GLR Interview 1998

pd's picture

On Saturday 13 June 1998, Roy went into the GLR studios for the "Roy Harper Hour" on the Bob Harris afternoon show. This is a transcript of the interview. GLR is a BBC local radio station serving London and the surrounding area.

ROY HARPER TALKS TO BOB HARRIS

Intro: "Have a Cigar", Pink Floyd. Roy did the vocals on this track.

Bob: From the album "Wish You Were Here", Pink Floyd of course, a song called "Have a Cigar". On vocals on that track is Roy Harper, who is with me in the studio at GLR this afternoon. Welcome along Roy, it's good to see you again I must say.

Roy: Hi Bob. Hi everyone.

Bob: Just before we talk about the new album, and about current things, just tell me about the circumstances under which that was recorded because I remember seeing you a lot around Abbey Road at around that time, and it just.. to me it seals the album, it's the stamp on the album. I think the vocal on that track is fantastic.

Roy: Yes, it's kind of a sore point really because I did do that track for a fee, which is a season ticket to Lords for life, which has never appeared.

Bob: Is that right? <laughs>

Roy: .. that's never appeared. And I did ask Roger for about twelve or thirteen years, and latterly I've asked Dave, and there's been all this "err... ooh... err"... so, you know, it's kind of like... ooops! I'm speaking to a corporation now, so, you know...

Bob: So this was an unpaid gig?

Roy: Oh yes, absolutely unpaid gig. <strums guitar>

Bob: And that season ticket has never... ah, that's outrageous Roy, we'll have to do something about this!

Roy: And it does matter, it's like, you know, history, it's gone.

Bob: But it must have been such an experience for you.

Roy: Oh, it was good. It was good, it was actually good to see them both struggling. The more they sang, the worse it got and the more they couldn't do it. I was just sat there the whole afternoon they were doing it, thinking, "wait a minute... no, no, no... no Roger... no" and then eventually I just said "look, I'll do this"

Bob: Hmm.

Roy: and Roger said "How Much" <laughs>. I said "for a price".

Bob: <laughs>

Roy: None of that ensued. But it was a good, it did both of us good. I think it did that record a lot of good. It was a single in the USA and I think it was a hit, I think it was top of the charts somewhere. So, I've actually been at the top of the American chart without anybody knowing it.

Bob: <laughs> Because you're right, it does kind of seal the album and I think one of the things that maybe people have underrated you about, Roy, is your terrific vocal ability which I think comes through so well on the new album. Roy and I were talking just before I opened the microphone and I said to Roy as we were listening to "Have a Cigar", the vocal on that track is so good but I don't think I've ever heard you sounding better than you do on your new LP.

Roy: Well thank you. I never think of myself as a vocalist at all, and I think even less of my guitar playing. Primarily I write, and I write for me. Perhaps it's, you could classify it as esoteric, but there are meanings to all of.. I can define the poems meaning for you from A-Z, and some of the songs are very obvious anyway. So I always think of myself as a writer really, and not in any way a musician. I'm a pretty poor musician really when I compare myself with some of the people I really admire.

Bob: So how do you feel about your performing ability in that respect then Roy, is it that your voice and the guitar are a kind of conduit really, for the...

Roy: Yes.

Bob: Yep.

Roy: It's a medium. When I was thirteen/fourteen years old I wanted to be a poet, and I haven't really changed. Actually I started, when I was about 8 years old, I wanted to be a pilot. I became a space cadet!

Bob: <laughs> I remember that Marc Bolan thing, that he always used to call T Rex "Total Wrecks and the Space Cadets".

Bob/Roy: <Laugh>

Bob: So you brought the guitar with you; we were hoping Nick was going to come in this afternoon but presumably he's off watching the world cup.

Roy: Well, he spoke to me in terms, in huge terms last night of "Shouldn't we get together and really do something", and make something good, and do the decent thing, and the following day he's got to watch Nigeria!

Bob: Yes, and the first major upset really of the world cup. Did you see any of the game Roy?

Roy: I did, yes

Bob: I thought they looked fantastic, Nigeria

Roy: It started badly and then they began to look good, yes

Bob: It's well known, your love of cricket. Are you into football as well?

Roy: Oh yeah. I'm a sort of long-suffering Manchester City fan... yeah <laughs>

Bob: The one thing about that is, though, they're going to take those huge crowds into the second division with them and all the other clubs are going to benefit...

Roy: Yes, they are...

Bob: Thanks very much, Man City, for getting relegated because I mean, they'll finish top of the league presumably...

Roy: Well, they may do, it can't really... I don't think it can get any worse because there's a huge institution there. I'm 4th generation City, so I can't help it. I didn't pass it on Nick. During the whole of his childhood he watched Liverpool win this and that and the other, and he became a Liverpool fan so I've not been able to pass it on, which is... was probably for the best, you know. But I do think... it's a liability, you know, especially with Noel and Liam as chief support and cheerleaders.

Bob: Yes

Roy: I think that they do... it didn't matter to me in the end. When it was obvious that they were going down into the next division, which was the old third division, and I thought it's the first time I've seen them in the third division, and that'll be, umm, the third division north, isn't it. I thought, it doesn't really matter. I was resigned to it, and I didn't have any difficulty any more, it was like, you know, losing a wife!

Bob: Yes

Roy: ... and gained another.

Bob: Play us a song, Roy. What's the first one going to be this afternoon?

Roy: I think I'd like to start with a love song, something from the new record called "I want to be in love", but I won't be able to play the second half of it as it is on the record, because the second half is full of drums.

Roy plays "I want to be in love"

Bob: It's Roy Harper in the studio with us this afternoon at GLR, the Bob Harris show. 21 minutes past four o'clock is the time right now, we'll be chatting with Roy a bit more in a second, after the sports update from Pete and the latest on the travel front from Moya...

Sports/Travel snipped!

Bob: <after slight delay> Thanks very much indeed Pete, I've just been

Roy: <laugh>

Bob: sitting here chatting to Roy actually. 25 minutes past 4 o'clock is the time here on GLR, the Bob Harris show, and..

Roy: <hee hee>

Bob: Roy Harper is here with me in the studio today. I want to go back to talking about your voice actually, Roy, and the changes that take place in one's voice over the years because, it's...

Roy: I've been through the years this last night...

Bob: <laugh> It was Roy's birthday yesterday, and it was a late one wasn't it?

Roy: It was a quarter to four by the time I got to bed.

Bob: A gig, and in fact you're playing again this evening aren't you?

Roy: Yes, same place.

Bob: At the Spitz. You listen, say for example, to Elton John records, Roy, and listen to Lady Samantha and Your Song and things like that, and compare Elton's voice then with what we hear today, and it's gone down quite markedly hasn't it, and generally when you progress through years what seems to go is the very top register.

Roy: Well, mine has of course as well. The thing is that nobody tells you when you begin your life in rock and roll, as it were, that you have got such and such a voice and it will mature at the age of 50 at such a level. You don't even think about reaching the age of 50, that's kind of ancient, that's Merlin territory..

Bob: Yeah

Roy: So nobody starts out with those kind of wisdoms at all, but if you were to be told that, no you shouldn't to that at this ... a song that you write at this stage of your career you will not be able to sing 20 years later because the natural forces, gravity alone, will mean that your vocal chords will sink further down your throat and, you know, whatever the cause may be, you won't be able to sing that song like that, and consequently I've come down four semitones on the guitar, so I'm singing the same songs that I used to, in the same guitar positions, but four semitones down. I've still got a three octave range. I don't want to demonstrate that right here and now...

Bob: <laughs>

Roy: ... and it's only just, you know, I wouldn't be able to sustain a vocal down there for very long, it wouldn't be up to Leonard Cohen standards. But my top is conversely a long way above Leonard's top. I am blessed with that range, I've got the complete range but it's just come down four semitones.

Bob: Does that alter your approach to writing the songs, Roy?

Roy: No, it just means that nobody else can play with you!

Bob: They can't find it, yes...

Roy: They have to have gone through a few years of tuning the guitar down, and buying heavier strings, and all that means to the guitar, and changing guitars because you can no longer play on this guitar, because it cannot take the heavier strings and it can't take... you know, all kinds of technical things are involved in the progression of one's vocal as a means of a support system for one's life, you know...

Bob: Yes. Do you always use the guitar to write?

Roy: Yes, always.

Bob: You don't sometimes sit at the piano and go... because the nature of a song is changed completely, isn't it, by the instrument that it's composed on.

Roy: I've always, often wanted to learn the piano properly, I fiddle around on it, I don't do anything really on the piano, you know, I know a few chords and that's it. I think that my original inspiration was guitar music. My original inspiration really is Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Big Bill Brunsy, Leadbelly. Those four people there. And that is, you know, others came into it early on. I remember Snooks Eaglin figuring quite early on in my life and he is still alive, and still doing clubs down in the south of the USA somewhere, and I'd really love to go and see him playing solo guitar again. He must be my age or something, and I'd really love to do that. But that's where my inspiration came from, and I don't think that what I've got translates very well to keyboard though there are three or four songs like "Once" which may have done, or "Miles Remains". Those spacey instrumentals which maybe I could have used a keyboard on, but, I think that I've just stuck with the guitar because it's part of my body, I can carry it around, there's no need for Pickfords and the Epstein, you know...

Bob: So when you began to build up the sound of the new album, Roy, obviously you built it around acoustic guitar. How do you like to record these days? Do you put the guitar down first or do you put backing tracks and drums...

Roy: I'm still in an archaic situation where I'm using 24 track analogue tape. What I did this time was to write all the songs and put them onto a cassette tape, and then I found myself having to learn them again, and when I'd had about 90 or 100 minutes of songs I thought, this is going over the top even for you Roy, so...

Bob: <laughs>

Roy: ... we'd better have a look at what we can record now of this stuff. A lot of was recorded but got left behind of course, as I chose the best, but the circumstances under which I've been working have to change because it made the record a lot longer to make. What I really want to do I think is change the 24 track analogue to a couple of 16 track digitals and learn that format, and record as I go so that I don't have to learn the songs again, and so I can record... I think that the way the digital recorder is set up now, it's kind of got to being more user friendly and I think that I can use it to own advantage now, I think it's progressed far enough for me to say I can put what I have to put on to a digital tape and for it not to make any difference to my ears or, you know, let's put a bit of fake hiss on there maybe...

Bob: <laughs>

Roy: there's no need for that either because I've got so many boxes that hiss and squeak and, you know, record those.

Bob: Yep. It has been what, 6 or 7 years since your last studio album and things have changed enormously within the industry and the kind of music that's being played these days during that time, hasn't it?

Roy: By the day.

Bob: And we find ourselves in the situation now where the British singer/songwriter or any singer/songwriter in Britain has a harder time probably now than at any time that I can remember...

Roy: <accent> It's girls and groups, mate!

Bob: Yes. So how that does affect you Roy?

Roy: Well, adversely, Bob.

Bob/Roy: <laugh>

Roy: I think that it's a fashion and I think that there are many people that are not susceptible to that kind of, you know, shift in fashion like that. I think there are many people that want to be entertained by somebody who's got their marbles, still has their marbles, you know, or maybe they want to be entertained by 5 fat slags, or, somebody who hasn't got their marbles - ha ha - but there's still room in the entertainment industry for people like me but I never think of myself as being part of the entertainment industry. I always think of myself as like, being in the vanguard of those who are poking at the corporations, you know, and having a go at the big establishment inc.

Bob: Yes. Hasn't it always been so? Really?

Roy: Yes, and that's where I see my function. If I entertain while I'm doing it... underneath, probably on top as well, I'm an angry man, and because I think there's a lot of injustice, a huge amount of injustice in the world, that none of the governments are prepared to address, and I can get on that horse and stay on it for a long time, but I'll desist. I'll cease and desist at this moment...

Bob: <laughs> And play another song for us.

Roy: Play another love song just to defeat the...

Bob: That's it!

Roy: OK, this is a song called "Commune". It's an oldie.

Roy plays Commune

Bob: The music of Roy Harper, playing live for us on the Bob Harris show on GLR. Just coming up to 20 minutes to 5 o'clock.

More travel and sports (snipped)

Bob: It's 17 minutes to 5 o'clock, Roy Harper is with me in the studio here at GLR, and I just want to touch with you Roy on the subject of fame. We've heard "Have a Cigar" which you recorded for Pink Floyd, and the Wish you were Here album, and of course, there's the wonderful Zeppelin tribute to you on Led Zeppelin III, "Hats off to (Roy) Harper", and you and I worked together didn't we, on a movie in 1971...

Roy: I meant to ask you a question, and we did, yes, and that was, I always remember that, I remember us being in that thing. I wanted to ask you a question. Did you at one stage... I have this memory of my first meeting with you as being outside the Sandown Park race track where there was a Jethro Tull gig and you were handing out Time Out, and you were saying this is a new magazine...

Bob: That's right, it's the Sunbury Jazz festival, it would be summer '68 Roy...

Roy: Yes, '68, it was '68...

Bob: 30 years ago, yeah.

Roy: That's where I first recollect meeting you...

Bob: That's right.

Roy: Fame.

Bob: Yes.

Roy: Fame at last, Bob.

Bob: Because, you know, with all the Zeppelin interest in what you were doing, and Floyd, and the movie, and let's face it, that film, you co-starred with Carol White in the film Made, we're talking about '71 here aren't we, and I remember you particularly wanting me to have that role which I had. I was interviewing you, wasn't I, and we drove in a big open top Rolls Royce...

Roy: Deja Vu

Bob: ... down Brighton promenade, filming the whole way, and I'm sitting in the back of the car playing myself, a DJ interviewing you, and then the scene transferred to Brighton pier at a press conference and one of my memories of this is, you're in the middle of answering a question of mine and a seagull flies up and makes a very loud noise above us and you looked up, pointed at it and said, "See? There you go!" and then carried on with what you were saying. And I remember the conversation at that time because it was kind of about fame and the implications of fame, and you know, you were saying yourself a few minutes a go Roy, how you've always knocked the establishment and done that thing. In other words you've never kind of played the fame game.

Roy: I've never played ball, and that's the reason I'm sat in the studio with you...

Bob: But what are the pros and the cons of not playing that fame game?

Roy: I think the pros are that you can go into Dorothy Perkins and not be recognised, and not be mobbed. There are a lot of pros. You can go anywhere in the world and be just the observer that you are. I don't know what the gains would be like. I think there's something inside me that used to say "no I don't want that, because I can't handle it. I could never be that famous person and be lorded, expected to answer questions that pertain to the general population, the welfare of the general population when actually I think the welfare of the general population can be helped in a completely different direction. I was not the person to be made famous. I think if I had left a completely different life like Mahatma Ghandi or somebody and had been dragged along by a movement and become the head of a movement which was sort of the anti-corporate movement or whatever, then I would have to stand up and be counted and be the spokesman for that. But I think that, I don't know whether I'm not just a buccaneer really, whether I'm not just a free spirit, I would just say "What the hell are you on about then, I'll see you next week, I'm going to New Zealand for a bit of glacier walking or whatever"..

Bob: Yes. Because there is a madness to it as well, isn't there. There are two dimensions here, there's your own personal experience of being such a contender and if you'd reached out and grabbed it there's no doubt in my mind that, had you been prepared to play the fame game, that the spotlight would have shone on you and...

Roy: There is another angle...

Bob: ... but the other angle of it was that you were also looking at the effects of it on people that you were very close to at the time, and Zeppelin in particular, it was madness round Zeppelin for many years.

Roy: Absolute madness. I saw Peter Grant do things that you would only...

Bob: We all did.

Roy: Horrendous stuff. The one thing that's never happened to me that is the real reason that I never cracked through was that I never attracted top line rock and roll management. They always saw something in me that was unsaleable. And, it's that that I'm missing. That was the part in the jigsaw that never came.

Bob: That includes Peter Jenner does it? Because Peter was...

Roy: Peter's like myself, he's like a well-intentioned amateur.

Bob: <laughs> Because he's lovely, Peter, and he's got such a great appreciation of things.

Roy: Peter's capable of putting his finger on anything, you know. At various times in the history of rock and roll in this country, Peter's had his finger on the pulse. But I think he's been a bit maligned as well in the same way as me because I don't think he's been able to get through the corporate mess that you have to get through. It's like old school tie almost, and certainly I've never had that. Whether I've deserved it or not is open to question, I think the work has deserved it, and it's maybe still not too late. But somebody needs to really make a commitment to me, it would need to be a sort of "OK I've got a budget of 2 or 3 million quid, where are we going to spend it?". Well, let's go down the pub then!

Bob: Yes, Absolutely. Watch those big screens.

Roy: It would have to be a serious commitment, and I've never had that, and I think that's the missing piece.

Bob: Yep. Well, I think the new album is absolutely fantastic Roy. I know you've been quoted as saying you think it's the best since HQ, and I'll certainly go along with that.

Roy: Yeah, it is.

Bob: I want to play a final track from it, but of course you're playing in London again this evening aren't you, you're playing the Spitz tonight, and where else can we see you play in the near future?

Roy: Well, I'm off to the USA to try and entertain the troops over there. I'm back in September... no, October and I'll be doing the complete rounds in October.

Bob: Brilliant. Just set the song up for us if you would, because I'm going to play the title song from the new album, The Dream Society, just tell us a little bit about the song Roy.

Roy: I was looking for a...the record's a biography of my musical life, and my other life as well, and a lot of it seems dreamlike because the moment is now, it's always now, and the moment's gone. So there is the dream of the past, and the dream of the future, the present is... so I have to look at the past as being something of a dream. Clive James wrote that autobiography that was entitled something like "What I would have liked to be the truth" and, but not necessarily, I don't know what it was called but something like that, so it's like a dream. There's a lot of the songs along the way that mention me being in the dream like the title track and particularly the last track "These 50 years" which is, I think is the best track on the record, so that is.. I was searching on the one hand for a Western kind of equivalent of what the North American indigenous people used to know as the dream societies. They had a lot of dream societies and they were very very involved. I'm trying to curtail this as much as I can. But it was their society, that was they way they lived, to acknowledge the third that they spent asleep, to acknowledge it as part of their lives which is something that we're not very good at doing. I think we've got better since Jung perhaps, but I'm quite critical of him. But still, I was looking for a Western dream analogy, and I thought of Morpheus, but then I thought, well why am I going to do that? And have people looking at a little figure next to a butter dish and playing a trombone you know, or people's faces melting into each other you know, you changing into me Bob,  my god, you know, and he doesn't exist either. So I thought the next best choice is Orpheus, so I chose Orpheus to plant the song around. It's a song really that's dedicated to that 17 or 18 years that I've spent asleep.

The Dream Society is played from the album, making the news late by two minutes

Bob: Isn't that absolutely superb? The brand new album from Roy Harper, and that's the title song from it, The Dream Society.