Roy Harper Biography

12 June 1941, Rusholme, Manchester, England. Although introduced to music through his brother’s skiffle group, Harper’s adolescence was marked by a harrowing spell in the Royal Air Force. Having secured a discharge by feigning insanity, he drifted between mental institutions and jail, experiences which left an indelible mark on later compositions. Harper later began busking around Europe, and secured a residency at London’s famed Les Cousins club on returning to Britain. His debut album, Sophisticated Beggar (1966), was recorded in primitive conditions, but contained the rudiments of the artist’s later, highly personal, style. Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith was released as the singer began attracting the emergent underground audience, but he was unhappy with producer Shel Talmy’s rather fey arrangements. He was also subsequently unhappy with the cover shot, preferring the reinstated image used on the reissued album of a baby being born, complete with umbilical chord (sic). Folkjokeopus (1969) contained the first of Harper’s extended compositions, ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, but the set as a whole was considered patchy.

The singer’s long association with Harvest Records began with 1970’s Flat, Baroque And Berserk. Although he later castigated the outlet, they allowed him considerable artistic licence on this excellent album, considered by Harper as his first ‘real work’, offered contrasting material, including the uncompromising ‘I Hate The White Man’ and ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’, the beautiful ‘Another Day’ and ‘East Of The Sun’, and the jocular ‘Hell’s Angels’, which featured support from the Nice. The latter was one of the first songs to feature a wah wah linked to an acoustic guitar. Stormcock, probably the performer’s finest work, comprised four lengthy, memorable songs which featured sterling contributions from arranger David Bedford and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. The latter remained a close associate, acknowledged on ‘Hats Off To (Roy) Harper’ from Led Zeppelin III, and he appeared on several succeeding releases, including Lifemask and Valentine. Although marred by self-indulgence, the former was another remarkable set, while the latter reaffirmed Harper’s talent with shorter compositions. An in-concert album, Flashes From The Archives Of Oblivion, completed what was probably the artist’s most rewarding period.

1975’s HQ introduced Trigger, Harper’s short-lived backing group comprising Chris Spedding (guitar), Dave Cochran (bass) and Bill Bruford (drums). The album included ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’, in which a colliery brass band emphasized the melancholia apparent in the song’s cricket metaphor. A second set, Commercial Break, was left unreleased on the group’s demise. The singer’s next release, Bullinamingvase, centred on the ambitious ‘One Of Those Days In England’, but it is also recalled for the controversy surrounding the flippant ‘Watford Gap’ and its less-than-complimentary remarks about food offered at the subject’s local service station. The song was later removed. It was also during this period that Harper made a memorable cameo appearance on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, taking lead vocals on ‘Have A Cigar’.

Harper’s subsequent work, while notable, lacked the passion of this period and 1980’s The Unknown Soldier, a bleak and rather depressing set, was the prelude to a series of less compulsive recordings, with the exception of Work Of Heart (1982), the artist’s first recording on his own Public Records label. During this period Harper alos guested on the Kate Bush single ‘Breathing’ and recorded Whatever Happened To Jugula? with Jimmy Page. His 1990 album, Once, was critically acclaimed as a return to form, and featured contributions from Bush and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. The follow-up Death Or Glory? was an emotional record that bemoaned the ending of his long relationship with his lover.

In the mid-90s Harper was often to be found performing with his son Nick Harper, a similarly talented individual with an uncanny musical resemblance to his father. The elder Harper should, however, be both flattered and proud. 1998’s autobiographical The Dream Society and the acoustic follow-up The Green Man were densely constructed records featuring acute lyrical wordplay. Time and time again on these collections Harper proved what an original talent he is, and an artist who has refused to let the grass grow under his feet. In 2005, his fury over the UK’s involvement in the second Gulf War prompted the release of the 13-minute track ‘The Death Of God’ as a CD single

Most of Harper’s back catalogue has been sensitively reissued on the small Science Friction label. Clearly, this record company cares passionately about Harper. The ambitious release of a series of albums chronicling his performances live at the BBC reaffirmed his talent. Songs such as ‘Forever’, ‘I Hate The White Man’, ‘Another Day’, ‘Too Many Movies’, ‘Home’ and the glorious ‘Highway Blues’ have all stood the test of time. Roy Harper remains a challenging, eccentric songwriter who has steadfastly refused to compromise his art. Commercial success has thus far eluded him, but he retains the respect of many peers and a committed following. He may be cantankerous and opinionated, but through all this he remains a highly intelligent poet and a hopeless romantic blessed with a remarkable voice. Mostly, his entire recorded output is hugely underrated.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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