Roy Harper – Telling it like it was – the liner notes for ‘Live at Les Cousins’

Telling it like it was – the liner notes for ‘Live at Les Cousins’

I’ve just reread the liner notes I did for the Les Cousins CD and I think it stands up as a summary of life back then in 69. It’s worth another spin.

‘1969 was a good year whichever way up you look at it. There was something in the air – probably ghanga. Everyone was suffused with an optimistic outlook. Everything was imbued with change. All the old crap was being jettisoned – ideas – thoughts – careers – suburbia. The world was new. The world was new. People sat up all night enthusiastically discussing the creation of the universe, the size of infinity and the intensity of the human spirit. Hair sprouted out of every available orifice – well – almost. People actually shared things with each other.

You could buy OZ and IT and read about Kerouac, Mao, Che, Ian Anderson, Captain Beefheart and Cochise. Everyone was dropping out into more meaningful existences that involved creativity and positive life forces as well as hugely wonderful esotericosities. You could spend hours discussing the obvious fact that T.S. Elliott would definitely have been straight while Shelley would probably have been a Freak. You enthralled to the tales of Black consciousness as epitomised by the Black Panthers, who had emerged from the Civil Rights Movement campaigns, Vietnam draft dodgers and utopian dreams of perfect societies based on freedom, creativity and harmony. There were free concerts, sit-ins, marches, demonstrations, happenings, love-ins and a whole range of other consciousness-expanding activities.

The underground created an instant identity. You were either a Freak or Straight. It had something to do with the length of your hair as well as the ideology you identified with, and the drugs you were using.  Freaks were pacifist sexual explorers embarking on chemical research and human, spiritual, political and environmental investigations. The ‘Revolution’ was just around the corner. In many ways, it had already happened. Straight society was already superfluous. We had our own Press, music, fashion, drugs, lifestyle and culture. Our language was permeated with Black hipster slang, man. Our dreams were megalomaniacal. I have my own theory that the planet just happened to pass through a cloud of hallucinogenic dust that only infiltrated certain young minds.

Of course, it was all a hugely naïve and pretentious bubble that could not hold its breath too long and subsequently produced a litany of disasters and chemical casualties. Still, even with the power of retrospective sight, it was wonderful to have been there and been part of it even if it was not a very smart career move for many of those involved. One is also forced to acknowledge that for most of the pseudo-freaks it proved to be little more than just another fashion statement, a passing phase which was fun at the time and got you laid. Sadly, the idealism went over their heads. Even so, it was an age of re-evaluation and individuality that engendered huge creativity in dress, thought, art and music and was the genesis and spawning ground for a lot of things that did not bear fruit until much later.

The most important thing about it was that it was so incredibly energetic and vital. There was so much to do, so much stimulation, so many places to be, people to meet, thoughts to share. All the doors were open. The 60s was a huge university and the curriculum was open-ended.

London was the driving force of the counter-culture. You could drop acid and do the Tate Gallery, 2001 or the Bonzos.

The club scene was alive and diverse. There were bands on tap every night with Blues from Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack and John Mayall – Folk with Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jackson C Frank – Psychedelic Rock with Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Traffic, Nice, Cream, Family, Free, Tomorrow or Jethro Tull – West Coast Acid Rock with Country Joe, Captain Beefheart, the Mothers and the Doors – black blues with Son House, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy reed – Old Rock ‘n’ Rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. It was all mixed up with Jazz, Indian and pseudo-classical as with the Third Ear Band. Not only that, but it was ridiculously cheap. You could regularly see bands like Pink Floyd and Edgar Broughton for free. Hyde Park was a regular freebie. The festivals were three days for £1.50p. A gig was often 15p. Led Zeppelin at the Toby Jug was a staggering 25p –rip off or what? I could go on and on and get even more grotesquely nostalgic. Aye lad, when I were young. Them were the days.

There was no time to think – you were too busy doing stuff. The Incredibles at an all-nighter – Eel Pie Island bouncing up and down on the rotten floors to the flames of Arthur Brown. – giving demons hell with the Broughtons – at the Marquee with the guitar histrionics of Alvin Lee and Ten Years After – Hendrix smashing ceilings at Klooks Kleek – killing unknown soldiers with the Doors at the roundhouse – the Nice knifing organs at the UFO club – The Who smashing amps and Mooney driving his Roll’s and Lincoln Continental into swimming pools and ponds.

The Moving Being Dance Group naked and cybernetics at the ICI – it was all too much. Too much so that it was far out, man. Somewhere to the side, Straight society was landing on the moon but that was a side issue – we’d already visited other universes.

Even though the politics were getting out of hand in Grosvenor Square and Kent State, People’s Park and Chicago, where the Yippies put up a pig for president and Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin went to court in war-paint and jesters costumes, it was great.

Life and theatre had become confused.

Obscenity was on trial and was let off with a caution.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, there was this acerbic fiend who was putting vitriolic poetry to music and playing acoustic guitar at colleges and Folk Clubs – in fact anywhere that would have him. His name was Roy Harper and he had a sharp wit, quick mind and a maniacal laugh. He ranted, railed and played a mean guitar. His voice was good and his songs were excellent.

I first caught him playing three numbers sandwiched between Bert Jansch and John Renbourn at Les Cousins in early 1967 and I was hooked. I made it to three concerts a week and at least one had to be a mandatory Harper gig. I had discovered someone who was articulating the thoughts that were buzzing around my own head. He was painting my own pictures for me.

An early Harper concert might well meander through a few hours of thoughts and interjections with the odd song thrown in. The subject matter, targets and degree of vitriol depended on the mood and substances consumed. It was rarely dull.

Roy has never been a ‘performer’. What you see is what you get. He treats the stage like his front room. It’s not so much a performance as a dialogue that he enters into. You get the full contents of his mind – often mid-song and with no holds barred. No areas are taboo. For many, who are not quite on his wave-length, who may have come along for the songs, it is a frustrating experience. For those of us who like to mentally walk through the sundry realms of possibility, it is a voyage through your own thoughts and a highly stimulating process. Of course, that is not to suggest that the songs are not brilliantly good, too, but he ain’t no Cliff Richard or Paul Simon.

By 1969, Roy had progressed from street busker to songwriter supreme. We’d been regaled with Sophisticated Beggar and Come out fighting Ghenghis Smith and had our appetite whetted by the raw brilliance of Folkjokeopus. He was rampant and at his most aggressive. On stage masterpieces like ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ and ‘I Hate the Whiteman’ poured napalm on the claustrophobic society, we were all railing against. In was the sort of exhilarating invective that caused Melody Maker to accuse him of not coming up with any panaceas. I guess that before you can identify the answers you have to explore the problems. Roy was the octagonal peg who refused to be slotted. You got the idea that he was none too fond of Christianity and not a great admirer or respecter of rules and regulations. His ideal existence would have been a little more unrestricted.

We’d all heard a lot of songs live and were living in a great sweat of expectation. Roy had signed to the new prestigious ‘Underground’ label – Harvest – the same as Pink Floyd, Edgar Broughton and a host of others – and at last he was going to be properly produced. It was all going to do justice to the songs – and about time too! Peter Jenner was going to produce it at Abbey Road studios and he was a great guy who was sympathetic to the mood of the moment and the idiosyncrasies of the loony who hadn’t yet found his bus.

I was fortunate enough to attend many of the sessions and there are legendary episodes involving unwanted American ‘guests’ and vending machines. Still – that’s another story. However, to cut a long story short – Roy did not want ‘White Man’ sanitised in the studio. He had this vision of it raw and dripping venom. He wanted it spat out live in front of his audience, in a small club.

The idea was that ‘White Man’ was going to be the focus of the next album and it was going to be recorded at Les Cousins where he first started out. It was Roy’s second home – an intimate and totally familiar environment in which he could relax with the nucleus of his now considerable following and give full vent to his emotions. There was to be no holding back.

The news got out that the gig was going to be recorded and it was consequently heaving.

Dylan was playing to vast crowds on the twee Isle of Wight, while Harper held court in the sordid backstreets of Soho. It seemed somehow appropriate.

The place was hot with packed freakdom and the air was heavy with sweet-scented smoke. You went down these steps into this underground darkened cellar. EMI had brought its mobile recording equipment and the whole concert was recorded for posterity. I remember Roy being slightly more manic than usual and breaking a string on the first ‘take’ of ‘Whiteman’ so that he had to do it again. I guess it was the tension of being recorded and wanting to make it a good one or else just the way he was trying to put everything into it. Maybe it was the heat generated by the faithful?

It wasn’t just the guy striking the match – we were all on the album. We sat enthralled in the darkness, hanging on every note, willing it to be right and mentally holding it together.

It was one hell of a gig. We emerged into the streets of Soho with big smiles on our faces. The moon shone – the pavement echoed and we dispersed into the night bubbling.

In the event, they recorded the entire evening though only four reels of tape of the gig were found. It had sat on the shelf in EMI right up til now – a neatly packaged bit of history – vintage Roy Harper in his full potency when it was all new and looking to change things – snarling fit to shake the world!

The strange thing is that Roy Harper has never lost it. He’s still as crazy and still ranting against the system, trying to change it. You’d think he would have learned something in the ensuing quarter of a century!

Thank shit he hasn’t!

It’s a dirty job and someone has to do it – stick their head above the parapet and have the squealers, snouts deep in the trough, pass their judgements and make their superior snide remarks. If it wasn’t for a few torches in the darkness, we’d all be lost and slotted up our own arses by now. Maybe we are?

He may be crazy but he still makes a lot more sense than all the tribes of grey mediocrity who seem to be shaping our destiny.

Here’s to the next twenty-five years of insanity!

Opher 12.10.95

Hmmm – not a lot has changed since then. It seemed appropriate that a 69 concert should get released in 96 – as I said in the original – whichever way you look at it.

I'd like to hear from you...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.