Though his meandering and idiosyncratic compositions have become a source of inspiration for neo-hippie folkies like Joanna Newsome, Roy Harper has been neglected in America for too long. New reissues may help right the wrong
Despite having a Led Zeppelin track named after him, British folk singer Roy Harper never quite caught on in America. (It probably didn't help that the song, "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper", is one of Zeppelin's worst.) Harper's two dozen or so albums have, for the most part, been out of print in America, and before the advent of the Internet, were generally inaccessible. This meant that the typical American rock fan has probably only ever heard him on Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar", on which he sings the lead and sounds less like his reedy self than a Roger Waters impersonator.
Despite working with a bevy of his more-famous friends, Harper's solo albums have never had much of a hearing, though he has never seemed particularly concerned about being accessible. (He refers to himself as the "longest running underground act in the world".) His lyrics can tend toward the abstruse, and since he regards himself primarily as a poet, he can be indifferent toward melody or even musical variation within his songs. His work doesn't reward casual listening, and his songs generally demand many plays before they begin to reveal themselves. Though his meandering and idiosyncratic compositions have become a source of inspiration for neo-hippie folkies like Joanna Newsome, his music hasn't crossed the threshold of familiarity that some of his Brit-folk contemporaries like Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan have managed to achieve. (Maybe he needs to license a song to a car commercial.)
Perhaps that will change now that the Koch label, in conjunction with Harper’s own label, Science Friction, has begun reissuing his albums in the US. Curiously, they aren't proceeding chronologically. Instead, the first group of rereleases seems weighted toward what is likely to sell the most: 1970's Flat Baroque and Berserk, his first album to chart in the U.K.; 1971's Stormcock, widely regarded as his best record; and Jugula, a 1985 collaboration with Jimmy Page that cracked the UK charts when it originally came out. The danger of discovering an artist with a catalog as rich and deep as Harper's is that one will try to take it all in at once after an orgy of downloading. But his work resists easy assimilation, and this approach may turn listeners off from the many difficult pleasures he has to offer. Even digesting just these three albums is a tall order.
Made after he signed with the then-fledgling prog label Harvest, Flat Baroque and Berserk was the first album Harper recorded in a proper studio (and his fourth album overall), but it makes a point of flourishing its unadorned production from the beginning. It opens with an awkward punch-in, followed by Harper counting off before launching into the jaunty "Don't You Grieve", an apologia of sorts for Judas Iscariot. A few spoken interludes are scattered throughout, and the air of casualness helps leaven the frequently ponderous mood. At this stage of his career, Harper sounds like a more esoteric Donovan -- particularly the mystical, portentous Donovan of songs like "Fat Angel" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man". Both singers are fond of drawing out notes with a slow, contrived vibrato, but Harper, while equally obscure lyrically, is not nearly as fey and fanciful. Harper is never mellow, always palpably agitated, even when plodding his way through a valedictory dirge like "Goodbye".
For the most part, the album's arrangements consist of Harper strumming a guitar and singing, with the exception of "Tom Tiddler's Ground", which has Tony Visconti piping along on the recorder, and the last song, the heavy, completely incongruous "Hell's Angels", which, thanks to the flute jam over rock instrumentation (supplied by Keith Emerson's band the Nice) sounds a little like Jethro Tull.
Though the monotony of Harper's musical approach here threatens to tire listeners, he compensates by balancing short and long songs and tackling a variety of moods, ranging from the plaintive love song "Another Day", to the gentle, understated "Francesca", to the defiant and accusatory "How Does It Feel" and "I Hate the White Man", which was recorded live for the album and opens with a muttered string of musings about the evils of commercial culture. Strident and righteous, the song is Harper's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", and is as exhausting to listen to, despite some fine turns of phrase. It's one of his more heralded efforts, but low-key tracks like "East of the Sun", "Feeling All the Saturday", and "Song of the Ages" prove more rewarding. These are thought-provoking without being polemical, and the less confrontational stance allows Harper to gives his often subtle guitar work space to speak for itself.
Harper followed Flat Baroque and Berserk with the forbidding but ultimately more impressive Stormcock, which is sometimes labeled prog folk, not because of any expansive jamming or virtuoso musicianship, but because of its deceptive ambitiousness and inescapable difficulty. There are no sing-alongs, no hooks, no readily apparent choruses, but of the album's four long, impressionistic songs, only the last one, "Me and My Woman", would be in any danger of being subdivided into Roman-numeraled parts in the manner of a Yes or Rush epic. That said, Stormcock's songs definitely eschew traditional folk melodies for a discursive formlessness, trusting in a listener's patience and attention. In this, the album is reminiscent of Phil Ochs's The Pleasures of the Harbor, with dense, near inscrutable lyrics dealing with spiritual love, false religion, and artistic persecution.
The new edition of Stormcock has been reissued not in a standard jewel case, but bound as a little hard-cover book, which is indicative of its literary pretensions. In the booklet, the lyrics of each of the songs are reprinted along with a companion poem meant to elucidate the various themes further.
The opening piece, "Hors d'Oeuvres", is a sardonic attack on critics that culminates in a choral recitation of the homily, "You can lead a horse to water / But you're never gonna make him drink". It's the most dramatic moment in an otherwise turgid song, brought alive by sharp multitracking of Harper's voice, but it's a bit of a shame that so much production attention is larded on that cliché. During the verses, while he is repeating the same deliberate descending guitar figure over and over, Harper has far more interesting insights into critical impotence. Nevertheless, it seems petty and parochial to devote an entire song to rock critics, especially when you are only putting four songs on your album. Surely there are more important topics to tackle; after all, who is surprised by the revelation that critics are self-satisfied and parasitical?
But as the title suggests, "Hors D'Oeuvres" is a mere warmup for the song which follows, "The Same Old Rock", which features Jimmy Page (credited as S. Flavius Mercurius) on lead guitar. His dramatic Bron-Y-Aur-style solo over the track's final two minutes is the album's most stirring moment, though his flourishes throughout the song also do much to enliven what could have been a 12-minute slog. In the booklet, the lyrics for "The Same Old Rock" are preceded by two poems denouncing the idea of a national religion, and the use of organized religion generally as a force for social unification. "Religion is there, like a greyhound in the slips, ready to pounce on human frailty, ready to turn mass apathy into evangelic violence". Such declarations help put the song's cryptic anticlerical lyrics into context, though the mood established by the acoustic guitars thundering through cascading scales in the song's signature riff does more to get the message across. The layered arpeggios seem to chip away at the foundational rock Harper wants to call into question, and Page's solo at the end blows it away altogether.
Next is "One Man Rock and Roll Band", which (fortunately) is not about the life of a touring musician as one might expect, but instead the futility of war as figured by a ragged, returning soldier. The song -- a showcase for Harper's idiosyncratic self-taught guitar style -- is constructed around a tricky hammer-on lick played in an open tuning and a halting strumming pattern that, once you've heard the words, conjures a stumbling, weary veteran. It never locks into a predictable rhythm; it lurches forward, swells, hangs on a note, collapses backward. Meanwhile, Harper's nasal vocals are processed through a phaser effect, adding to the feeling of dislocation and fatigue, while making his occasional impassioned cries that much more unsettling. Unlike many protest songs, "One Man Rock and Roll Band" isn't one-dimensional in mood. Instead, it conveys a range of negative emotions while avoiding righteousness. Harper offers no simple way to respond to what he presents here. Listeners are instead left to sort out conflicting responses, which possibly include revulsion at the song itself. It takes a brave artist to invite such a reaction to secure a song's integrity. "One Man Rock and Roll Band" concludes with a slammed chord on a piano, but not in the climactic "A Day in the Life" sort of way. Instead, it rings out like an ill-timed rifle shot a few bars before the guitar unspools notes in spiraling clusters into the fade.
As complex as the first three songs are, "Me and My Woman" builds on the groundwork they have laid to transcend them all. It starts by continuing the battlefield motif, but reverses the metaphor from the previous song, using war to symbolize the struggle to preserve artistic and spiritual ideals. On the surface, this is a love song, with Harper praising his woman for her constancy and her ability to heal him emotionally. But once the string arrangements start to filter in, and the tempos start to shift and drag, the lyrics begin to take on a more cosmic significance. Suddenly, he and his woman begin to seem like evolutionary stewards for the future of human life. The war, hypocrisy, and cynicism explored in the first three songs suddenly appear aligned as forces that he and his "little" woman must tenaciously resist in a struggle they are always poised to lose. In the midst of the 13-minute song is a bucolic, optimistic interlude, in which Harper's voice grows light, his playing becomes even more nimble, and the strings become less yearning and more expansive. But this mirage-like moment is ultimately overwhelmed with the anguished urgency and the somber melodic motifs that echo the earlier songs. Mock processional music supplied by a synthesized horn section scores the final passage, where Harper takes stock of the possibilities of sustaining the good fight while perpetually being tempted with oblivion: "I feel most together with my nowhere stare", he sighs. The ambivalent conclusion is fittingly frustrating, perfectly suited to a work that continually draws you back to test its depths.
On Flat Baroque and Berserk and Stormcock, Harper was in peak form, so there's a drastic faling off when one turns to 1985's Jugula. Billed on the cover as "An Ordinary Man Writing Songs for Ordinary People", Harper is still recognizably the same artist, but he's hampered by horrific 1980s production that turns his guitar work into rubber-band plucking and implements the bane of all recorded music, the chorus pedal. The Jimmy Page of 1985 is hardly the Page of 1971, as anyone who has heard the Firm can tell you, and he doesn't solo so much as supply sound effects here. And Harper's lyrics, while not as cryptic, are not nearly as visionary. In fact, they come across like mundane, peevish prose -- in "Nineteen Forty-Eightish" he complains that "A million tons of shit come through my door each day up to my dick", and in "Advertisement" he repeats the stirring refrain "I'm really stoned, I'm really stoned / Permanently out of my bone". These distractions and embarrassments make it significantly harder for listeners to devote the energy required to get inside the music, which is as impassioned as the rest of Harper's work. If anything, Harper is more apocalyptic on Jugula, which is full of nightmarish images of condemned prisoners, the Holocaust, predation, and desperate love spanning the ages. A devoted Harperite could ignore the dated production touches and integrate the songs with his full body of work, but neophytes may as well stay clear and start with the superlative Stormcock. There's enough there to keep them occupied for a while.