Roy Harper’s First Album

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.

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Tales from Abbey Road – The American girl

Tales from Abbey Road – The American girl

 

The sixties was a great time. There was revolution in the air – not that I ever saw or heard anybody talking guns or armed insurrection. People seemed to feel we were building a new and better society, dumping all the baggage like wars, racism, sexism, hypocrisy, greed and consumerism and creating something less conformist, simpler and more real. People were more open. They were investigating religions, cults, politics and talking about dropping out, giving up being the master’s right-hand nose and getting back to the land. It’s hard to explain. They, for a short period of time, were idealistic times of great friendship and camaraderie. When you saw someone with the hair you knew you had something in common. We shared what we had. There were usually sacraments involved! A joint would be passed around. We’d sit up talking, playing music and laughing through the night.

 

I do find myself nostalgic for the feel of those days.

 

We used to hitch-hike a lot. I would sometimes hitch to Roy’s out of town gigs and Roy was known to hitch to his own gigs. Hitching was interesting. You met all manner of people.

 

Anyway, enough of this preamble.

 

It was not unusual to put strangers up for a while. Our little two-room bedsit in Manor House often had an array of sleeping bags and new friends. You’d go to a gig and someone would want a floor for the night. One time we accrued an American girl – the reason for this strange acquisition is lost in the depths of time. She was not your typical 60s freak – far from it. I can’t imagine her going to the type of clubs I frequented, but, none-the-less we ended up with her. Unlike most of our guests she definitely overstayed her welcome. She was from a rich privileged background, contributed to nothing, and had a grating, shrill whiney, voice that never seemed to stop. Consequently she tended to dominate everything and was exceedingly annoying.

 

After a week or two Liz had definitely had enough of her. Goodwill had gone out the window. I was heading off to Abbey Road and Liz suggested I should take her with me to give her a bit of peace. I weighed it up and figured she’d most probably be quiet and a bit overawed. Foolishly I agreed, suggested it to our American ‘friend’ and she jumped at the chance. She liked the Beatles.

 

I whisked her off on my trusty orange steed, giving her a thrill or two round a few tight bends.

 

At the studio I explained to Roy what the situation was. He’d already sussed out the general lay of the land. It did not take too long to see what she was really about. She was not one to take a back seat or keep quiet. Being overawed was not in her vocabulary and she proceeded to wander around and get in the way. At one time she went off down the corridor and actually walked in the studio where Paul was working, with the red light on, and interrupted a recording. They were far from amused. Somewhere in the archives she’s probably on tape!

 

Roy was recording East of the Sun which used this quite complex and evocative high-pitched harmonica. He was having difficulty because the harmonica kept playing up and giving false notes or breaking up. They’d searched round but couldn’t find a replacement in the right key, and being the middle of the night they could not purchase one. They tried soaking the thing in water but it still would not perform and everyone was getting a bit uptight and frustrated.

 

The American girl was not helping matters. At one point they were telling her to shut up or they’d take her into the studio and sort her out. I think she was quite up for that. I was a bit concerned that it might actually happen.

 

Eventually Roy got the harmonica to last through the take and they got the track completed. In a mixture of relief and frustration Roy smashed the offending harmonica with the heavy studio door. The American girl eagerly picked up the mangled instrument as a memento.

 

Well, she eventually got Mummy and Daddy to send her air-fare through and disappeared leaving all her rucksack of possessions behind. That mangled harmonica sat on our shelf for quite a while but eventually disappeared too!

How Does It Feel? – Roy Harper

How Does It Feel? – Roy Harper

 

It’s great to see a lot of people finally catching on to this brilliant song – even if it is fifty years after the event. It is one of my favourites and also one of Roy’s, I’m sure. He always talks of it fondly and it’s regularly featured in his repertoire.

 

Thank you Margaret Atwood and the producers of The Handmaid’s Tale.

 

I first heard the track fifty years ago when he began introducing it into his live set. It resonated with me because of my looming crisis and the daily battles that it created. I was a student at the time studying Zoology in London – apart from the odd lecture or two – as free as a bird. There were no restraints (apart from having no money). I had plenty of free time. I had hair down to my waist and dressed how I liked (very colourful) I was in the midst of the sixties underground. My week was full of gigs, friends, my girlfriend and the general craziness of the times. Somehow I found time to read a lot of Sci-fi! The real world wasn’t intruding too much. The game was kept at bay. But I knew that in the near future it was destined to intrude a lot more. At some time in the near future I was going to have to find something to do; I was going to have to learn to be the master’s right-hand nose. So How Does It Feel signalled the future for me. I’d sit and listen intently as Roy sang and could imagine that god strapped to my wrist.

 

Roy always did put it so clearly in his songs of social comment. They are even more pertinent now.

 

The song speaks to me of the hypocrisy, control and mindlessness of society – just a game in which the rich exploit everyone so that they can own the world. They use religion, war, poverty and politics to control and we are slotted in to the slots of career, mortgages and debt. Some strive to become wealthy and use all those status symbols – houses, cars, trophy wives, rings, gold chains, watches – all equally mindless and pointless. Some just give up or turn to drink.

 

There has to be a better way to live!

 

Fortunately I found teaching – a great compromise – a career with a great deal of fun, great latitude and something really worthwhile!

You might want to link up to Roy’s youtube channel –

 

How Does It Feel

How does it feel to be completely unreal
How does it feel to be a voter
How does it feel to be a voluntary heel
I wonder who’s it is
I see you queuing up outside Saint Peter’s gate,
You can feel bona fide if you ride with the tide
But it’s not real

How does it feel to be out on your own
How does it feel to be thinking
How does it feel to be out on the run
With the mindless world at your heels
I wish I had no answers to put to you
Cos they got me so high tied I feel
like most of me has died
And it’s real

And outside on the dragon
And inside in the cold
Mammy’s on the bandwagon, daddy’s just getting old
And through the blood spew heavens
The roar of lust complains:
Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I’m not real

And how does it feel to be the master’s right hand nose
How does it feel to be lieutenant
How does it feel to be stood on someone’s toes
With a leech bleeding you for rent,
When you say you want a bit more rank
You wanna be a big wheel
You can feel magnified if you hide in
your pride… It’s not real

And how does it feel with a white flag in your fist
How does it feel to have two faces
How does it feel with your god strapped to your wrist
And him leading you such a chase
You got one set of words for him,
and you got another for me
You’re gonna feel mystified when you’re identified
Don’t worry kid it’s not real

And outside on the dragon
And inside in the cold
Mammy’s on the bandwagon, daddy’s just getting old
And through the blood spew heavens
The roar of lust complains:
Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I’m not real

And through the blood spew heavens
The roar of lust complains:
Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I’m not real

 

Roy Harper – Folkjokeopus the album

Folkjokeopus

Folkjokeopus was a poorly recorded album made up of largely first-takes with an unsympathetic producer who Roy did not get on with. The quality of the songs wasn’t the issue; it was the production. But I still love it!

 

When Liberty signed up Roy they thought they could turn him into a Pop Star. They brought in Shel Talmy, the American producer who had made bands like the Kinks and the Who into international stars. It was a mistake right from the start. There was no understanding or communication between Roy and Liberty. I remember Roy telling me that there was no human touch. He went into a room and talked to a machine equipped with deaf ears. Nobody was interested in what Roy wanted. They had a vision of making him into a Pop Star. But Roy was young, idealistic and had rejected all that. He saw himself as a poet/musician of the Underground. He was totally opposed to the whole money-grabbing business that showbiz was (and still is). It smacked of everything he stood against. The idea of ‘selling out’ for money or fame was contrary to everything Roy stood for. That isn’t to say he didn’t want to make it and get the recognition; it meant that he wanted to do it on his terms; he wanted to be successful because of his songs and musicianship not as some watered down smiley-faced Pop Star. You could say that he was a tad uncompromising.

 

I wasn’t there for that first meeting with Shel Talmy but I bet it was a bit frosty and antagonistic. Roy could clearly see what Shel was about. He was in the business of producing nice catchy two and a half minute hit singles. Roy was into producing twenty two minute epics packed with vitriol and angst. I think I know what Shel would have thought about that. He must have been apoplectic when confronted with the array of songs that Roy had written for the album. How was he expected to turn any of them into Pop singles? There was the twenty two minute McGoohan’s Blues, an eight minute instrumental, a seven minute song about a relationship break-up, a couple of experimental pieces and a couple of Roy’s humorous crowd pleasers. The only really commercial possibility was a song about smoking dope on the steps of City Hall and that was never going to get played on radio. On top of that he was confronted with a hostile Harper who was suspicious of everything Shel wanted to do with his precious songs and only wanted to be in control of his own material.

 

A great recipe for a total disaster – and thus it turned out. The studio was a battlefield and even with great musicians such as Nicky Hopkins and Ron Geesin it was going nowhere. Roy and Shel were never going to get along.

 

Folkjokeopus was hurriedly churned out with a series of first-takes, little rehearsal and the mistakes and glitches left in. Even the cover was a battle. Roy had this idea of making it into a diamond instead of the normal square but Liberty chose to reorientate the cover photo into a standard format. An incandescent Roy went in to Liberty offices to object to what they had done and get it put back to how he wanted it. He told me he was shown into a room and spoke to a monolith. Eventually he had to pay out of his own pocket to get the photo turned how he wanted it and even then they did not do it right and it isn’t quite a diamond as he’d envisaged. I think that summed up the relationship. I think all three parties – Liberty, Shel and Roy – were glad to see the back of each other.

 

I had been going along to as many Roy gigs as was humanly possible to fit in and by this time had become a personal friend. So I had been transfixed by the likes of McGoohan’s Blues, One for All and She’s the One. I knew what powerful songs they were. I couldn’t wait for the album to finally get released following a number of delays, such as the travesty over the cover. When I finally got my hands on it I was so disappointed. I’d probably been expecting too much. This wasn’t as good as what I had been hearing live. Roy was left angry and frustrated and I was left wondering about what might have been. I kept wishing that Roy had brought the whole thing out as a live album. I think that would really have suited all the songs.

Abbey Road Studios – Flat, Baroque and Beyond.

Abbey Road Studios – Flat, Baroque and Beyond.

 

Roy gave me the invite to go along to Abbey Road Studios for the recording of what became Flat Baroque and Berserk and I eagerly accepted. I think he did that for a number of friends. He probably liked having a few friendly faces around. It may have helped create a relaxed ambience. At least I like to think so. Dick and Rene were regulars. Dick was Kid Strange (now Richard Strange) from The Doctors of Madness and Rene was his partner and a designer. Apart from that the studio control room was usually full of various musos who seemed to waft in and out, hang around for a bit and wander out again. It was all very free and easy.

 

At the time I lived in a tiny flat in Manor House. I used to bomb across to St John’s Wood, (usually alone but sometimes with my good lady Liz) – situated in the posh part of town – on my trusty motorbike – a dull orange 350 AJS. I’d park it out front and stroll in. Sometimes there was a guy sitting at the desk inside the door but often there wasn’t anybody there at all. Security was not an issue. If the guy was there I’d just nod and he’d nod back. I was never asked what I was doing there. I guess, because of my long hair, it was assumed I was one of the musicians. I’d wander down the corridor to the studio and go in.

 

Back then there was a different attitude to musicians. They were accessible. Security was minimal. A lot of times after a gig you could simply walk backstage and have a chat with them. So I don’t remember visiting Abbey Road Studios as being a huge deal. Yes, I loved the Beatles and Floyd and this was the hallowed ground where they’d recorded those great albums but I suppose I was a bit blasé about all that side of things. I never went off to investigate the other studios down the corridor even though various Beatles – Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were there and Floyd as well. This was still the 60s underground. We were too cool for that. Besides, I was much more excited about seeing Roy record.

 

Roy was excited about recording in a proper studio having signed for the Harvest label. I remember him telling me that it would be the first time that he was getting to record his material properly. He was also really excited about working with Pete Jenner. The two of them had hit it off and he knew that they could work well together. He had a lot of respect for Pete’s abilities and that was mutual, Pete really rated Roy’s song writing and musicianship and, having previously worked with Floyd, was keen to experiment and push the boundaries. It provided great potential and Roy really thought that the partnership would bring out the best in him – as it did. So I was excited to be part of that.

 

Roy came equipped with a bunch of brilliant new songs, most of which he had tried out and honed live. He really wanted to do a good job on them. He knew he had strong material and EMI were giving him full backing. They’d provided him with the best recording facilities in the world, virtually unlimited time and Pete Jenner and John Leckie as producer and technician who were both the best in the business. The atmosphere in the studio was perfect, the surroundings were conducive and EMI had promised to promote Roy as a leading musician from the 60s Underground. This was his big chance. The Harvest label was their attempt to attract the cream of the British Underground and Roy was one of their first signings. They were putting their weight behind him. For once someone was taking him seriously and giving him the opportunity he deserved. There was a real buzz about the place which was reflected in the constant stream of Britain’s top musicians who were either wanting to contribute or turned up to watch and be part of it. The feeling was that Roy was on the brink of something huge.

 

Looking back I wish I had taken it more seriously, maybe taken my camera along. But that simply did not feel appropriate. There were things that you did not do.

 

As one would expect the studio was state of the art for 1970. Pete Jenner sat at the mixing desk like he was at the controls of Starship Enterprise. A big soundproof glass panel separated the control room from the studio. There was much talking back and forth as they set things up, much banter and a relaxed, but focussed atmosphere. After a take Roy would come in and he and Pete would listen to it, play about with the controls and discuss how to improve it. Roy was very hands on and involved. The final mixes were the result of a joint collaboration (in more ways than one). Roy knew exactly what he wanted and Pete had the expertise to enable him to get it. They both had an ear for the music and were perfectionists. They worked together well. Despite the many spliffs and congenial atmosphere with much laughter, the proceedings were extremely professional. The pair of them were meticulous and wanted things to be perfect. Roy knew that he finally had an opportunity to do full justice to his material and he was determined to seize the opportunity.

 

I sat quietly an unobtrusively at the back, watched and listened. The sound quality through the studio speakers was out of this world. It was crystal clear and the separation of instruments was more than I’d ever heard. I’d never experienced such sound quality. I revelled in it. Pete Jenner and John Leckie made me very welcome and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I knew my place. They had a job to do. I was privileged to witness them at work and see how a top recording studio with quality musicians operated. I knew that as long as I did not get in the way and let them get on with it I was OK there, so I limited myself to the odd comment about the brilliance of the takes and soaked it up. For the most part I sat in the background and watched with a big smile on my face.

 

Thus it was that for Flat Baroque and Berserk, Stormcock, Valentine and HQ, over four glorious years, I would turn up to as many sessions as I could fit in. Abbey Road became a regular fixture and I witnessed many notable performances and incidents. Then, with mixed emotions, we moved up north and that was the end of my Abbey Road experiences. I still think back to those wonder years, when Roy recorded four of his best albums, with great fondness. There were many tales to tell.

 

But more of that another time.

Book Recommendation – A Beat Novel – Opher Goodwin – Goofin’ with the Cosmic Freaks

This was my attempt to write a kind of sixties On The Road. I think of it as my Beat novel.

Some of you might recognise the character I based the book on. It has all the craziness of the times an is a good read:

In the UK:

In the USA:

Thank you for supporting me and my writing!

D-Day and Berliners by Roy Harper.

I think it is appropriate on this day of the commemoration of the landing of our troops in Normandy seventy five years ago to play a song that I would normally associate with the November Remembrance Day.

I hate war. I think there are many better ways. But sometimes, when we get it horribly wrong, we have to resort to it.

The extreme right-wing fascism of the Nazis was such an occasion. The Nazis with their tyrannical  brutality and racism should never have been allowed to come to power. But having achieved it they had to be crushed. Their ideas of racial supremacy, their anti-Semitism (which murdered 6 million Jews), and their desire for world domination, were repugnant to all civilised people.

My father fought in Italy against the Nazi scourge.

I, like everyone else, am both grateful and in awe of the bravery and sacrifice of the men who stormed those beaches. We all owe them a big debt. But I, like Roy, wonder at the things that lay behind it. The class system and elite still exist and exploit. The system is not fair. Nothing changed.

After that war alliances and trading partnerships were forged to prevent us ever having such a terrible war again. The United Nation, the European Union and NATO were the result. Better to Jaw Jaw than War War. They have resulted in a more unified Europe with much sharing, understanding and collaboration.

Lately this security is increasingly under threat. All these institutions – NATO, the UN and the EU are under threat. They may well be flawed. They may well be costly. There may be fraud and corruption. It might be a gravy train. But, from my perspective, the alternative is far worse. We’re throwing out the baby with the bath water.

There are fascists and racists marching on our streets again. Right-wing fascists are becoming mainstream. We think respect and liberalism, tolerance and PC are rude words. We are building walls again. We are tearing down our collaborations and institutions. We are becoming isolationist.

It seems ironic to me that the American President is one who represents these isolationist and anti-liberal values. It feels like having the KKK in charge of America. He appears to have more in common with the Nazi’s than with the allies who stormed those beaches yet he is presiding over this ceremony.

Roy put the words of Laurence Binyon to music and added his own verses. The result is chilling.

Lest we forget what those brave men fought for!

They fought against right-wing fascism!

They fought for liberty and freedom from tyranny.

They fought against racism, brutality and persecution of races or people – be that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Christians.

They fought for lasting peace and security.

They fought for a better world, a fairer world.

They did not fight for walls, separation, greed, or isolation.

They shall not grow old, as we are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them

They built a wall boys, it stayed up for thirty years
We’ve torn it down now, clattering round their ears
You know how it is, with spirit(s)
They just couldn’t hold us
Brothers and sisters

The world you died for, was all but a pack of lies
It had to fall down, and keep on falling
You gave us the world they promised you
And in the morning
We are the flowering
We are the flowering youth
Berliners

ROY HARPER LES COUSINS LINER NOTES

I just came across the Roy Harper liner notes I wrote for Live at Les Cousins album back in 1995. Thought you might be interested.

ROY HARPER

LES COUSINS LINER NOTES

 

               69 was a good year, whichever way up you look at it. There was something in the air – most probably ghanga. Everyone was suffused with a strange optimistic outlook. Everything was imbued with change. All the old crap was being jettisoned – ideas – thoughts – careers – suburbia. 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 smiled and flashed peace signs. People 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 involving creativity and positive life forces and hugely wonderful esotericosities. You could spend hours discussing the obvious fact that T.S. Elliott would have definitely been straight while Shelly was probably a Freak. You enthralled to the tales of Black consciousness, as epitomised by the Black Panthers, that had emerged from the civil rights 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 other conscious expanding activities.

               The Underground created instant identity. You were either a Freak or Straight. It had something to do with the length of your hair and the ideology you identified with as well as what drugs you used. Pacifist sexual explorers embarking on chemical explorations and human, spiritual, political and environmental investigations. The ‘Revolution’ was just around the corner. In many ways it had already happened. Straight society was superfluous. We had our own press, music, fashion, drugs, life-styles and culture. We were the alternative culture. Our language was permeated with the Black hipsters 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 a hugely naive and pretentious bubble that could not hold its breath too long and it subsequently produced a lot of disasters and chemical casualties. Still, even with the power of retrospective sight, it was wonderful to be there and be part of it, even if it was not a very smart career move for most of those concerned in doing it. One is also forced to acknowledge that for most of the pseudo-freaks it proved to be little more than just another fashion statement or 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 all was that it was so incredibly vital and energetic. There was so much to do, so much stimulation, so many places to be, people to meet, thoughts to share. Doors were open. The 60s was a huge university and the curriculum was open-ended.

               London was part of 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 was Blues like Chicken Shack, Fleetwood Mac 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 and Jethro Tull, West Coast Acid Rock with Country Joe, Beefheart, Mothers and the Doors. Black Blues guys like Son House, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, Old Rock ‘n’ Rollers like Jerry lee, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent. All mixed in with Jazz, Indian and psuedoclassical like the Third Ear Band. Not only that but it was ridiculously cheap. You could regularly see Floyd or Edgar Broughton doing a support for free. Hyde Park was a regular freebie. The festivals were 3 days for £1.50. A gig was often 15p and Led Zep at the Toby Jug was a staggering 25p – rip off or what? I could go on and on and on and get even more grotesquely nostalgic. Aye Lad, when I were young. Those 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 floor to the flames of Arthur Brown. Giving Demons hell with the Broughtons. The Marquee with Ten Years After. Hendrix smashing ceilings at Klooks Kleek . Killing unknown soldiers with the Doors at the magical Roundhouse. The Nice knifing organs at the UFO club. The Who smashing amps and Mooney driving Rolls’s into swimming pools.

               The Moving Being Dance group naked and cybernetics at the ICI. 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 was getting out of hand in Grovenor Square and Kent State, Peoples Park and Chicago the Yippies put a pig up for President and Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin went to court in warpaint and jesters costume.

               Life and theatre had become confused.

               Obscenity was on trial and was let off.

               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 maniacal laugh. He ranted, railed and played a mean guitar. His voice was good and the songs were excellent. I first caught him playing three numbers sandwiched between Bert and John at Les Cousins in early 67 and 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 round my own head. He was painting my pictures.

               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 wavelength, who maybe have come along for the songs, it is a frustrating experience. For those that like to mentally wank 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 69 he had progressed from street busker to songwriter supreme. We been regaled with Sophisticated Beggar and Come Out Fighting Ghenghis Smith and had our appetites whetted by the raw brilliance of Folk JokeOpus. 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. It 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’ve got to explore the problem. Roy was good at exploring problems. He was the octagonal peg that 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 heard a lot of the songs live and were living in a great sweat of expectation. Roy had signed to the new prestigious ‘Underground’ label – Harvest, the same as Floyd, Broughton and 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, 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.

               The idea was that ‘Whiteman’ was going to be the focus of the 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 by now considerable following and give full vent to his emotions. There was to be no holding back.

               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 and 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 concert was recorded for prosterity. I remember Roy being slightly more manic than usual and breaking a string in the first take of ‘Whiteman’ so that he had to do it again. I guess it was either 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 just 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 fucking 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 whole evening and it sat on the shelf at EMI right up until now – a neatly packaged bit of history – vintage Roy Harper in his full potency – when it was new and looking to change things. Snarling fit to shake the world.

               The strange thing is that Roy 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 learnt something in that ensuing quarter of a century!!

               Thank Shit he hasn’t! It’s a dirty job and someone has to do it – to stick their heads above the parapet and have the squealers, snouts deep in 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 well slotted up our own arses by now. Maybe we are? He may be crazy but he still makes a lot more sense than Major and the tribes of grey mediocrity that seem to be shaping our destiny. Here’s to the next 25 years of insanity!

 

OPHER 12.10.95

Roy Harper – McGoohan’s Blues – some reminiscences.

McGoohan’s Blues – some reminiscences.

 

Seeing Roy perform McGoohan’s Blues in Leeds, along with that excellent ensemble, had quite a profound effect on me. I’ve seen Roy perform it many times down the years but never quite like that. He had brought out the musicality of the song in a way that I had not believed possible. It was beautiful and amazingly that did not detract from the power of the lyrics. I would not have thought that was possible.

It took me on a journey.

McGoohan’s Blues was the second ‘epic’ song Roy had created (The first being Circle on Come Out Fighting Ghenghis Smith). While Circle had really resonated with me (coming out while I was still at school struggling with school authorities and parental expectations) McGoohan’s blew my head off. I had never heard a song anywhere near as powerful. Every line was a barbed attack on the society that I was busy wrestling with. It was like looking into my own head and finding someone else was putting into words the thoughts that were busy crashing against my skull.

I was fortunate to be in the audience when Roy first introduced the song into his set. For me it exploded. I sat there mesmerised, trying to absorb and come to terms with the content. There was so much of it to assimilate and think about.

Back then I was catching up to two or three Roy gigs a week. So I got to hear it again and again.

Roy was in his angst-filled mid-twenties and at his most powerful. He used to spit it out with great venom. He’d pound the hell out of that guitar and pour all the passion and fury into it. It felt as if he’d collected all his frustrations with society and its hypocritical nature into one great poem, put it to music and vented his spleen. It contained everything – the greed, the deceit, the bureaucracy, the pointlessness, the two-faced nastiness, the whole controlling system – and he poured it out coated with vitriol while realising the utter futility of opposing the great social project.

We waited anxiously for the much anticipated album FolkJokeOpus. McGoohan’s Blues was the centre-piece but another really strong live stalwart was She’s The One.

I rushed home with it and put it on. Somehow it was disappointing. It seemed to lack the intensity of his live performance.

I’m playing it now. It’s great. But somehow I always craved for a perfect live rendition like the intensity of those early expositions. In my mind I can still see Roy pouring the whole of his spirit into that song.

Over the years I’ve heard many great performances of that brilliant song but somehow they always seem to fall short of those early versions. They leave me slightly unsatisfied.

I have thought a lot about it. I suspect it is me. I suspect that the impact of hearing that song for the first time can’t really be matched. It lives in my mind like an immaculate, unattainable thing of perfection. It probably was never any better than the later live performances – but the fanfare that I’m forcing through my teeth answers never. I still lust after the sheer intensity of those very first performances. If only those early gigs had been recorded – all we have is the Les Cousins of a little later.

I’m playing the FolkJokeOpus version right now. I’m enjoying it but I still feel that it is second best. It is lacking. I always felt that the last section with the other instruments coming in never really worked. They did not feel in sympathy with the song.

Which brings me back to the performance in Leeds.

What is obvious is that Roy, as a performer now in his late seventies, cannot really hope to match the energy of that young Harper. But by utilising the musicianship of those brilliant musicians and not going for outright power, he brought out something special, something more in the song. Unlike in the earlier recording, the ensemble augmented the song and made it all the greater. They brought a different intensity to it. They brought the song to life in a way I had not heard before.

You know – I think it was the equal of those early renditions. It brought the song back to life for me and gave me goose-bumps all over again.

It’s a shame that songs don’t ever seem to change society. Nothing has changed. It’s just as pertinent now as it ever was – if not more so.

As Simon Cowell awards marks, Ma’s favourite Pop Star is still forcing a grin and then we turn over for ‘Give Away Cash’. Ho hum. The plastic, destructive society continues to go on devouring the world and trivialising life.

My First Roy Harper Gig

My First Roy Harper Gig

I was getting prepared for my first Harper gig a year or two before it happened.

British Folk Music had always been a traditional scene. Folk singers largely played traditional music much in the way that it had always been played, adapting it to guitar and usually singing about people from far off times as typified by Ewan McColl. It was supported by an enthusiastic small clique.

Then came Bob Dylan and the Greenwich Village scene. It took Folk into the popular market and highlighted songwriting and topical songs.

In Britain it had a huge impact. As young kids we were all listening to the Beatles and Stones plus all the other Beat groups, but we were also getting into Dylan and soaking up the social comment.

Ready Steady Go was essential viewing on TV. The bands performed live. In 1965 they started featuring a tousle haired singer with an acoustic guitar who they were selling as Britain’s answer to Dylan. Donovan set the trend in the popular stakes as regards Folk. But behind the scene we had people like Martin Carthy doing his great arrangements of Folk songs, Shirley and Dolly Collins with their harmonies and song arrangements, and the amazing Davy Graham bringing in influences from the Middle East and producing complex songs that set the whole tone. The Contemporary Folk Scene was taking off. It was no longer a cultural backwater.

In 1965 I was introduced to the fabulous Jackson C Frank by my friend Bob Ede and then shortly after to the wonders of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn by another friend – Neil Furby.

1965 was the year I obtained my first motorbike. Suddenly London was accessible. I could get to the clubs.
In 1967 a friend called Mike, who sported long curly hair and a white plastic mac, had his finger on the pulse. He told me about this great singer that I would like and how he was saying all the same stuff as me. He went by the name of Roy Harper and Mike assured me that he was just my thing.

I stored it away with all the other recommendations. The whole music scene was burgeoning. There wasn’t enough time to see everything. I forgot about it. I was hitting the Marquee, Middle Earth, UFO as well as Bunjies and Les Cousins.

A couple of months later I found myself in Les Cousins for a Bert Jansch/John Renbourn concert. Les Cousins had become one of my favourite haunts – a dingy cellar on Greek St in Soho that you had to get to via some steep steps – a crowded room with tables and chairs, dimly lit, up close to the performers, intimate with a great atmosphere. Bert and John were brilliant as usual but what really made an impression was Roy.

In between the main sets Roy did a little cameo for half an hour. He only played three songs, one of which was the instrumental Blackpool, but he talked a lot. I was smitten. Not only were the songs brilliant, the guitar playing great but the patter was incredible.

I came out of there singing. Forget Bert and John – Roy Harper was simply in another dimension.