The following biography was probably issued in 1992 by Roy's (now former) record company Awareness Records.
Harper is, of course, mad.
We're not talking about eccentricity, nor whimsicality nor yet even monster raving loony. We're talking about a man seriously unhinged from reality as more of the population understands it. We're talking about a man who probably doesn't laugh much at You've Been Framed. A man who probably doesn't think that The Sunday Sport is a bit of harmless fun. A man who probably doesn't even think that it doesn't matter who runs the country because it's "all just a game" anyway isn't it?
From Harper's point of view, the world was crumbling long before he was a child. He inhabits not just a nightmare, but a sequence of nightmanres in which the dawn never arrives. In the liner notes for his latest album, Death or Glory?, Harper acknowledges that he has long, rightly or wrongly, perceived himself as a victim.
"Harper is a terrific songwriter," said his one-time manager Peter Jenner in 1988, "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."
The recent traumatic ending of a nine year relationship caused Harper to look at himself again, take apart some of his pieces and put them back together after a fashion. He still doesn't know if it's the right fashion, but he feels stronger. That's what the new album, Death or Glory? is, more or less, all about.
But then, why should you care? After all, Harper is mad, and why should anybody want to hear this self torture made audible? Readers with a fasionably short attention span should skip to the last paragrah about now, and find the answer to that vexed question. Readers capable of following an extended argument, on the other hand, should keep reading.
Roy Harper was born on 12 June a long time ago in Rusholme, Machester. His mother died within the month. His step-mother, a deout Jehova'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 ethically 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 brother 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 led to commital in Lancaster Moor Mental Institute.
After a beating (for dressing without permisson) 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 sent most of my time being thrown out of folk clubs for not being Nana Mouskouri."
In 1965 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 some 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 suburbia," he said concisely summing up its mood, "and suddenly swing violently towards anarchy."
When the more considered Folkjokeopus (Liberty) appeared in 1969, he was already getting 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 The Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil.
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-realist 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, Andy 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, if you must know) which remains with Roy to this day, but doesn't interfere much. "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 a half miles 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 Feb 14 (Valentine's Day) 1974, Harper played a 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.
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-Saxoness. Old Cricketer is one of the fruits of that."
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 the job on it." He did.
With things one 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.
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.
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.
In 1980 came Harper's acclaimed album The Unknown Soldier (Harvest) which included You, a duet with Kate Bush, who has claimed Harper as one of her major inspirations. On the cover of her Never For Ever album, she thanked him for "holding onto the poet in his music".
With the Harvest deal at an end in 1983, Harper formed his own label and recorded Work of Heart (Public) which, despite being chosen by The Sunday Times as album of the year, didn't sell well, and the label went backrupt.
Harper's liaison with Awareness Records began in 1985 with Born in Captivity (Awareness) which included the acoustic demos for Work of Heart, and marked the beginning of a comprehensive programme of re-issuing of earlier releases alongside inspiring new work.
1985 also saw Whatever Happened to Jugula (Beggar's Banquet), a collaboration with Jimmy Page, which made the Top 20 and revitalised Harper's career. "There's only one man I know who could be a virtuoso on both (acoustic and electric) and that's Page," said Harper of his old friend.
Harper re-signed to EMI in 1986, a typically Harperesque love-hate relationship which resulted in the double live album In Between Every Line (EMI), and 1988's Descendants of Smith which he described as "Partially a creature of the recording company, EMI. I hate the first track, but, if the acoustic version had been put on and Desert Island changed to what it originally was, plus one or two other little changes, it would be one of my best records. But it is over-recorded and over-produced."
"I still owe EMI £72,000," he has since revealed, "but you just get on with life." That involved returning to Awareness to make the blistering powerful album Once, with contributions from Dave Gilmour and Kate Bush. The album restored to Harper the status of his most successful years, with almost unanimously favourable reviews and a renewed interest from the media.
Asked, in the wake of Once, if emotional turmoil was a fertile breeding ground for musical creativity, Harper replied with typical candour, "I've never known anything but emotional turmoil... I go from day to day in a kind of frenzied state. I can't wait to do this, that and the other." Now it's 1992 and Once is suceeded by Death or Glory?, Harper's most intensely personal, emotional and dynamic album in years. Perhaps ever.
We have found ways, of late, to justify and worship at the altars of an infinite variety of frighteningly sane but insubstantial entertainment unrealities. Examples? The possibilties are endless but let's just single out the tepid vapour that is Kylie, the rampant vacant ego of Madonna, the cold, calculating genius of Prince. None of these things come from the heart. Their value, their interest, their sad fascination, lies mainly in their ability to manipulate the entertainment media, to gull the public into making them stars. Image, illusion, delusion.
That's why you should want to hear Harper's self-torture made audible, because it's real. And if, as Harper himself suggests, it is the work of a madman, then maybe we'd all be better off with a bit of madness in our souls. The choice is yours. One wonders whether he's got his tongue in his cheek or in his brain.
* * *
With grateful acknowledgement to the following articles, features and sources: Keith Brindley, Guitarist (Jul 1990); The History of Rock (1984); Tom Stock, Beat International (Oct 1978); Andy Childs, Zigzag (May 1977); Sounds (Dec 1971); Mark Plummer, Melody Maker (Dec 1972); Mark Prendergast, Attitudes (1991)
2011-01-01 18:26:14 UTC - GNU/Linux (i686)