I thought I’d go back today to 1969.
It was a night at Les Cousins that I remember well. Roy had just signed to EMI on the prestigious Harvest Label. He was in the process of recording the Flat Baroque and Berserk album and wanted to record what was his most powerful song of the moment ‘I Hate The Whiteman’. He did not want to record it as a studio song as he thought it would lose the dynamic and intensity.
Roy had recorded ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, his previous epic, live in the studio and had not enjoyed the experience. He had the idea of recording Whiteman live at Les Cousins. Les Cousins, a small basement club, was his own arena. He was at home there. Roy could see that the intimate setting, full with the faithful who had been with him from the beginning, would create exactly the right atmosphere to give the song the lift it required. Somehow he persuaded EMI to set up their portable recording facility and the date was set.
I remember being very tense. I managed to get my usual seat at a little table right at the front and waited nervously. Somehow the importance of the evening had transmitted itself to me. I wanted it all to be perfect and Roy to produce an exemplary rendition. Whiteman was one of Roy’s major epics and I felt that the world needed to hear it as good as it could possibly be. I’d heard him sing it many times and it was so incredibly powerful. Nobody else was doing material like this. The nearest to it was perhaps Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’. (Sacrilege!).
We waited nervously in the dim light, sweating in the smoky, sauna atmosphere, ready to give Roy every encouragement. I find it incredible to think that an incredible evening in Greek St, in the heart of London, was going to set me back just 25p. But that was par for the course back then. You could go and see bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin for 25p or less. This was the 60s. There were many venues and top gigs every night and ridiculously cheap prices. Les Cousins was a superb venue putting on the likes of Roy, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, John Martyn, Jackson C Frank and Al Stewart. You could go to all-nighters and see a string of brilliant singer-songwriters.
This was 1969. Roy was right at the forefront of what was happening, comparing the free concerts in Hyde Park, featuring in the music press, signing to the top underground label. He was motoring. This album was going to have the weight of EMI behind it. They’d brought in Peter Jenner to produce it. It was going to be massive.
Not only did they record The Whiteman but, fortunately, recorded the whole evening. Apart from losing part of a song when the tape had to be changed the whole gig was recorded. This was a young Roy Harper at the peak of his powers, giving his all with a string of his early material, eager to communicate with his friends.
Personally, I thought he was a little uptight, not quite as relaxed as usual. Not surprising really. The fact of being recorded creates stress. We in the audience felt it maybe more than Roy did.
What we get here is a very rare early concert in all its glory, warts and all.
Listening to this takes me right back to those early gigs and times, in the days when things were real and we thought we were really changing the world.
Unfortunately, Roy was unhappy with the final recording of Whiteman and I believe he used a different version, but he kept the intro on the record.
The tapes for the concert sat on the shelf in EMI until 1996 when Roy finally got back the rights to his material. At the time I was working on a book of lyrics with Roy and Darren Crisp, his manager, asked me to write the blurb for the back cover. That was an honour.
So here it is a full Harper concert with a surprising range of material and much of his usual infamous rambling.
A Roy gig was a sharing, an experience, an insight into his mind and a thought-provoking challenge. This was no concert.