Uncut - February 2004
Harper’s Bizarre * * * *

Part lyrical study, part autobiography and part photo album from one of England’s unsung finest.

ROY HARPER IS A SQUARE peg for round holes, a round peg for square ones. He scrambled from the ‘60s folk scene like a troubadour from another time zone, displaying a propensity for occasional bouts of Arthurian mysticism – and for cavorting nude. He’s as much part of Glastonbury’s fixtures and fittings as the stick-whittlers and jugglers. You might therefore take him for the sort of flaxen-haired, hippie-dippy creature punk sought to rid the world of for good.

Yet there’s a scathing, unabated anger about Harper that’s punker than punk, that indeed has outlasted punk, be it on early offerings like “I Hate The White Man” or even very recent offerings like 2001’s anit-Blair tirade “The Monster”. His voice is raw and impassioned, sometimes tender, sometimes scourging, while his acoustic settings, often abetted by luxurious string arrangements, studio effects and electric guitars, tumble and cascade with the beauty and ferocity of waterfalls.

It’s his sheer bloody awkwardness, the very factor that has denied him a wider audience, that makes him mandatory listening for everybody and anybody. This handsome volume is his own attempt to provide a definitive guide to his life’s work, obsessions and psyche.

A traumatic upbringing, first at the hands of a Jehovah’s Witness stepmother and then when he quit home to join the RAF, has left Harper with an indelible loathing of all forms of authority and all religious belief, the latter expressed uncompromisingly and to the discomfort of some on “The Black Cloud Of Islam” in particular.

Although the text here reveals a self-depricating soul who loves life and takes his pleasures where he can, it also reveals a burning rage against the world and all its malign, overarching imperial structures. Hence ‘60s songs like “McGoohan’s Blues” through to the lengthy “The Lord’s Prayer” on 1973’s Lifemask – wonderfully doomed solo attempts to put the world to rights and tilt at every windmill going.

His intro to this volume, in which he foresees the extinction of mankind as our lives become ecologically unsustainable but dismisses our demise as an irrelevancy in nature’s scheme of things, suggest that he remains the world’s oldest angry young man. Yet this book attests also to songs like “When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease”, a tender masterpiece which reflects profoundly and humanely on the sunset of all our lives.

Although pricey at £35, this excellent collection should act not just as a trove for Harper diehards but as an appetising introduction to newcomers, too.

–David Stubbs

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