April 05, 2021

Unsung Heroes Series: Roy Harper

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The name Roy Harper doesn’t mean very much to the average Rock fan in the US. This is despite the fact that the English Folk Rock singer songwriter has released 32 albums to date. Such stars like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Pete Townshend , Kate Bush, the members of Pink Floyd and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull are among his biggest fans. Even more recent acts like Kate Bush and Fleet Foxes cite his song writing as a big influence.

So how is it that so many people have no idea who Roy Harper is? Perhaps one reason is his songs are often very complex in both musical and lyrical structure. He has always stayed true to his own way of doing things which often meant writing songs that the average person didn’t understand or could hum along to as they walked down the street.

Much of what made Harper so hard to understand can be traced to his early years. His mother died when he was just three weeks old. When his father did marry again, there was some conflict between Roy and his stepmom. That may have been the reason he quit school at age 15 and joined the Royal Air Force. After two years of service, he was given a medical discharge after faking mental illness. Against his will, he was committed to a mental hospital but found a way to escape. The song “Committed” on his first album shares these experiences.

At first Roy was influenced by American singers Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. But he soon branched out after hearing Jazz artists like Miles Davis and Classical music. Poets and writers like Keats and Kerouac influenced his lyrics. Before too long Roy was playing in the London clubs with acts like Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. That soon led to him being offered his first record deal.

From the start his record company wanted him to write and sing pop songs. There was none of that in his first record. It was the beginning of a lifelong conflict with record companies, managers and producers. Critics loved his work and decided that he was part of the new “odd” folk music scene. That led to him often billed with Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus Rex. It led to a lifelong admiration and respect among those peers.

The rave reviews of his music helped Harper gain a following in England. In 1970 Pink Floyd’s manager, Peter Jenner, was able to get Roy a long-term deal with Harvest Records. Eight albums were recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios. Jenner took Roy on as both manager and producer. The relationship was stormy at best. Peter would later describe Harper as a “a terrific songwriter, but a bit crazy”.

It wasn’t until the fourth album, FLAT BAROQUE AND BESERK, that any of Harper’s records were released in the US in 1970. Among those who backed Roy up on the album were the members of the then popular band The Nice (Keith Emerson on Keyboards). Despite having some of his best material on the album, it got very little attention in this country. We at WDAS-FM in Philadelphia did play “Another Day” and “Hell’s Angels”.

In 1970 Led Zeppelin paid tribute to Roy by recording the song “Hats Off to Roy Harper” that appears on Led Zeppelin III. Jimmy page especially admired the way Harper stood his ground for his principles. This led to Harper touring with Led Zeppelin and him doing photography for their album covers. Later Page also played on Harper’s records.

In 1975, when Pink Floyd was recording WISH YOU WERE HERE, Roger Waters couldn’t sing when it came time to do “Have a Cigar”. David Gilmour didn’t want to sing it, do they asked Roy Harper to step in. Harper just happened to be at Abbey Road Studios recording his album called HQ or as it was originally called, WHEN AN OLD CRICKETER LEAVES THE CREASE. David Gilmour returned the favor by backing up Harper on his album.

The end result was HQ is generally considered to be the best album Harper ever did. Leading the way was “Grown Ups are Just Silly Children” and the very powerful and sad song that served as the original title tune. “Cricketer” was probably a poor choice for what Roy was trying to say. The story line is about a famous Cricketer who no longer can play the game that made him famous.

The lyrics are so heartfelt but are lost to Americans who don’t get past the fact that they don’t know much about the sport. If you just substitute anyone who has lost the ability to function on the highest level in any profession, the song takes on more meaning. This should have been the big break-through record for Roy. It wasn’t and record companies here pretty much gave up on him.

Harper continued to perform and record. Since the record industry gave up on him, he decided to form his own label called Science Friction. So typical. While Roy is still around and maintains a website http://www.royharper.com, he hasn’t released a record since 2013.

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