12 June 1941, Rusholme, Manchester, England. Although introduced to music through his brothers skiffle group, Harpers 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 Londons 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 artists 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 Talmys 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 Harpers extended compositions, McGoohans Blues, but the set as a whole was considered patchy.
The singers long association with Harvest Records began with 1970s 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 Tiddlers Ground, the beautiful Another Day and East Of The Sun, and the jocular Hells 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 performers 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 Harpers talent with shorter compositions. An in-concert album, Flashes From The Archives Of Oblivion, completed what was probably the artists most rewarding period.
1975s HQ introduced Trigger, Harpers 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 songs cricket metaphor. A second set, Commercial Break, was left unreleased on the groups demise. The singers 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 subjects local service station. The song was later removed. It was also during this period that Harper made a memorable cameo appearance on Pink Floyds Wish You Were Here, taking lead vocals on Have A Cigar.
Harpers subsequent work, while notable, lacked the passion of this period and 1980s 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 artists 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 Floyds 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. 1998s 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 UKs involvement in the second Gulf War prompted the release of the 13-minute track The Death Of God as a CD single
Most of Harpers 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.