Roy Harper by Ian Anderson
Jeff The Cake always walked very, very fast. Speeding up and down the wind-blown wintry streets of Blackpool to and from the North Station Café where he would clear tables and rubbish in return for a free cuppa. He was our sole resident Beatnik and more than a little strange. Not so much a deep intelligence: more would-be hobo/weirdo representing a scary but seductive margin of society. And he, ’tis said, the new Roy Harper.
’tis said, the new Roy Harper.
Sixth-form school-chum Jeffrey Hammond and I eventually plucked up enough courage to begin a brief chat with odd-ball Jeff The Cake and heard wondrous stories about Blackpool’s sole export to the heady world of artist-with-signed-record-deal-down-in-London success. Roy had been a Grammar School boy, like us, and done the “travelling” thing, before it was called travelling. Strumming his acoustic guitar and singing home-grown ditties inspired (whether he admitted it or not) by Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Dylan et al, Roy had ESCAPED. Escaped from lower middle class conformity in the ’burbs of Blackpool to the magical mystery tour of musical life. And girls. So we heard. A lot of them…
Fast forward three or four years to a folk club in Grantham where on the bill with the early, bluesy Jethro Tull were Stefan Grossman and one Roy Harper. We had never played a folk club before and were a little unsure as to the reception we would get from audience and fellow artistes alike. Roy and Stefan both proved to be fine and supportive fellows so we gave them a lift back to London (with extra passenger DJ John Peel, I seem to remember) in our beaten-up bandwagon of the Luton-bodied Transit variety.
Roy’s casual, confused, devil-may-care attitude to music, punters, life and limb together with the frugal possessions of guitar, back-pack and not much else other than a waggling road-side thumb to get him to the next destination seemed wonderfully attractive compared to our growing entourage of roadies, managers, and stuff. Marshall amps, speakers, equipment, instruments, vans – complications and burdens, all.
A tad over-fond of a joint or 10, Roy seemed to fake somewhat the drug-hazed intellectual in his stage persona, but became usually quite lucid and focused when you found him packing his guitar after the show. His second album, Come Out Fighting, Genghis Smith, spun endlessly on my Dansette turntable through the equally endless Summer of ’68.
I guess the same Harper charisma and imagery appealed to other rock buddies and supporters in the Zep and Floydian tribes, too. Roy’s brave, spartan musical approach and his ability to spellbind, silence and subjugate any audience with fierce political and religious meanderings filled with poignant, and pithy lyrics had us all hooked.
Roy wore his intellect on his sleeve. His songs were always about something. Even the simplest love song had a setting, a context. Loves lost, remembered or simply won and forgotten drew him to accept the movie role in Made  with Carole White. I had turned it down but recommended Roy to the producers as the real thing to play the lead character, a womanising singer-songwriter folk-rock star. First-time thespian Roy really got into the part – and the off-screen parts of poor Carole, who soon succumbed to his charm and mystique. The kit-off and shagging scenes were no problem to the Harpster. I just couldn’t have managed those bits. But then, he had definitely had more practice than me.
I readily cite Old Uncle Roy (for he has, just, the edge on me in the world of the bus-pass) as my primary influence as an acoustic guitarist and songwriter and it has been a joy to perform, briefly, on a couple of his albums. He, in turn, did a rather good cover for a Tull tribute album of my song Up The Pool which actually got me back to singing this forgotten piece again in concert.
Roy’s great moment of national newspaper fame came when he bestowed the kiss of life on a distinctly unwell sheep during his peer-influenced get-back-to-the-farm period. Poor Harper then very nearly succumbed to some rare mouth-to-mouth sheep-borne disease as a result. History does not, alas, recount the fate of the sheep.
They don’t make them like Roy Harper any more. They don’t smoke them like Roy either. Troubadour. Musical vagrant. Brain activist. The Sophisticated Beggar. Sheep-hugger. Still alive and quietly kicking. Catch him while you can.
EMI have just reissued Jethro Tull’s Rock Island, Catfish Rising, A Little Light Music and Roots To Branches albums.