Thursday, 18 July 2013

Roy Harper (Harpic) -4

I had never made an album before but it couldn’t be that hard, could it? After all, surely it was just a matter of common sense? I knew my way around studios from my days as a session musician and the process seemed pretty straightforward.


I was later to learn that logic and common sense are not in abundant supply in the music industry. That I achieved my goals, by and large, was not a matter of luck though. It was down to meticulous planning, careful thought and good fortune to work with some quite extraordinary talent.

We had twenty eight thousand pounds in the kitty, half of which was earmarked for the recording budget (which had to include payments to musicians) a few grand to keep the office going and the rest to promote the album. It sounded like a lot at the time, except…as I rooted through Roy’s accounts within the context of straightening out his convoluted tax affairs, it became clear that his last album for EMI (Unknown Soldier) had come in with the princely price tag of £160,000 – more than ten times as much as I had allocated for Work Of Heart (the title of the new album). Still…what did EMI know about making records? They’d only been doing it for an eternity (that’s not as tongue-in-cheek as it may sound. It remains my belief that most major record companies know naff-all about how to make good records, as my later production escapades were to confirm).

The first task was to find a producer. I had always been a big fan of the production on the early Peter Gabriel albums – Jeux Sans Frontiers, Biko, Salisbury Hill et al. The album covers credited Steve Lillywhite. He seemed a good choice. So I did what any sensible executive producer should do but I now know never in fact does – I rang the artist for a reference. I’d had occasional dealings with the talented Mr. Gabriel during my Buzz Music days, and he was extremely helpful. Rather than confirm Steve Lillywhite’s credentials, Peter raved on about an unknown producer/engineer with whom he was currently collaborating on his current – fourth – album (Shock The Monkey etc). This bloke lived in Peter’s neck of the woods – Bath – and was, according to the great man, a complete and utter musical and production genius, a former composer and classical musician called David Lord. If Roy was looking to the best producer in the business, I should call David.

So I did.

Disappointment followed. David was politeness itself, and said he would love to hear the demos but…he was far too busy mixing Peter Gabriel’s album to take on another project. Sorry – thanks but no thanks.

John Leckie wasn’t chosen as an alternative to David Lord. Quite the opposite. John had always been top of Roy’s short list, but had been tied up with a production in London. Until – suddenly John became available, and the production chair was filled.
Accordingly, I sent Chapel Lane Studios a fifty percent advance on studio time and the recordings commenced.

It turned out to be a fraught process. Roy proved pernickety in the studio to the point of infuriation. John Leckie knew how tight the budget and therefore the timescale was, and began to suffer increasing stress trying to push the album forwards, particularly as Roy was used to months and even years to make an album (Unknown Soldier had eaten almost eighteen months in Abbey Road). The musicians we’d found turned out to be sensational, whizzing through the backing tracks on schedule with world-class performances. Except…

We recorded the backing tracks to a drum programme, laid down on a brand new state of the art machine called an Oberheim DMX, programmed by a friend of Bob Wilson’s who flew the private plane for ELO (don’t ask…life is weird.) When the time came to replace these 8 bit samples with real drums, we hit problems. A friend of John Leckie’s recommended a young drummer (whose name escapes me – fortunately so, perhaps) but the sessions turned out to be a disaster. Sadly, although talented, the youngster’s lack of studio experience let him down badly and ten days were lost desperately trying (and failing) to lay down drum tracks. All the while the stress grew, and Roy became ever more domineering in the control room. Maybe I can understand, as he really did have his life on the line. This was not merely a career saving album, but with the bank ready to pull the plug on his house and financial pressures closing in, the stakes could not have been higher.

John Leckie did an amazing job of shaping, tracking and tightening the backing tracks against all odds but eventually the pressure told and he cracked. He downed tools one day and high-tailed it for the sanity of the hills.. He was, after all, a human being and carried his own personal burdens. Thus it was that I was called to the studio half way through the project to salvage a crisis.

I found a set of excellent backing tracks, minus drums, almost ready to mix. John had engineered as well as produced, and had worked fourteen hours a day progressing the project in the face of Roy’s ever changing mind and more pressures than any producer should have to bear. But I was left with no engineer, no one to mix, no drummer and no track sheets.

Crisis? What crisis? This was my first album. Maybe all recording sessions were like this…

I’d always been a massive fan of a greatly underrated singer-songwriter called Judie Tzuke. Apart from a voice to die for, she wrote (sorry…she writes) intelligent, timeless songs and has always attracted top-flight musicians to her band. In particular, I’d always been impressed by her drummer, a guy called Charlie Morgan. So I found his number from the Musicians Union, rang him up and booked him for an eight-hour session. What I didn’t tell him (until he arrived with a drum kit and Dolby, the dog) was that I wanted him to overdub an entire album in that short day.


John Leckie had left a well-managed set of tapes, complete with click tracks. Tom Oliver, the main live sound engineer I used for my tour productions, was drafted in to engineer and we sat in the control room with Charlie listening to a playback of the album. He loved the stuff. And he went for it.

I’ve worked with some great drummers in my time (Mannie Elias, Gavin Harrison, George Jackson Jr and many more) but never have I experienced such magic in the studio. Charlie’s energy didn’t flag, any more than his enthusiasm. And lest any of you drummers out there belittle the task of overdubbing forty minutes of music in less than eight hours, it should be pointed out that Roy’s songs aren’t easy. They bristle with time changes, dynamics, subtle extra bars here and there. The title track, Work Of Heart, is twenty minutes long and covers a vast range of light, shade and tempo. But Charlie rose to the task and achieved far more than could ever have been expected. Indeed, there are sparse licks and tight fills on that record that still send a shiver down my spine after a thousand listens. So hats off to Charlie Morgan – drummer supreme. Last I heard, he was a regular member of Elton John’s band. I’m not surprised.

So thanks to John Leckie, Charlie Morgan and Tom Oliver, we had our backing tracks. We were only slightly over budget and schedule, what’s more, although with such a tight budget ‘slightly over’ was a major consideration.

Now to work out how to get the damn thing mixed.

More in hope than expectation, I put in another call to David Lord in Bath. As good fortune would have it, he suddenly had time available (there are plenty of biographies detailing the falling out of David and Peter Gabriel, so I have no intention of touching on that here.) Moreover, David had his own studio in Bath – Crescent – and was prepared to provide his services to mix plus studio time for a week at a figure that precisely equated to my remaining budget, taking into account that I had hired a second engineer to assist with the mix – Paul Cobbold, one of the Rockfield crew and an old friend. A few economies had to be made, though, which meant I spent the week of the mix sleeping in the back of my Volvo estate rather than lavishing precious funds on a bed and breakfast.

Rock `n` Roll (oh my aching back…)

David Lord is a genius. Irrespective of any personal factors, I am happy – nay proud – to shout his musical, production and engineering credentials from the highest mountaintop. Peter Gabriel was right - the man is a musical genius.

David realised John Leckie’s production vision perfectly. He added various overdubs, including some keyboard parts of his own. I’d always imagined sax on a couple of the tracks, and contacted Dick Morrissey. What a geezer…inspiration in every breath, and a master of his instrument. He also knew a few tricks. For example, there was one particularly snappy solo on (yes, you guessed) a Gabriel album, and I wanted that vibe for one of Roy’s tracks. Dick explained that he’d cut the solo on tenor with the tape slowed down. When the track was replayed at normal speed, the sax sounded tighter, snappier and hovered between the ranges of alto and tenor. So that’s what we did and it worked like a dream. Like Charlie Morgan, Dick was the master of the first take. These guys were pros (unlike me) and it was such a privilege to work with them. As much as anything else it made me happy that I hadn’t pursued a career as a session musician. I was nowhere near these guys’ class.

And so Work Of Heart finally saw the light of day – a collection of great songs, faultlessly performed, beautifully recorded and mixed by a genius. I had made my first album on budget (a paltry fifteen grand) and pretty well on time. If I have one regret, it’s that John Leckie was never given the production credit that he so richly deserved, but then that’s Roy. He rang to compliment the finished product, and to say how much he liked David Lord’s mix. John was a true friend to Roy and modest to a fault.

And what happened next?

Well…I rewrote music bizz history a little. I negotiated the first ever commercial sponsorship for an album marketing campaign (Maxell Tapes gave me £35,000 to promote the record), negotiated heavy preorders with a couple of chain stores and charted the album. ‘Work Of Heart’ was voted album of the year by Derek Jewell in The Sunday Times and was also named one of the five albums of the year in Music Week. We shifted thirty five thousand albums through Pinnacle, an independent distributor (the equivalent of selling three hundred thousand on a major as I was later told by the publisher, Dick Leahy). The band toured and were great, with Tony Franklyn, Bob Wilson and George Jackson ably supported by Jackie Graham, Mo Birch and Ruby Turner on backing vocals. On their night, they were dynamite – a million miles from the old-hat crustiness many associated with Roy Harper. And then, just as I had overseas licensing deals lined up with promised advances in excess of £60,000 I learned a bitter (but valuable) lesson about the music business.

Public Recordings numbered amongst its major shareholders Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, David Gilmour, Robert Grayburn and me. However, in my innocence, the label had no formal agreement with the artist – he was merely a fifty per cent shareholder. One day, a contrite and embarrassed Roy appeared in my office with news that his accountant had advised him to liquidate the label and buy the master tapes back from the receiver for £100 (without his consent to release, they were worthless to anyone else). He could then release through a new label and use the proceeds to buy another house to replace that foreclosed upon by Barclays.

‘Sorry Mark,’ Roy mumbled, ‘but this is the only life I’ve got. I have to think about myself.’

I have no idea whether the business scam worked out for Roy. Possibly. Possibly not. I was left high and dry in Birmingham with the wreckage of the label and all the bad vibes associated with a bankrupt company.

David Gilmour and Paul McCartney had been right. Roy’s investors never saw their money back, let alone a profit. But I guess they knew that all along. I was the novice in the Harper stakes.

Apart from being a great learning curve, I take great pride in ‘Work Of Heart’. It was an album that should have been impossible to make. Even today it sounds fresh and stands beside any other album of its era in terms of quality and creativity. It is rated by most reviewers of Roy’s output as his second greatest album after Stormcock. Indeed, Roy personally rates the demos (released as Born In Captivity) as his favourite album, or one of them at least.

Born In Captivity cost four hundred pounds (my time was donated for nothing – a bounced cheque) and Work Of Heart cost a fraction of what the record companies I later worked with imagined. Indeed, after I came to London and joined the music mainstream, intent to learn from the major record companies I worked with, I was amused to find that they were more interested in discovering how I’d achieved the results and accolades represented by Work Of Heart rather than trying to teach me their tricks.

I could only offer one answer – always trust talent above cheque-book production.
That rule remains as true today as it was in 1980.

You better believe.

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



  1. excellent stories, thanks so much for writing them; you should write a book & somebody should write a Roy Harper biography.

  2. It was a pleasure reading these Roy Harper tales. I have a couple of easy questions I would like to ask:
    1) you mentioned that the recordings that would become Born In Captivity are from 1979. Yet Unknown Soldier only came out in 1980. Is that right?
    2) Is the song Playing Prison (from Loony On The Bus) from any of those sessions – I mean from Born in Captivity or from Work Of Heart?
    Thanks in advance.