Roy Harper - Biography
By J Poet
Singer/songwriter Roy Harper jokingly refers to himself as “the longest running underground act in the world.” He’s known throughout British music circles for his excellent acoustic finger picking technique and poetic lyrics. Not completely folk, rock or pop, Harper’s music confounds expectations and although he’s never achieved massive fame, he’s a musician’s musician whose work has influenced many and touched the hearts of millions around the world. Many consider him England’s best folk songwriter.
Harper outside of Manchester in 1941. His mother died a few weeks after his birth and he was raised his father and step-mother, a devout Jehovah's Witness. He played in a skiffle band called De Boys when he was 10, with his brothers Harry and David, but he also loved blues, jazz, and classical music. He dropped out of high school at 15 and lied about his age to join the Royal Air Force. He got out of the service by pretending to be crazy, but was committed to the Lancaster Moor Mental Institute as a result and underwent electro-shock therapy. He escaped from the hospital, was jailed for a year as a result, and finally left the country.
Harper hitched around Europe playing on the streets for tips and in 1964, he began a residency at London’s Les Cousins folk club where he was discovered by Peter Richard head of Strike Records. Sophisticated Beggar (1966 Strike, 1995 Science Friction) showcased all of Harper’s strengths; amazing guitar work, idiosyncratic vocals with a marked American gospel music influence in his melismas, and other worldly lyrics that are both poetic and incomprehensible. It impressed the major labels as well as folkies and led to Come out Fighting Ghengis Smith (1967 Columbia UK, 1995 Science Friction). Thankfully the label didn’t try to reign him in and it’s just as endearingly cryptic as his debut. Folkjokeopus (1969 Liberty UK, 1995 Science Friction) got the attention of Peter Jenner, Pink Floyd’s manager, who helped get Harper signed to EMI’s progressive label Harvest.
Jenner produced Flat, Baroque and Berserk (1970 Harvest, 1995 Science Friction) considered by many his first masterpiece. It included his “I Hate the White Man.” Later that year, “Hats off to (Roy) Harper” appeared on Led Zeppelin III (1970 Atlantic) and gave his career a big boost.
Stormcock (1971 Harvest, 2008 Science Friction) was another masterpiece, four extended songs that melded prog rock and poetic folk like no one before or since. Jimmy Page played lead guitar on “The same Old Rock” one of Harper’s best anti-religious songs. Lifemask (1973 Harvest, 2003 Science Friction) is another prog rock outing, again with page on lead electric guitar to compliment Harper’s acoustic flourishes. Valentine (1974 Harvest, 2004 Science Friction) a collection of out takes from his previous two albums, was released on Valentine’s Bay 1974, the night of his legendary gig at London’s Rainbow club with a backing band consisting of jimmy Page, Keith Moon, and Ronnie Lane.
HQ (1975 Chrysalis) featured guitarist Chris Spedding and Bill Bruford of King Crimson and was more rock oriented than Harper’s previous albums. On the tour for HQ Harper collapsed due to complications from multiple pulmonary arterio-venus fistuli a rare disease he’d had all his life. He took a few years off and came back with One of Those Days in England (1977 Chrysalis) which featured Paul and Linda McCartney on the title track, ,one of Harper’s few genuine chart hits. The ironically titled Commercial Break (1995 Science Friction) got shelved by Chrysalis who deemed it uncommercial; it later appeared on Harper’s own Science Friction label.
After Chrysalis refused to release Commercial Break, Harper started his own Public Records and put out two albums: The Unknown Soldier (1980 Public, 2001 Science Friction) and Work of Heart (1981 Public, 2001 Science Friction) before going belly up. Whatever Happened to Jugula (1986 Beggars Banquet) a collaboration with Jimmy Page, is a bleak, nihilistic album, and made it onto the British charts, peaking at #44 and introduced Harper to a wider audience.
He resumed his turbulent relationship with the majors on Descendants of Smith (1988 Harvest) a bleak song cycle and went back an indie for Once (1990 Awareness UK, 1991 IRS US) featuring Kate Bush and David Gilmour. Death or Glory? (2000 Science Friction) an other personal, low key masterpiece followed. Although he was finally getting some of the attention he deserved, Harper dropped out of the music and stopped playing, writing and recording. He did start his own Science Friction label, however, and went about securing the rights to his back catalogue and re-releasing them on his own logo. He released The BBC Tapes, Vol. I to VI (1997 Science Friction) a collection of his live work at the fames radio station, and finally went back to the studio for thedreamsociety (1998 Resurgent, 2001 Science Friction) an eclectic collection that ranges from hard rock, to folk, to country music, American style. Ian Anderson guests on flute on “These Fifty Years” which tips its stylistic hat to Jethro Tull.
Poems, Speeches, Thoughts and Doodles (1999 Science Friction) is a spoken word collection that Harper followed with The Green Man (2001 Science Friction) which was immediately hailed as his latter day masterpiece, an all acoustic return to the sounds of his early work. “The Death of God” (2005 Science Friction) is a CD single Harper put out to protest the insanity f the Iraq War. He’s currently at work putting together career-spanning compilations for his own label like Counter Culture (2005 Science Friction) a two CD collection of his favorite tracks.