Some time around 1969/1970, when I was about 13, my cousins, Mike and Tim Baker, introduced me to the music of – among others – Roy Harper.
Tim turned 60 last week and, in honour of the occasion, I decided to have a ‘Roy Harper day’ where I revisited my entire collection (I have all of these on vinyl and MP3) and played them all through from 1966’s Sophisticated Beggar to 1977’s Bullinamingvase, which was the album where I finally gave up on him. Punk was happening, after all, and to be honest I hadn’t really been ‘knocked out’ by anything he’d done since Stormcock. (Incidentally, and this may be unfair of me, I haven’t heard anything he’s done since then apart from when I saw him at the Albert Hall a couple of years ago supporting Joanna Newsom and when I did the sound engineering for him when he played at the Sir George Robey some time in the 80s – but I don’t remember much about that apart from that he had an ear infection and couldn’t keep his balance).
So, anyway. I ploughed my way – yes, it was difficult at times, particularly the horrible Lifemask album – through these nine albums and as I did so I wondered, not for the first time, why I was bothering (other than to mark Tim’s silver jubilee)?
The truth is (in my opinionated opinion) that, compared to many of his contemporaries, Roy Harper really wasn’t that great. He wasn’t the best songwriter, or the best singer, or the best guitarist, compared to many of the crowd that came up through Les Cousins and similar. But I guess he got the breaks and certainly his friendship with Jimmy Page and association with Pink Floyd didn’t hurt his career.
But the thing is that times have changed. There just weren’t that many people doing it in those days. These days almost everyone has software that allows them to produce an album’s worth of ‘music’ in their bedroom and, armed with a dozen songs and zero talent, everyone thinks they deserve to be a star. Even worse are those who don’t even bother to try to learn an instrument or create anything, they just turn up at an X Factor audition, armed with an adequate but unremarkable voice, and demand to be rich and famous for zero effort.
But in those days it was different. Musicians were a tiny minority (although, to be honest, ‘real’ musicians still are) and it was possible, with a fair bit of work and a bit of luck, to land a recording contract. A&R men (remember them?) Would flock to the Cavern, or Les Cousins, or wherever, and sign up anybody with a guitar in the hope of finding the next Beatles or Paul Simon. And most of these people could play, and write, and sing, but equally most of them were little better than average – but the thing was that even average players were few and far between, and of you were in that small group then there was a reasonable chance that you could get signed up. And then, if you were one of the lucky ones whose album actually sold and made a profit, you might even make a couple more and get some kind of longevity and even ‘career’ out of it.
So Roy Harper was one of the luckier ones. his first album (The Sophisticated Beggar) was made on a two track Revox and shows someone heavily influenced by Bob Dylan (who wasn’t?) with an attitude, a British outlook, and a few not very profound things to say. For his second album (Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith) he was signed to CBS and teamed up with Shel Talmy who had been responsible for, among others, the sound of the Mamas And The Papas, and produced a lush string-laden album that, for me, is one of the two lasting gems in his career. It may be atypical and a bit ‘mainstream’ for Roy’s liking, but sometimes a bit of discipline and an outside producer can make a world of difference. And it didn’t hurt to have the most ‘controversial’ song included on one of CBS’ million selling Rock Machine samplers.
Then it was off to Liberty Records for Folkjokeopus, his most obviously ‘Dylanesque’ album, and then on to Harvest – one of two homes for great British music of the time (the other was Island) – for Flat Baroque And Berserk. This was the album that turned the corner for Roy Harper (helped by a big budget and full page promotional ads in Melody Maker) and paved the way for the genuine stoned classic that was – and is – Stormcock.
If you haven’t heard Stormcock, please make the effort. It really is a masterpiece (and would be even without Jimmy Page’s input), one of the great one-offs of our time. But I really wouldn’t bother too much with any of Roy’s other albums unless you’re a ‘fan’; there are far too many better albums from that time (late 60s/early 70s) by better singers, musicians and songwriters. Try Andy Roberts, Keith Christmas, even (though Roy would hate me for saying this) Al Stewart.
As for me, I’m off to listen to another album that the Bakers turned me on to – Then Play On by Fleetwood Mac. Now that *is* a fucking masterpiece.