Roy Harper
Roy Harper

In the best of all possible worlds, a man who has made music with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Paul McCartney, Ian Anderson, Peter Townshend, Keith Moon, Ronnie Lane, Chris Spedding, Alvin Lee and Kate Bush would need no introduction. But, of course, we inhabit a world where, in the words of Roy Harper, “lemmings push their pens and rush in hordes of crashing stupor.”

Late last summer, I took my teenage son to see Radiohead, a band he’s obsessed with but one relatively unfamiliar to me. Early in what turned out to be a memorable concert, Radiohead played some material from their newest album, Moon-Shaped Pool. As layered and orchestrated as it sounded—and as sensory overloaded were the special effects on stage at the Boston Garden—at its heart was a guy strumming an acoustic guitar and singing songs about dislocation, disaffection and loss. I couldn’t help thinking, “Hey, this sounds a lot like Roy Harper music to me.”

It struck me all over again—as it has over the past few decades—how much of an influence Harper has had on the British rock scene, from the time he walked on stage with his acoustic guitar at the legendary London folk club Les Cousin in the early 1960s until now, with Radiohead.

In the best of all possible worlds, a man who has made music with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Paul McCartney, Ian Anderson, Peter Townshend, Keith Moon, Ronnie Lane, Chris Spedding, Alvin Lee and Kate Bush would need no introduction. But, of course, we inhabit a world where, in the words of Roy Harper, “lemmings push their pens and rush in hordes of crashing stupor.”

Roy Harper performing on a bandstand
Roy Harper performing on a bandstand

For the past five decades, Roy Harper has possessed, and been possessed by, one of the most distinctive visions in contemporary music. Though he is relatively unknown in America, Harper is a legend in his native England, a sort of Bob Dylan meets John Lennon, by way of George Orwell. Led Zeppelin thought so much of him that they recorded a tribute to him on their third album, entitled “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.”

And Pink Floyd had him sing lead on “Have A Cigar”, from the Wish You Were Here album.

Harper has also served as a sort of spiritual godfather to a generation or two of soul-bearers like Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock, Joe Strummer, Fleet Foxes and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

Seemingly in hiding on his farm in Ireland for the past decade, Harper recently gave a short tour of the UK. At age 77, he’s still in good voice and fine fettle, but there is another reason he has reemerged that has nothing to do with nostalgia. Fifty years ago, he recorded a song called “McGoohan’s Blues,” which took up nearly a side of the album released in the U.S. in 1969 as Folkjokeopus, produced by the ubiquitous Shel Talmy. “McGoohan” refers to Patrick McGoohan, the actor who played the main role in The Prisoner, a dystopian TV show in Great Britain that has since become a cult classic.

Here is a typical stanza from “McGoohan’s Blues”:

“And the pin-striped sardine-cum-magician is packed in his train
Censoring all of the censorship filling his brain
He glares through his armour-plate vision and says “Hmm, insane”
The prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain
And the luminous green prima donna is sniffing the sky
She daren’t tread the earth that she’s smelling her birth was too high
Her bank balance castle is built on opinion and fear
Which is all she allows within three hundred miles of her ear”

Of this song, Harper now says, “Partly because many of the things I wrote about in ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ are still very relevant 50 years later, and partly because my third record was a watershed moment in my recording life, it’s been long in my mind that I should dust it off and bring it on tour again.”

In these troubled times, Harper’s un-ironic earnestness and prophetic anger sound downright refreshing. And the sweeping arrangements on his recordings hark back to a time when albums were meant to be more than just a collection of unconnected songs. Harper has never compromised his principles. He brings the sort of passion to each of his songs that makes a listener feel the performance could easily have been his last.

And indeed, it very well could have been. In 1971, Harper was diagnosed with a rare circulatory disorder called multiple pulmonary arterio-venus istuli, which fuses the veins and arteries in the lungs. As he told one interviewer, “I can’t sing more than half a song without getting terrible pains…. I was given seven years to live when I was 31.”

Roy Harper and David Gilmour
Roy Harper and David Gilmour

The folkie romantic can be found in simple songs of wistful beauty such as “Commune,” “Another Day” and “One of Those Days in England.” The angry philosopher makes a call in “Death or Glory?,” “1948ish,” “Don’t You Grieve” and “These Fifty Years.”

The ethereal poet shines in the luminous compositions “Me and My Woman,” “Same Old Rock” and “The Game.” The hard rocker emerges in “Male Chauvinist Pig Blues,” “Highway Blues” and “Ten Years Ago.”

Jimmy Page plays lead on Harper’s “Highway Blues”:

Harper observations such as this one, describing the straightforward but beautifully plucked, acoustic number “Commune”: “I used to believe that communal was possible, and I still think that it is, but could only be achieved within a different moral culture…one where possession of material and person was by all, for all.” Of “Ten Years Ago,” he rambles: “[It] is still as sardonic as it was twenty years ago. And still as relevant to the way I feel…. The new/latest wave of folk on the awareness kick always think that they are the first. Which of course they are. Unfortunately, they always seem to be about to eat the same old nettle soup. Good stuff. Got to get it when it’s young and in the first throes of hard stinging…”

Somewhere along the way, Harper acquired the reputation of being a “difficult” artist, but that is not true. Sure, some of his albums contain demanding compositions, taking up entire sides of the vinyl versions. And many of his songs contain some stiff doses of the truth, as well as some British obsessions (like cricket and soccer). Nonetheless, his music is not an acquired taste, like Captain Beefheart’s or Tom Waits’.  His voice is a strong tenor that is flexible enough to bend around any of the emotions and complicated poetry he wishes to convey, and his acoustic guitar playing lacks the sort of strumming cliches one might normally associate with “folk music”; at times, his sophisticated picking is nothing short of brilliant. Roy’s son Nick, an indisputably gifted musician in his own right (and with his own separate following), plays inspired guitar on the later albums, as well.

A more apt comparison for Roy Harper would be to Nick Drake, one of Harper’s contemporaries and with whom he has often been compared. Though both he and Drake are evocative “singer/songwriters” whose recorded work favored an acoustic folk approach, neither of these unique artists can be pigeonholed as “folkies.” Drake utilized the production brilliance of Joe Boyd and a host of eclectic sidemen, including John Cale, while Harper has, as mentioned above, enlisted the aid of a veritable Rock ‘n’ Roll Who’s Who.

Where they differ are their chosen themes. Drake explored the inner landscape of his own soul more completely than anyone since Franz Kafka, while Harper has always sought bigger game. At times, in fact, he sounds like he wants nothing less than to save the world.

In “How Does It Feel” off the album Flat Baroque and Berserk (my personal favorite), he rails against those who buckle under, give up the fight and become a “voluntary heel.” The song, with his lung-busting vocals, bloody-fingered guitar playing and blistering lyrical indictment, has never grown old to these ears: “How does it feel to hold the white flag in your fist/ How does it feel to have two faces/ How does it feel to have your god strapped to your wrist/ and him leading you such a chase…” On and on this litany goes for several verses, ending with a plaintive, “Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I’m not real.

Here’s part of an interview I conducted with Roy Harper in 2005.

AB: What do you think it is that stands between you and an American audience?

Roy Harper: It’s two or three things. The major thing is that anything that requires a little bit of mouth, a little bit of innate…have to use these words sparingly [laughs]…anything that takes a bit of out-of-the-way intelligence isn’t really what the general public needs. Put it this way: it isn’t the food that they are fed on. What they are fed on are things coming to them straight from the box that they’re either listening to or watching. So that anybody who actually cares…those among us who are independent enough to go to the trouble of searching out things…will find lots of things in the world worthy of note.

AB: Something I’ve noticed, too, is that America has gotten increasingly more infantile over the last, say, five to ten years. There’s this obsession with sex and bizarre religious fanaticism, and it is getting worse.

Roy Harper: But that is what has been happening in the USA since the time it began a couple hundred years ago. It is just boiling to the top now. There are a lot of people making those sounds about religion or sexual mores who are able to make them now. It wasn’t always possible for the way-out, whacked-out religious fanatic to actually get his message through to more than the thirty people in his circle. But now, it’s possible for someone to glean millions from people who have been waylaid by life and think religion is the only answer. And it’s possible for someone to just leap in there and skin them.

Although the US appears to be becoming more infantile, I think that’s a worldwide thing because the general population have their tastes made for them now more than ever. If it’s not loud and clear…if it’s not saying “Britney Spears” or “Spice Girls”…or if it’s not loud, they won’t notice it. Elvis was pretty loud, but he was good. I can remember the hip-waggling antics of the 1950s, in America particularly. The world was generally outraged for just that moment in time, those two or three months, to enable the population to suddenly make this man very public.

AB: They even blacked out his hip waggling on TV, hoping to not make him public.

Roy Harper: But suddenly he became fashionable. They forgot the sexual mores that they put up in a defense against Elvis at the time.

AB: Money had something to do with it. He sold a lot of records and made a lot of unhip people very rich.

Roy Harper: Yes, but also, given time, what happened was that they forgot that threat posed by Elvis and made him the “Monarch of Pop.”

AB: Let’s talk about Roy Harper. If the birth date given in your bio is correct, you were born within days of an obscure American folksinger named Bob Dylan.

I don’t want to flog this Dylan thing, but many years ago I heard you characterized as “the British Dylan.” Did you ever see yourself as operating under the same time frame, competing with Dylan for air space, so to speak?

Roy Harper: Well, I was more attracted to poetry during the time that he was making his name in folk music. I think there’s a crucial difference between us in that I’ve maintained…what I first set out to do. He was fundamentally attached to the folk scene at the beginning of his life in music. He was attached to people like, say, Woody Guthrie.

AB: Yes, he made that connection very much a part of his public identity.

Roy Harper: Whereas I was much more attached to Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. So although I’m sort of a Brit—and I say that guardedly because I am also of the world these days—I seriously thought the answer to modern social problems was to be found in how Jack Kerouac dealt with the world in those days. Not that he dealt with it with any particular success, ultimately…in fact, he was dead by the age of 47…drink mainly. But he and the other Beats gave me such an inspiration at the time inside which to work. From an early age, I was attached to the English romantic poets.

AB: Shelley and Keats and Byron?

Roy Harper: Not Byron, but Shelley and Keats most definitely. Wordsworth was OK, too. And so I was attached to that from boyhood. But then the Beat poets hit me like the proverbial sledgehammer, and that was the direction I went off in. I spent from the age of 13 or 14 to the age of 21, those crucial seven years, writing poems and being my own version of a Beat poet. In fact, you could have called me in those days a Beatnik.

AB: Did any of those Beat poems appear later in songs?

Roy Harper: No, but I’ve gathered a lot of them together on a record called Poems, Thoughts, Speeches [available on Harper’s website only].

AB: That’s what immediately struck me when I first heard your music as a teenager. Your lyrics could stand alone, which was not the case with a lot of musicians I liked. In fact, when I read the lyric sheets to their records, I was inevitably disappointed. But yours were self-evidently literary. You’re still enamored of Shelley and Keats and mentioned Thomas Huxley and George Orwell on your records. What can a contemporary musical audience learn from these writers?

Jonathan Wilson and Roy Harper
Jonathan Wilson and Roy Harper

Roy Harper: An inspiration toward a way of life. That is, a way of life can be lived in a more natural way not too far away from what these writers were doing. In other words, all of the religious and political twaddle can be circumnavigated by an ability to see the poem in each other, to be able to speak as we are speaking now. I’m not being poetic, and I’m not filling our speech with prose, but it is a conversation in which nothing is governing me. I’m not speaking from a rulebook here. Every conversation that I have with anyone depends upon what the other person says, too, about how that other person joins in. That’s the sort of connection I mean when I point up these sorts of writers.

AB: I felt that same sort of kinship with Henry Miller, who showed how a life itself can be a work of art.

Roy Harper: You’ve hit the nail on the head. I think of Miller as not being too far away from William Burroughs…in the way that their lives were their art. Life as a way of art. You can’t get the majority of human beings, no matter what the nationality or race, to have an idea about that unless they’ve been through some sort of an eye-opening experience, like reading, like understanding these writers I mentioned, or being exposed to that kind of thinking. That is almost a prerequisite for entering into Roy Harper. Once you’ve been exposed to that kind of an experience, then I’m easy. Really, really easy.


Rare footage from Norway television in 1969, of Harper at his absolute peak, just after Flat Baroque and Berserk was released on Harvest.


Roy Harper’s Official website