This new compilation of Roy Harper’s songs is released to commemorate his 70th birthday, and kicks off the re-release of 18 of his albums, from 1966’s acoustic Sophisticated Beggar to The Green Man from 2000. It’s a fitting way to commemorate an artist who competes strongly for the title of the UK’s most under-appreciated musician, and this despite highly public acknowledgments over several decades. Perpetually rediscovered, then mislaid again, Harper was lauded by Led Zeppelin (‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’) on Led Zeppelin III – the brackets a telling acknowledgement of his eternally low public profile. Pink Floyd appropriated his anti-commercial, anti-record company stance in ‘Have a Cigar’, which he sings on Wish You Were Here. He sang vocals on ‘Breathing’ by Kate Bush, and associated with Paul McCartney, Keith Moon, and the Nice to name just a few.
Not bad for a folk singer, but also a good indication of why he has never become better known. Harper is hard to categorise, ranging from dense, finger-picking acoustic guitar pieces in the late 60s, which placed him musically alongside people like Bert Jansch and Davey Graham, to mid-70s music which revels in the pomp and effects that are all over the rock music of the era. He writes, sings and plays his guitar in entirely individual ways, and the result is some stunning music.
Songs of Love and Loss is a 2-CD survey of Harper’s 45-year career, during which he has made a lot of albums – certainly more than the 18 up for re-release. It’s therefore only one version of his ‘best-of’, and a substantially different double-disc compilation, Counter Culture, was released on Science Friction in 2005. The two overlap by only 5 tracks, and there’s no doubt that anyone trying to get the measure of Harper’s vast output needs to own both. Counter Culture includes perhaps his two best, and best-known songs. ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’ is astonishing – pastoral, elegiac, and somehow the right side of mawkish. ‘One of These Days in England’ is a ten-part pocket symphony backed (which works better than one might imagine) by Wings. Nor does it include any tracks from Stormcock, his best known album, and only one from Lifemask. The absence of key tracks from Songs of Love and Loss prevents it from being a definitive compilation. However, the compilers have chosen to focus on at least some of his more hidden material, and they include some very fine tracks. The best material is drawn from the more laid back of his 70s albums – Flat Baroque and Beserk, Valentine and Bullingamingvase.
To take a random example, ‘East of the Sun’, with its Dylan-esque harmonica and lyrics (‘I can still see her breast on the edge of the morning’) is beautiful and slightly ridiculous, an effect that pervades Harper’s music. He’s painfully aware of himself, yet not quite self-aware enough to be cool about it like Bob Dylan. He writes like a dream, but his best lyrics often sit next to his worst. He writes from personal experience, and doesn’t ever separate himself from what he feels. This awkwardness makes his songs intensely real and very likeable. Sometimes, such as on Stormcock, this creates an intensity of feeling that is surprisingly difficult to penetrate, although it undoubtedly repays the listening effort.
‘Naked Flame’, originally on Bullinamingvase (Harper is not above annoying jokey album titles), showcases his mid-70s style. There’s more space in the chiming, acoustic guitar part than on his earliest music and his strong, yearning voice, and prolix verses loaded with intelligence and paranoia. Only Harper, always putting an epic spin on his personal troubles, would write “The ages pass with the flick of a thumb, love has lost and pride has won, but through old destruction flies new dawn and I rode the winds into the morn.”
‘Another Day’, from Flat Baroque and Beserk, delights in the opening couplet “The kettle’s on, the sun has gone”, perhaps not the most elegant first lines ever written. Lyrics go on to combine the bizarre with the embarrassingly frank (“But I wish that I had, ‘cause I’m feeling so sad that I never had one of your children.”) But it’s a gorgeous, delicate ballad – irresistible like Harper’s best songs.
A proper discussion of the intricacies of the 23 tracks on Songs of Love and Loss requires an essay rather than a review. It’s enough to say that we’re very lucky to have Roy Harper. He is much more than the musician’s musician – he is a true one-off, owed a place among the best. Decades of depression, including a period of incarceration, have hindered his career. The time is right for his music to gain the recognition it deserves.