Of course the first time I encountered Roy Harper was as a title for my least favorite song on Led Zeppelin III.
I met my friend Chris in 7th grade. He had a Norelco Carry Corder. The first portable cassette machine. On it he had "Abbey Road", and he let me listen to the "big melody" from side 2.
We've been friends ever since, although last time I saw him in person was 1985.
He started reading Melody Maker and NME. He bought more records than anyone I knew. He had about 30,000 last time I was over.
I spent a lot of time at his house getting educated. Zappa, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Fairport Convention, John Martyn, and Captain Beefheart, to name a few.
He was big into the underground folk scene and that's when I first heard Roy Harper.
"HQ" had just come out, and from the first notes of "The Game" I was hooked.
The band on that record includes John Paul Jones, Bill Bruford, David Gilmour, and Chris Spedding. A supergroup in 1975 at the top of their game behind someone no one's heard of. Except other musicians, apparently.
Roy is an exceptionally gifted musician and songwriter.
He can really play guitar. One reason why Jimmy Page has appeared on five Roy Harper albums.
Their styles meld beautifully.
I didn't keep up with Roy after 1977's "Bullinamingvase".
Punk intervened. In 1978 I was all about "Public Image".
Like an idiot I sold almost all my records in 1991 and started collecting cd's.
In replacing parts of my former collection, and revisiting my roots, I started looking for the things Chris had originally exposed me to.
It would be an indicator of the depth of their catalog. Next stop, "H" for Roy Harper. It took me years to finally find a cd copy of "HQ". I'd unsuccessfully ordered it at NYCD.
I finally found one at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square.
I have "The Dream Society" (1998), and "Man & Myth" (2013), and both find Roy in good form, but a 20 year gap between songs didn't work for me.
"Harper is a terrific songwriter," said one-time manager Peter Jenner, ''But a bit crazy, like all the best people. The great problem for him was seeing all these people who'd nicked his licks doing so much better than he did. People like Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and, to some extent, Roger Waters."
Roy Harper was born on 12 June a long time ago in Rusholme, Manchester. His step-mother, a devout Jehovah's Witness, instilled in him a little more than hatred of religion. When not battling with his parents, or fighting at school, he listened to a lot of blues. "Remember, this was a world that was still ethnically separated. I was thirteen and ignorant of the social situation in America, but I felt these records were better than what my own culture was turning out."
At 14, he formed a group, De Boys, with his brothers David and Harry. At 15, home life became too much and he left, lying about his age to join the RAF, where he performed skiffle at camp concerts and ultimately suffered a self-induced nervous breakdown that let to committal in Lancaster Moor Mental Institute.
After a beating (for dressing without permission) Harper escaped in his pyjamas through a bathroom window. Some weeks later, in London he was arrested and jailed for trying to climb the clock tower at St. Pancras Station and sundry other misadventures.
During 1964, after getting out of prison, he busked in North Africa, Europe and London for a year, then graduated to the folk clubs. ''I spent most of my time being thrown out of folk clubs for not being Nana Mouskouri."
In 1966 a small indie label gave him the chance to record 'The Sophisticated Beggar' (Strike), which included 'Committed', a song celebrating his mental condition. The album attracted not only favourable reviews but also the attention of the larger Columbia Records, for whom he quickly recorded 'Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith' (Columbia) in 1967. "Some of my songs start out nice and suburban," he said concisely summing up its mood, "and suddenly swing violently across to anarchy".
When the more considered 'Folkjokeopus' (Liberty) appeared in 1969, he was already gaining a reputation as an artist who refused to compromise. "When I go to the States", he speculated, "I'm gonna sit in front of the audience and sing 'I Hate the White Man' knowing that probably someone in the audience will get up and aim a gun at my head but, unless you can put your blood on the streets, you're not worth what you're saying".
With Harper's reputation growing, Pink Floyd's manager Peter Jenner signed him to a long-term deal with EMI's 'underground' subsidiary, Harvest. 'Flat Baroque and Berserk' (Harvest), from 1970, featured contributions from The Nice, and included the aforementioned 'I Hate the White Man', now a Harper classic, plus 'Another Day', covered many years later by This Mortal Coil, Kate Bush & Peter Gabriel.
1970 also saw the tribute 'Hats off to Harper' on the album Led Zeppelin III, written by life-long friend Jimmy Page.
1971 brought 'Stormcock' (Harvest), a more mature work given added distinction by sympathetic, evocative string arrangements from David Bedford. Harper also found the time to write the script and music for the socio-realistic film 'Made', in which he starred opposite Carol White. "They wanted somebody who had something more than just a pop singer. There was an incredible list of guys auditioned, starting with Marc Bolan, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White... it's a very strange project," he revealed.
"I became very ill in late '71 and it put paid to my momentum. By the time I
got better and got my wind back, it was 1975." The problem was a rare congenital circulatory disorder (multiple pulmonary arterio-venus fistuli, veins and arteries joined in the lungs). "I can't sing more than half a song without getting terrible pains," he explained to one interviewer. Ever since he's been running one and half mile a day, it hasn't bothered him much though!
In a subsequent interview he recalled that "I was given seven years to live when I was 31, and then the doctor came back to my bedside a fortnight later and said 'I think I'm wrong'. It's been that sort of situation ever since."
The association with Harvest continued through 'Lifemask' (1973) and 'Valentine' (1974) and on February 14 (Valentine's Day) 1974, Harper played the now legendary gig at London's Rainbow, backed by Jimmy Page, Keith Moon and Ronnie Lane. Soon after, he formed the band Trigger, and supported Pink Floyd at the 1975 Knebworth Festival.
In the same year Harper's vocals were heard on Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' album, singing 'Have a Cigar'. Roger Waters explained, ''A lot of people think I can't sing. I find it hard to pitch... and Roy Harper was recording his own album in another EMI studio at the time, and he's a mate, and we thought he could probably do a job on it.'' He did.
1974 was rounded out with 'Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion' (Harvest), the definitive Harper live double set, including material from the Rainbow gig, the infamous naughty cover and musical contributions from Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
The 1975 album 'HQ' (Harvest) featured Trigger, with Harper again aided and abetted by Bedford's orchestral arrangements, plus the Grimethorpe Colliery Band on 'When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease'. ''I found it necessary in the last couple of years to boost the Englishness that's around... re-iterate my own Anglo-Saxonness. Old Cricketer is one of the fruits of that.'' With things once more looking good for him, Harper collapsed on stage during the 'HQ' tour, due to a combination of excesses. Fortunately, an excellent compilation, 'Harper 1970-1975' (Harvest), kept his name in front of the public whilst he was out of action and introduced him to many new fans.
In 1976 Harper bought a farm in Hereford and, the following year, was back at full operating efficiency with 'Bullinamingvase' (Harvest). This classic included vocal contributions from Paul and Linda McCartney on 'One of those Days in England', the nearest Harper ever came to a hit single. ''That was a very good period for me. Then I made another record, as a quick follow-up, which the record company and I began to argue about. The argument went on for three years, so I lost my momentum again.''
That album, 'Commercial Breaks', was never released although much of it did turn up later on the compilation 'Loony On The Bus' (Awareness). This was also the era when Harper found himself the victim of unfortunate business deals and "ended up owing my house to the bank. Barclays bank, Hayes, Middlesex, to be exact." He was obliged to sell the farm.
- Science Friction Records.
Besides Roy on vocals and guitar, "Male Chauvinist Pig Blues" features Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, and Ronnie Lane. With the addition of Ian Anderson on flute, the same personnel play on "Home".
Paul, Linda, Wings, and Ronnie Lane contribute to "One Of Those Days In England", and "Watford Gap".
"The owners of Watford Gap service station objected to criticism of their food – "Watford Gap, Watford Gap/A plate of grease and a load of crap..." – in the lyrics of the song "Watford Gap", as did an EMI board member who was also a non-executive director of Blue Boar (the owners of the service station). Harper was forced to drop it from future UK copies of the album, though it remained on the US LP and reappeared on a later CD reissues.
Roy claimed the food was "junk, absolute junk. I tried to get the media commentators of the day interested, but none of them would help me because they were all kind of bought off in some way, they were in the pockets of the corporations."
Under duress he replaced it with "Breakfast With You", a song he allegedly described as "pap".
"The Game", "Grownups Are Just Silly Childrem" and "The Spirit Lives" are from "HQ", and feature the aforementioned supergroup.
I can't tell you how many hours I've spent playing the riff to "One Man Rock N Roll Band", or how many songs, "Page-like", I turned it into one of my own.
Roy's music can be experimental, challenging, and not always fun, but it's never superficial.
Here are 12 of my favorites.
Represented here are:
Flat Baroque And Beserk (1970)
Flashes From The Archives Of Oblivion (1974)
HQ (UK) When An Old Cricketeer Leaves The Crease (US) 1975
Hats Off To Roy
Hats Off To Roy, Too