Originally published in The Independent, 30 October 1998
Circa 1984, and during one of those latterday sojourns in the course of the once Old and Grey Whistle Test’s sleepy history when it found itself enjoying a prime time slot, we were taken on a field trip up some windy hillside in Wales. ‘Where else,’ said breezy pundit Mark Ellen, ‘would you expect to find seventies rock stars consulting the muse?’ And so an unforgiving generation of pop fans were given a televisual precis, in the form of Roy Harper and Jimmy Page twiddling away portentously in the gale, of what they’d missed in the previous couple of decades. Frankly, it didn’t seem they’d missed very much. ‘It was a set-up!’ says Roy, with customary hint of rage and conspiracy.
It may have been. But then the eighties were something of a lost weekend for all manner of ‘dinosaur’ types. A decade on and the seventies giants - Page & Plant, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull - are striding the world once again or, at the very least, hobbling around with some degree of digitally remastered dignity and respect. Even The Incredible String Band have toyed with the comeback scenario. And guru to them all, peddling his musical dreamscapes, folkish philosophising and singular reputation for ire and outrage consistently and irregardlessly through bad times and better, is Roy Harper. He kicks off a UK tour today, promoting The Dream Society. It’s the best album he’s made in years. Still, the question has to be asked: is this bloke not just an irrelevant old hippy? ‘Well,’ says Roy, ‘how can I put this concisely? There’s no smoke without fire...’
An hour’s drive to the west of Cork city, down exactly the sort of dark and winding back-roads one would expect, one arrives at The Old Convent, a fabulous Gormenghast-ian pile amidst the pitch black of the unillumined landscape in which it resides, combining candle-lit charm, a dependable wall of dictionaries and the sort of modernist home studio and internet attachments essential to the far-from-retired, rurally-inspired rock survivor. Roy Harper, like his neighbours Noel Redding and Donovan, is clearly still getting it together in the country. I marvel at his home. ‘Hmm, well it’s getting there...’ says Roy, somewhere between gruffness and modesty, and twiddling a moustache that pitches its hammock somewhere between Colonel Saunders and Fu Manchu. ‘Curmudgeonly’ is the man’s reputation and yet it seems but a superficial aspect of Harper’s character: ‘Curmudgeonly - yes, that’s what my reputation is,’ he admits, matter-of-factly. ‘But I met Van Morrison once and he was far worse than I’d ever dream of being. I’m nothing like that.’
He never did get on Top Of The Pops but Roy Harper has, by stealth, found his way into the affections of English pop’s brightest stars - Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Pete Townshend and the like. And who could forget, on Led Zeppelin III, the suitably impenetrable ‘Hats Off To Harper’? ‘I went up to their office one day and Jimmy said, “Here’s the new record”. “Oh… thanks,” I said, and tucked it under my arm. “Well look at it then...!”’
Roy also sang lead on Pink Floyd’s ‘Have A Cigar’ and he’s still a bit miffed that his chosen fee (a season ticket to Lords’ for life) has never been honoured: ‘I asked Roger for sixteen years but it never came. And then I moved house. I must say, I am noticing a distinct lack of invitation to Pink Floyd events these days.’
Perhaps it’s this tenacious candour that gets Harper his fearsome reputation but, this mild grudge aside, his talk is full of warmth and humour. Could be the pastoral lifestyle: ‘I get up early, walk for a mile and half and that blows a few layers off,’ he says. ‘I know what’s living round here and I always check on them. I have a roll call when I go outside and it starts with this little goldcrest that’s nesting in the garden. At the larger end of the scale there’s foxes, badgers and deer. In fact, there’s this chattering magpie I’m thinking of putting on a record.’ Could this be the end of the raging muse of yore? ‘Ah, well, what happens after I’ve been out is I’ll take in the news and it’s nearly always farcical - a heinous joke, full of conceit and deceit and people who are self-important, from Joe Bloggs to the Prime Minister to...’ So no worries there then.
When he was fifteen Roy ran away and joined the RAF, ended up in a mental hospital, did a spell in prison for a succession of minor misdemeanours and eventually wound up - like Donovan, Bert Jansch, Billy Connolly and other great names - a doyen of Soho’s vibrant mid-sixties folk club scene. He speaks long and fondly of all his contemporaries as a virtual brotherhood and even at the height of his anarchic celebrity for every rambling, dope-sozzled ode there would be a fearless, razor-sharp observation on modern society - ‘I Hate The White Man’ (South Africa), ‘Government Surplus’ (Thatcherism’s rejection of youth), ‘The Black Cloud Of Islam’ (no prizes for guessing). And on that score, like the cricket ticket, he’s still waiting for his fatwah.
Profound moments aside, if there’s one tale that guarantees Harper a perennial notoriety it is the one involving the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of a sheep: ‘A total fabrication!’ he says, with surprising good humour. ‘The most public of all my stories and there’s not a single grain of truth in it! A lot of that stuff came from BP Fallon [his erstwhile publicist] and also a lot from this particular breed of TV producer I used to run into in the seventies. These fragile, effete individuals - the moment anybody brought anything like a challenge in the door then suddenly that person became, er... curmudgeonly!’
Media luvvies notwithstanding, communicating with all ages on equal terms is at the core of Harper’s artistry, and it’s something he learned in his youth from the late Alex Campbell - a melancholy Scot, and pretty much the first professional, travelling folk singer in Britain: ‘Alex and I did a gig together at the Marquee and we were chatting afterwards. He looked at me with a kind of knowing smile and said, “Ah, ye young whippersnappers - ye’ll be the death o’ me”. It was like he was saying, “Okay, you’re here now, you’re taking the reins, so get on with it”. He was a lovely guy. He could relate to his own generation and to mine and I’ve never forgotten that. I never patronise young people. You could be meeting a kid who’ll be the next Pablo Picasso and all he’s got to remember you by is the one time he met you. Every time you meet someone, you meet them historically.’
So, 31 years after his first album, with virtually his entire back catalogue available, admirably enhanced for CD, through his own Science Friction label, does the Artist Formerly Known As The Loony On The Bus have anything left to offer? ‘What I do have to offer,’ he says, with rigorous precision, ‘is a lot of what’s gone before, but also a wisdom that unfortunately only comes with age. It won’t be easy - I’m not an easy person to come and see, unless you know me. And then I’m very easy. If you’ve been to a Roy gig three or four times then you’re likely to become a heckler, likely to plumb the depths of your own imagination. Like, “Show us your bum Roy”!’ And there, in mutual hysterics, the conversation draws to a close, the magpie chortles and somewhere, far away, a young man picks up a paintbrush and thinks of Roy.