It’s fascinating to look back over the past 45 years of Roy Harper’s career and play “what if?”
What if it had been he, as opposed to anybody else, who stepped fully-formed out of the so parochial coffee-bar and cellar-based English folk scene of the mid-1960s to grasp the mantle that Dave Cousins, Sandy Denny and Al Stewart ultimately wore to stardom?
What if, having been signed to Pink Floyd’s management company, it had been his vision of single side-long songs that so captured the commercial imagination, rather than those of the Floyd themselves?
What if, having been name-checked on the third Led Zeppelin album, he had then translated critical awareness into public plaudits?
What if, at so many different points in time, Roy Harper had shrugged off his role as one of British rock’s most idiosyncratic cult heroes and marched into the musical mainstream?
Well, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here now, because it wouldn’t be Roy Harper if it had happened. Would it?
He shakes his head smilingly. “I’ve always had a really good cult following, but because of the material itself, because of the depth of it, it’s governed itself. It’s not really been accessible for the average person who buys records. Something that talks about the nitty gritty of life in a kind of précised, poetic way, getting volumes of what would be a book onto one piece of vinyl … who the hell is going to wade through that?”
Point taken. Twenty minutes of “One Of Those Days In England,” as many again of “The Game,” the lachrymose poise of “Another Day,” the sad vérité of “Highway Blues” — really, who needs to sit through all that? Well, fans of mid-1980s collective This Mortal Coil did, after a masterful “Another Day” was included on their It’ll End In Tears LP; and fans of vintage 1973 David Bowie almost did, after he recorded “Highway Blues” with his Astronettes sideline.
An edited “England” is one of the highlights of the BBC’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” DVD series. And, of course, most people own one of his records anyway, as he pops up to sing on Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the mega-zillion selling follow-up to Dark Side Of The Moon. And that’s sing as in “lead vocals all the way through the song,” not sing as in “a few throwaway backing vocals as he passed through the studio.” Harper may not have many gold records on his wall, but the one he does have probably sits in 20 million homes worldwide.
Born in Manchester in 1941, Roy Harper arrived in London in 1964 aboard the same folky train that attracted Al Stewart, Dave Cousins, Sandy Denny … even Paul Simon was a staple on the scene for a while, and his debut album Songbook bristles with poignant reminders of his time in the city.
Harper, by his own admission, was slower out of the gate; discussing this period for the Today Is Yesterday collection, he admits that he was still “trying things out as a songwriter. Previously I’d only been interested in writing poetry. My first inspirations were jazz, the blues, Shelley, Kerouac and the Beats. But, at some point in 1963, it became obvious to me that there was a growing currency in songwriting. I quickly discovered that poems and songs were completely different forms, and I struggled with the difference for a while.”
His earliest compositions “bear witness to that struggle.” But, honed into shape by the months he spent busking around Europe beforehand, the songs that he made his debut with on the London stage were frequently acerbic, occasiona