Holiday Harper

May 6, 2013

Just over a year back i wrote a post glue-ing together video-music clips from four ages of Joni Mitchell. There is a strange feeling of resolution tracing the history of creative artists – musicians, actors, writers – whose lives have paralleled your own, maybe ten years ahead. Because I can’t quite work out whether I am on holiday or not, I will start the morning with another hippy music arc-of-life trip. Here is another singer-songwriter who has intrigued, moved, and baffled me in almost equal measure over four decades : Roy Harper. Many will know him as that bloke what Zeppelin wrote a song for, or the geezer what sang on that Pink Floyd number. A smaller number of dedicated fans see him as one of the key hippy bards of the sixties. At that time I still preferred childish pursuits like cricket in the park. I turned onto him in the early seventies in my undergraduate days. My copy of Stormcock is worn paper thin.

Here is the brash young man, on a mystery recording that may or may not have in Sweden in 1969, singing Hells Angels. He looks scarily like I did in 1973 when I first heard him – long fair hair, scruffy beard, friendly but sarcastic. (Free speech ! One each !)

In 1971 Harper produced something quite unique on Stormcock – four extended and meandering pieces with striking but baffling lyrics. (I never know what time of day it is, on my battlefield of ideas.) At the same time he is still writing simpler but beautiful songs, soaked in memory and vibrations of lost opportunity. Here he is in 1974, a smooth and mature performer on the safe-as-milk Beeb Two show The Old Grey Whistle Test, singing Commune :

Through the later seventies and eighties Harper split into two halves, writing rock songs, but also even more songs awash with nostalgia and the passage of time, like When An Old Cricketer Leases The Crease. Meanwhile, he is still performing the extra-ordinary work from Stormcock. Here is the middle aged artist on an Australian TV show in 1986, performing One Man Rock and Roll Band on semi-electric guitar. It has evolved into something somehow fluid and phantasmagorical :

Finally here is Roy in his seventies, playing on Later with Jools Holland in 2011. I have chosen his performance of Another Day, a famous song from the the 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk. (Younger folk will know the cover version by This Mortal Coil). I think of this song as the hippy version of To His Coy Mistress. (Oh really my dear / I can’t see what we fear / Sat here with ourselves in between us.) It is very moving to hear an old man singing such a song from his youth. What was, and what could have been.

I am aware that all the songs I have chosen were written in a short window of time, given Roy’s five decade writing career. But they were the nicest video clips, and show the man evolving if not the songs.

Hats Off To Harper.