Roy’s First Album
I’ve just spent the afternoon reacquainting myself with Roy’s first album ‘Sophisticated Beggar’ which was released in 1966 (although I did not get my hands on it until 1967).
It is quite a remarkable album in many ways and brought back many memories.
In some ways Roy was part of the Les Cousins Folk Scene. He was a resident at the club and part of the contemporary British Folk Scene that had blossomed in the wake the huge success of Dylan and Donovan; though this scene was quite different to either that of the Greenwich Village movement or the more commercial area that Donovan moved in. The heart of Contemporary British Folk was to be found in the likes of Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. These were consummate acoustic guitarist virtuosos who took the art to new heights.
I was lucky because in 1965 I had a couple of friends who were greatly into this new burgeoning folk genre. Neil introduced me to Davy, Bert and John – all of whom had produced ground breaking albums in that year, while Robert introduced me to the wonderful Jackson C Frank. Back then I was sixteen and open to anything. I was soaking up the Beat music in the charts along with authentic Blues, Woody Guthrie, Dylan as well as good old Rock ‘n’ Roll. Music was central to my life in a way that my parents and teachers would have liked my studies to have been. I was reading Jack Kerouac and liked the more authentic uncommercial nature of both the folk and blues. So, by the time I stumbled across Roy in 1967 I was already well immersed.
That first album of Roy’s was a genuine Garage album. The talk was that the Strike label was little more than a money laundering enterprise. I don’t know if that was true but it is amusing to think that Roy’s career might have been ignited by the mafia. The story was that these shady characters were looking for a suitable candidate from the Folk Scene to unload some money on and Jo Lustig, Roy’s manager, secured him the gig. The studio was a very make-shift affair with Pierre Tubbs as the recording engineer. This was hardly the state of the art recording studio – but they did have a revox tape machine and the results sounded great to me.
There was no publicity or marketing and Roy did a ‘do-it-yourself’ job on it, straight out of his street hustling days, busking round Europe; he produced flyers and touted it round at gigs. Not too many albums were produced and sold but it got his foot in the door.
By the time I’d arrived in 1967 Roy had just sold the last one but he lent me his own remaining copy! I bet there are not too many people that would have done that are there? I remember he’d augmented the cover with a bit of black felt-tip.
The first time I’d seen Roy was at Les Cousins sandwiched in between Bert and John and he’d played three songs off that first album – one was definitely Blackpool and I’m pretty sure one of the others was Goldfish. So I was eager to hear it. I could not wait to get that album on my turntable and hear what he was about.
Most people put Roy in the Folk section – man with an acoustic guitar who played the Folk circuit – but even a cursory listen to that first album shows that he was much more than that. Roy has never been limited to any one type of style. There was the customary guitar virtuoso track with ‘Blackpool’. Roy was an excellent guitarist and at that time everybody was trying to catch up with Davy Graham who had brought that array of Eastern chords and eclectic jazz to contemporary folk. What struck me though was the scope of the album. Roy was putting his poetry to music and experimenting with all manner of styles. This was the sixties. Anything went. Roy was at the cutting edge of all that.
When I put it on I played it through a few times to get the feel of it. Roy had foolishly given me his telephone number and was very long-suffering as this over-enthusiastic youth, with a head full of questions, persisted in ringing him up. He indulged me. So I rang him up and had a long conversation about the songs (as we had no phone I had to go to the phone box and feed it with threepenny bits). I was pleased to hear that ‘My Friend’ was about Jackson C Frank. Roy and he had been good friends and I really rated Jackson. His album was one of the best. I can’t remember what else he told me apart from the fact that he’d written ‘Goldfish’ for Nick, who was a baby back then. So I went back and played it some more.
‘China Girl’ was amazing. Psychedelia was taking off in 1967 but here was Harper in 1966 with phasing and a psychedelic willow pattern harking back to a beautiful Chinese girl Roy had seen around Soho. Syd Barrett would have been proud.
‘Committed’ went back to his electroshock treatment in the mental institute but it was a real rock out of madness and hysteria with Roy forgetting the words and ad-libbing. Ritchie Blackmore was in there! This wasn’t Folk. You wouldn’t catch Bert or John doing something like that would you?
‘Sophisticated Beggar’ was autobiographical and more poetic, with its inspiration back to his busking days. The view of society was already coming through strongly on tracks like this and ‘Big Fat Silver Aeroplane’ (with all its drug references of joints, spliffs, medal sucker (purple hearts)).
I felt that ‘Legend’ was one of the strongest songs, the poetry most developed and the song very different to anything I’d heard before. There were a few themes in here that Roy would come back to – ‘of landmarks in the desert wastes of multi-coloured crime’ – a bit of philosophy, dissolving snowflakes and everything’s just everything because everything just is.’ I could hear this song in future songs like ‘McGoohan’s Blues and ‘Same Old Rock’.
I thought ‘Black Clouds’ sounded very Janschish and ‘October the Twelfth’ started that antitheist theme that keeps cropping up in Roy’s catalogue. Roy told me he wrote the song on a bad day. You can feel the anger as he hit out at the mindlessness that surrounded him – but in the end he turned it on himself.
Then ‘Mr Station Master’, another autobiographical song with social overtones, complete with organ and rocky backing, was different again.
‘Forever’ was the most beautiful love song I’d ever heard. I told Roy that, and he sang it to me and my woman in Kingston in 1970. I still remember. It was special.
It was obvious that this album, with its different chords, guitar sound and varied styles, its poetry and rebellious vibes, was something out of the ordinary. I loved the sound of it and thought Pierre Tubbs had done a good job. He’d captured Roy – though by 1967 Roy had already moved on.
It wasn’t until Roy finally got the tapes from Pierre Tubbs (or was it Jo Lustig?) in the late nineties that I was able to hear a bit more of those sessions. There were a few interesting songs in those outtakes. Roy eventually brought them out on ‘Today is Yesterday’.
That first album was a great start. Roy was to take those themes and develop them further throughout his extensive career, but that first foray onto vinyl was something special to me.
Having said that, no sooner had I discovered it, than Roy had moved on to be snapped up by CBS as a star of the future, been given Shel Talmy to give him that star quality, and had moved on to record ‘Come Out Fighting Ghenghis Smith’.
I bought that the day it came out. But that’s another story.