Harper is a terrific
songwriter, said one-time manager Peter Jenner, But a bit crazy, like all the best people. The great problem for him was seeing all these
people whod nicked his licks doing so much better than he did. People like Jethro
Tull, Led Zeppelin and, to some extent, Roger Waters.
Roy Harper was born on 12 June a long time ago in Rusholme, Manchester. His step-mother, a
devout Jehovahs 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 ethnically 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 brothers 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 let
to committal in Lancaster Moor Mental Institute.
After a beating (for dressing without permission) 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 spent most of my time being thrown
out of folk clubs for not being Nana Mouskouri.
In 1966 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 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 suburban, he said concisely summing up its mood, and suddenly swing
violently across to anarchy.
When the more considered Folkjokeopus (Liberty) appeared in 1969, he was
already gaining a reputation as an artist who refused to compromise. When I go to
the States, he speculated, Im 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,
youre not worth what youre saying.
With Harpers reputation growing, Pink Floyds manager Peter Jenner signed him
to a long-term deal with EMIs 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 This Mortal Coil, Kate
Bush & Peter Gabriel.
1970 also saw the tribute Hats off to Harper on the album Led Zeppelin III,
written by life-long friend Jimmy Page.
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-realistic 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, Tony Joe White... its 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). I cant sing more than half a song without getting terrible
pains, he explained to one interviewer. Ever since hes been running one and
half mile a day, it hasnt 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 Im wrong. Its been that sort of situation ever since.
The association with Harvest continued through Lifemask (1973) and
Valentine (1974) and on February 14 (Valentines Day) 1974, Harper played
the now legendary gig at Londons Rainbow, backed by Jimmy Page, Keith Moon and
Ronnie Lane. Soon after, he formed the band Trigger, and supported Pink Floyd at the 1975
In the same year Harpers vocals were heard on Pink Floyds Wish You Were
Here album, singing Have a Cigar. Roger Waters explained, A
lot of people think I cant sing. I find it hard to pitch... and Roy Harper was
recording his own album in another EMI studio at the time, and hes a mate, and we
thought he could probably do a job on it. He did.
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.
The 1975 album HQ (Harvest) featured Trigger, with Harper
again aided and abetted by Bedfords 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 thats around...
re-iterate my own Anglo-Saxonness. Old Cricketer is one of the fruits of that.
With things once 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.
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
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 Harpers 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 Harper formed his own label in 1982, and recorded
Work Of Heart (Public) which was chosen by the Sunday Times as album of the
Harpers 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 (Beggars Banquet), a collaboration with Jimmy Page, which made the Top
20 and revitalised Harpers career. Theres only one man I know who
could be a virtuoso on both (acoustic and electric) and thats Page said
Harper of his old friend.
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 1988s
Descendants of Smith (EMI) which he describes 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 was originally was, plus one
or two other little changes, it would be one of my best records. Its over-recorded
1990 Roy returned to Awareness to make the blistering powerful album Once
(Awareness), with contributions form 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, Ive never
known anything but emotional turmoil... I go from day to day in a kind of frenzied state.
I cant wait to do this, that and the other.
In 1991 Roys son Nick became a part of the touring entourage. Having accompanied Roy
on the 1988 Descendants Of Smith tour, and at other sporadic gigs, he brought
a new dimension to the concerts with his elegant and intricate guitar playing.
1992 and Once is succeeded by Death Or Glory?
(Awareness), Harpers most intensely personal, emotional and dynamic album in years.
Perhaps ever. The album dealt with a traumatic ending of a nine year relationship which
caused Harper to look at himself again, take apart some of his pieces and put them back
together after a fashion. He still doesnt know if its the right fashion, but
he feels stronger.
1993 and again without a record company in the UK, Roy secured the rights back to all his
albums and set up the label SCIENCE FRICTION. First to come out of this venture was the
re-issue of Flat Baroque and Berserk, in the form of a limited edition CD in a
presentation box, each individually signed, and including a 40 page booklet in which Roy
recalls the making of the album and those involved.
1994 - Roy undertook an extensive tour of the UK and Ireland completing over 40 dates,
which included an appearance at Fairport Conventions Cropredy Festival,
along with appearing at a charity concert for Friends Of The Earth, in which Roy played
two songs with old friend Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
At this point most of the back catalogue was again made available, with additional sleeve
notes from Roy along with previously unpublished photographs. July of 1995 the 1975 album
HQ is made available for the first time on CD re-mastered from the original
tapes, and again including additional sleeve notes from Roy, reviews and previously
May 1996 - a 1969 concert recorded at Les Cousins in London is released
after being discovered in the Abbey Road archives. This double CD is the earliest known
concert recording and features a section found on the 1970 album Flat Baroque &
Berserk for I Hate the White Man. Also released this year the long
awaited re-release of the classic 1977 album BULLINAMINGVASE.
1997 - Releases for this year include The BBC Tapes. A collection on six CDs
of sessions and concerts done for the BBC from 1969 through to 1978. June 97 Roy
Harper goes back in to the studio to record his first album since Death Or
January/February 1998 - The new album titled The Dream Society is in its final
Copyright Roy Harper/Science Friction 1998