We decided, a long time after the commercial world did so, I have to say, that we would re-release arguably the best ten or twelve of the catalogue as LPs once again. I’d looked at it for years, and while I was out in California putting ‘Man and Myth’ together I became aware for the first time, first hand, that the turnover in high end 50s, 60s and 70s amplifiers for turntables, was huge. Then I had discussions with Simon Raymonde at Bella Union about a vinyl release for Man And Myth, and the rest of that chapter is history. It was a good experience, and it became obvious that at least the main figments of the Roy Harper catalogue were going to become available on vinyl again.
In theory, it seemed to be easy to transfer what we already had on cd and tape back onto vinyl and, hey presto, it would just happen. Wrong. All vestiges of old artwork had disappeared. A lot of it had, quote, “Gone into the skip”, as first EMI fell off a high ladder, (during which years of turmoil, for instance, the old EMI Studios in Abbey Road had become independent and were only affordable if you were making a blockbuster movie, Etc). We’re all used to the world changing very quickly. The shock of the previous generation to the ploughing up of its old means is always brutal. De facto, the new world arrives a second later and empties the skip. Then just as easily subsumes the old generation in the blaring glare of the newbies strutting their stuff. As Kurt would have said, ‘so it goes’.
So, not having any artwork was going to present problems. Some were big problems, but not entirely insurmountable because, well, mainly because, by some hook or crook, the artist is still alive, and still has sufficient in the memory bank to be able to curate a resuscitation of all that the old artwork meant. He even has enough in the scrapheap of his archive be able to add to it with one or two salient items. Time and care were necessary, but with the help of his old mucker Harry Pearce, and a bit of techno wobble, the past can be re-visited.
We decided that it was best to release the new vinyl in batches of three in order to facilitate most of the releases within a few years. It was hard work. Nothing like as easy as we’d first thought. There were all kinds of stumbling blocks, but, to cut a long story short, the first batch was released in 2016.
I’d wanted the second batch to include HQ, Bullinamingvase and Folkjokeopus. I rate Folkjokeopus, and particularly McGoohan’s Blues, but I quickly realised how unfinished it was. that I’d always regretted not being able to edit it in the way it should have been edited in 1968. Back in that year, there wasn’t the time/money to do another take of McGoohans Blues. We’d had to use the first take. Don’t get me wrong, the first take wasn’t that bad at all, but there’s a huge gaping error in it. I’m not going to say here where that error occurs, because most of you will have enjoyed it for years the way it is. But now I have the chance, the chance I’ve always wanted, to fix it, to finally scratch that itch, and I was going to, but it became difficult… I need to get a band together, I needed time.. I needed to learn the song again.. I needed to… wouldn’t it be nice to take it on tour again.. Fifty years later, if only to flag up ‘the bankers and tycoons and hoarders of money and art’ again, fifty years on.. but then there was a tour already happening.. and.. finally I had to shelve the idea of tackling that immediately.
So; what was I going to put in it’s place? Would I go forward, and look at re-instating ‘Unknown Soldier’, ‘Descendants Of Smith/Garden Of Uranium’, or ‘The Dream Society’; ‘Jugula’ or even ‘Death Or Glory’.. Mm, too close to the bone.. Or should I go back? Now there’s a thing! Lying there, full of bad edits and underrated by me. “Underrated by me”? What d’you mean roy, you know you’ve always hated ‘Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith’”? Yeah, but why? “Isn’t it that hair in your mouth that you’ve always tried to get rid of, and thought you had, but it’s still there, isn’t it? How come”?
So I listened to it again, for the first time in decades. It made me smile. Instead of hearing a couple of great clanking hand-fisted edits again, and the piece of 1950’s dialogue that I’d written off centuries ago as juvenile tosh, I heard the young roy, the very young man, trying to pull out all the stops, with some success, although the second side of the record is trashed by the lack of cash and hasty production.
Then something strange happened. The original producer, Shel Talmy, or people on his behalf, had obviously been unearthing his past to put together a compilation of his work, which includes early Who and Kinks records, and we received a request. Could he use a track from ‘Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith’? Of course I agreed that they could use it. The track is called ‘Aging Raver’. Then, by some turn in the conversation, we discovered that the original tapes had been found: in a tape vault at SONY! Immediately, I wanted to use them to bring the record back to life. To take away the generations of cd dust attached to them, address the edits, and re-instate the record. For me, it didn’t have a former glory. It was what it still is. A sound bite from 1967 that hadn’t had the attention that it perhaps might have deserved because no time could be spent on it, and it’s author couldn’t be present to make the edits at the time. And no one else knew, or cared, that there were edits that needed to be tidied up.
Shel was not to blame for any of this. He had a job to do, and a record company to accommodate, and in 1967 direction by the artist was absolutely discouraged. EMI might have had enough cash return from The Beatles to indulge them, and George Martin was a brilliant foil for them, but old roy was an alien from the folk cellar with very little clout, and Shel wasn’t that far above him.
When we got the old tapes into the Studio at Lettercollum, it became immediately obvious that we had something which was very much more alive than it’s cd counterpart. The decision to include it in the second issue of LPs from Science Friction was probably already made. That decision could easily have been reversed, but the moment I heard the real tapes there was no way of backing out. Here was a real chance to bring an uncared for and diminished collection back from the dead. It had to be done.
There were still production issues though. Would I take it back to the bare essentials? Could I? Even. I toyed with leaving the soap box imaginary conversation with my illusive dad off it. I was really tempted to cut out all the earnest but semi-embarrassing drivel. It was like listening to mock Mike Leigh or juvenile Pinter. And what would I do with the poem at the end? Was there anything I should do about that mock Dylan last line. Could I pare the record down to just the songs? I badly wanted to.. but in the end I couldn’t. I’d become a recidivist by so doing. I’d be modernising 1967 out of it. I badly wanted to, but the truth is that I couldn’t have done it without falling.. in my own estimation.
I did wrestle with the poem though. The words themselves were good. The sentiment was right. What the poem actually says is.. ‘please explain to me why you think that we’re not en route to annihilation’… (Fifty years ago). Which is a recurring theme in my work. Viz. – ‘And so the game is played out on the sinking *Wigan pier, With brass bands round the gravestones so that no one can quite hear, The prophets and the gentle people’s feelings that are lost, inside the ringing cauldron of the crashing holocaust.. Farewell to you Dear Genghis Smith, I’d help you if I could, But there’s nothing I could have told you, that you’d have understood; And there’s nothing I could have told you that would have done you any good, and Hey there!.. is there much more room down there? All I can see is mud.’
It was the right poem in the right place, but the delivery was perhaps too flippant. I faced a dilemma at the time. How was I going to not make it sound like T S Eliot or Ezra Pound reading his own poetry? Staid and confounding, but in some way dead. I needed people to be entertained in a more Betjeman on acid style, or so I thought… but what if the mock Dylan of that last line had been spoken in mock David Attenborough, which it could have been..? “What if roy, what if..”.. “Leave it alone Sunshine”.
The result of all this wrangling with myself is that there’s a new vinyl version of Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith on its way out again for the first time in decades.
In September 1967, CBS, (the company I’d signed to earlier in the year), wanted to finalise the cover. They’d heard demos, produced the contract in July, and the record was about to be made. They were hinting at a photo to hang alongside ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and ‘Sounds Of Silence’ in the CBS offices, but not enough of them were…
They were silent when I voiced my sleeve idea, based on the title track, Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith, of having a birth picture of a new born human, umbilical cord still attached. Not a word from any of them. It was potentially an image for me that conveyed my own vision of survival against the odds. It was also intended to be an image of the birth of the carefree destructor itself. The pushy ploughman on the planet. I was voted down, although I was never in attendance. I was obviously not going to be included in any vote that in any way impinged upon CBS corporate policy. Silly boy, how could he have imagined that a corporation would ever have gone out on such a limb? After all, they weren’t in the business of making hit records by virtue of controversial images on record sleeves. Heaven forbid!
So what they came up with, and confronted me with, was the finished product. A front cover with a ‘sweet’ pic of the art director’s new born baby on it. What bollocks! So, a decent record, in which production the artist had no say at all, was finally relegated to the status of detritus by the usual corporate nonsense view. The view from the middle of the front row of The Circle. The whole character of the intended record had been diminished. Actually, the cover now didn’t have any character at all. However, FINALLY, the artist lived long enough to put the record into the context he’d always wanted it to have. A pyrrhic victory, you might think, in terms of the millions it would never have sold in any case, but not for the artist himself. For him, it’s a sweet moment. A moment when the original idea teamed up with the ability to finally do it justice.
I spent days, on and off, searching for the right photo across the world, on the internet. What I found was amazing. Hosts of pics of how homo sapiens likes to picture its babies, from complete fantasy to full-on photographic real. Through rose tinted speculation to comic pop art, from bad photo to gruesome image, from ridiculous Disney to WTF! I mailed people to ask for the use of pics, to no avail. Then suddenly, as deadlines approached, I found the right picture, taken somewhere in London. I found it at a photo agency, and it wasn’t going to be too expensive to obtain the right to use it. We had to ask the photographers permission for it to be used publicly, of course, but that came with a return of email. Bingo! An ambition had been achieved. I was so pleased.
I’d already sent it to life-long friend Harry Pearce, at Pentagram, so that we could discuss dimensions and etc., and I was thrilled by Harry’s first demos returned to me by PDF. The effect of having this in the bag, fifty years later, was so uplifting. There were one or two more back and forths between Harry and I, in which we questioned crops and fonts, but what had happened was serendipitous.
There is still a question that begs to be addressed however. Should a picture like this be used in a public arena? Does it derogate the intimate? Does a picture like this add to the seemingly mindless dilution of human integrity that is now profoundly global? Does it add to the possible diminution of human character that the internet multiplies every minute of every day? Is the act of being born diminished by such an image being so common? Were CBS right in 1967? There are questions. Questions of honour. Questions of character.
There are questions of taste. There are questions of morality. Questions that a young man wanted to dig out in 1967. To ask questions of the world with. Can those old questions still be asked in the same way fifty years on? How many people, and particularly those of a fragile disposition, will this image offend? Was this that young man’s intension, in 1967, to offend those kind of people? All he remembers now is a will to go against the accepted grain. To expose the grain for what it was and still is. How unkind would that have been, to do it just to be offensive? He knows that he didn’t do that. His heart has never been like that. Not the heart he sees in the mirror anyway. Away away! Flee from the thought and have done with it.
Conversely, is birth not a reality? Isn’t it to be pictured in the way it is? Et al. I didn’t see it as a controversial image in 1967, and I still don’t; but that’s me. ‘Be careful what you wish for’. The old man whispers a cliché under his breath. It’s just a cliché, isn’t it?
1967 was a funny old year. It was the year before the revolutions. In some ways, it could be said that it was the calm before the storm. My writing in ’67 was seemingly far more parochial than was the fare of ’68. At the end of ‘67 I was writing McGoohan’s Blues.. but that’s another story.
‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ was the B-side of the Beatles single of the same year, ‘All You Need Is Love’, which I thought at the time was fatuous. Opinion – The B-side is a much better song than the sugary A-side. On ‘Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith’ I criticised the A-side and used half a line from the B-side.. no one noticed.. … …. :—)
‘Oo mum, he said, does God go to bed
Or is he a rich man too
She said in a minute my son
I’ll box your bloody ears for you’
And instead of the flatulent ‘All You Need Is Love’, I reposted with..
All You Need Is
All you need
All You need Is Love is a great sentiment, and the song is clever, but on a personal level, I didn’t need to be knee deep in treacle at that moment.. Although, I have to say that I was a Beatles fan. Still am when I hear some of the songs from that era on the radio.
Meanwhile, was it tantamount to self harm to marry myself to such stark realities? Would the original sleeve idea have won through? Should I have absolutely fought for it at the time? Should I have fought harder for the future of those ideas? Speak up boy!