Sabotage and Integrity.
One thing always stands out to me, concerning Roy Harper and integrity, and that is the number of times he has deliberately sabotaged his career. It is almost as if he really does not want to be successful.
The reality is that he does want to be successful but he refuses to compromise, puts his music and poetry first and goes out of his way not to court success. I know of no other person who has so actively resisted or so deliberately stood strong against the establishment, defying all temptation. He has to do it his way or not at all.
Roy has a consistent philosophy that has permeated everything he has done; it is one of being opposed to the whole ethos of Western civilisation. He sees it as being destructive, violent, restrictive and controlling. His impossible dream has always been for he, and the woman he loves, to be free to live in a natural way, interacting with nature.
He would have been content being a North American Plains Indian, free to ride the wide open spaces, with no rules.
He identifies with the rebellious spirit of the Beat generation of the fifties. Corporate life is an anathema. To sell his art is, in many ways, wrong. Yet he has to live and that requires money. He is in Showbiz and is part of the entertainment industry. It is a dilemma that has torn him apart on many occasions.
Right back at the start, on his second album, he proclaimed (in Circle and Come out Fighting Ghenghis Smith) :-
‘well if that’s what success means you can stuff it
I don’t wanna know, and the money and the trappings you can throw in the sea’ and ‘But I don’t need wealth and I don’t want fame’
He lambasted for his statements – because, as everybody knows, wealth and fame is what Showbiz is all about and it was recognised that Roy did want to be successful. What they did not understand was that he wanted to be successful for the right reasons, on his terms. He wanted something better and more meaningful than wealth and fame.
In the sixties the Underground was ostensibly not about making money but rather sharing and community. It was built around a different principle to that of capitalism and greed, and that was something Roy identified with.
Both CBS and Liberty recognised Roy as a potential star so they engaged Shel Talmy to produce him. It was a poor match. Shel had established his credentials by producing chart friendly hits for the likes of the Kinks and Who. Roy was not into producing two and a half minute, radio-friendly songs. He was busy writing poetic epics like McGoohan’s Blues. The marriage did not work. Roy refused to play the game.
By the late sixties, early seventies Roy was on the cusp of breaking through into the big time. He had been signed to the prestigious Harvest label. They thought they could harness his Underground credibility and musical talent to sell vast numbers of records. Roy just wanted to record his music as well as he could.
At this time Roy was getting lots of radio play. He was being offered Peel Sessions and In Concert sessions. He was let loose on radio for live hour slots and being lauded by the likes of John Peel and Jimmy Page. So what did Roy do? He stopped playing halfway through a BBC live broadcast to lambast the BBC by saying that he was now surrounded by everything he stood against. It was not exactly the best career move or one that was likely to endear him to producers. For some reason the live shows dried up.
EMI wanted a single to promote Flat Baroque and Berserk. All they needed was a short, catchy single that they could put out on radio. They wanted a hit to promote the album. The very idea seemed to antagonise Roy. It smacked of sell-out. So Roy wrote and recorded a single that he knew could never be put out and was definitely not radio friendly (except to his loyal following). It was called Hell’s Angels. Management were not amused.
In the early seventies Roy was a major draw on the live scene and his concerts and albums were receiving much attention with interviews and reviews in all the major music press – such as Melody Maker and NME. It looked like it was just a matter of time until he was propelled into the top strata. But there were two major criticisms: firstly he was portrayed as a stoner due to his open use of cannabis (and thus could be trivialised) and secondly he was criticised for highlighting social issues but not providing any panaceas for the world’s problems. The lack of depth and understanding from the critics incensed Roy. His angst was to later manifest itself in a song.
Following a good showing for Flat Baroque and Berserk, Harvest was confident that the next album would be the big one. They provided all the studio time and support, including keeping Pete Jenner, a sympathetic producer. All they required was a great album with a catchy single.
Well they got a great album but it only had four songs, none of which were short enough to even consider as a single. On top of that one of them – ‘Hors D-Oeuvres’ – was an open attack on the critics. These were the music press, the people who could make or break careers. Never had there been such a vitriolic put-down.
In live performance Roy would actually point them out – ‘there they are, at the bar, not listening’. He treated them with utter disdain.
I do not think that it elicited more generous reviews or assisted in record sales – quite the opposite.
Then came the ultimate in opportunities. Roy, against strong opposition from the likes of Paul Jones, landed a lead role in the 1972 film Made featuring the then extremely popular Carol White. It was a film of social realism. Roy had to play a Pop/Rock star.
It provided him with the ideal vehicle for stardom. All he had to do was write a soundtrack. He had carte blanche.
Lifemask was the album that came out from it. It was based around a poem/song that was a twenty plus minute epic – probably his best song but hardly accessible to the average punter. Once again the album offered no obvious hit single. The soundtrack never really got off the ground. It looked as if Roy’s heart wasn’t in it. Not really what EMI were after.
Valentine saw arguments with TV producers over the backdrop of a heart. Roy wanted control. The album itself seemed to present a number of songs deliberately written to be controversial or infuriate various groups.
For an outsider, such as myself, looking in, it appeared that Roy was not willing to compromise in any way, was resolute about his integrity, obsessive about the purity of his music, and determined to reinforce his rebellious stand against the juggernaut of society he constantly fought against.
I could go on.
He sabotaged himself at every turn.
You have to admire him for it. I’m so glad he did. I think success might have robbed us of so many brilliant songs. If he had been cautious or pandered to an audience he would have diluted his songs like so many do these days, but Roy was never shy of causing offense. I can’t imagine Roy being restricted in any way. He is the epitome of anarchic freedom.
But one is always left wondering – what if……….??