The outsider no more – Harper’s first album in 13 years is a magnificent, ambitious rejuvenation…
Between 1967 and 1975, Roy Harper produced a series of albums of increasingly vaulting ambition that made them emblematic of a time in which adventure was everything, new sonic territories there for the taking, as it were, as if in a land rush. They were pioneering days and Harper’s wild poetic imagination and articulate indignation made him something of a standard bearer for the counter culture of the times, quixotic, stoned, outspoken and heroic.
Harper was very much a child of 60s utopianism, although he bristles still at being mistaken for a hippy, when he in fact shared a more adhesive attachment to the freewheeling Beats and their hipster kin. He had come up through the folk clubs, of course, although calling him a folkie would have left him hopping like a three-legged dog. The truth was that the folk circuit could no more contain Harper than it could Bob Dylan, to whom early on Harper was often cast as some kind of UK equivalent, admittedly a claim made for many young songwriters with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack.
For Harper as much as Dylan, the folk scene was a convenient route onto a larger stage, one big enough in Harper’s case to accommodate what was fast becoming the almost oceanic swell of his music. “Circles” on his second album, Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith, was a hint of what was yet to come, a 12-minute autobiographical opus that combined elements of conventional song-writing with spoken-word monologues, music hall skits and a lot of funny voices. It was not much like anything else you would have heard, even in 1967.
His next album, Folkjokeopus (1969), featured the first of the confrontational long-form songs with which he would become famously associated. The 18-minute “McGoohan’s Blues”, inspired by the cult TV show The Prisoner, was the template for epics like “The Same Old Rock”, “Me And My Woman” on 1972’s landmark album, Stormcock, and the all-consuming “The Lord’s Prayer” from the following year’s Lifemask. These songs and others like them were teeming, tumultuous, equinoxal, unfettered, restless and brilliant. Harper’s music in these years made fans of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and while the appreciation of such illustrious types may have been personally gratifying, the major record sales for which Harper aspired continued to elude him, even as critics lavished extravagant praise on 1975’s HQ.
By now it was 1977 and punk was upon us. Harper was cast adrift, into what he later described as a 20-year exile. There was still a lot of music, albums that only a hard core of fans probably heard that would have notably included if you were a fan of Harper at his most uncompromising songs like “The Black Cloud Of Islam”, from 1990’s Once, and “The Monster”, which indicted Tony Blair as a war criminal and appeared on 2000’s The Green Man, which turned out to be his last album for 13 years.
Lately, though, Harper has been rediscovered by a new generation of musicians, including Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold who shocked me when I interviewed him around the release of Helplessness Blues by talking in vast detail about Harper as influence and inspiration, Joanna Newsom, who brought him back into the spotlight as a guest on several UK tours and Jonathan Wilson, who had been working on a Harper tribute album featuring many of his West Coast cronies and now finds himself producing four tracks on Man & Myth, an often spectacular comeback album that confirms Harper’s place as one of English music’s last great visionaries.
Now 72, age has barely tempered Harper’s view of the world as a battleground, where good and those on its side are ranged against those who are not good, far from it, in fact, and the many more on their side, by inclination or coercion. The rebel in him will clearly never be quietened, nor his robust romantic impulses ever quelled. Like the brave bird after which Stormcock was named, Harper continues to sing fearlessly in the face of hostile winds. There is anger aplenty, therefore, on man & Myth, as you suspect there always will be with Harper. But the roaring fulminations of yore are overall perhaps less abrasive.
With the exception of “Cloud Cuckooland”, a song that in Harper’s opinion shares sentiments with The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and appropriately therefore features a particularly scorching Pete Townshend guitar solo, the songs here more often than not bring to mind the more burnished miniatures, conceived on a more intimate scale than the vouchsafed epics in Harper’s back catalogue, that have always been part of his repertoire. These were usually love songs of one sort or another – sometimes devotional (“She’s The One”), occasionally recriminatory (!”I’ll see you Again by Accident”), regretful (“Another day”) or nostalgically wistful (“Commune”).
Crudely put, there is less ranting on Man & Myth than rueful reflection. These songs in many respects are poignant contemplations on time and its passing, friendship, love, betrayal, memory. On the four tracks he co-produced, Jonathan Wilson brings a wonderfully sympathetic touch to their realisation, imbuing the songs with the vaguely autumnal glow that Elliot Mazer brought to Neil Young’s Harvest, especially on elegant album opener, “The Enemy (Within)”, which laments a kind of metropolitan tribalism. One of Harper’s worries about The Green Man was that his voice had weakened somewhat with age and general wear and tear. But here, it is the equal, I’d say, of anything he has previously essayed. His pipes, in fact, are in spectacular shape throughout, stirring, strong and with no hint anywhere of infirmity – witness the shrill vocal climax of “Cloud Cuckooland”.
“Time Is Temporary” is a song about love remembered, that touchingly recalls the wistful innocence of “Commune”, a solo cello’s husky melancholy affording the track an aching poignancy. Time and memory are the focus, too, of “January Man” and “The Stranger” – not so much songs as hauntings, full of ghosts from bygone times, the past and those with whom it was shared a source of almost exquisite anguish. The former is beautifully posed, Fiona Brice’s string arrangement reminiscent of the orchestral setting the late David Bedford devised for “Twelve Hours Of Sunset”, a trembling at the edge of things, with a hint of brass at the low end of the mix that bathes the track in a sombre light.
What would once have been the equivalent of an entire side of an album is devoted here to two interlinked songs, “Heaven Is Here” and “The Exile”. Both are inspired by the story of Orpheus, the musician-poet of Greek mythology, a hero of Jason’s epic quest for the Golden Fleece, who on the death of his wife Eurydice pursues her into the underworld where his sweet music negotiates her release from Hades on the condition that until they are both safe he will not look back at her. When he reaches the surface, what does Orpheus immediately do? He looks back. Upon receipt of his backward glance, poor Eurydice, almost home, is returned to hell, this time for good. Orpheus, meanwhile, is condemned to a life of wandering exile and lonely mourning. This is Harper at his most grandly poetic, the music a miasmic tidal whirl, full of estuarial current s and counter currents, strings, brass, electric guitar, and treated multi-tracked vocals. Together, the two songs, a total of 23 minutes, provide a magisterial climax to a magnificent comeback.
What does it feel like having your first album of new material in 13 years coming out?
It’s wonderful, but frightening. To be out there in the mix again is great, but there are sometimes scary consequences. You’re judged again, and not everyone is on board. Realistically the music business has shrunk tenfold since music became ‘free’, so there’s much less of a marketplace. I could talk for hours about that, but the positive side is that I’m alive and well and recording again.
You say in the press release for Man & Myth that you didn’t have “the will to make another album until just recently”. Why?
Business, keeping abreast of technical developments and maintaining a profile in the digital age are just a few of the things you have to do if you want the work to survive. Writing in modern circumstances becomes a conscious effort rather than an ongoing reflex. The pleasurable effort of creation in a peaceful atmosphere is constantly being invaded by hysterical noise from the ether: which seems to me to be an ongoing open Darwinian experiment in survival with a billion voices hacking away at each other. It exposes humanity, and humanity must learn from that, and quickly. Behaviour is truly exposed, and ridicule is a slip of a keypad away. Just recently, the will to resume has kicked in because of the renewed interest, but it’s a hell of a thing putting yourself up on the coconut shy of the critical jungle again.
How inspired were you by the discovery of your music by a younger generation of artists like Joanna Newsom and Jonathan Wilson?
Very. It was an eye-opener. I probably knew it was coming because my heroes, when I was 15 to 18, were mostly in their 50s and 60s, and some were in their 70s and 80s. Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Huddie Ledbetter, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Woody Guthrie, Bunk Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Acknowledgement is empowering. I no longer thought I was working in a vacuum when Joanna and Jonathan and the others turned up. It became time to fly the flag again. In another 30 years, there’ll be their grandchildren coming through. I’ll be trying to hang on, but I think my voice’ll be a bit scratchy by then.
What was it like working with Jonathan as co-producer, what did he bring to the album?
Jonathan brought the band and his studio into the picture. A collection of lovely guys and a funny old place on the side of a steep hill. Jonathan’s a good man to hang with. He and I have similar views and tastes, so we get on really well. Plenty of sushi and hanging in cafes watching the girls go by. He just wanted to work on songs, but all I had was ‘The Stranger’ and ‘Heaven Is Here’, so I’d got there too soon to be honest. Jonathan brings a lot to recording, he instinctively understands the kind of direction I’m taking. I expect that’s partially because a lot of my influences are American. They’re folk blues related with an anglicized edge.
What does the album title tell us about the themes explored in the new songs?
Perhaps that the difference between the man, or woman, and the myth is imaginatively huge but actually purely ethereal. And in fact that life is but a dream voyage you embark on with your contemporary dreamers. The phrase man and myth is a catchphrase that’s almost a figure of speech. I don’t know that it can be considered a figure of speech, but in my mind it is. This may be an indication of the way my thinking works. Perhaps there’s something atavistic about it, but it seems to have been on the tip of my tongue for a lifetime, and as a matter of course I’ve now spilled the beans. I think that all these songs can be said to have a touch of alter ego about them. ‘The Enemy’ is an ancient concept, ‘Time Is Temporary’ is a way of looking at transience, January Man is about being old and young at the same time, ‘The Stranger’ is an estrangement, ‘Cloud Cuckooland’ is another figure of speech, but also an idiomatic destination. ‘Heaven Is Here’ is actually a proposition and ‘The Exile’ lives in two places, and one of them is foreign. I wanted the album to be beautiful, and I think it is, despite its edge.
Can you tell us a bit about Heaven Is Here, the 14 minute epic at the centre of Man & Myth? What inspired the song and what themes/ideas did you want it to address?
Basically I often think of it being about the psychology of loss, which we all share. I’ve tried to epitomise a certain topography of loss inside the vehicle of a well known myth. The Myth of Orpheus and Euridice. Ancient myths would have been created and added to by traveling story tellers belonging to ancient aural traditions, long before written language came into common use. Where I truly depart from the myth in ‘Heaven Is Here’ is when I almost accidentally catch a view of myself in the mirror, ‘Was it reflection, was it me.. or was it me?’, which, if you listen, is where the recriminations start. So at the point that I’m imagining Orpheus reaching complete desolation, (because he finally realises that Euridice is never coming back), the story exposes the emotional roy, who then proceeds to dip in and out of the myth for the rest of the song and through ‘The Exile’ because he shares all of these experiences and can’t resist going for some kind of improbable absolution. He puts words (and even actions) into the mouth of Orpheus. And so it is in life. The man and the myth travel together, and often as each contradicts the other. And so it is with the other songs on the record. I’m doing the same thing throughout; dipping in and out of myth, and I think that this is one of the great qualities of mankind. That we can suspend our conscious lives and enter our dream-worlds at a moments notice.
How did Pete Townshend end up on the record? Had you known him previously?
I’ve known Pete for about 46 years. I asked him. He thought it was great fun. The reason I asked him is that I thought that it was on the same sort of coin as “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Yes we will, over and over again, as “Cloud Cuckooland” exclaims. But “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the positive side of that coin, that at least allows us to think that there may come a day when none of us are fooled by anything any more. But I think both of us would laugh at that.
INTERVIEW: ALLAN JONES