Sunday, 9 June 2013

Roy Harper pt 1

I've had several emails asking about Mr. Harper lately, so I'll post the three part chronicle of my years with Roy that I previously posted on another blog. Apologies to those who've already read it, but ,maybe it will satisfy more recent reader's curiosity...

Roy Harper     Stormcock/Work Of Heart. Part One

Let me take you back to one of my many previous incarnations…

Buzz Music was an adventure that occupied my time and energies for much of the 1970’s.

Buzz started for the want of anything better to do, I guess. After graduating from college (history and economics), I plied a trade as an itinerant musician, doing sessions in a variety of theatre pits and recording studios around the midlands (doubling and occasionally trebling on guitar, sax and flute if you must know; not just double bubble, but as MU members out there will know, triple bunce…) However, having acquired a wife and child en route, I decided that I needed a more secure means of existence and invested my modest savings in a tiny record shop in…well, in Hereford of all places.

Therein lies another story.

In this present age, we bemoan the passing of small, specialist record stores but the rot set in decades ago. Believe me – I was there. In the early 1970’s, the government abolished something called the RRP – the strict resale price set by manufacturers to enable them to police selling prices of their products in the high street. In many ways this was positive, and amongst other things led to the growth of discount mail order stores such as the original Virgin operation. However, it also meant that chain stores and supermarkets could slash the price of top selling albums to the bone and use them as lost leaders to attract punters into their stores to buy their other overpriced wares - toothpaste, vitamin pills aftershave and the like.

Buzz Music therefore found itself deprived of the juicy sales that effectively subsidised our heaving racks of obscure back catalogue. Without a bumper harvest of chart sales, times became leaner and leaner and leaner and my partner, Alan Kitchen, and I struggled to make a living wage. We therefore looked around for ways to supplement our paltry incomes.

For a while I taught guitar part-time and delivered freezers and washing machines for the new Comet electrical store across the road. Alan was an excellent electronics engineer and took in repairs in his spare time. Thus we scraped by.

As my guitar pupils progressed, they asked me to find them better guitars. Alan and I cleared out a derelict room at the back of the record store and I cut a deal with Ivor Marantz guitar shop in London to buy new Spanish guitars at wholesale prices. Word got round and those initial orders financed a small stock of acoustic guitars, strings and accessories and within a few months our guitar room had become the haunt of local musos from miles around. This was when I invested in my first commercial teapot. Indeed, I recall Buzz’s sales slogan…’If the prices don’t slay ya, the tea will…’ Very Funky Junk.

By 1975, the Buzz Music guitar shop had become perhaps the best outside London and bristled with vintage Fenders, Gibsons, Guilds and Epiphones brushing shoulders with new US axes and some of the excellent instruments beginning to emerge from Japan – Yamaha and Ibanez in particular. We employed one of my pupils, Jimmy Scott, to run the show and he became the biggest guitar geek in the universe, able to identify the year of any Fender or Gibson at one hundred paces. Oh, he also became an ace guitarist and eventually joined a modest little band in London called The Rhythm Method (quickly changed to The Pretenders at the record company’s insistence) and made quite a decent name for himself (although he chose to add his middle name – James Honeyman Scott.) Sorry folks, but scurrilous tales of me, Pete Farndon, Jimmy Scott and the Hereford crew must also wait for another day.

Following the success of our guitar shop, we moved naturally and not so gradually into other areas of musical retail, taking over the rest of our building with a series of departments that included killer drum and keyboard showrooms, perhaps the largest PA store in the country and eventually the first serious pro recording supplies outlet in the UK (although our London rivals - Andrew Stirling, Andy Beresa, Andy Monroe and Ivor Taylor collectively known as Turnkey - would no doubt dispute this.)

Buzz mushroomed, adding a flightcase factory - Sound Enclosures - and a backline and PA hire company, Soundgate, to the rosta. By the late 1970’s, our rigs and backline were on the road with Selecter, UB40, Madness, Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), Duran Duran and many other top bands. We even did Glastonbury one year, summoned at short notice by Michael Eavis to do the sound for a modest gathering in one of his larger barns – Hawkwind (of course) and a few selected invited acts including my all time favourite….Mr. Roy Harper.

Now, as you’ve probably gathered, I was something of a musical snob back then. Don’t get me wrong – I had eclectic tastes. In between my ECM and jazz favourites (Pat Martino, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Tjor Ripdal, Bill Connors et al) nestled equally treasured albums by Supertramp, Gentle Giant, Yes, Lou Reed, Jefferson Starship (‘Ride The Tiger’), Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Jackson Brown (‘Late For The Sky’) Joni, Bob Dylan and many more. But one record spent more time than any other on my Transcriptors turntable, warming my Tannoy 111LZ speakers – ‘Stormcock’ by Roy Harper.

When I first heard Harper, I hated him. His voice was a whine, his music meandering and incomprehensible, his acoustic guitar phasing in a strangely electronic way compared to the pure precision of my early guitar heroes, John Renbourn, Burt Jansch and the governor, Davy Graham However, the gateway to Roy’s genius came one insane night when I visited a former schoolmate for a weekend binge at Manchester University. His college was hosting an all night hootenanny – the predecessor of raves, I guess. Headlining were a wacky bunch called ‘Pink Floyd’ who drowned the main hall with an echoey racket for an hour and a half. As an aside, I should mention that their gig was recorded and later released as most of ‘Ummagumma’ although the album bore little relation to the gig. Apparently, even back then they were masters of studio overdubs and fixing in the mix. Still…

Well after midnight a hundred or so of us defied whatever drugs we had ingested and made our way to the refectory upstairs to witness an hour of sheer genius by a longhaired bearded weirdy wielding a small-bodied Martin acoustic (000?), a massive spliff and an anarchic attitude to his hosts. At his bidding we raided the kitchens to satisfy the communal munchies while we sat spellbound by his performance.
This was Roy Harper at his best, sharing his world of poetry and emotion, leading us on a musical journey without parallel. His intricate guitar work was a universe away from the na├»ve finger picking of Nick Drake, his style unique - aeons beyond any other musician I had ever heard. Here was a true visionary who had developed a complex guitar style to express concepts normally untouched by popular music. And his voice…it weaved, ducked, dived, soared. He was (and I believe, still is) a musical one-off, creatively head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

The gig was a seminal experience for all those lucky enough to be there. We shared that night with Roy, and he let us into his life with a candour beyond anything I had previously experienced.

From that moment I became an avid Roy Harper fan. I can honestly say that Roy was the only artists that I travelled the country paying precious bucks to see perform. I had many musical heroes but only one true idol – Roy Harper.

‘Stormcock’ epitomises the genius of the man. The album contains four songs and four songs only, but their breadth, diversity and lyrical depth provide a variety unmatched by the lifetime’s output of many lesser artists. Recorded at Abbey Road, of course, for EMI’s flagship ‘Harvest’ label and guided by Pete Jenner’s wonderfully sympathetic and understated production, the album features Roy’s stunning multitracked vocals and acoustic guitars assisted by a second guitarist – Jimmy Page, with perhaps his best recorded acoustic guitar work. Yes, there are passages where Roy and Jimmy are reinforced by an orchestra and yes, there are piano stabs, percussive jabs ad even the odd sitar here and there, but only where the tension or melody need underlining. Even today, the record sounds modern and uniquely inventive. The production was wholly original, although many of the techniques have since been copied, pasted and kneaded into the mainstream. Like true love, however, the first adventure is always the best.

I listened to Stormcock endlessly and despite years of immersing myself in these four songs, always found more within the grooves. A subtle melody here, a lyrical phrase there, pangs of emotion everywhere. For a decade I lived with an image of the Romantic visionary to whom Led Zeppelin dedicated a famous track (‘Hats Off To Harper’) who lit up Pink Floyd’s albums with his vocals (‘Have A Cigar’ from ‘Wish You Were Here.’) and who was invited to open headlining tours and festivals for The Who and Pink Floyd. Yes indeed, Roy Harper was the ultimate musician’s muso, the English Dylan, the poet to a generation of rock superstars.

So ‘Stormcock’ must be included in my ten most seminal albums. Thirty-five years on, it remains fresh, original and unique. If you don’t know the album check it out. You may hate it, but give it time. Like Bob Dylan, Olives or Provolone Cheese, Roy’s music is an acquired taste but by god it’s a taste worth acquiring.

In most reviews of Roy’s discography, Stormcock is rated as his ultimate achievement. Many, however, rate ‘Work Of Heart’ as his second greatest album, and it was perhaps his most critically acclaimed on release, being voted ‘Album Of The Year’ by both The Sunday Times (Derek Jewell) and Music Week in 1982. It was also the first album I ever produced, albeit accidentally.

How an unknown fan came to manage, form and run a record label and ultimately produce his long-time musical hero is a strange tale indeed, and one that I will recount in part two of my examination of Roy’s music, with special reference to ‘Born In Captivity’ and ‘Work Of Heart’.

Strange times, my friends…those were strange times indeed.

Roy Harper     Stormcock       Science Friction HUCD004

(note; sadly the CD has been badly remastered. If you can find an original copy of the Harvest release on vinyl, the full dynamic scope of the album will be revealed)

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