Folk rock singer-songwriter Roy Harper is celebrating 50 years in music with a final tour. He spoke to Duncan Seaman.
Roy Harper’s 2019 UK tour looks destined to be the last chance for fans to see the singer-songwriter out on the road.
“I’m 78 in June and it’s not as though I’m 50 or 60 years old and full of beans,” he says, explaining his decision to quit touring. “I’ve got a lot of things to do and one of the things that takes a lot of my time off me is rehearsal, so if life is a constant rehearsal then you don’t get much else done.
“Actually there’s a Russian saying that life is not a rehearsal – that’s absolutely true, actually. But in my case I don’t want it to be any more. I don’t tour that often so in my case what happens is that because I’m playing guitar often although I’m writing I get away from all the old songs. I don’t play them so I don’t know them any more. After a couple of years you begin to forget things. If you play them all the time you remember little bits and pieces of fingerwork and all the rest of it that goes on but you lose all of that if you don’t play them for a couple of years.
“There’s two or three things that I’ve done in my life that I would like to cut out in order to be more productive.”
He concedes he “might” feel emotional when he steps off the stage for the last time on Sunday, but, he says, “the thing is it might just pass as usual in a flash and without anybody really noticing”.
“That’s life and death, that’s what happens, it’s abrupt,” he reflects. “I’m not going to make a big fuss about it because I don’t think it’s actually the last time I’ll be on a stage and playing, but I don’t want to tour again. If I’m still physically fit, compus mentis and all the rest of it, I’ll be wanting to do an 80th birthday gig. That’s in a couple of years’ time obviously but after that maybe I should play 10 songs once a month and keep myself in trim for a festival every year, but the thing is I’ve reached the end of doing something that is now counterproductive, I think.
“I’m quite athletic in vocal cords but if I was truly athletic in body, and I’ve never really be that, then I could see me going on a doing a Gary Player or whatever into my 80s but I don’t really want to do that. It’s not going to be cost-effective. I would much rather that I wrote three albums in my 80s than I wrote one and did some half-baked touring. It’s an equation, it’s a balance, it’s actually a choice so that is the end of it, really.”
The centrepiece of his set is McGoohan’s Blues, an 18-minute folk rock epic that Harper released on his 1969 album Folkjokeopus. It was inspired by the cult television series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan.
“It was started at the end of ’67 when the show was on TV, it went from October ’67 to February ’68 and by February I was two or three verses down the road,” he remembers. “I think it was recorded in ’68 but it didn’t come out until ’69. So the song was written and I was gigging it by the autumn of ’68.
Although McGoohan’s Blues is a tiny bit naive in places it contains most of the information that crops up later in other songs and throughout my life. It’s a real precursor.Roy Harper
“I thought the series was the best thing on TV at that time, there was nothing like it, it was social comment in the strange way that McGoohan’s presented it, as a spy who’d been retired which was an analogy for his own experience with [Danger Man]. He was this spy figure on TV and he was retired from that but the thing is he had all the knowledge that he needed to make The Prisoner from his imagination and others who’d been involved in all of the spy things and gone through the Second World War as kids. I know what that atmosphere was like.
“I remember sweets coming off the ration in 1948 and to a boy we all got sick. I’d be seven years old then and we’d save our pennies and they’d all be spent in one go and we all went green. The war was part of my life, my parents were involved in building Lancaster bombers and Mosquitoes so I grew up with that. McGoohan would’ve been 10 years at least older than me so he was a young man during the war and he would’ve come out during those spy stories – Guy Burgess and Maclean, all of that atmosphere just after the war when half the Labour Party were actually Communists and were passing information to the Russians, so actually the song was inspired in so many ways by that.
“I wanted to do it as almost a memory of my young manhood and I was going to do it on its 50th anniversary last year but we couldn’t get the halls. It’s not the best song that I could be singing, if I was to go round on this tour and sing Me and My Woman or The Game that would be a better song, but it’s its 50th anniversary and although it’s a tiny bit naive in places it contains most of the information that crops up later in other songs and throughout my life.
“It’s a real precursor and it’s funny to look at it 51 years on and read lines like “And point with computer-stained fingers each time you write”. It was there at least in my mind if not everyone who was on my level of existence in 1967/8 that computers were among us and we had to watch out for this new force which was coming and people were marginally fearful of it. Some of us thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen and were determined not to get involved in them and to try and scrap the ideas as soon as they could. I remember all of that at least ways from 1967 onwards, it was a current conversation as to how do we undermine this progress to this thing which will probably end up being Orwellian. It’s not far off that now. It’s a beast, it is in everybody’s space.”
By his own estimation, Harper was always an “oddball” in the British music scene of the 1960s and 70s, his music falling between folk and rock. “I was an outsider when I was four,” he says. “I’ve been an outsider for 73 years. I don’t mean that flippantly either, it was a fact.
“I was really alone when I was nine, 10, 11, that sort of age. I used to go out for whole days and go onto the airport ground looking for birds’ nests, looking at nature generally, into all the gorse when the linnets nested and onto the flat ground where the larks and the lapwings and the curlews nested. Half of those birds are not there in those places any more.
“In my early life, when I was seven eight, nine, I used to collect birds’ eggs, that drew me outside and I spent a life which was basically alone so I’ve know how to deal with this because it’s second nature, so being an oddball, so to speak, inside of that movement of people roughly centred at least in the South around Les Cousins Folk Club, it was a school of people and the ripple effect from it in its entirety lasted for about a decade, between ’65 and ’75. It was a school of people who bounced off each other, were competition for each other and moved the process on.
“There were all kinds of people who were in the same bag as myself. I don’t want to accuse Bert Jansch or Annie Briggs, for that matter, of being the same sort of character as me but they certainly were lone people in that sort of manner. There were also a lot of people who were very gregarious but this is a kind of a life that they’ve come into that they wouldn’t otherwise have had but for that ability to actually do something alone.
“And then there are other people that need other people to function with, like Alexis Korner. It was a great mix and it was a big lesson for all of us who went through that. It was never to be again but you will find in these islands and elsewhere that there are schools of people doing things in the same time in the same place.”
Manchester-born Harper had a reputation for standing his own ground with record companies. He felt labels rarely understood what he was trying to do with albums such Stormcock, which comprised of four lengthy songs and featured Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.
“EMI heard that there were no singles, and they heard this from the studio, people would report to EMI in Manchester Square. So very early on, before they’d even heard it, they’d abandoned it. So when we went for the first budget meeting for the exposure of the record we were confronted by a man who was in charge of it who said, ‘The first thing I have to tell you is there’s nothing left in the budget this year for any promotion of any kind’. We looked at each other. I knew what had happened, the studio was almost boasting that there were no singles so there was nothing to promote it with, or so they said, but actually it was a phenomenal album and of course still is, but it dribbled out.
“It had no chance in the world to do anything and they refused to release it in the USA for the same reason, so I was left with a dud record. I did fight them for a long time but it was fairly useless. What happened to me after that was Lifemask which was almost as good in a different way but there were small tracks on it that they could have done something with but everybody under those circumstances was suspicious of the other. Once they’d been given the excuse not to do anything and they realised what kind of mental and technical fight they had on their hands every time I was to release a record their reaction was to turn their backs on it.
“When it came to HQ, which together with Stormcock is actually one of the best records of that period, they said, ‘We’ll promote, there are one or two things on it which we could release as singles’. By then Pink Floyd had hits with longer pieces, so it wasn’t uncommon any more, but everybody was still suspicious of me.
“The killer blow was Capitol Records in America, which was the sister company which put out all of the American EMI stuff, and the guy who was in charge of Capitol, Rupert Perry, banned HQ from release in America because the album sleeve was blasphemous – I was walking on water – so that was his excuse not to release it. I got traction on it in America but all they could do was import it to the USA, separate shops and little companies. At that stage I realised I was barred from the USA, and things had happened there on a live level which also meant not only was the record banned but I was banned form going over and playing, so those two things stopped me from going any further than I’ve gone at present.
“If Stormcock and HQ had been promoted in the USA I would’ve had a much bigger following than I do.”
By the turn of the Millennium Harper seemed to have largely turned his back on music but a gathering coterie of admirers, including Kate Bush, Johnny Marr and Joanna Newsom, gave him “the energy” to start writing again and in 2013 he released the well-regarded album Man and Myth, which featured a contribution from Pete Townshend of The Who.
“Since the Millennium I’ve been really trying to collect the works and it’s not easy to do that,” he says. “What happened in my life was that people owned the other work and it had to be slowly levered away from them and we spent a lot of the ’90s doing that and it was an exhausting procedure with EMI and all of the other companies, Liberty, United Artists, CBS. So we had to re-release them under our own steam, that was expensive and it was a slow process and I didn’t do it right the first time round.
“It was a strange world by then, it was a world in which punk had even died, it was a generation after a generation after a generation. The music business, as it was, was dying, moribund, because first CDs then potentially online killed it completely.
“All of us have suffered in many ways because of the crash of the music business but you can’t go away crying into your sleeve. Times change and creativity goes to another place where it’s allowed to become vital again, whether it’s fashion or computer tech or whatever, creative people will go to creative jobs. Somebody who might’ve picked the guitar up in 1967 would just as likely take on algorithms now.
“Life changes all the time and what I embody is a period between 1965 and 1980 which was hugely creative, music-wise, because all the circumstances were right, progress was made technically and business-wise and artistically to render it on of the most important businesses in these islands, but it no longer has that vitality and no matter who is on top of what at the moment, whether it’s still Kylie, which is vaguely derivative, or some new black rapper, they’re not doing the same numbers and they’re not as valued in general society that music held when The Beatles or the Stones were in their prime.”
Roy Harper plays at Leeds Town Hall on Friday March 22. www.royharper.co.uk