth set, FLAT BAROQUE AND BERSERK (1970) {*7}, at the famous Abbey Road studios in London. A balancing act between lost love (`Another Day’ – his greatest three minutes) and polemic angst (`I Hate The White Man’ – his strongest eight), the album possessed an inner beauty that was sadly overlooked; it also featured `Tom Tiddler’s Ground’ and an uncredited guest spot from prog giants the Nice on finale `Hell’s Angels’. Roy subsequently embarked on a US tour, but after arriving there drunk and jet-lagged he was arrested for abusive behaviour; it was said he would at times sleep on West Coast beaches (at the Big Sur) while fulfilling his touring commitments.
1971 was HARPER’s benchmark year, a year that saw him fulfil his earlier promise via 5th album STORMCOCK {*9}. With only four long-ish tracks (from the Floyd-ish `Hors d’Oeuvres’ to tearjerker `Me And My Woman’), the set combined the unique talents of orchestrator DAVID BEDFORD and the first of many stints from lead guitarist S. Flavius Mercurious (aka JIMMY PAGE) on `The Same Old Rock’; JP was in the process of performing homage to his long-time hombre by way of `Hats Off To (Roy) Harper’ (the finale on Led Zeppelin III).
The following year, HARPER briefly ventured into film acting via the low-budget British kitchen-sink drama, Made, starring alongside Carol White as an insecure rock star (never!). A good deal of the soundtrack music from the movie found its way on to his next album project, LIFEMASK (1973) {*7}, a record which was written as his last will and testament following a near-fatal congenital blood disorder. Retaining his themes of racial injustice, the song `South Africa’ (and `All Ireland’) was of particular interest, while PAGE provided axe-appeal for `Bank Of The Dead’. Close on 23 minutes, Roy was in magnum-opus mood (as per usual) for the album’s piece de resistance, `The Lord’s Prayer’.
On the 14th of February ‘74, HARPER released the appropriately-titled love album VALENTINE {*7}, a record apparently penned during the previous three years but which ultimately gave him his first entry into the UK Top 30; it was premiered in concert on Valentine’s Day at London’s Rainbow Theatre, with backing from PAGE, BEDFORD, KEITH MOON and John Bonham. An acoustic-folk dream (bar the noisy `Male Chauvinist Pig Blues’), the set saw Roy in sombre mood on `Twelve Hours Of Sunset’, `I’ll See You Again’, `Commune’ and a revisited `Forever’; there was also space for traditional piece `North Country’.
The bulk of these compositions effectively appeared on his first live album, the double FLASHES FROM THE ARCHIVES OF OBLIVION (1974) {*7}, the flashes (as depicted on his nearly-nude cover!) from a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in ’73. Of particular interest to Roy’s increasing fanbase was the 15-minute take of `Highway Blues’ (another classic from Lifemask), and two naughty fresh cuts, `Kangaroo Blues’ and `M.C.P. Blues’.
Later that year, HARPER formed the band Trigger (with former YES and KING CRIMSON drummer BILL BRUFORD, guitarist CHRIS SPEDDING and bassist Dave Cochran) to support PINK FLOYD at Knebworth; this in turn led to a prestigious guest lead-vocal appearance for Waters & Co on `Have A Cigar’, on the album `Wish You Were Here’; Floyd guitarist DAVID GILMOUR and Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones had already guested on HARPER’s UK Top 40 follow-up album, HQ (1975) {*7}.
From the hard-edged rock of multi-part opener `The Game’, to the reverence and refinement of `When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ (its Stateside LP moniker), HARPER’s critique of English culture and beliefs was all too apparent; example `Hallucinating Light’ and `The Spirit Lives’.
With much the same uncompromising spirit and theme, BULLINAMINGVASE (1977) {*7} went one better by reaching the UK Top 30, helped along no doubt by the presence of PAUL & Linda McCARTNEY on opening salvo, `One Of Those Days In England’ (the re-titled LP title in the US). But this was only one part of story, the other nine (parts 2-10) covered the whole of side two, a masterstroke for HARPER, with celebrated lyrics such as “rolling spliffs for Captain Kirk”. Of the middle four songs, `Watford Gap’, a certain brand of service stations/chains around the motorways litigated RH and the controversial track was replaced.
Not particularly enamoured of the encroaching Brit-punk and new wave scenes, HARPER took stock, nearly joined JIMMY PAGE in Zeppelin and resided in the States with his family.
With a new decade in place, Roy finally released his tenth album, THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (1980) {*5}, notable for its duet with KATE BUSH on the track `You’ (he returned the compliment by guesting on her hit, `Breathing’) and GILMOUR’s guitar work on the 6-minute `Short And Sweet’. Many of the tracks (such as `I’m In Love With You’, `The Flycatcher’ and `Ten Years Ago’) were to have appeared on the Harvest-shelved/Black Sheep set COMMERCIAL BREAKS from the tail of ’77, which ultimately saw light in 1994 {*6}.
In 1982 with Mark Thompson, HARPER set up his own Public Records; the label’s inaugural delivery was his much-maligned and unfairly derided LP, WORK OF HEART (1982) {*6}. From the unfolding `Drawn To The Flames’ to another of HARPER’s characteristic but exhaustive side-long epics, `Work Of Heart’ overindulges in all the right places. Whether the album needed recycling as BORN IN CAPTIVITY (1984) {*5} was one for the fans to decide; it was said they preferred the rough demo tapings of some of the cuts, while both versions of `No One Ever Gets Out Alive’ (from the `Work Of Heart’ suite) are equally dramatic.
Never one to shirk the odd collaboration, HARPER teamed up with long-time associate and friend JIMMY PAGE, whose career was in decline after the break-up of the iconic LED ZEPPELIN. A much-needed return to the charts for both parties, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO JUGULA (1985) {*6} – working title “Rizla” as depicted on the artwork sleeve – also saw the pair appear at the Cambridge Folk Festival and on the Old Grey Whistle Test. Although Roy was no substitute for the legend that was ROBERT PLANT, HARPER proved a worthy adversary for PAGE on tracks such as `Elizabeth’, `Hangman’, `Frozen Moment’ and `Nighteen Forty-Eight-ish’.
Subsequently returning to EMI Records, HARPER released his second concert set, IN BETWEEN EVERY LINE (1986) {*5}, a patchy, poorly recorded effort that left fans (who’d witnessed the man live!) a bit short-changed; but anything with `One Of Those Days In England’ has to be quite good.
Time for a studio album then? Well, not quite, as …DESCENDANT OF SMITH (1988) {*5} was a mediocre collection of tracks that was understandably not to everyone’s taste.
With the bleak 80s out of the way, HARPER founded his own Awareness imprint, releasing a comeback of sorts ONCE (1990) {*7}. Courting post-Wall controversy and the fall of communism on `The Black Cloud Of Islam’ and `Winds Of Change’ (not forgetting `Berliners’ with GILMOUR on guitar), the album was HARPER’s angst at full-tilt, a modern-day folk pioneer never flinching from any newsworthy subject. Roy continued to take an active part in the music scene, 1992’s DEATH OR GLORY? {*5} being his last effort for some time; check it out for `Miles Remain’, `Waiting For Godot’ and `Cardboard City’.
Roy’s son NICK HARPER (who’d appeared on his dad’s works of art since ’85) proved he was a chip off the old block when he contributed some fine acoustic guitar to the opening track (`Songs Of Love’) on comeback album THE DREAM SOCIETY {*6}. A personal reflection of his life up to now, other guests included iconic JETHRO TULL leader Ian Anderson, who obliged with his trademark flute on the ambitious `These Fifty Years’.
THE GREEN MAN (2000) {*7}, on the other hand, was a back-to-basics acoustic set recorded in Ireland by HARPER alone with lyrics which were as reliably oblique as ever. However, this is no criticism, rather a slight wondering where he’d been musically since the days of Flat Baroque and Stormcock. Long-suffering but loyal fans faithful to HARPER’s cause and concerns were duly rewarded with the folk simplicity of `The Monster’ (8 minutes accompanied by Johnny Fitz on Fender Rhodes), `Sexy Woman’ (with Jeff Martin’s delightful mandolin) and others such as `Solar Wind Sculptures’, `Rushing Camelot’ and the opening title track.
HARPER has since semi-retired, the only full-length effort since being double concert set ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL LIVE (2001) {*6}, a 60th birthday bash featuring son Nick, DAVID BEDFORD and PENTANGLE plucker JOHN RENBOURN, running the gamut of his career.
In 2005, Roy released a CD single, `The Death Of God’, a 13-minute stab at the second invasion of Iraq, the B-side live salvo featuring guest Matt Churchill on guitar. A patron and supporter of newcomer, JOANNA NEWSOM (a mighty fan of Stormcock, the inspiration behind her `Ys’ album), HARPER was a welcome guest at her Royal Albert Hall gig – a comeback for RH is long overdue.
Currently living in Clonakilty in Cork, Ireland, Roy eased his patient “Harpics” fanclub into his comeback by releasing yet another CD/DVD-package, RECORDED LIVE IN CONCERT AT METROPOLIS STUDIOS, LONDON (2012) {*6}; note that a more-dominated DVD/CD delivery, BEYOND THE DOOR (2005) {*6}, was almost lost to an unsuspecting public.
Then, out of the blue, ROBIN GUTHRIE’s Bella Union stepped up with Roy’s 21st set, MAN & MYTH (2013) {*8}. Thirteen years on from “Green Man”, virtually every review extolled the virtues of the timeless singer-songwriter, ensuring he’d have his first Top 50 appearance since 1977’s “Bullinamingvase”. Solemn and melancholy, the treasured lyrical strummer almost brought out some sunlight via the likes of `The Enemy’, `January Man’, `The Stranger’ and the 15-minute `Heaven Is Here’.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Oct2013

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