Pink Floyd-collaborating, acoustic warrior. By Phil Alexander.
Rusholme, Manchester, UK
- KEY COLLABORATORS:
Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page, Pink Floyd, Ronnie Lane, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Kate Bush, Ian Anderson, Pete Townshend, David Gilmour, Bill Bruford, Chris Spedding, Dave Cochran
- YEARS ACTIVE:
The man who famously lent his voice to Pink Floyd’s Have A Cigar and inspired Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off (To Roy Harper) has carved out one of the most singular careers in modern music, influencing the likes of Ian Anderson, Kate Bush, Johnny Marr, Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom along the way.
His ambition to fuse folk, blues, jazz, classical music and the poetry of the Beats into his own unique musical style has led to a complex body of work which spans over 20 studio albums and in excess of 10 live albums. Harper’s mellifluous guitar style was initially influenced by his travels across North Africa, Europe and Scandinavia, and came into its own during his time as the compere at legendary ’60s Soho folk club, Les Cousins. An unflinching lyricist, he has no fear of tackling the big issues, be they global or deeply personal.
TOP TEN ALBUMS
10. Songs Of Love And Loss Vols 1 & 2
SALVO | 2011 There have been a number of Harper compilations down the years but this two CD set is the most recent, released to kick-start the man’s 70th birthday celebrations. As with everything that Harper does, there is a conceptual thread to this collection, focusing on his love songs (Francesca, Another Day and Frozen Moment) and reflective moments (Waiting For Godot, I’ll See You Again, South Africa). Both discs were sequenced by Roy to work as self-contained albums and provide a satisfying update on 2005’s Counter Culture anthology which is equally recommended for those looking for an entrée into the man’s work.
9. Whatever Happened To Jugula? (with Jimmy Page)
BEGGARS BANQUET | 1985 Having escaped from EMI and experienced business difficulties that saw his Hereford farm repossessed, Harper teamed up with Jimmy Page on this full studio album. A dense, progressive affair, the album begins with the brooding, grandiose Nineteen Forty Eightish (1948 being the publication date and original title of George Orwell’s 1984) before moving on to Bad Speech, an inflammatory piece of Harper poetry. Hangman, Frozen and Hope (co-written by David Gilmour) are fine moments on an album where the production is of its time and where the closing stoned tomfoolery/gross-out of Advertisement proves that a good time was had by all.
8. Death Or Glory?
AWARENESS | 1992 On his 17th album Harper returned to his acoustic musical base and travelled to the depths of despair, his failed 10 year marriage informing brutally honest tracks like One More Tomorrow (sample lyric: “Without you, my heart will break”), while the closing If I Can features the man sobbing for 24 seconds. Conversely, moments of defiance include The War Came Home Tonight (a critique of the Gulf War) and The Tallest Tree (dedicated to environmentalist Chico Mendes), while Evening Star was written for Robert Plant’s daughter Carmen and performed at her wedding to Charlie Jones on May 18, 1991.
HARVEST | 1975 Recorded in tandem with Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here at Abbey Road, HQ features David Gilmour guesting alongside Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on The Game. The rest of the album features Trigger, Harper’s backing band that consisted of ex-Yes/King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, future Pistols producer/Sharks guitarist Chris Spedding and bassist Dave Cochran. However, the star turn on what is his most accessible album are the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, who add an emotional undertow to one of Roy’s most poignant songs, When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, a tune that manages to intertwine the concepts of Englishness and mortality to remarkable effect.
LIBERTY | 1969 Teaming up with Shel Talmy on his second album, Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith, Harper continued his relationship with The Who’s producer on this follow-up. The opening brace of Sgt Sunshine and She’s The One rock far more openly than previous material, while One For All (written about his friend and saxophone iconoclast Albert Ayler) is a beauteous eight minute-plus guitar-driven piece. The album’s crowning glory is the gargantuan, evocative McGoohan’s Blues – all 17 minutes and 55 seconds of it – that tackles the evils of the world via lyrics that reference Harper’s young son Nick and Patrick McGoohan’s predicament in The Prisoner.
HARVEST | 1974 If Stormcock is a deep and saturnine affair, Valentine is its more gregarious counterpoint featuring tracks that are more accessible, evidenced by a reworking of the traditional North Country (aka North Country Girl). Harper’s scabrous edge is evident on Male Chauvinist Pig Blues, while his epic musical sensibilities shine on Twelve Hours Of Sunset, enhanced by Dave Bedford’s classical arrangements. To promote Valentine, Harper played the Rainbow Theatre on February 14 with an all-star band featuring Jimmy Page, Ronnie Lane, Keith Moon, and Max Middleton from the Jeff Beck Group, some of their performance being included on the equally fine Flashes From The Archives Of Oblivion.
4. Man And Myth
BELLA UNION | 2013 After years of uncertainty and declaring himself “retired”, Harper returned with his first album for 13 years and delivered a career highlight. Once again, he tackled the personal (Time Is Temporary is a rumination on ageing) and the political (Cloud Cuckooland, with Pete Townshend on guitar). Despite being hailed as a remarkable comeback, the album’s momentum stalled when Harper was charged with historic sexual abuse in November 2013. Maintaining his innocence throughout, he was unanimously cleared of all charges in 2015 and vowed to “restart my working life.”
HARVEST | 1973 Such was Harper’s stock that by 1972 he was asked to appear in Made, a film being directed by John MacKenzie (later credits: The Long Good Friday, The Fourth Protocol). Roy contributed some of the music to the film – including “failed single” Bank Of The Dead (featuring Jimmy Page). But he had also been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening lung condition, and mortality informs the title of this album, and The Lord’s Prayer, the single track that occupies Side Two, where Harper – thinking time is short - attempts to tackle the ills of 150,000 years of civilization in 22 minutes and 55 seconds.
2. Flat, Baroque And Berserk
HARVEST | 1970 By 1969 Harper’s reputation was considerable. According to the man himself pop stardom was “a distinct possibility.” Signing to EMI’s progressive subsidiary, Harvest, he recorded at Abbey Road for the first time, resulting in his first Top 20 album. Appearing on the sleeve in repose (presumed stoned), Roy delivered 12 tracks that confirmed his unique position between the folk and underground scenes. Key cuts included Don’t You Grieve, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, Another Day (later covered by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, and This Mortal Coil), and the searing attack on imperialism, I Hate The White Man. The latter put paid to that potential pop career.
HARVEST | 1971 The roots of Harper’s finest album lie in his pilgrimage to Big Sur, California, where he wrote One Man Rock’n’Roll Band, his critique of the pointlessness of violence. Hors D’Oeuvres, the album’s opener – an eight minute slow-burner with multi-layered vocals – was inspired by the brutal fate of Caryl Chessman, on death row for 10 years before being sent to the gas chamber in May 1960. Same Old Rock, the album’s centrepiece, boasts several movements, its lyrics attacking organised religion against near-hymnal backing and with a towering guitar solo by Jimmy Page. The album closes with a love song, Me And My Woman, augmented by David Bedford’s magisterial arrangements. No record has sounded like Stormcock before or since. A masterpiece.
Harper’s 2013 studio album, Man & Myth, was produced by Californian musician Jonathan Wilson (himself an avowed Harper devotee). A critical and creative success, the album’s impact was brought to a sudden juddering halt when Harper was dragged into a lengthy court case, facing charges of which he was subsequently acquitted (see entry on the album).
“My myth happens to bigger than most.”
ROY HARPER, MOJO, 2013
Having turned 75 on June 12, 2016, the ever-defiant Harper will now return to the stage for four exclusive birthday shows – Birmingham Symphony Hall (September 7), Manchester Bridgewater Hall (9), London Royal Festival Hall (12) and Usher Hall in Edinburgh (17). In addition to playing live, Harper is set to reissue three core albums – Flat Baroque And Bezerk, Stormcock and Lifemask – on vinyl on his own long-running Science Friction label in September.
Visit www.royharper.com for more information.