Hats Off: An Interview with Roy Harper

Jimmy Page wrote a song about him. Paul and Linda McCartney sang back up for him. And now, after decades of languishing as "the longest running underground act in the world", Roy Harper is reissuing his entire catalogue to a world that may just finally be ready for him.

Getting His Art in Gear


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.

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