Roy Harper

TrackAlbum
One Of Those Days In EnglandBullinamingvase
I Hate The White ManLive At Les Cousins 1969
The Same Old RockStormcock
When An Old Cricketer Leaves The CreaseHQ
LegendSophisticated Beggar
Cloud CuckoolandMan And Myth
StanBorn In Captivity
Jack Of HeartsWork Of Heart
The Lords PrayerLifemask
Composer Of LifeFolkjokeopus

Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

For the uninitiated, Roy Harper was born in Rusholme, Manchester in 1941 and has performed since his teens and recorded pretty consistently since 1966. I first saw him perform in a small venue near Piccadilly Circus in 1977 or 1978 when he was touring with Andy Roberts. He has also toured with a full rock band. Roy sat on stage and sang his songs interspersed with his customary stories laced with laconic humour and he had the audience spellbound for the entire evening. When he stood to leave the stage, across the back of his shirt was printed ‘Dr Doom the Optimist’ – quite wonderful. An apocryphal story is told that Roy was invited to write a song for the Eurovision Song Contest in this period (how did he get on their radar?). His response was allegedly ‘do you want it 15 or 20 minutes’.

My experience has told me that Roy Harper splits opinion; essentially there are the ‘love him/hate him’ brigades, then there are the debates over individual albums and songs.

The challenge is to distil 28 albums and 320 songs, which represent over 33 hours of music, into a selection of just 10 songs. Do I go for a representative sample or am I informed by the compilation that I made for the car – itself restricted by the 80 minute capacity of a CD. Or do I simply take the four tracks from Stormcock (1971) and let you choose any six from the seven from HQ (1975) and leave it at that, job done.

I guess I need to be more helpful so let’s start with the album Bullinamingvase (1977) and the track that opens side 1 and then fills the whole of side 2 of the original vinyl LP: One Of Those Days In England (parts 1 to 10). Running at 22 minutes 52 seconds this is England in microcosm, a series of vignettes linked by a running theme that returns to the hopeful sounding start of the beginning as it reaches its final section but with starkly different words. The Americans know this album by the name of the central piece and it contains a very unflattering eulogy to UK motorway service stations – Watford Gap – which caused the Blue Boar company to demand its removal but not before I had bought my copy of the LP and it had appeared as the B side of the One Of Those Days In England single.

Where to go from here? Live At Les Cousins recorded on 30th August 1969 and a 10 year old boy recovering from appendicitis in Wembley had no idea who Roy Harper was. Seven years later he first heard I Hate The White Man performed and was struck by the sense of injustice coming out of the song. Roy Harper has always railed against issues that strike him as unjust. Christianity gets the brunt of a lot and in 1990, on the album Once, Islam felt the full force of Harper indignation.

I have Stormcock on vinyl and it always split the opinions of friends and former girlfriends whenever I played it. If I was allowed by our esteemed webmaster, I would make all four tracks one seamless piece of music and then have the whole album but I need one representative track … so which one? Side 1 track 2. The Same Old Rock. I come back to this again and again. The skilled lyrical word patterns of Roy’s vocal, the acoustic guitars sparring, everything about this track tells me to choose it.

My other favourite album is 1975’s HQ. It was released in the USA under the title When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease and so I will take this track. I would point a new listener to The Game (parts 1 to 5) which opens the LP with its blistering guitar provided by Chris Spedding (allegedly in one take!). Oddly, as a Lancastrian, Roy Harper seems to have a love for Yorkshire cricket with references to Geoffrey Boycott, and also John Snow. Pass me a pint of English Ale and a cricket match, and then leave me alone with this song.

Released in 1966, I admit that I am too young to know Roy Harper’s first album, except in retrospect. Sophisticated Beggar contained pointers and portents for the future. Legend is a great song in its own right but the tune was used again for the song Referendum (Legend) on the album HQ. The title track is also a fine song with such a clever lyric.

Roy’s new collection, Man And Myth, was released the week that I compiled this selection and on first listening, it is a triumph. The voice is older, has mellowed, is less violent in many ways, is very accessible to a new ear. Roy loses none of his vitriol in the lyric of Cloud Cuckooland, his critical commentary of the world in its current state.

I keep returning to the 1984 album Born In Captivity and in particular to the opening track Stan and whilst I know nothing of who Stan is or was or why he has had a song written for him, I just really like the song, no more, no less. It also seems to chime with the new song. These two go well with Jack Of Hearts from Work Of Heart recorded at home by Roy Harper for release in 1982. Born In Captivity and Work Of Heart are now collected together on one CD – and good value it is too for the price of a single album.

Lasting fully 22 minutes 55 seconds, my 9th selection is The Lords Prayer: Poem/Modal Song Parts I to IV/Front Song/Middle Song/End Song. This is not easy listening for the uninitiated but good luck if you want to try. Roy Harper has been a lifelong religious sceptic; his stepmother who raised him was a Jehovah’s Witness. It is a theme that he returns to time and again – as noted above.

As an antidote to the foregoing, I’m going to end with a throwaway song (if there can be such a thing from Roy Harper) from Folkjokeopus, a small song to go with the longer ones, Composer Of Life, enjoy!

The official Roy Harper website

Roy Harper biography (iTunes)

Recently, a handful of great early clips of Roy have come to light (like the one above), go to youtube and search for Roy Harper Live Studio Performance 1969/1970 – fantastic rare studio footage of the great man circa Flat Baroque and Berserk.

TopperPost #79

5 Comments

  1. Merric Davidson
    Sep 26, 2013

    The most dog-eared LP in my collection is Roy Harper’s second which goes by the glorious title, Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith. It’s battered and scratched to hell and I love it. Every track on side one, and the epics on the back. The title track is genius. The second track on side 1, “You Don’t Need Money”, was also on the 1968 CBS sampler oft-quoted in these topperpages, The Rock Machine Turns You On, strangely renamed as “Nobody’s Got Any Money In The Summer”. I can’t pick out any one track on Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith as being “better” than the others. It’s an album!

    I’ve stayed with Roy ever since, saw him many times in the 60s/70s, every one a happening and look forward to seeing him again in London next month along with the producer of Man and Myth, the brilliant Jonathan Wilson, and I commend Ian’s post which covers the waterfront while doing an impossible job at the same time.

    “I hope you listen to Roy’s music and songs with an open heart ready for experience.” wrote Bert Jansch in his sleevenotes to Ghengis Smith. Can’t say fairer than that.

  2. Merric Davidson
    Sep 26, 2013

    Oh and … McGoohan’s Blues (Folkjokeopus), Don’t You Grieve (Flat Baroque), Me And My Woman (Stormcock) – need and gotta have those three too…

  3. Ian Dufeu
    Sep 27, 2013

    I really enjoyed this post, nice selection of tunes & it’s great to read other people’s ideas about Roy.

    I was a bit wary of an album entitled ‘Man & Myth’; but looking at youtube footage from the earliest soundless 1968 Pathe News through to the present Roy is an almost mythical figure to me.

    I knew nothing about the man, Mr. Harper, until a friend dragged me (reluctantly) to a gig at Huddersfield Polytechnic in late 1985. At the time I was more interested in post-punk and football matches, but that evening Roy was indeed spellbinding. The audience was very different to my limited experience of such things; many sat on the floor cross-legged, many were noisy but good humoured & some passed Roy large cigarettes. Roy finished the gig with a rendition of Watford Gap & wearing a mohican wig. I have been mesmerised by his records and concerts ever since. At least I think that’s what happened, looking online I can’t find any mention of that concert; my own bit of Harper mythology.

    As a bit of a contrast there is a great Harper story here

  4. Peter Viney
    Oct 5, 2013

    From the latest Uncut (November 2013).

    “First time I heard him, I thought this is my dude. He’s turned out to be one of my best buddies. He wrote the lyrics to “New Mexico” on this new album, Fanfare, and another on the vinyl edition, “Gypsy.” He’s at the top of my power trio, which is him, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. His poetry is staggering: he has that acerbic, acid tongue I always loved about Lennon. And there’s something very interesting about the arc of his career. The lack of gross over-exposure has kept the art potent.”

    Jonathan Wilson (co-producer Roy Harper’s Man and Myth).

  5. Merric Davidson
    Oct 23, 2013

    Just got back from Roy’s concert at Royal Festival Hall. What a great night! With the assistance of Jonathan Wilson on guitar, banjo, percussion, and a string ensemble, Roy, in fine voice, gave us five songs from the new one, Man & Myth – Time is Temporary, January Man, The Stranger, Heaven Is Here, The Enemy – which was particularly stunning, “The lads go out drinking, while the girls try to keep an eye…” And from the canon we had, Highway Blues, Another Day, Hallucinating Light, Twelve Hours Of Sunset and I’ll See You Again (both from “Valentine”), before the great man finished with his great song from “Stormcock”, Me and My Woman. What a treat. Beautiful rendition, everything coming together on stage. Standing ovation. Encore. What else but … When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease. Hushed audience. Emotions running high as Roy left the stage hoping he’d be back again. I’m sure he will, he’s just a spring chicken!

    Earlier, Jonathan Wilson gave an acoustic set with four songs from Gentle Spirit. He must be commended for all his work on Man & Myth, Roy’s best album for a couple of decades. Brilliant.

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