KARL DALLAS Melody Maker 18 July 1970
From Hors D'Oeuvres Issue 23 Page 13
HARPER: on-off genius?
ROY HARPER is a sort of Gerald Scarfe of music. Like the cartoonist, what he does isn't always pretty, it isn't always enjoyable, but by God his work is impossible to ignore.
Last week I heard him on two consecutive nights. The first night, at London's Royal Festival Hall, was possibly the worse gig he has ever performed. One national newspaper called it a "brilliant disaster", and it's a fair description.
The following night I sat in the control booth while he recorded his next Harvest album at EMI's Abbey Road studios. Was it the same man? The songs were the same, the dry downbeat northern humour of the remarks he interjected before the songs was the same, his Magic Roundabout haircut and sparse grizzle of beard was the same, but there the resemblance stopped. In the recording studio I stood very close to that rare, intangible thing called genius.
This is what people find so infuriating about Roy Harper, the apparent inconsistency of the man. One night incredibly in touch with his audience, drawing them into the nightmare world he sees around us, pulling out great shimmering cascades of notes from his guitar like a man with 12 fingers, illustrating to us why the Cuban peasants took him so readily to their hearts though they couldn't understand a word he said or sang. The next thing nothing.
It's easy to blame the circumstances for the difference, and Roy himself obviously feels far less at ease with his audiences below that imaginary line from Bristol and the Wash.
"The beginning of this last tour was incredible," he told me between takes. "At Liverpool they cheered, literally cheered after ever song. But it began to go sour as I came south. Portsmouth was boring. Fairfield Hall was terrible. And you were at the Festival Hall last night. The audiences down here are so blase. They put you on trial all the time and if things don't go right from the beginning, then they find you guilty. And the worse thing is they never, never react. It wouldn't be so bad if they threw things. Of course at the Festival Hall I saw a lot of obvious American tourists in the hall and I'm afraid they got me a bit uptight. They looked like people who voted for Reagan or Nixon."
I wonder if that is the real reason. If Roy needs feedback from his audience to really get on, how in the name of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson does he do it so readily in the recording studio? OK, the control room was full of friends, James Kelly looning around with imitations of the Thunderbird puppets making a pornographic movies, Peter Jenner discussing plans to organise a mediaeval craft festival somewhere like Glastonbury, an American chick who rubbed Roy's back between takes while he swigged down bottles of tomato juice, but when he was out there in the studio with only his own voice in the earphones as company, he was getting no feedback at all from us. We were behind a soundproof glass screen.
People who lump him in the bag with the shamateurs who lope on stage and share up their hang-ups with an audience that takes vicarious pleasure in the self-exposure should have been there as Roy patiently tried to get the essence of his song down on tape so that the hero was shown not as a villain, not as an angry old man about to get his revenge on society, but a rather plaintive has-been who could turn his experience to good account, if only he could get it together. A slow version was rejected. A faster one too- "Too choppy," said Roy, "It's becoming too much of a rocker." Two more takes later we were getting there, though Roy was still critical of the guitar work.
"Getting too tricky, the guitar work is taking me away from the song." This man is a communicator and anyone who can't receive his message is just not listening!
In fact, the ups and down of Roy Harper's public appearances, which will no doubt continue as long as concerts represent a small, arbitrary selected (by money) section of the population, who have come to get value in return or they'll tear up the seats.
Most artists know the feeling. They come out on stage, sing one number, and the dread realisation sinks over them like a pea-soup London fog that it just isn't going to happen. This would be OK if they were singing from the floor of a folk club. They could shrug their shoulders, say "Sorry folks" and surrender the floor to someone else.
You can't do that when the rent of a big concert hall has to be paid for, and the normally accepted definition of a "good trouper" is of a guy who can carry on regardless, triumphing over his own inner feelings, projecting an often quite false sense of self-assurance and bonhomie. This superstar technique is one of the things Roy Harper is most against, part of what he sees as the falsity of the posing and carping and criticising that is an essential part of showbiz- with the emphasis on the business.
The theme crops up in many of his songs, for instance his viciously accurate dissection of the critic's role, "The Judge'" which always make me squirm at its accuracy every time I hear it. Though Roy assures me I'm not its specific target, the cap fits sufficiently well to be uncomfortable. Why should we be so surprised that Roy Harper actually practices what he preaches?