Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 24 – On the road with Harper

On the road with Harper

As the 70s exerted its unpleasant grasp like a dead man’s clammy fingers around your throat I was in a world of my own. I was hanging on to the dream of the past, reluctant to face the truth and let it slip away.

We convinced ourselves that this was all a blip. Out of the ashes the phoenix would rise. There was evidence for this: Beefheart’s wondrous 1973 Rainbow concert, Lennon’s great two solo albums, Floyd’s flashes of creativity, Syd Barrett’s two albums. They shone amid the overblown hype of Yes, Genesis and ELP with their extended and exceedingly boring opuses, or the Pop of Glam Rock with TRex, Bowie and Glitter. We Freaks looked down on the commercial junk of the charts or pretentious crap. We wanted something that reflected the socio-political view of alternative, underground life. Glam and Prog didn’t cut it! It was chart orientated Pop!

I was somewhat sated by my progressing relationship with Roy Harper. Regardless of what was happening to the scene around him he remained unaltered and true to himself, his ideals and the spirit of the times. He told it as it was without a thought to how it might affect his career.

 Opher with Roy in the Baltic 2010

I’d been going to at least one or two Roy gigs a week so I was getting quite au fait with his songs, thoughts and persona. I was meeting him regularly for long stoned talks and social time in Kilburn. I was still making those lengthy phone calls. I guess I was the complete pest. But I do suffer with these obsessions and Roy was consistently talking and performing the stuff that made me think, that grabbed my imagination so that I wanted more. He was one of the few elements that hadn’t let me down. There was a great intellect, imagination, poet and musician at work and I had the chance to see it first hand who could resist?

His gigs had gone from small numbers to queues around the block. I’d been to the St Pancras gig which was pivotal. It was like the last gig for the original faithful before he headed off to bigger things. It was not only a milestone but the most incredible gig. It had that real homely feel and personal touch. It was a shame that Jackson C Frank had failed to show. He was a good friend of Roy’s and it would have been special.

Roy always tried to treat his gigs as if he was playing to friends in his front room. He hated the idea of performance and being paid to perform. He hated barriers. The St Pancras gig achieved the impossible.

From there on in it was bigger venues and larger audiences. It looked as if Roy was going to make it huge. But then there was Roy busy sabotaging himself at every turn.

I’d gone through the experience of Roy’s first real epic song with ‘McGoohan’s Blues’. At the time there were only two things worth watching on the box. One was Marty Feldman and the other was ‘The Prisoner’ featuring Patrick McGoohan. The Prisoner was set in the Dali-esque Portmeirion. It was a surreal series concerned with allegorical tales of society and reality that played with your head. Roy did this epic song about it. I’d heard Roy play it in the very beginning and it had blown me away. It seemed to hold in it all of the views of the exploitative capitalist society, with all its arrogance and greed, that I detested. He summed it up so well it sent chills through me. We were all playing the game.

I’d seen the way it was recorded on Liberty. They’d wanted a hit album and brought in Mickey Most to produce it. That must have been fun. I’m not sure what Mickey made of Roy’s twenty five minute burst of vitriol. I doubt if he saw it as a potential hit single! In fact he probably scoured the rest of the material and came up short when it got to potential radio play.

I think it is fair to say that Mickey and Roy did not quite see eye to eye. The album was made in a series of rushed first takes and Roy was out of there. He even had a row over the cover. Roy wanted it as a diamond. The company printed it as a standard square. Roy argued and they compromised with an off-centre diamond that pleased nobody.

The result was highly disappointing if you seen Roy at the time. Songs like ‘McGoohan’s blues’ and ‘She’s the one’ were tours de force live but were highly flawed on the record. I never really found a version of ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ that lived up to the intensity of Roy’s live singing back then.

Liberty and Roy parted company.

Roy signed to the prestigious Harvest label and the more conducive Pete Jenner as producer. They hit it off. The label provided him with unlimited time in Abbey Road studio and for the first time Roy had the technical back-up to make a decent album that would do justice to his incredible songs.

Roy invited me down to the studios to see the recording. It was to be the focus of my life. I was still catching Harper gigs as well as attending sessions. I was to go on through ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’, ‘Stormcock’, ‘Lifemask’ and ‘HQ’ until I moved up North to Hull in 1975 and that put an end to it. It did mean that I was privy to the recording of four of Roy’s most brilliant albums.

The strange thing about Abbey Road studio was the incredible low key security. I used to park my good old 350 AJS outside and saunter in. Nobody ever challenged me. Lennon was recording there. Wings were recording there and I suppose a number of others but there was no great shakes. I wandered in and down the corridor to where Roy was recording and walked into the control room. I suppose I could have popped down and said hello to Paul or John but it did not occur to me. We were much to cool for that. You didn’t do that sort of thing.

In the control room you’d meet all sorts. At one time I was sitting there with Dave Gilmour, Keith Moon and Bonzo when Jimmy Page and entourage walked in. Page was with this petite girl with incredibly long hair that was well past her bum. Page’s friend asked me what I did and I was a bit thrown. What was I doing here? I came up with something lame like ‘I’m just watching.’ It was quite intimidating to be in a control room with the elite of Rock Music. I met everyone from Ronnie Lane, John Paul Jones to Robert Plant, the Nice and Tony Visconti. There were times when me and Roy were the only non-millionaires in the place. Roy certainly had the support and backing of all the best musicians. They appreciated the quality of his stuff and it had a great influence on their own music.

It was a privilege to see people of the quality of Moon, Page and Gilmour perform live in the studio. I’d be sitting there, trying to melt into the walls, and Page would be laughing around and then he’d pick up a guitar and instantly transform into a professional guitarist. When he played he performed in the control room it was as if he was on stage. He’d strum and pick and you’d sit mesmerised watching the intensity and hearing the crispness of the chords and notes. I wish I’d taken a camera.

I was there in the studio when Roy recorded ‘East of the sun’. He was having a great deal of difficulty with the harmonica. It kept playing up. He eventually got it down and then smashed it in the door. The annoying American girl I’d brought along, to give Liz a bit of peace and quiet, gathered the bent instrument up. She left it with me when she finally went home but I’ve no idea what happened to it.

I was there when Roy in the course of his frustration and high jinks managed to tip the vandal-proof drinks vending machine over. Quite a feat!

I was there when he recorded ‘Hell’s Angels’ with the Nice. EMI had wanted a single and Roy was never keen on singles. They smacked of sell-out and commercial sell-out to him. So he wrote ‘Hell’s Angels’ knowing they could never play it on the radio. It was done in one take and at one point Binky Jackson loses the rhythm and Roy comes in to talk him through it. They dropped the backing out and left it like that for the recording. It seemed to work.

There were the magic times with Moon laying down the drums on ‘Male Chauvinist Pig Blues’, or Page rockin’ back and forth as he played along to his own guitar on the fabulous ‘Lord’s prayer’.

I was in heaven.

I sometimes went along with Liz and on one occasion Dave Gilmore offered us a lift in his taxi. We declined out of politeness but he was very pleasant and friendly. We should have accepted.

In 69, when Dylan was performing on the Isle of Wight, I was sitting in the basement at Les Cousins watching Roy record ‘I hate the Whiteman’. He was aware of what had happened to his previous ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ epic and did not want the same disaster to occur with this masterpiece. He’d decided it would best be served live. That was a great recording session in a real intimate setting, in the place where Roy had first started out. I remember him putting so much into it that he broke a string. It later came out as a CD that I wrote the liner notes for.

Other notable Harper concerts that I remember in those halcyon days were Roy’s Royal Albert Hall appearance where he played a storming version of ‘Male Chauvinist Pig Blues’ and ‘One man Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’.

At the fabled Rainbow concert I got along to see the rehearsal as well as the show and met Keith Moon, Ronnie Lane, Bonzo and Jimmy Page. There was a great atmosphere, much clowning about and a brilliant gig.

Then there was the Hyde Park concert where Roy was supposed to be headlining but left that to Roger McGuinn. Roy had this amazing band with Dave Gilmour on guitar, Steve Broughton on drums and John Paul Jones on bass. They blew McGuinn off the stage. I wish I had a recording of it. The guitar was brilliant.

 Roy & Nick at the Royal Festival Hall 2011

When Roy formed the band Trigger with Chris Spedding, Bill Bruford and Dave Cochran they hit their peak as a Rock Band. Spedding’s guitar was extraordinary. He later went on to play the guitar stuff on some of the Sex Pistols stuff. I hitched over to York uni to see them play and they were superb. That album ‘HQ’ is one of the best.

Likewise with the bands Chips and Black Sheep that Roy put together with Andy Roberts, Dave Lawson, Henry McCullough, John Halsey and Dave Cochran. They were a great band and produced two great albums – ‘Bullinamingvase’ and ‘Commercial Breaks’. I hitch-hiked round a bit to see them as well. They were superb.

In 1982 I met up with Roy on his ‘Born in Captivity’ tour and suggested to Roy that we should get together to write his biography. He thought he could trust me and agreed. After a number of sessions he decided that it could end up upsetting too many people. We changed the concept to a book about his lyrics. I spent twenty years working on it then Roy pulled the plug on it. I am left with thirty hours of tapes and a book in four volumes that is ready to go. Ho hum. Some things work out and some things don’t.

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