Friday, 12 July 2013

Harpic 3

Nineteen seventy-nine marked the end of one decade and the dawn of another, mirroring the changes in my life.

My time was increasingly devoted to the task of resuscitating Roy Harper’s stalled career, no longer from a tiny rented house in Hereford but from a makeshift office in Birmingham, cobbled together in reclaimed derelict space above a recording studio in Gas Street, spitting distance from the Canal (an appropriate description as it happens; this was definitely downmarket – even less salubrious than the shabbiness of Rotten Park, where Annie and I rented a dilapidated flat).

For several months a fellow traveller shared the Harper universe that increasingly dominated my life. One of Roy’s old mates moved into The Vauld for a while, seeking refuge from a collapsing marriage and his own career hiatus. Being more of a jazzer than a rocker in my youth, Led Zeppelin had passed me by. Indeed (and perhaps amazingly) I was wholly unaware of the mega-star status of Robert Plant, the new arrival who hung out with Roy and I during this period. Indeed, nothing about Robert’s bearing or mannerisms betrayed his status in the rock firmament. He was down to earth, unpretentious and about as normal as any muso could be. There were occasional glimpses that he was a little less than an aspiring Brummy, though, as one treasured anecdote demonstrates (and I’m sure Robert will excuse me if I slightly guild what is a real-life lily…)

A frighteningly posh Jaguar car showroom occupied a large expanse of street around the corner from my dingy Gas Street office. One day, Robert phoned me. ‘Mark,’ he said, ‘I noticed a neat Jaguar convertible in the showroom round the corner. Do us a favour, mate, and pop in to see how much they want for it.’

I duly complied.

Now, those who know me will attest to the fact that I’m something of a sartorial disaster. My standard wardrobe comprises jeans, whatever shirt comes to hand in the morning and a comfortable jumper. My hair may be a mess these days, but it’s positively neat compared to the mop that flopped across my head twenty-seven years ago. In short, I guess I’d sheepishly own up to the fact that more often than not I’m one stitch removed from a tramp or (more kindly) a plumber’s mate rather than a music bizz impresario. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the dishevelled figure knocking the glass window of the super-posh Jag showroom was ignored for several minutes before a tetchy salesman answered the door, more in irritation than welcome.

‘Piss off son,’ came the welcoming response.

‘No, please,’ I pleaded. ‘I’ve been asked to get a price on one of your motors for a mate.’

A scowl accompanied by a half raised hand suggested that the salesman intended to give me a clip round the ear rather than any advice. He hesitated, though, probably unwilling to crease his dapper ‘Top Man’ suit.

‘That…’ I pointed at the convertible XJ6. ‘How much?’

I doubt that the salesman could have mustered a more derisory response had he practiced for a month. ‘Forty Thousand,’ he scoffed with a smirk. ‘Pounds, that is, not pence. Now piss off, sonny.’

I left Mister Jaguar Salesman chuckling at his naff joke and wandered back around the corner to report back.

‘Forty grand, eh?’ Robert’s voice on the end of the phone was curious, his interest clearly pricked. ‘Do us a favour, Mark, and ask what they’ll do for cash. See how much you can knock them down.’

Ten minutes later I was knocking on the plate glass window again.


‘What now?’ The Jag salesman strode rather than wandered to the door, murder in his eyes. ‘I’m busy. What do you want this time?’

I took half a step back and cleared my throat. ‘The convertible…’ I pointed to the gleaming green XJ6. ‘What’s your best deal for cash? Cash pound notes?’ It was just as well I’d taken that step as I swear the salesman would have taken a swing at me and ended up with blood on his pinstriped shirt. His mouth opened but not a word came out.

I tried again. ‘How much for cash? The bottom line? Rock bottom?’

Although his voice mouthed the words ‘piss off…’ what came out was…’thirty five thousand pounds,’ before he caught his breath, pointed to the street and hissed… ‘now stop wasting my bloody time…’ and slammed the door in my face.

I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed any moment more than when, two days later, Robert and I wandered into the showroom to confront my best buddy (not), the car salesman. Robert laid his briefcase on the counter, flipped open the lid and pulled out a banker’s draft made out for thirty five thousand pounds. Done deal.

I was never able to walk past the Jaguar showroom again without that slick, foulmouthed sales-weasel rushing out to greet me with news of his latest bargains.

Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that jazz…

But back to Roy Harper.

My strategy to revitalise Roy’s ailing career was two fold; firstly, to find a great band to back him on the gigs that we both agreed were essential to raise his profile and secondly…to choose the right record deal. Yes, that’s right. In my naivety I believed that every record company in the world would be blown away by such an amazing demo album and fight one other to sign the great man.

Hmmm…I had much to learn.

We held auditions for backing musicians in Pete King’s recording studio, below my office. These took the form of a couple of days recordings, which Roy and I later mixed at David Gilmour’s private studio (later developed to become Hook End Manor). Sorry folks…that is yet another story.

We trawled Birmingham for musicians and one name kept cropping up – that of guitarist Bob Wilson, formerly of The Steve Gibbons Band. He topped our list, was offered a gig after (probably) twenty seconds in the studio and fully justified his reputation as being very special. Had Bob lived in London, he would have had the pick of any band in the business as he was both an exceptional player and a true pro. And a diamond geezer to boot. In terms of bass players, we’d pretty much decided on a guy called Dick Cadbury who ran a studio in Gloucester and had quite a pedigree on the session scene. I asked my old mate, drummer George Jackson, to come and lay down drums for Dick’s audition and he was happy to oblige. George had run the drum shop at Buzz Music for a while and was a great player. As chance had it, he was now resident drummer with the Birmingham Top Rank house band, and so was local. However, just before the audition Dick rang up and cancelled, leaving us with a booked studio, a guitarist (Bob Wilson) a drummer but no bassist. I asked George if he could drag along a dep, and this is how we first met Tony Franklyn.

I’ll never forget that first session. I’d been nervous when George turned up with Tony, for Tony was a lad, a kid, a giggling seventeen year old. ‘Just listen,’ George whispered. So we did.

Tony had recently joined the Top Rank band from his native Derby (I think) as resident bass player. He read dots fluently, was a dab hand on clarinet and had made the gig his own immediately. Although shy and a little overawed by the occasion, all his nerves evaporated the moment he plugged in his Precision bass.

We were gobsmacked.

Now, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the most talented musicians of my generation in one capacity or other. I have high standards and can recognise an exceptional musician when I hear one. I can honestly say that Tony Franklyn was a league above any other teenage muso I’ve ever heard. On every score, he dripped talent. His sound, his timing, his fluency, his precision – on every score he was not merely the finished article but was already a highly individual voice. Am I over-egging the cookie? I think not. Indeed, he had the same effect on Jimmy Page and Paul Rogers when, upon the demise of Roy’s band, they asked him to join The Firm and tour stadiums in the States. By all accounts he stole show after show, despite being half the age of the other superstars in the band. Fender have now afforded Tony the ultimate accolade by naming a bass after him – a copy of his trademark fretless Precision (hence his nickname as ‘The Fretless Monster’)

So Roy’s band was taking shape nicely. I’d even unearthed some superb backing vocalists who later went on tour with us – Ruby Turner, Mo Birch and Jackie Graham. Those girls could sing, as the world was later to discover when they all signed separate solo record deals. Meanwhile, I started the rounds of London record companies, demos in hand (and those were the days when there were upwards of fifteen majors clustered around the West End).

My meetings proved puzzling. Pretty much everyone was curious but…I was soon to learn that Roy had developed what might best be described as something of a reputation as a loose cannon in the industry, as was summed up by my dealings with Simon Potts at Arista.

I left the demos with Simon (whom I knew quite well from my Haircut 100 days) and met up with him again a week later. He sighed and shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, Mark.’ He was sympathetic. ‘Good luck, though.’ He smiled. As I got up to leave, disappointed he added… ‘Oh, do you mind if I keep the demos? They’re amazing –the best demos I’ve ever heard. Roy’s a genius. There’s a classic album waiting to be made…’

‘Well why not sign him, then?’ I was puzzled.

Simon shrugged. ‘What? Sign Roy Harper?’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. Life’s too short…’

With all the majors passing one by one, we were left to find another strategy. The solution came initially from Roy.

According to Roy, his superstar friends would be happy to invest in a label and finance the making of the record. Guaranteed. After all they were mates, weren’t they?

And so the lunacy began.

I formed a record company – Public Recordings – and committed my remaining resources to the project. A friend of mine, Robert Grayburn, also invested some working capital (thanks Robert…you’ll get it back one day, I promise…) and Roy gave me a list of his ‘friends’ to contact for additional investment. An injection of five thousand pounds as a loan would buy shares and points on the album. Easy, eh?

In my innocence I believed so.

Over the next three months I wrote letters and held meetings with a series of potential investors whose records graced my collection. I sat in Bill Curbishly’s office making a presentation to an inebriated Pete Townsend, spoke several times to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (who had always publicly claimed Roy as a major influence) and put in repeated calls to Jimmy Page whom Roy was adamant would chip into the kitty. All of these offered verbal support, but nothing more. However, one by one investors did send cheques. Robert Plant and David Gilmour needed no persuading, although Gilmour quietly suggested that the likelihood of ever seeing his money back was about as remote as a hike on the dark side of the moon. I realise now that he knew Roy better than any of us. So that was ten grand in addition to the ten that Robert and I had invested. Kate Bush was an avid fan and had covered one of Roy’s songs somewhere down the line. I met her several times (and a new hero was born; what an unpretentious, lovely, generous, honest human being…) and one day a note arrived with a cheque for three thousand, all she could afford at the time. So we were nearly there. Just one more investor, and we’d have the budget we needed to make the album at long last.

The pressure mounted. Pressure from Barclays to repossess Roy’s farm, pressure to keep the musicians we’d found for the album on-side, pressure to confirm the pencilled studio dates at Chapel Lane outside Hereford, close to Roy’s house (meaning we had accommodation for the band). I needed one more investor, but all I was getting were rejections. Rejections from Pete Townsend, stoned silence from Jimmy Page, haughty indifference from Ian Anderson, until…

The phone went.

‘Hello. Public Recordings.’

‘Can I speak to Mark please?’ It was a familiar voice. I racked my brains, trying to place where and who and when…


‘You sent me a tape with a letter asking me to invest in your new record company.’

‘Ye-es…’ I answered hesitantly. Who was this? It was such a familiar voice that I assumed I was speaking to someone I knew well.

‘I love the demos. I think the album deserves a chance. I’ll put a cheque for five grand in the post today. OK?’ …a pause… ‘ and thanks for thinking of me.’

‘So…you’re a close friend of Roy’s?’ I was still desperately struggling to place the voice, too embarrassed to ask who it was in case it was an obvious friend, desperate for a clue.

‘Me? A friend?’ The caller laughed. ‘No. We only met once. Linda and I were recording at Abbey Road and dragged Roy in to help out with backing vocals. But I’m a big fan. Always have been. So is Linda.’

I knew. The voice. I knew who it was. And if I hadn’t, I would have found out soon enough. The caller confirmed in his own modest style…

‘Oh, I’ll send a personal cheque, Paul McCartney, rather than getting MPL involved. Less paperwork needed.’ As I gasped, he added… ‘And by the way, regard it as a gift rather than an investment. I may not know Roy very well, but I know him well enough. I won’t expect to get it back. But good luck with the album anyway, Mark.’
And the phone went dead.

At last we had our money courtesy of Robert Plant, David Gilmour, Kate Bush and Paul McCartney. Oh, not forgetting Robert Grayburn and me, of course.

Rock and Roll…

(to be continued…)

Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008 

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