Roy Harper – The Early Gigs 1967/68
It’s hard to describe the early concerts in those two years as they weren’t really concerts like people were used to. They were events, gatherings, exchanges, sharings.
A concert was a performance. A singer/band would take the stage, present their songs, the audience would applaud, they’d introduce the next number and the musical performance would be appreciated. Roy’s gigs were not like that.
Roy would arrive with his battered guitar case, having hitch-hiked or arrived by train, depending on where, set up on a stool, using the house PA, and begin. No sound checks. No introductions. No appearing out of the wings (there usually weren’t any wings in those little clubs).
When he’s got himself together, played about with the tuning, he’d start with a little maniacal laugh and then proceed into some tale about an event on the way in or something that had caught his attention, with an occasional strum and giggle.
Yes, there was a musician on a stage, and an audience, usually seated on uncomfortable wooden chairs in a small drab hall, but this wasn’t exactly a recital.
Roy treated all his venues as if they were his front room and his audiences as if they were a bunch of friends who had just dropped in. He talked to us as if we were sitting around a table together, whatever came into his head. He explained his poems, talked about current events, thoughts and feelings. Then he’d play a song. Even once he’d started he might stop partway in to share a thought that had come into his head.
Some found this approach frustrating. They had come for the songs, not to hear Roy waffle on. They wanted a more professional performance.
But for me, and the others like me, who cottoned on to the whole unique experience, this was gold dust. Roy’s mind, his thoughts and feelings were every bit as fascinating and insightful as the songs. His ramblings and incisive dissections shone a searchlight of the songs and the events, feelings and thoughts that had led to the creation of the poetry. He was analysing and illuminating society and life in a way that nobody else had ever attempted. Mind blowing. There was nobody like this.
Not only that, but Roy was illuminating thoughts and ideas that had been floating around my head. It felt like he was clarifying and solidifying my own mind.
The ideas and exchanges not only explained the poems, and gave greater meaning and importance to the lyrics, but they sent tendrils of thought out into all aspects of the world around us. His mind was electric and electrifying. Roy’s mind was on fire, flitting here and there, dissecting, expanding and questioning.
No two concerts were ever the same. They depended on his mood. Sometimes there was more banter than song, other times more of a performance.
A Roy Harper gig was more of a sharing than a gig; an insight into a unique mind.
I think a number of us lived in dread that he’d ‘be discovered’ or become ‘famous’. If some promoter/manager took him on board and tidied the act up, removing the banter and making it ‘more professional’, we lose that relaxed sharing.
Not to say that the musical performances were not intense and incredible; they were.
I remember sitting in awe as Roy performed McGoohan’s Blues for the first time. It was an awesome slab of epic social commentary to the most rousing musical energy. It blew us away. The power and intensity; the sheer scale. Dylan was the only one who came close (I always saw It’s Alright Ma,(I’m Only Bleeding) as being the only song that was similar in scope and impact).
That alone was surely worth the entrance?
For me, the St Pancras Town Hall gig in early 1969 felt like the end of that era. Roy had become much more successful. The queues went around the block. The venues were bigger. It had become increasingly difficult to maintain that informal intimacy. Though Roy did not change, the nature of the events, size of the audience, and distances involved between Roy and the audience, created more of a ‘performance’ element. Roy had graduated into a performer, not by choice, by sheer popularity.
Sadly, I’ve never heard any recordings from those early two years. No bootlegs surfaced. They reside in my memory. And, of course, our memories are imperfect, constantly reinvented, inaccurate and prone to subjectivity. In my mind those early gigs were monsters that shook me through to the core.