Jimmy Page, Roy Harper, Robert Plant, Ronnie Lane. Roy Harper photos ©Collin Curwood

By Alan Bisbort

In the best of all possible worlds, a man who has made music with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Paul and Linda McCartney, Ian Anderson, Keith Moon, Ronnie Lane, Chris Spedding, Alvin Lee and Kate Bush would need no introduction. But, of course, we inhabit a world where, in the words of Roy Harper, "lemmings push their pens and rush in hordes of crashing stupor."

For the past three decades, Roy Harper has possessed, and been possessed by, one of the most distinctive visions in contemporary music. Though he is desperately overdue for a dust-off on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Harper is a legend in his native England, a sort of Bob Dylan meets John Lennon, by way of George Orwell. He's also a spiritual godfather to a generation of British soul-bearers like Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding and Joe Strummer. Led Zeppelin, in fact, thought so much of him that they recorded a tribute to him on their third album, entitled "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper."

Using that 30-year-old hook and a sophisticated repackaging as the bait, Capitol Records, through its subsidiary The Right Stuff, has just released Hats Off, a new compilation of Harper's work culled from over 30 years of music making. While one would hope this 14-cut album will jumpstart some sort of Harper revival in America, a similar attempt has been made in the past (the 1974 collection Flashes From The Archives Of Oblivion), with only limited success.

For whatever reason—perhaps his sheer Britishness—Harper has not translated particularly well over here. Who knows, even were such a revival to occur, the contrarian in this remarkable artist might just provoke him to run screaming in the opposite direction. As it stands now, between gigs and infrequent press inquiries, he has retreated to his farm outside Cork, in southern Ireland.

His personal eccentricities notwithstanding, the invigorating thing about listening to Harper's Hats Off after a long passage of time is not just how well his songs hold up—to old fans, this reviewer included, it only confirms our precocious, impeccable tastes—but how un-difficult they would be for a new young audience, weaned on U2, R.E.M., The Pogues, Mark Eitzel or even Ani DiFranco, to appreciate. In an age of navel-gazing, feel-my-pain songwriters, Harper's un-ironic earnestness and prophetic anger sound downright refreshing, and the sweeping arrangements hark back to a time when albums were meant to be more than just a collection of unconnected songs. For older audiences who missed Harper the first time around, Jimmy Page's stellar lead guitar work on four of the songs would seem reason enough to pick up Hats Off.

The collection has one other happy reminder, especially to those of us with roots in the late 1960s: Harper has never compromised his principles. He brings the sort of passion to each of his songs that makes a listener feel the performance could easily have been his last.

And indeed, it very well could have been. In 1971, Harper was diagnosed with a rare circulatory disorder called multiple pulmonary arterio-venus istuli, which fuses the veins and arteries in the lungs. As he told one interviewer, "I can't sing more than half a song without getting terrible pains.... I was given seven years to live when I was 31." But, like Bob Dylan, Harper turned 60 this year and is alive, well, righteously angry and, if his last two self-produced albums, The Dream Society (1998) and The Green Man (2000), are any indications, singing as well as he has any time during his extraordinary career.

Photograph by Collin Curwood
The odd mix of songs on Hats Off do a pretty good job of showcasing the various faces of Harper. The folkie romantic can be found in simple songs of wistful beauty such as "Commune," "Another Day" and "One of Those Days in England." The angry philosopher makes a call in "Death or Glory?," "1948ish," "Don't You Grieve" and "These Fifty Years." The ethereal poet shines in the luminous compositions "Me and My Woman," "Same Old Rock" and "The Game." The hard rocker emerges in "Male Chauvinist Pig Blues," "Highway Blues" and "Ten Years Ago."

The accompanying 28-page booklet, with lyrics and liner notes by Harper, is an indispensable addition to his longtime fans' collections. It contains such vintage Harper observations as this one, describing the straightforward, but beautifully plucked, acoustic number "Commune": "I used to believe that communal was possible, and I still think that it is, but could only be achieved within a different moral culture...one where possession of material and person was by all, for all." Of "Ten Years Ago," he rambles: "[It] is still as sardonic as it was twenty years ago. And still as relevant to the way I feel.... The new/latest wave of folk on the awareness kick always think that they are the first. Which of course they are. Unfortunately, they always seem to be about to eat the same old nettle soup. Good stuff. Got to get it when it's young and in the first throes of hard stinging..."

These sorts of add-ons notwithstanding, Hats Off offers only a fleeting glimpse of Harper's artistry. In a sense, the task—compiling the best of Harper—is impossible, like trying to narrow Dylan's career down to one lonely disc. In either case, it's the equivalent of flicking a flashlight at someone who has asked you for a description of the aurora borealis. Also, partly for selfish reasons and partly for critical ones, I found myself objecting to some of the selections on Hats Off. With the exception of "Don't You Grieve," "Another Day" and "Highway Blues," they are not the best versions of the songs available. And some of the selections on Hats Off are abridged versions of much longer compositions. While I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this album to anyone unfamiliar with Harper, I would also encourage people to seek out the original recordings from which these songs were selected.

Luckily, this is now possible. Through a series of fortuitous legal maneuvers, Harper has finally managed to reacquire the rights to his entire catalog, and he's reissuing them on his own Science Friction label (www.royharper.co.uk). I have taken the liberty of suggesting my own list of Essential Harper at the end of this piece.

Somewhere along the way, Harper acquired the reputation of being a "difficult" artist, but that is not true at all. Sure, some of his albums contain demanding compositions, taking up entire sides of the vinyl versions. And many of his songs contain some stiff doses of the truth, as well as some peculiarly British obsessions (like cricket and soccer). Nonetheless, his music is not an acquired taste, like Captain Beefheart's or Syd Barrett's, both of whom have been recipients of latter day resuscitations. His voice is a pleasant, strong tenor that is flexible enough to bend around any of the emotions and complicated poetry he wishes to convey, and his acoustic guitar playing lacks the sort of strumming cliches one might normally associate with "folk music"; at times, his sophisticated picking is nothing short of brilliant. Roy's son Nick, an indisputably gifted musician in his own right (and with his own separate following), plays inspired guitar on the later albums, as well.

A more apt comparison for Roy Harper would be to Nick Drake, one of Harper's contemporaries and with whom he has often been compared. Though both he and Drake are evocative "singer/songwriters" whose recorded work favored an acoustic folk approach, neither of these unique artists can be pigeonholed as "folkies." Drake utilized the production brilliance of Joe Boyd and a host of eclectic sidemen, including John Cale, while Harper has, as mentioned above, enlisted the aid of a veritable Rock ‘n’ Roll Who's Who.

Where they differ are their chosen themes. Drake explored the inner landscape of his own soul more completely than anyone since Franz Kafka, while Harper has always sought bigger game. At times, in fact, he sounds like he wants nothing less than to save the world. In "How Does It Feel" off the album Flat Baroque and Berserk (this reviewer's personal favorite), he rails against those who buckle under, give up the fight and become a "voluntary heel." The song, with his lung-busting vocals, bloody-fingered guitar playing and blistering lyrical indictment, has never grown old to these ears: "How does it feel to hold the white flag in your fist/ How does it feel to have two faces/ How does it feel to have your god strapped to your wrist/ and him leading you such a chase..." On and on this litany goes for several verses, ending with a plaintive, "Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I'm not real."

Roy Harper with the Pink Floyd - Knebworth 1974
Richard Wright, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Roy Harper and David Gilmore
Photograph by Collin Curwood

Essential Harper

*Flat Baroque and Berserk—Originally released in 1970, this is one of the unheralded classics, Harper's Blonde On Blonde, so to speak. Flat Baroque and Berserk was his fourth album, but the first released on the label that was to become his longtime haven, Harvest (home to pals Pink Floyd as well). With Harvest's blessing, Harper booked time in the pristine confines of Abbey Road Studios. He also lucked into a gifted producer, Peter Jenner, who understood what he was trying to achieve. Before Jenner, Harper's albums were an aural mish-mash; the songs were brilliant, but the recording quality was often poor. Shel Talmy of The Kinks' fame even half-heartedly twiddled the knobs on Harper's second album, Folkjokeopus. With Jenner at the helm, however, the record might have been a classic. Flat Baroque, on the other hand, is seamless and unblemished. It does not have a single weak moment, not even the rambling spoken explanation for "I Hate The White Man," the album's controversial opening cut. This is followed by "How Does It Feel" and "Goodbye," as good a three-song cycle as one can hope to find. But wait, there's more. After the smoke of his anger clears, Harper segues into some of his most delicate love songs, including the often-covered "Another Day" as well as "East of the Sun", "Tom Tiddler's Ground" and "Francesca."

*When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease (aka HQ)—Harper considers this 1975 release "the best record I have made to date, and stands up to close scrutiny." Indeed it does, but the "best" label should be qualified: this cricket-obsessed concept album might more accurately be called Harper's most thoroughly integrated rock album. During the time of its recording, Harper had become musically tight with a small circle of like-minded rockers, including Chris Spedding, Dave Cochran, Bill Bruford, David Gilmour, John Paul Jones, Steve Broughton, Dave Bedford and Ray Warleigh (who also worked with Nick Drake). The complicated themes of lost innocence and nostalgia vs. the brutalities and compromises of modern life brilliantly come together in the closing title track, on which the Grimesthorpe Colliery Band offer spine-tingling backing.

*One of Those Days in England (Bullinamingvase)—Similar themes are explored in this 1976 recording, but with a less intensely rock base. There's a decidedly pastoral tone to the musings herein, reflecting Harper's move to a farm in Hereford as well as his passion for English poets Shelley and Keats. Paul and Linda McCartney and Wings back him on this album. With its 10-part, 23-minute-long title track, "One of Those Days In England" has a quiet power that grows stronger with each listening. The highlight, besides the title track, is "Cherishing the Lonesome," one of Harper's most exquisite compositions.

*The Dream Society—This 1998 album is the best of Harper's latter-day recordings, a complicated musical mural that was inspired by the visionary paintings of an American artist named George Fort. He is ably backed by his son Nick on guitar, as well as the unmistakable flute of his longtime friend, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.


Image courtesy of Paul Davison @ www.steamradio.com/stormcock/home.htm

A Conversation with Roy Harper

I was happy to see that an American company put together this Hats Off collection.

EMI arranged the deal because they still have got this belated interest in the music. There's still somebody in the corporate machine who thinks, "That guy should have had a hit record." But it's still as hard now to get me to the mass of the population as it has ever been.

What do you think it is that stands between you and an American audience?

It's two or three things. The major thing is that anything that requires a little bit of mouth, a little bit of innate...have to use these words sparingly [laughs]...anything that takes a bit of out-of-the-way intelligence isn't really what the general public needs. Put it this way: it isn't the food that they are fed on. What they are fed on are things coming to them straight from the box that they're either listening to or watching. So that anybody who actually cares...those among us who are independent enough to go to the trouble of searching out things...will find lots of things in the world worthy of note.

Something I've noticed, too, is that America has gotten increasingly more infantile over the last, say, five to ten years. There's this obsession with sex and bizarre religious fanaticism, and it is getting worse.

But that is what has been happening in the USA since the time it began a couple hundred years ago. It is just boiling to the top now. There are a lot of people making those sounds about religion or sexual mores who are able to make them now. It wasn't always possible for the way-out, whacked-out religious fanatic to actually get his message through to more than the thirty people in his circle. But now, it's possible for someone to glean millions from people who have been waylaid by life and think religion is the only answer. And it's possible for someone to just leap in there and skin them.

Although the US appears to be becoming more infantile, I think that's a worldwide thing because the general population have their tastes made for them now more than ever. If it's not loud and clear...if it's not saying "Britney Spears" or "Spice Girls"...or if it's not loud, they won't notice it. Elvis was pretty loud, but he was good. I can remember the hip-waggling antics of the 1950s, in America particularly. The world was generally outraged for just that moment in time, those two or three months, to enable the population to suddenly make this man very public.

They even blacked out his hip waggling on TV, hoping to not make him public.

But suddenly he became fashionable. They forgot the sexual mores that they put up in a defense against Elvis at the time.

Money had something to do with it. He sold a lot of records and made a lot of unhip people very rich.

Yes, but also, given time, what happened was that they forgot that threat posed by Elvis and made him the "Monarch of Pop."

Let's talk about Roy Harper. I understand that an obscure American by the name of Bob Dylan just turned 60. If my math is correct and the birth date given in your bio is correct, you also have reached that magic milestone recently.

We were born within days of each other.

I don't want to flog this Dylan thing, but many years ago I heard you characterized as "the British Dylan." Did you ever see yourself as operating under the same time frame, competing with Dylan for air space, so to speak?

Well, I was more attracted to poetry during the time that he was making his name in folk music. I think there's a crucial difference between us in that I've maintained...what I first set out to do. He was fundamentally attached to the folk scene at the beginning of his life in music. He was attached to people like, say, Woody Guthrie.

Yes, he made that connection very much a part of his public identity.

Whereas I was much more attached to Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. So although I'm sort of a Brit—and I say that guardedly because I am also of the world these days—I seriously thought the answer to modern social problems was to be found in how Jack Kerouac dealt with the world in those days. Not that he dealt with it with any particular success, ultimately...in fact, he was dead by the age of 47...drink mainly. But he and the other Beats gave me such an inspiration at the time inside which to work. From an early age, I was attached to the English romantic poets.

Shelley and Keats and Byron?

Not Byron, but Shelley and Keats most definitely. Wordsworth was okay, too. And so I was attached to that from boyhood. But then the Beat poets hit me like the proverbial sledgehammer, and that was the direction I went off in. I spent from the age of 13 or 14 to the age of 21, those crucial seven years, writing poems and being my own version of a Beat poet. In fact, you could have called me in those days a Beatnik.

Did any of those Beat poems appear later in songs?

No, but I've gathered a lot of them together on a record called Poems, Thoughts, Speeches [available on Harper's website only].

That's what immediately struck me when I first heard your music as a teenager. Your lyrics could stand alone, which was not the case with a lot of musicians I liked. In fact, when I read the lyric sheets to their records, I was inevitably disappointed. But yours were self-evidently literary. You're still enamored of Shelley and Keats and mentioned Thomas Huxley and George Orwell on your records. What can a contemporary musical audience learn from these writers?

An inspiration toward a way of life. That is, a way of life can be lived in a more natural way not too far away from what these writers were doing. In other words, all of the religious and political twaddle can be circumnavigated by an ability to see the poem in each other, to be able to speak as we are speaking now. I'm not being poetic, and I'm not filling our speech with prose, but it is a conversation in which nothing is governing me. I'm not speaking from a rulebook here. Every conversation that I have with anyone depends upon what the other person says, too, about how that other person joins in. That's the sort of connection I mean when I point up these sorts of writers.

I felt that same sort of kinship with Henry Miller, who showed how a life itself can be a work of art.

You've hit the nail on the head. I think of Miller as not being too far away from William Burroughs...in the way that their lives were their art. Life as a way of art. You can't get the majority of human beings, no matter what the nationality or race, to have an idea about that unless they've been through some sort of an eye-opening experience, like reading, like understanding these writers I mentioned, or being exposed to that kind of thinking. That is almost a prerequisite for entering into Roy Harper. Once you've been exposed to that kind of an experience, then I'm easy. Really, really easy.

Perhaps now, with this Hats Off collection, Americans can easily find their way to Roy Harper. There's a chance now.

Yes, a chance.