Hats Off: An Interview with Roy Harper

[19 October 2008]

By Jennifer Kelly

Roy Harper never had any interest in traditional folk. Even in the mid-1960s, playing at the legendary London club Les Cousins, surrounded by earnest pickers and song catchers, he had something else in mind.

“I was never really a bone fide member of the folk scene,” says Harper, whose 1960s and 1970s albums, including Stormcock, Sophisticated Beggar and Flat Baroque and Berserk are now considered classics—and precursors to today’s alternative folk genre. “I was too much of a modernist, really. Just too modern for what was going on in the folk clubs. I wanted to modernize music, but more than that to completely modernize people’s attitudes towards life in general. I was involved in trying to bring meat to the folk music, which is a big mistake anyway.”

Yet though Harper never enjoyed the mass popularity and commercial success of his contemporaries in Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, his work has drawn fervent admirers. A self-taught guitarist, he is known for eccentric and sophisticated blues-into-folk accompaniment. And, as a poet inspired more by Shelley, Keats and Coleridge than Dylan et. al., his lyrics have always been striking—full of riveting images and confrontational salvos. This is an artist who can spend half an hour explicating the politics and philosophy behind Stormcock, and who still, nearly 40 years after the fact, remains passionate about the injustices that inspired its songs.

Now in his 70s, Harper has recently seen an upsurge in interest in his work. He received the Mojo Hero Award in 2005, presented by his long-time friend and admirer Jimmy Page. In 2007, he shared a stage with new folk diva Joanna Newsom, who counts him as an influence and inspiration. His albums, long out of print in the US, are being re-released by Koch records (in conjunction with Harper’s own label Science Friction). The first batch, out this fall, includes his best seller, the 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk, the four-song epic Stormcock from 1971, which is widely considered his best album, and his 1984 collaboration with Led Zeppelin’s Page, Jugula.

Early Rebellion
Harper was born in 1941, near Manchester. His mother died early on, and he was raised by his father and stepmother, a Jehovah’s Witness. Then as now, he was uncomfortable with religious certainty. This conflict, between his own inclination towards free inquiry and a restrictive environment formed the kernel of his art, first through poetry and later through song.

“I was definitely six by the time I saw that the person in the house who was being a religious person was invariably too hot headed, too irrational, too wrong to actually be able to hold those kinds of views with anything like authority,” he says. “I’ve taken a stand against religion for as long I’ve been able to write and think.”

Developed early on, that distrust of authority—especially religious authority—became a key element of Harper’s work. “All my songs are written from that particular standpoint, a standpoint that I’ve had since I was six more or less, since I first began to understand that I was human,” he says. “The only difference between me now and me at the age of six is experience. I have the same mind and the same mindset as I did in those days. It’s not changed at all. It’s the same defiant kind of introspective look at the way society, a very critical look at the way that society is balanced. And it’s never changed. I’ve never changed.”

1964

1964

Joining the Beatniks
Like many teenagers, Harper found an escape in music. By the mid-1950s, two significant musical figures had emerged: Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan. British teenagers, Harper remembers, typically went for one or the other. He and many of the musicians who would go on to form Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles were Donegan fans.

“It was a revelation really, because music changed right there,” he says about first discovering Donegan. “Because we were suddenly introduced to this music that was actually saying something. Which made me, which impelled me to take up the guitar.”

Choosing between Donegan and Presley was easy. “I was on the Beatnik’s side, of course,” he explains. “The bohemian thing. When I was 15 I was wearing sandals and corduroys, Guernsey, striped pullover, a beard that was hardly there, shades and a beret, and the goal was hanging out.”

Notwithstanding his rebellious streak, Harper joined the Royal Air Force in 1956, at the age of 15, mostly to escape his family.  “Well, I jumped from the frying pan into the fire,” says Harper. “There was one way to get out when you were 17 and that was to join the military. But, you know, that was a mistake.” He was discharged, for mental problems, and began writing poetry.

What kind of poetry?  Harper says he only has one piece left from this period. “It did rhyme a lot of the time,” he recalls. “It was very Keats and Shelley influenced. And yet there was the ... latterly there was the Keroauc, Ginsberg, Beat influence. So it was a combination of those two, really, and bits and piece of other things as well. Bits and pieces of T. S. Eliot. Although I enjoyed his poems, I didn’t really think too much of his politics.”

Developing a Style
After leaving the service and throughout the early 1960s, Harper supported himself with busking, playing blues on the streets of whatever town he found himself in. He’d taught himself to play, developing an eccentric style that is instantly recognizable and completely different from anyone else. “Well, it’s self-taught, of course, which is why it’s like it is,” he says, when asked about his playing. “Because you can listen to people, but unless you look at them, you’re not going to do it the same. Unless you study what someone is doing with the left hand and the right hand and generally up and down the fretboard, then you’re not going to do it in the same way.”

He adds, “A lot of the blues players—a lot of the, boys like Eric [Clapton], would learn from each other and from watching guys like Freddie King and B.B. King play, and actually say, well, how do you do that?  Whereas I have to admit, I’m too lazy with the guitar to do that. I just wanted to do it instantly so that what came out was, to start with, in the early days, quite simplistic, but built on its own style. You gradually found that the roads widened and opened up to you as you got more used to being able to play.”

Harper also thinks that he may have originally been left-handed, but was forced, growing up, to learn to use his right as the predominant hand. Watching him play, you are struck by how easily he uses his left hand in the bends and pull-offs and hammer-ons that embellish his blues-y style. But Harper, who considers himself primarily a poet and secondarily a player, brushes any compliments off. “But of course, I’m still not a musician really. I don’t really consider myself to be a musician. I’m a pretty odd player, really. But ... and you know if you start to copy me, it would be something completely odd.”

Getting His Art in Gear

1973

Getting His Art in Gear
By the mid-1960s, though, Harper was beginning to see that he could combine his unusual playing with his main love, writing, to create something wholly different. “I’d go out and play during the day and then write at night,” he says. “But then I realized I could actually stick the two of them together.”

He was inspired by the Beatles Rubber Soul in 1965, and particularly the song “Norwegian Wood”. “I think that ‘Norwegian Wood’ was just the first example of it ... where those boys stopped being pop stars and started to be something else. They started to become writers with some depth. Not that they hadn’t had depth beforehand. But you know you don’t have to have ... pop didn’t acknowledge having to have that much depth, ever. So you often had to recategorize it. There was an automatic category change that happened around about ‘Norwegian Wood’.” 

In the mid-1960s, on fire with the new possibilities of pop and rock, Harper suddenly, as he puts it, “got my art in gear”. He started playing at Les Cousins in London, a club where the traditional forms of folk met more contemporary rock and protest. Spotted there by a representative from Strike Records, he went on to record his first album Sophisticated Beggar in 1966. His second Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith followed two years later and Folkjokepopus, the third, came out in 1969. 

A Revolt Against the Three-Minute Song
Even early on, Harper refused to conform to the radio-friendly standard: the three-minute song. His first album contained an 11-minute opus, his third stretched its longest song to 17 minutes. “Well, it was a kind of revolt against the three-minute song, in one way. I despised songs having to be three minutes long,” Harper says. “I regarded the three-minute pop song as anathema. It was a jingle. It’s nothing else. It just sells the pop band.”

Moreover, Harper says his primary inspiration at the time was romantic poetry, particularly Keats and particularly the epic “Endymion”. “‘Endymion’ is a very long poem by a very young man,” he says. “One of the reasons that I liked it as an 11-year-old was because it was written by a really young man. It’s often criticized because of its youthful lack of poetic experience. But it really got hold of me. It was something that ... it was a shining beacon in my life.”

Shelley and Coleridge, also prone to long-ish works, were idols as well. “So that was the backdrop for me,” Harper says. “I was automatically going to use a big canvas to make a huge landscape of what I wanted to paint about life in that particular way. So not only was it a revolt against the three-minute jingle. It also accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish.” 

And, truthfully, he admits, “It’s much easier to write a long song than a short one. You’ve got loads of different things you can put on there. And you can change them. Much, much easier.”

The Best-Seller: Flat Baroque and Berserk
Even at the peak of his careers, Harper’s insistence on very political, confrontational lyrics, long songs and experimental production techniques hampered commercial success. His most popular album, 1970’s Flat Baroque and Berserk, for instance, introduced its second track with a long, meandering soliloquy on racism. The song, “I Hate the White Man”, was fairly controversial, too.

“Even the young establishment was sort of wide-eyed and thinking ‘Isn’t that going too far?’”, Harper remembers.  Still, now as then, he feels completely justified in writing its in-your-face lyrics, given persistent racism in the US, apartheid in South Africa and the Australian treatment of its aboriginal peoples. “It was appalling, just appalling. And something had to be said. It was perhaps an extreme song. It doesn’t seem like that to me anymore. It seems completely normal,” he says.

Flat Baroque was Harper’s first record for EMI, recorded in three weeks on a minimal budget. It has a very live, stripped down feel. Yet still, as on his earlier records, Harper pushed the boundaries of his instruments and studio equipment. Flat Baroque has an early use of the wah wah pedal, as well as backwards recording effects and other manipulations. And that, too, stems from Harper’s fascination with the new (and, perhaps, also his distrust of all rules). “I just needed to modernize, to actually go somewhere that other people hadn’t. Somewhere on the frontier,” he says. 

It was on Flat Baroque, too, that Harper pushed himself into a harder edged sound. His introduction to the album reads, “I would also like to congratulate myself for playing electric guitar on ‘Hell’s Angels’, on which track I was accompanied by three very dear friends, whose names I cannot give you because they belong to another label. Enough to say that they turned me on to rock and I turned them onto the Karelia.” The three were from the rock band, The Nice, and if the track sounds a little rough, there is a very good reason why.

Harper met the Nice through their mutual agent, played some shows with them and suggested that they come over to play on his new record. Keith Emerson, the keyboard player, was, at that time, dating a Danish model, who also turned up at the session bawling her eyes out. “Kenneth Churchill, the keyboard player for Ten Years After, he’d been in some club with her, and he’d told her that Keith Emerson was the worst keyboard player in the world. And she’d taken it all to heart. She comes flying ... she’s gotten herself into a taxi and in a terrible state. She arrived to the studio and she was absolutely in flux, like she’d been terribly insulted,” Harper remembers. “And she completely destroyed the session, you know. She completely destroyed it. So we had to take the one take that we had.”

It would be almost another decade before Harper would try electric rock again, this time with Trigger, a band that included Chris Spedding, Dave Cochran and Bill Bruford, on his 1976 album HQ. But by then, things had changed. EMI had grown impatient with Harper’s sales and the musical world was no longer very interested in large scale guitar rock. “In 1977 the punks hit,” said Harper. “Then I was in serious trouble.” By 1980, EMI had dropped Harper.

Famous Friends ... and a Landmark Album

Famous Friends ... and a Landmark Album
Yet while Harper never achieved mega-rock star status, the people he hung out with did. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, David Gilmour all were close long-time friends. In 1970, Led Zeppelin recorded the tribute “Hats Off to Roy Harper” and put it on the folk-leaning, III. Harper remembers how he heard about the song.

“I went up to see them in their office, and Jimmy handed me the record, and I was like ‘Oh, new record ...’ and twirled it around a bit and said, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’  And I gave it back,” he says. “[Jimmy] he handed it back to me, and said, ‘Well, look at it then.’  And I sort of realized I should be looking at something else. And then, of course, I saw it, and I said, ‘Oh, dear ...’” 

Harper says he’s still in touch with friends from the old days, and had just attended Robert Plant’s 60th birthday. Still the gap between their success and his was large. Was that ever difficult? 

“Well, you can imagine, being a multimillionaire and all of that ... the level on which I operate is nowhere near that,” he admits. “Automatically, they have completely different lives from me. Although I must say that particularly Robert does his absolutely level best to keep his feet on the ground and stay in touch, constantly. Robert actually does his best all the time. Not that the others don’t. But after so many years, after so much life experience, people do become separated, you know?”

Stormcock
A year after Flat Baroque and Berserk, Harper returned to the studio to make the record that many people believe is his finest, the four-part epic Stormcock. Allegorical, politically engaged and extraordinarily beautiful, the album is as much a manifesto as a piece of music. It ties together an extraordinary range of issues and philosophies.

Consider opening track “Hor D’oeuvres”, a gently strummed, acoustic ballad about a judge, which makes an impassioned case against capital punishment. Harper says he was inspired by the Caryl Chessman case in California. There a black man was sentenced to death and finally executed after multiple appeals, even though the evidence against him was weak. “Think about that ... now to be hung when you’re not guilty is the most abject thing that I can imaging happening to anyone. Culturally and emotionally, it’s devastating,” he says. “You’re asking ‘Where are my own kind?  What are they doing this to me? What is this? What was this life?’” 

(Along with institutional murderers, he also got a pretty good shot in at the critics who had savaged Flat Baroque and Berserk. The relevant verse went: “The critic rubs his tired ass and strikes his poor brains and strains for thoughts and wields his pen but stops and starts and thinks in terms of booze and carts and sits there playing with his parts.” Ouch.) 

The rest of the album was similarly pointed. “The Same Old Rock” castigated the religious bigots Harper had been struggling against all his life. “One Man Rock and Roll Band” lashed out against violence and human cruelty. And “Me and My Woman” can be read as an early warning against overcrowding and mass pollution. “It’s really asking, where are we going to?  What’s going to happen to us when we’re doing all these kinds of destructive things?” says Harper.

“It really was quite a hefty pill to swallow,” Harper admits. “EMI hated it. Absolutely hated it.”

Yet the album has since been acknowledged as a milestone in folk rock. Rough Guide to Music‘s entry reads, “Harper at his most ambitious in an acoustic mode. Just four tracks, but two of them are classics. ‘The Same Old Rock’ is his most articulate diatribe against organized religion; musically very complex, with some excellent guitar playing. ‘Me and My Woman’ is an epic love suite covering a vast range of emotions. The other songs would be much better if half their length.”

And Harper has always done better with musicians than critics. In a 2006 article for the Guardian, Johnny Marr of the Smiths picked Stormcock as his “secret weapon,” or the one beloved album that no one else seemed to have heard of. He wrote: “If ever there was a secret weapon of a record it would be Stormcock by Roy Harper. I don’t know why it’s such a secret. If anyone thinks it might be a collection of lovely songs by some twee old folkie then they’d be mistaken. It’s intense and beautiful and clever: [Bowie’s] Hunky Dory‘s big, badder brother.”

Michael Duane, formerly of the no-wave band Dustdevils and currently working on a project with the Jackie O Motherfucker’s Tom Greenwood, says that he’s been a fan of Harper’s since age seven, when his decade-older brother turned him onto Sophisticated Beggar. Duane points to Harper’s “wonderful blasphemy and his complete disregard of authority,” as the main attraction. Though he loves all Harper’s records, he admits, “It’s hard, but if I had to pick one, it’d be Stormcock. It’s just perfect. His guitar playing is jawdropping, and lyrically it’s completely focused.”

More Reissues A-Comin’
Koch is starting with a reissue of Flat Baroque and Berserk, Stormcock and a 1984 collaboration with Jimmy Page called Jugula, but there’s more on the way. Harper says he expected to re-introduce 12 or 13 of his records to the American market over the next year or two, many of them out of print for decades. 

Coupled with the 2005 Mojo Hero award and renewed interest among contemporary rock and folk artists, the releases look like a bit of a revival for Harper. “I think there’s a renewed interest in me because of my general connections and the fact that the music is not obsolete. I have continued relevance.”

Harper lives in southwest Ireland, relying on a kitchen radio for his dose of current music, for the most part. Still, he did open for folk star Joanna Newsom in London in September 2007, playing Stormcock in its entirety. He found, across the generations, a sort of kindred spirit. “I think people like Joanna Newsom are absolutely marvelous. Absolutely wonderful. She’s brilliant,” he adds. “She’s an original. She’s really important for people who actually put music in those ways . And she’s written some very good songs.” The esteem appears to be mutual. Newsom reportedly had Stormcock on repeat play as she was writing Ys, and, in Pitchfork in June 2007, she named Harper’s “Me and My Woman” as one of her three favorite songs ever.

Harper says he’s now five songs into a new record, though he admits he has been at exactly this point for over a year. He’s had a period of poor health—now apparently over—and as soon as cricket season and the transfer market (trading in football player contracts) is over, he expects to be back at work. Breaking rules as usual, one imagines.

Roy Harper - Me and My Woman (Part 1) [Fan Video]

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/hats-off-an-interview-with-roy-harper/