Interview: Roy Harper
Roy Harper is one of the great individualists in the music world, as you might expect from somebody whose influences include Woody Guthrie, Miles Davis and Sibelius. This man can’t easily be pigeonholed or categorised, because he was creating “world music” long before the term was even coined.
At the age of 75, Harper is showing no signs of winding down, as he prepares to embark on a series on concerts in Birmingham, Manchester, London and Edinburgh. This is the idiosyncratic performer who received a BBC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 and whose contribution to music has been acknowledged by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, The Who’s Pete Townshend, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, Joanna Newsom and Carole King.
So we are talking about rock/folk royalty here, not least because Harper has written some of the most evocative, transcendent songs in the canon, including “Me and My Woman”, “One of Those Days in England”, “The Lord’s Prayer”, “Cherishing the Lonesome” and “No-one Ever Gets Out Alive”.
Oh, and for those of us who love sport, he also created the heartbreaking “When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease.” That was back in 1975, but even today, more than 40 years later, it is a song that, once heard, is never forgotten.
When I caught up with Harper this week, he was happy to talk about his work, past, present and future, and it was evident he still remains in thrall to the galaxy of Grace, Gavaskar and Greenidge. Or at least, to the Test circuit rather than T20 ephemera.
As Harper declared: “When an Old Cricketer’ is a song about an idealised view of Britain through its romanticised summer game. It’s a snap shot which was taken in the first grand maturity of life, but it’s also reminiscent of a kind of life that has now almost disappeared.
“The rules of cricket have been pasteurised and homogenised and that would be true of wider society. Michael Holding is no longer allowed to bowl six bouncers on the trot, to be followed in the next over by Andy Roberts doing the same thing.
“Likewise, world social rules are now changing by the minute rather than how it was 100 years ago. Two world wars, the computer age and 24/7 news have changed everything forever. Almost everything I knew as a boy has drastically changed and, in my opinion, mostly not for the better.”
Harper isn’t one of life’s miserable souls, but he has suffered enough travails and turbulence to be outspoken in his analysis of current affairs and trends. Recently, his melancholic, mordant fusion of folk, balladry and pop, has grown increasingly popular because there is nothing synthetic about it. Harper, though, doesn’t perceive the same qualities in other musical genres.
As he explained: “I’m really looking forward to the tour and especially to
coming up to Scotland [on September 17] and performing at the Usher Hall. I suspect most of the audience will consist of people who know me, but there will be a fair amount of people who are more open to acoustic music than has been the case in previous decades. And I am pretty sure there are a few reasons for this development.
“One would be that rock and roll isn’t what it was on a local level any longer. People’s tastes are changing and there may come a point at which younger people cease to be entertained by being completely out of their heads in either the mud or the sawdust while being deafened by the latest loud messages.
“Also, the nature of what most younger musicians are doing now hasn’t got much to do with trying to be the next Jimi Hendrix or nicking some honest, brilliant down-home dirty Robert Johnson tune to turn it into edgy heavy rock.
“But it’s very hard to say who’s going to turn up [at the concerts]. Every audience is different and they all contribute to the night. If the audience is cold, it can often make for a more withdrawn performance.
“But if the audience is warm, or at least forgiving, then that makes for a relaxed gig. Obviously, you don’t want a totally sycophantic crowd. You want them to be critical, otherwise you might as well come in on a cloud with big white wings.”
That last remark encapsulates Harper’s dry-as-Nevada sense of humour. One minute, he was talking about his recent visits to Scotland, whether as a special guest for ethereal folk star Joanna Newsom, or playing King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut in Glasgow where he was entranced by a “very attractive atmosphere.”
The next minute, he was discussing the re-release of some of his classic vinyl recordings and focusing on finishing some new material.
He added: “Some of it hasn’t been available for 30 years, so it has needed a revamp and lots of remixing has been going on. I’ve been thinking about doing this for the last few years, but I haven’t got round to it. Remixing and re-sculpting records is a difficult and time-consuming job, especially when, to the casual listener, there’s not a fantastic difference between before and after.
“The re-released records, “Flat Baroque and Berserk”, “Stormcock” and “Lifemask” are all coming out together. I think it’s long been obvious that they were too ambitious for their time and they might be more appreciated in the current climate.
“After all, the songs were written about issues that are now much more widely understood and particularly during the last few years.
“I think all three are as timeless as their influences and that they will be listened to for a very long time. I’m also working on some new songs, but I’ve been sidetracked. Hopefully, I’ll be back onto the new songs when the tour is finished.”
It’s clear that this old cricketer has no intention of leaving the crease for the foreseeable future!