17 Seconds talks to Roy Harper about Cricket, the genius of William Blake and getting ‘bloody freezing’ in Kate Bush videos
When I call Roy Harper at home for this interview, it’s the great man himself who answers the ‘phone. Having grown up in Manchester, and lived in London and the US, he now calls Ireland home. ‘I feel incredibly at home here,’ he says, affably. They [the Irish] are great people. But,’ he adds, ‘I miss England a lot, I miss London, particularly.’
Not that he doesn’t go back occasionally. In fact, this year on November 5, Roy Harper will play his seventieth birthday concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. His profile has been helped along of late by endorsements from a younger generation of musicians, including Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes, amongst others. I ask him if he can hear his influence in the new generation of acts.
‘You can [hear yourself] in there,’ he says, clearly touched by the tributes that have been paid to his work. ‘The way Joanna arranges things symphonically; she sets things out in a way that’s very familiar to me. If someone [covers] a song of mine, I nearly always enjoy it.’ He adds: ‘I’ve got a lot of kudos from these guys. All they’ve ever had to go on is the music, not the jaded British music press or tabloid version of ‘Harper’s Life’. A new group of people en masse taking my work on its own merit. It’s so refreshing!’
As well as his seventieth Birthday concert, he is re-issuing his back catalogue and is also set to release a new compilation, entitled Songs of Love and Loss, Volumes 1 & 2. Given the back catalogue that he has amassed, over the course of over forty years of recording, how did he go about selecting which songs made the cut?
‘It started off as an idea in the mid to late nineties,’ he explains. ‘I could have made any number of records, the Political Roy, the Social Commentary Roy – but thought it would be good to do love songs and laments.’ The laments record never got off the ground, he says, but ‘with the advent of digital download, a decade later, we decided it was time for this kind of a record. We got in touch with three or four different companies, rather than just go straight to iTunes. That way, if you get piracy problems [when you’re with a distribution company] you’ve got their company lawyers to sort it.’
Over the years, he has worked with a number of different record labels, and it’s clear that he isn’t entirely enamoured of the process in the digital download age either. ‘iTunes is a dump,’ he says firmly. He wonderfully evokes iTunes as being a place where ‘you can imagine ten thousand trolls in a satanic mill!’ dumping tracks into the massive iTunes machine. The new compilation has ‘gone up on iTunes and one or two others with no identity! They didn’t – until recently – split it the way it’s meant to be.’ However help was at hand: ‘When some guys who release physical product [Union Square] got in touch. The physical release is a good piece of product, exactly the way I intended it to be!’
I tell him I’m sympathetic to this, and say that I feel that the digital age hasn’t really come to grips with some of the peripheries of albums, particularly with regards to sleeve notes; that googling the information really isn’t the same thing as reading the artists’ notes. ‘Digital releases are a product of the modern age,’ he says. ‘All that’s wanted right now is sound bites -and even then that’s too much! Whereas, we’ve tried to make records that are thematic, where the songs are related to each other, and you have a multi-faceted record. Sleeve notes are a genuine thing from the artist or record company, straight from the source. Not a possibly jaundiced view from some unconnected critic that’s been dragged from another location in the ether. That’s as lamentable as criticism was in the eighties, when I couldn’t move without someone saying ‘Isn’t he dead, yet?’
‘Ouch,’ I say, somewhat involuntarily. I ask him about some of the musical collaborations he’s been involved in over the years. Famously, Led Zeppelin III closes with the track ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.’ Although he wasn’t involved with the track, he did collaborate with the band members, and clearly has a lot of time for both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on not just musical, but personal levels as well.
‘Jimmy secretly, and Robert as well are both acoustic music fans,’ he reveals. Anyone who seems taken aback by this should listen to Harper’s astonishing 1971 album Stormcock which sounds like it set the basis for much of what Led Zeppelin would do. ‘What they’ve built their [heavy rock] sound on is a love of acoustic music. Robert Plant is a great man,’ he states, firmly. ‘I don’t give out accolades like that easily. First and last he’s a music man. He gets a great deal of satisfaction from music.’ I say that I admire Plant because of the way that he continues to explore many different types of music, thinking of his collaboration with Alison Krauss and the way he has investigated what might -for want of a better description – be termed world music. ‘Exactly!’ says Roy down the ‘phone. ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head.’
As well as collaborating with the Zeppelin boys, he also worked with Pink Floyd. I ask him about his contribution to Floyd’s 1975 album, Wish You Were Here. Harper sang lead vocals on the track ‘Have A Cigar.’ He is, politely, rather guarded, about his work on this album, the only time during our conversation I sense some reluctance on his part.
‘Roger [Waters, Floyd singer, songwriter and bassist] wrote a song he couldn’t sing, basically,’ he states. ‘It was two semitones too high for either of them [Waters and Floyd guitarist David Gilmour] to sing. They were going to shelve it.’ Harper however contributed his vocals to the track about the record exec who’s purely out to make money, and it’s gone on to be performed by Floyd’s members since then. ‘Roger’s been singing it ever since -or trying to!’ he chuckles. Of course, the reason why he was asked to perform on Wish You Were Here was that he was recording his own album, HQ, in the next door studio at Abbey Road. Known in the US and Canada under the title of the final, closing track ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ which is probably the best known song in a very impressive catalogue. I ask him if he’s comfortable with this being seen as his epitaph.
‘There’s plenty of songs that rival it, but it happens to ring a bell for people -and it’s a bell I purposely rang.’ It’s a hugely affecting song, from its’ deceptively simple melody, beautiful David Bedford arrangement and brass from the Grimethorpe Colliery band. ‘Its’ message is of someone looking back at these Islands, at this peculiar little corner of England. He adds: ‘You say that there was some sort of perception that cricket was played by a certain class, but in your perfect Eleven [the number of players on a side in cricket] it’s the blacksmith who traditionally gets the job as the fast bowler! He’s the player who has to come in!’ He is still a cricket fan -as well as being a lifelong supporter of Manchester City.
Earlier in the conversation he had spoken about his shared earlier influences in common with the Floyd and Zeppelin boys being Skiffle. But -and if you’ve heard his music you should know this – it’s revealing that his early influences were the romantic poets, particularly Keats and Shelley. I tell him that his comment about ‘iTunes and the dark satanic mills’ reminded me of another poet who blew me away as a teenager: William Blake.
Not surprisingly, the man who wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience and ‘Jerusalem’ was a huge influence on Roy Harper. Partly, this is to do with Harper’s well-documented distrust of organised religion. ‘Blake’s sensibilities told him other things, in an age when it was impossible not to be a Christian,’ he states firmly. ‘This was the age of reason, things were being discussed on a broader scale than ever before. I think of Blake as a hugely important figure. There’s some kind of alternative ghost in the background – I love him because of that. You could see him struggling with that, and knowing that it was going to be discussed by people like me. He was a man worthy of being lauded in any age,’ he says, decisively.
Back to the present day, and we discuss his upcoming gig at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The concert’s going to be ‘Roy singing his favourite songs” with ‘half of Stormcock, perhaps.’ He says that there are going to be ‘one or two favourite guests, but no names to say,’ though he does hint that there’s ‘a lot to do with the American contingent.’
The interview’s drawing to a close. As a final question, knowing that he and Kate Bush collaborated together several times in the 1980s, I ask if he was one of the people in the ‘Breathing’ video – he sung backing vocals on the track. Yes, it turns out: ‘It was bloody freezing in that water -and some of those people went under!’
Songs of Love and Loss Volumes 1 & 2 is out now on Science Friction. The next twelve months will see the re-issue of twenty Roy Harper albums, starting with Stormcock, Flat Baroque And Berserk, Bullinamingvase and Sophisticated Beggar on October 3.