Without Roy Harper’s baroque, mellifluous, melancholy folk there would have been no ‘Stairway to Heaven’. James Delingpole meets a neglected genius
In 1970, shortly before the release of Led Zeppelin III, guitarist Jimmy Page invited his folk-singing chum Roy Harper up to his Oxford Street offices to have a look at the new album. ‘What do you think?’ asked Page. ‘It’s nice,’ replied Harper, toying with the amusing picture wheel built into the sleeve. ‘Look at it!’ said Page. ‘Yes, it’s nice,’ said Harper. ‘No. Look at it!’ said Page, growing exasperated. And then Harper noticed the title of track five, side two. ‘Oh. Oh! Thanks! I don’t know what to say.’
And this is the reason I’m sitting here with Harper 41 years on, in a café near Paddington station. As a long-standing Led Zep fan, I’d often wondered about the identity of the man namechecked in that song title ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’. Just how good is his music? Can he really have been that important and influential? Now here’s my chance to find out.
Before we meet, I do a spot of homework, listening to such early Harper albums as Folkjokeopus, Flat Baroque and Berserk and Stormcock. It’s an experience at once enrapturing and mortifying. Why did I leave it so long before discovering this neglected genius? If it hadn’t been for Roy Harper’s baroque, mellifluous, melancholy folk, I quickly appreciate, Led Zeppelin could never have come up with ‘Stairway to Heaven’; nor would Nick Drake have sounded the way he did; nor, perhaps, would there have been Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes. So why is his music not better known?
Harper can think of lots of reasons — from the ‘difficulty’ of his material to the length of his songs (‘not much opportunity for singles’) to philistine label bosses. But what it mainly boils down to is that Harper is a bloody-minded fellow who has always refused to play the game on anybody’s terms but his own.
‘I’m apt to say what I think,’ he says, recalling the time he refused point-blank to change the Hipgnosis-designed cover of his best album HQ which showed him walking on water, even though his label boss had warned him that so sacrilegious an image would kill its chances stone-dead in the US. ‘I was determined if I was going to become a superstar it would be on my terms. I’ve had that ethic since the beginning.’
His cussedness may have been the death of his career — ‘If I’d made the records you’d made and only had the amount of success that you’ve had I don’t know what I’d do,’ Jimmy Page once told him. But perhaps it’s also the reason he’s still around today, bright-blue-eyed, white-bearded and baby-faced, like a preternaturally youthful Father Christmas. ‘I’m careful, controlled, bodily conservative: if someone offered me a pill I’d only ever take a half,’ he says.
As we sit drinking coffee, Amy Winehouse starts playing and Harper remembers all the friends and acquaintances of his generation who went before their time: ‘Steve Marriott, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Tim Buckley, John Bonham — I could go on all day.’ Harper might easily have been on the list, too. He did after all spend a period in the Seventies at the very centre of extreme rock decadence, travelling with Led Zeppelin on their infamous ’73 tour. The one with the private jet.
‘I’ve seen such things as you would not believe,’ he says, echoing the Blade Runner ‘fireships of the shoulder of Orion’ speech. ‘I’ve seen motorbikes driven down hotel corridors — and had a go myself. I’ve seen the Plaster Casters [groupies who took casts of rock stars’ equipment] trying to find Robert Plant (‘Don’t answer the door’) to compare how he measured up to Jimi Hendrix. People will come up to you with every drug the world has to offer — and they’ll be doctors who can advise you on exactly how to take it. If you chose to go off the deep end you can!’
But Harper was careful never to push things too far. ‘I carried myself through it like a fly on the wall who never forgets how his wings work,’ he says. When things got too excessive he moved to a different floor.
As Led Zep’s favourite folkie, Harper found himself opening for them in front of 70,000 people at the Caesar Stadium in California. ‘It was a fright. I started with my eyes closed then opened them slowly to see a guy right in front of me painted gold. “Where the hell am I?” I thought. “This definitely isn’t a working men’s club in Salford.” I closed them and didn’t open them again.’
That particular gig cruelly exposed the limitations of performance on acoustic instruments (and may partly explain why Dylan went electric). ‘Out of those 70,000 people I doubt more than the first 10,000 people could hear me play. The feedback was incredible. It killed everything. Nowadays you’ve got special equipment like spectrum analysers to counteract it.
‘I was ahead of my time,’ says Harper. And it’s hard not to agree. Today, beardie Seattle folk act Fleet Foxes can embark on sell-out tours playing exactly the kind of melancholy, dreamy folk Harper pioneered. They’re especially popular in Britain, continuing the process of transatlantic cross-pollination that has been going on almost since the days of the Founding Fathers.
Traditional English folk music was preserved in those remote Appalachian communities, which well into the 20th century spoke a close approximation of Shakespearean English; this was then reinterpreted by protest singers like Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. ‘My generation then reimported it and re-exported it back to America. Now we’re getting it back again from Americans like Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes.’
This explains the wistful, pastoral strain in Harper’s music — as does his early love of Keats and Shelley (inspired by his English teacher, ‘a lovely Lancashire lady’ called Miss Yates). But there’s another element in there, too: the bitter, angry, rebellious side which led him to write material like ‘I Hate the White Man’. This comes partly from his other main influence — the blues of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White — and partly from his eventful upbringing.
Born in Manchester in 1941, Harper ran away from home at the age of 15 to join the RAF because he was being driven mad by his Jehovah’s Witness stepmother, who bequeathed him a lifelong hatred of any form of religion. But military discipline hardly suited him any better, so he got himself discharged as insane, leading to a spell in a mental hospital being given ECT treatment. He escaped and was homeless for a while, before being caught and spending a year in prison. On release, he picked up a guitar and began busking his way around Europe. No shortage of material there, then. ‘I’m an amalgam of the 19th-century romantics and the beat poets,’ he says.
Already it’s time to go — another interviewer awaits — and I haven’t even had a chance to ask about the performance for which he is more famous than anything: doing the vocals on Pink Floyd’s ‘Have a Cigar’. Nor have I got to experience even a hint of Harper’s near-legendary curmudgeonliness. Still, I’ve seen and heard more than enough to form a judgment: the man’s a hero; a national treasure; and, for those who haven’t yet discovered him, a mighty treat awaits.
Roy Harper Songs of Love & Loss (Vols 1 & 2) are out now on Union Square Music/Salvo.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 17, 2011