Roy Harper – Sophisticated Beggar / Flat Baroque and Beserk / Stormcock / Bullinamingvase

To celebrate Roy Harper’s 70th birthday, which will also be marked by a Bonfire Night concert at the Festival Hall, the Believe Digital label is re-releasing his entire back catalogue – 18 albums, 1966 to 2000.  Taking no chances with the first batch of four, they have chosen arguably his four strongest records.

This is very timely recognition for an artist who never became as famous as he deserved. Harper shared similarities with the recently deceased Bert Jansch. Both were guitar gurus, influencing a generation of musicians with their effortless technique and unmistakable styles. As a result they are both musicians’ musicians, better known to the wider public for their influence than for their own material. Both also dropped out of the sight for many years, Jansch because of drinking and health problems, Harper through fragile mental health.  The two shared musical similarities, developing intricate finger-picking acoustic styles during the mid-60s. However, their paths diverged and while Harper used the 70s to discover his inner axeman, Jansch most definitely did not. These four albums are a great way to hear just how much Harper has to offer.

Sophisticated Beggar
Roy Harper’s first album, released in 1966, is distinctive, mature and intriguing. Harper himself seems to view it as juvenilia, looking back on it fondly but not performing its tracks. It deserves better than that. The opening ‘China Girl’, fades in with the track already underway, as though we’ve just managed to grab Roy by the coat-tails as he strides off. The song itself is striking, a complex folk-psych song typical of its time, but remarkably confident for a debut album, recorded apparently at the bottom of someone’s garden. Harper’s engaging voice, and layered acoustic guitar dances around reversed tape effects.

Other songs on the album range from pin sharp, percussive finger-picking to straight psychedelia. The title track is the best known song, in line with other 60s songs about living under the radar. It delivers a gale of aggressive guitar and a confrontational vocal which pitches Harper as a Timon of Athens-style truth teller, here to mess up your self-congratulatory fantasy life with reality. He’s “an emancipated firework exploding on your busy street”, but certainly not the Katie Perry life-enhancing kind.

‘Legend’ debuts the dense, disturbing imagery Harper would soon develop to even greater effect. ‘October 12th’ and ‘Committed’ are also trademark Harper songs, concerned with depression and rejection of faith.  ‘Committed’, about Harper’s incarceration in the Lancashire Moor Mental Institute, is a manic performance and includes the lyric “The doctor says I’m getting better, less resplendent more respondent.”  ‘Mr Stationmaster’, in complete contrast, is an organ-driven, fairground psych song that could only have been recorded in 1966. It’s very silly, and rather likeable. On later albums, Harper’s attempts to lighten the mood would prove less successful.

Flat Baroque and Berserk
Four years later, Roy Harper had come a long way. His album covers point up the changes, from the quirky line drawing of Sophisticated Beggar to the ludicrous decadence of Flat Baroque and Berserk, with its attention-seeking title and cover photo featuring three clashing swirly fabrics, a bad hat and a tiger. It doesn’t start promisingly, with an opening track that tries to out-Dylan Dylan, and then a spectacularly self-indulgent spoken intro to ‘I Hate the White Man’, featuring Roy trying and failing to explain himself. However, the song itself is among his best known achievements. Harper lambasts western colonialism in a way that seems less politically trangressive than in 1970, but significantly weirder. His palpable anger becomes positively hallucinogenic over the song’s minutes, culminating in lines such as “And through the countless canticles / Of Jason’s charcoal fleece / Are sung the songs of nothing / In the timeless masterpiece.”  This time Dylan inspires his writing in the right way.

An album driven by this amount of wild energy is never going to achieve consistency, and Flat Baroque and Berserk is a rollercoaster. ‘Feeling All the Saturday; and ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’ are too whimsical, while ‘Hells Angels’ recorded with The Nice is just ridiculous. But, while a few tracks miss the mark, there’s unmissable material here too. ‘Goodbye’, a spiky, gorgeous song about death; ‘Another Day’, an elegiac, mini-masterpiece about a lost lover; and ‘East of the Sun’, a gauche, blissful harmonica love song, are all crucial parts of the Harper canon. This album is authentic Harper, in all his messy, confused, inspired glory.

Just as Flat Baroque is a messy delight, Stormcock, recorded the following year, is a focussed, serious and generally regarded as Roy Harper’s finest achievement. It consists of only four tracks, the shortest of which seven minutes long, but Harper has ripped up traditional song structures to suit his digressive style. As Harper puts it, “I gave myself the space to go deep… and stay there.”  Going deep meant mining his troubled psyche, the title the key to his state of mind and the whole album devoted to understanding the world while finding nothing but contradictions.

The opener, ‘Hors d’Oeuvres’ (a heavy Harper pun on the horses of the chorus), is a commentary by the singer on himself, imagining how critics would condemn his lack of answers or commercial appeal, and in turn condemning them himself. Given that this is a song Harper now considers rather light, you get a sense of how lyrically dense this record soon becomes. ‘The Same Old Rock’ is highly digressive, but in general terms seems to be about ways to live your life. However, literal sense dissolves in the frantic attempts to find meaning, and Harper’s lyrics start to sound like Brian Eno – flashes of imagery, subsumed in the music. And there’s a Jimmy Page guitar solo that thunders like Led Zeppelin. ‘One Man Rock and Roll Band’ rumbles across similar wastelands, covering conflict from Nero to Grosvenor Square. Harper’s vocals are remarkable, reaching for the outer limits. Finally, ‘Me and My Woman’ takes it back to the personal, using pastoral lyrics that switch from modern to ancient and back again in a futile attempt to understand how love can help explain the universe: “The cuckoo she moves through the dawn fanfare / The dew leaves the roofs in the magic air / I feel a finger running through my nightmare’s lair / Feel most together with my nowhere stare.”  It’s the pocket symphony of musical legend, a song cycle of contrasting moods and instrumentation. It’s epic, and so is Stormcock.

From 1977, Bullingamingvase clearly post-dates Stormcock. It comes at the end of Harper’s 70s purple period, when he was writing his best material and recording at Abbey Road. Three very good albums, still to be re-released, lie in between. However, this record has much of Stormcock’s single-mindedness. It is a conscious attempt to examine the meaning of England from an English point of view. The mood is much more reflective than earlier albums: the anger has ebbed away, but the puzzlement remains.

The album opens with ‘One of Those Days in England’ in which Harper, accompanied by brass, stays in bed with his lover on “one of those days in England when the country’s going broke”, a song for 2011 written 35 years ago. This is Part 1 of the song, and Parts 2-10 return at the end of the album, mixing mythology with dole queues and a job rolling spliffs for Captain Kirk. The line “One of those days in England with a sword in every pond” evokes Arthur, while Albion, Avalon and Britannica gaze down over war, memories, family and the “golden red sunset”. It’s sprawling and beautiful, with a sad, sweet melody and powerful atmosphere. Roy Harper never sings anything he doesn’t feel, so when he gently intones “Alfred had me made”, quoting the inscription on the Anglo-Saxon Alfred Jewel, we it has great significance for him.

Bookended by this stunning song are four tracks (and then a coda), which together come close to a perfect album. Of course, this being Harper, there’s a great big flaw running through the centre in the form of ‘Watford Gap’, a comic song about the service station that sounds unaccountably like The Wurzels. However, ‘These Last Days’, complete with swirling electric guitar, is a song coming to terms with the imperfections of the world; ‘Cherishing the Lonesome’ is another of Harper’s bitter-sweet lost love songs, with a plaintive acoustic accompaniment; and ‘Naked Flame’ rails against lost love and the uncaring world. Roy Harper puts a uniquely epic spin on his love life, and only he could get away with writing “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”. Bullingamingvase is a Roy Harper entry drug: if you like this, you’ll soon find you can’t manage without more.