ROY HARPER TALKING TO BOB HARRIS
On the 11th of November 1996, just before a three-night stint at the 12 Bar Club in London, Roy was invited into Greater London Radio (GLR) for a session with Bob Harris. Roy and Bob have known each other for years, as the interview shows.
Bob: it's been many, many years actually
Roy: well thank you Bob, it's been a long time, too long
Bob: It has been too long, yes. You were responsible for my early introduction the world of movie making because you were...
Roy: driving along in a Bentley on Brighton sea front I remember that
Bob: we made a film together called Made, well I say we, it was Roy and Carol White were the stars of that film and I made a very brief appearance, kind of as myself really
Roy: it was your movie debut wasn't it?
Bob: it was, it was my only movie appearance
Bob: (laughs) it began and ended with that particular feat
Roy: I thought about that today as a matter of fact as I would coming to see you, I thought oh yeah god remember that
Bob: because everyone was saying that the reason you were doing it was because Roy wanted you to do it. Apparently they had screen tested lots of people and I just got a phone call one day saying would you like to go down to Brighton
Roy: well that's actually the only true bit in the film I think
Bob: did you do any other acting additionally to that Roy?
Roy: what apart from the rest of my life? I've always thought of myself as an actor first and foremost who wrote his own scripts for himself, some of them got a bit too anarchic for the person who'd written them who had to sort of withdraw to certain points in time, certain places I thought, and some of them were kind of tamer than he wanted, you know it's the usual six of one and half-a-dozen of the other, but I do reckon myself as an actor
Bob: because there is, isn't there, there's that old show business thing, when some of the great singers and stuff, and they say these days people like Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones that they can 'put a song across'
Bob: this is the great thing 'put a song across' and that is partly, isn't it, to do with feeling a song?
Roy: yes that's what it is
Bob: the expression of the song, so there is an element of acting in that
Roy: it's a large element I think because what I always....I think that I write some very difficult things for myself to come to terms with, I don't really want to start to waffle at you know ten past nine on, what day is it?
Roy: what was I saying? but I think I've written some very difficult things for myself to put across but I think if I'd written things like 'It's not Unusual' I'd have failed (laughs) by comparison with Tom Jones right, so I had to.... the benchmark for me was to write more difficult stuff
Bob: yeah, and particularly at times Roy when it seemed that you were going to make the sort of major, as it were, popular breakthrough that everybody at various stages of your career has always predicted for you
Bob: and it seemed to me at times when that was just about to happen would be the time that you would dig your heels in and be more challenging than ever before
Roy: yes there is an element of that you're absolutely right Bob, I.... but at the same time as that is an obvious fact I would say that there's two or three pieces of luck that you wouldn't have believed. Like for instance, the fact that when 'One of Those Days in England', the single, was going up the charts, significantly going up the charts, it got to number forty two in the charts, and Robin Nash, who was boss of Top of the Pops at the time, said the moment that it reaches forty you're on Top of the Pops, which of course would have changed my constituency at the time from two hundred thousand to thirteen million was the same week that EMI said, EMI released, the free single inside the album, so that the single didn't sell one more copy. So I missed that constituency of thirteen million by one decision by somebody in EMI who I never knew, and I've had about three or four pieces of luck like that. If one of them had of gone, then the whole career would have been different I feel
Bob: for good or bad though, because I mean
Bob: you were able to have such a close look at absolutely everything that was going on in the seventies, we heard you there with Pink Floyd, but I mean obviously there's the very strong association at that time with Led Zeppelin as well and you were there a lot of the time weren't you Roy, you've seen all the madness that was going on
Roy: I was part of it
Roy: I remember being pulled....I remember Peter Grant being stood at the bottom of a tree in Los Angeles saying to Pete Jenner, 'ere Pete, can you get your f-ing artist from down that f-ing tree'
Roy: and I was thirty feet up the tree and on various substances and barking at the neighbourhood dogs
Roy: and it was during the time of Charlie Manson, so everybody had an Alsatian, you know, in the Topanga Canyon everybody had an Alsatian, and....they were all barking
Roy: and I was barking mad
Bob: you didn't record it did you Roy?
Roy: (laughs) probably
Bob: what are you going to play for us tonight?
Roy: I've decided to play three new songs, this might be a mistake. The first one is going to be the title of the next record....but I'm not going to tell you what the title is because somebody will nick it, because the song isn't as good as the title I feel
Roy: so....oops oh dear, so I'll....should I play?
Bob: yeah go on
Roy: we'll play right....this is a song
ROY PLAYS NEW SONG
Bob: Absolutely superb, it's always such a pleasure to sit and listen to you play Roy
Roy: well thank you Bob
Bob: were you at the recent Hyde Park concert?
Roy: no, I was....I was doing something else at the time, can't remember what it was
Bob: I think you would have hated it actually Roy, because seeing you play in Hyde Park, getting on for thirty years ago you know, there....
Roy: thanks Bob (laughs)
Bob: same for both of us though Roy
Roy: yeah yeah, same for both of us
Roy: walking skeletons both of us
Bob: the atmosphere of the concerts in those days in the park, I'm just making direct comparisons with the two events, but there was a lovely freedom and wonderful sort of feeling about those places in those days
Roy: I remember that first one in the cockpit with....oh when I was a lad, shoe boxes under motorway....I think the first one was the best one, with the Pink Floyd, Me....Tyrannosaurus Rex and Jethro Tull
Roy: I think that was the best one, I don't think it ever got better than that one, I ended up playing Nick's drums at one point with him.... I was, I had the tympany sticks on the cymbals....that was a brilliant atmosphere. There was only about ten or fifteen thousand people turned up but it was a brilliant thing that
Bob: well nobody paid any money, there weren't sort of corporate balloons you know, above the place and stuff like this
Bob: which there were in the summer this year. I must say it felt completely different, the whole corporate influence has grown so much hasn't it?
Roy: it's out of order, Harvey Goldsmith still owes me fifteen hundred quid (laughs)
Bob: because it was so interesting to hear the sound develop from those days Roy, saying there that you lacked the band playing in the studio, to me it didn't matter at all that you didn't have a band with you tonight, but we've heard
Bob: the sounds of your records in particular gradually getting bigger and bigger until by about, what, seventy-four/seventy-five and around the time of the HQ album and stuff, you were then beginning to kind of, as a listener, look at them as being fully fledged kind of rock albums, really to sit in that category
Roy: it's a shame really that I didn't have the.... I never got the.... the wealth together to be able to maintain that kind of a band because I felt that was the direction that I should have gone in.... I feel as though.... I feel as though I'd like to get back to that kind of a thing on record but I can't sustain it with a band. I think that there's more chance of sustaining it now than there ever was because there's musicians who are very very good now, who are willing to work for much less than they would have been in those days. It was a fortune to get the best players in those days.... but there are musicians who are better than that now, who, and there's a lot of them, and everywhere you go
Bob: so is that the direction Roy you want to take the new album in?
Roy: er....yes and no. I think.... about thirty percent of it is there, but the new record started as a..... the new record has started as a .... the theme was pre-conception to post-mortem. I wanted to write the story of a human being, namely me but visions of other....other people involved, other people's stories as well, and I wanted to write it from pre-conception, from boy meets girl, to post-mortem, to a future beyond the personal, and I've started on the story but I realised when I got to sort of ninety minutes of music, beyond one CD, that it was too big, that I was too big for my own boots again
Roy: that I'd done it yet again
Roy: you know
Bob: but I mean, you wouldn't be Roy Harper if you didn't stretch
Roy: yeah I know, if I didn't stretch the point to breaking, I know I know, yes I know that, it's pathetic isn't it
Bob: but also Roy, you've had so much to say, you know....
Roy: there's too much to say Bob
Bob: the comments, the observations you've made about what goes on in the world around you at any given time, but also the extraordinary background, you know, it's a glib thing for interviewers to say you had an extraordinary childhood, but in your case it's true, you really did you know
Roy: yeah yeah
Bob: there was a lot of that to come out later wasn't there and it did
Roy: there still is, there still is. In fact on this record I think that.... a lot of that is obvious.... the second song that I wanted to.... I was going to come in here and ask you whether it was safe enough to sing the second song. I'm going to have to change one or two of the words that will be on the record anyway and maybe people can guess what they are but.... it's a song that puts me at school with, along with teachers, along with what I used to do to them , and also what I used to fantasise doing to them and with them, you know.... so in the forty years since I was at school it's not changed that much except that one guy just recently has knifed his headmaster, I don't think that there's any room for weapons at school. I would say, I would say it's not that we didn't have them but we didn't use anything like.... I can remember, I can remember first seeing a flick knife when I was about twelve, thirteen, fourteen say about that, something around that, and thinking well that wasn't really me, that there was another way of, there was another way of attacking the establishment other than by just pure violence. But any case I didn't have the size. I always looked at the bigger guys who were the trouble makers in the school, I had respect for them, but.... there were certain issues I was never with them on like, just control, physical control, control of people just by sheer brute force. I was never with that and I kind of, I always thought there was another way to go, another way to be, and that was my.... that was the direction that I was pushing people in, and I pushed pretty hard. I was, I was very unruly at school, I was unruly, I mean.... I was responsible for about three nicknames of teachers
Roy: you know I remember the potential maths teacher coming in to the room.... when I was thirteen, and he was a ringer for Reg Christie, ten Rillington Place, he was a ringer for Reg Christie, and I just piped up from the back row 'Christie' you know, just like that, 'Christie', and all the class tittered and he was known after that moment as Christie, that was his nickname in the school you know. So there was a different.... a different, it was more, it was subversive, it was the same person that you're sitting and listening to waffle now, it's the same person but it's different, its.... there's no need for that sort of violence, and in this song, I'll sing it now because, because it's, because I've spoken about it so much I must
Bob: you must
Roy: but some of it is fantasy. Like Nick, who you've spoken to recently I know, I was going to phone, I was in Ireland that night and I was going to phone but I thought no, I'd better leave them to it
Bob: this is Nick Harper, Roy's son we're talking about here. Nick has been in the studio, well during the last few months three times, because he came in with Chris Difford and twice performing himself, his own songs
Roy: so you know the beast
Roy: he's quite a beast too.... I love that boy, he's really part of my pride and joy.... but what was I going to say about him, where was I, can you remember?
Bob: er.... you were just about to say, I've got to sing this song, I've talked about it now, and then you moved around to Nick and said he's been on the show, and I said right, just sort of filling in that bit of detail, then there was the dot dot dot to leave you suspended here like this Roy
Roy: yes yes yes.... his Mother, I've just remembered exactly where I am.... his Mother was at College, London UCL, and she did Botany and Zoology, and she got her degree in the same year as she had him, which was a feat.... but he came out head first because I was there (laughs), thank you Roy thank you (laughs).... (laughs) One of the things that she had to do in her finals was to dissect, they all went in to their finals.... there was a jar, they had a jar, and there was this huge insect in the jar, and they had, it was alive, they had to gas it, which none of them, half of them didn't want to do, and then dissect it, make a dissection of it, and she came home and she told me that it was a Madagascan Whistling Cockroach, and I was so enchanted and intrigued by the thought of this insect, this giant insect, that somehow it's got in to this song. So here's the song anyway (laughs).... It's called 'No Half Measures' (laughs) and it's.... you'll have to excuse the names in it, you won't know them, but we all.... they're part.... some of them are christenings.... you know how the huge women used to, huge women teachers used to approach you, and you used to look at this thing coming towards you like a pre-fab.... it was built, you know, there was this thing on the front of it, built with girders, it was all contained inside this....
Bob: I always used to sing mother hen actually quite often (laughs)
Roy: (laughs) big girders.... so I used to think of our music teacher as a pre-fab, she was prefabricated (laughs) you know.... anyway, this is a song, apologies
Bob: and it's Roy Harper live here on GLR
ROY STARTS TO PLAY THE SONG THEN STOPS
Roy: Oh, and there's another thing as well. Our school was sort of snobbish, and we used to, and we were northern lads you know 'hello luv, how are you, allright', but all the teachers in the school were Oxbridge and they were all masters, they were the masters and so I've taken that and used it.... it could have been masters but it's not, it's masters
[ Note: Roy pronounces the words differently here, first with a short Northern "a" and secondly as "mahsters" - Paul]
Bob: right (laughs)
ROY PLAYS 'NO HALF MEASURES'
Bob: having done television for some years and then not done it for a while, I can honestly say that I've always loved doing radio more, but just occasionally you wish that you had a camera in the studio
Roy: (laughs) yeah I'd say, oh god..... that was the debut of that song, so you know, I'm very bad on the words tonight, it won't improve much over the years I'm afraid, but characters like Screwy-Louis for instance who was the chemistry teacher, he used to drink with my Dad, and so I didn't know this for like four years, and so my Dad used to get first hand the stories, and his name was Jordan so somebody had christened him Louis and somebody else had christened him Screwy-Louis
Roy: so he was Screwy-Louis and he used to come down the aisle and get hold of your ear and tweak your ear and stand you up you know, 'what's this boy?' (laughs) you know, so he was christened Screwy-Louis
Bob: he wouldn't be able to do that now would he?
Roy: no, no that's right (laughs), you know some of the things we used to do we wouldn't be able to do now either, it's very, it's a strange world now
Bob: so a song like that Roy, clearly you've put yourself in, you've had to transport yourself back and see yourself sitting in a classroom or whatever
Bob: and get those pictures
Roy: easily done
Bob: in your mind, that's easily done?
Roy: easily done
Bob: because you left school, you were in the services at fifteen
Roy: yes, I was yeah, in the Airforce
Roy: space cadet (laughs)
Bob: fairly briefly wasn't it?
Roy: yes, yes, eighteen months, I worked my ticket. I feigned madness which wasn't that difficult (laughs) I just had to tap in to the mainstream (laughs)
Bob: because putting yourself in a mindset for a song, and particularly yours which are so often descriptive of where that song is set at that particular time
Bob: .... does it therefore mean.... I mean what's the process here Roy, because words are very very important in your songs, you know the construction of the songs, the words you use, and you're using words to make a statement, they've got meaning, you're not using words to fill space or come to the end of that line
Bob: do you get an initial idea out and then work on it and begin to tighten it up
Roy: yes.... yes, there aren't enough, there isn't enough time for all the words I want to use though.... if I think that I've got to cut myself down to size all the time.... a work like, for instance, 'One of Those Days in England', which is the re-release is going on at the moment, of that album 'Bullinamingvase'.... that is just, dare I ever attempt that again, I come to the brink of doing it and I can't because it's such a difficult pill for people to swallow, it's a camel, you know it's like sort of giving someone a camel and a glass of water (laughs) hey swallow this (laughs)
Roy: so there are too many words but I do yes, I do sketch it out and then, then what happens is that I think of the situation that I was in, I put the names down, it's like, I should imagine, researching a book, each one is like researching a chapter. I write the names down of the characters and then I'll play through, I get one verse together fairly quickly as a rule, and then what happens is that I will use that as the atmosphere.... in a song like that, I'll use it as the atmosphere and then, and then carry on to the other relative atmospheres in it.... but do you know, it's very very difficult to explain that sort of process other than to say that with the best songs, not that one because that one is more like work, a pleasurable work, that is like.... it's much more perspiration than inspiration that one. There are some that are more inspiration, or more inspirational, but that one is definitely, those are definitely the songs where it comes and you think to yourself, you have a sudden couple of lines, a stanza, three or four lines that you work and with me what happens is that I get tears.... I'll get tears because I know that I've reached something again, I've reached out and I've grabbed something from nowhere, something that means a lot from nowhere, and what then the process is, is to work and work and work until you have, until I have something finished where I can play it as a finished thing and it brings those tears back
Roy: that's what happens, that's the process there. With the other one's it's more like hard work
Bob: yeah, look at the time Roy, we're rapidly running out of time actually
Roy: I know, I know
Bob: and I've got 'One of Those Days in England' to play in a second which I want to play to sort of round off our conversation, but you're playing live in London aren't you at the 12 Bar Club, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth
Roy: yes yes
Bob: I make that tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday nights that you're there, and we've had a call from Dave in Barnham about the Tea Party album, because I play the Tea Party a lot on this programme, Canadian band, there's an album called 'The Edges of Twilight'
Bob: now you've worked with the Tea Party haven't you Roy?
Bob: Dave asked how that came about?
Roy: they er.... Jeff is a virtuoso,
a virtuoso guitarist, a virtuoso musician.... and he was.... I was with an agency in
Canada and Jeff was.... selling his wares in Canada, going around the agencies asking who
would be inter ested, and sending tapes, and he got to this particular agent, Michael
White, and he said was.... he looked at Michael's roster.... and he said 'is that
Roy: that we'd heated at the fire on sticks
Bob: (laughs) like you do
Roy: hey, like you do (laughs) feeding the raccoons, and Jeff and I have been friends ever since, and he's a very good friend
Roy: I'm going.... I'm seeing him in.... about seven or eight days time
Bob: so what are they up to at the moment, are they
Roy: they've just, I think, they've just put out another kind of extended EP type of thing.... and they're looking for another record. I think that Jeff finds the music very easy, it comes to him very easy, I don't know that he finds the lyrics that easy but.... I think that, that is a superbly talented band
Bob: it is....multi-instrumental, the range of instruments they play, I mean it all looks so beautiful as well because a lot of them are very exotic and stuff
Bob: it adds so many different dimensions doesn't it to the music
Roy: yeah, Jeff and I are going to do four gigs in Canada together in.... starting about the twenty-fifth so....
Bob: and....just to underline, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth, that's tomorrow, Wednesday night and Thursday night at the 12 Bar Club. Roy will be playing there in Denmark Street, and when do you think the new album will be out Roy? because it's so great actually that all the, pretty much everything now
Roy: yeah except 'The Unknown Soldier'
Bob: has been re-released hasn't it on CD?
Roy: yes, it's.... I think the new album is going to be, I'm going to be touring with it about this time next year I would think. I keep delaying it because I keep seeing holes in it and I keep wanting to add to it, but there's a limit to what.... you see I want to make the best record I've ever made, and I don't want there to be any bones about that, so I'm not really.... I'm holding back until I think I've got that
Roy: so, you know, it'll be there when I think I've got that, but I dunno, I don't want to wait another two or three years, so it'll be there
Roy: have we run out of time?
Bob: we are running out of time yes, I'm going to wrap up with the album track, but it's been absolutely superb to see you, thanks for coming in
Bob: good luck
Roy: yes well same to you Bob
Bob: with the new album
Roy: yes, I think we both need it
This interview was transcribed by the Melon Man. Thanks mate!