Roy Harper – Fifty Years of distillation of spirit – reflections from the Royal Festival Hall.

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Watching Roy closely through the day as it progressed to the concert in the evening and his performance on the night, left me with a sense of wonder. There was so much composure and meticulous control. This was a master at work honing every detail into place and crafting each song into perfection. He worked with the other musicians to create music that was sublime. Roy was totally focussed, listening intently, evaluating and weighing things up. He had the vision to deploy the strings, brass, double bass and accompanying electric guitar to augment and expand his songs, to bring out new slants, and to develop them into something greater.

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It set me reminiscing.

Fifty years ago I watched a manic young man, thin and hungry looking, clutching a battered old acoustic guitar, storming into the place with the force of a hurricane. He flung out vitriol, invective, humour and love in a machine gun rattle permeated with manic laughter. That young maniac was a law unto himself. There were no limits, barriers or performance. He unleashed himself upon the world. It was intimate anarchy. The songs were no different to the words. There was no stage patter. There was an open door into a mind in which the world was being analysed, society castigated, and the direction we were heading vilified with fury in desperate diatribe. Songs were interrupted by the volcanic flow of ideas as the lava of his mind poured forth in an unrelenting torrent. Nothing was taboo. There were no restrictions. He burned.

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Back then there was no performance. We were a group of friends sharing, growing and learning. The stage was his front room.

Nobody was doing anything as daring. At times it was a psychoanalysis session, at others a stoned rambling, an unleashing of angst, an outpouring of emotion, a humorous interlude or an intense display of musical creativity. It depended on his mood. He did not put on a performance so much as visit with you and share his songs, attitude, argument and mind. It was an experience. The songs were exceptional, the playing magical and the outpourings always intelligent, pointed and thought provoking. The man was a genius.

Of course, it did not make him universally popular, apart from with a group of similarly minded fanatics – denizens of the underground. Most people prefer shallow entertainment. They do not want to be bombarded with the failings of our leaders, the control exerted on us, the destruction of the planet, war, death and destruction.

As his popularity grew there were shouts from the audience ‘Get on with it!’ as people became fed  up with the lengthy anecdotes or thoughts. They were there for the songs. But I was enthralled. The songs were fabulous, but so were the ideas, asides, stories and perceptive insights. What they wanted was a sublime performance of the more beautiful songs. What they got was the whole uncompromising package.

Roy never really saw himself as part of the biz. Yet he loved and respected the music he was creating and in the studio he crafted it into as near to perfection as he could get – even if that meant twenty minute epics with content guaranteed to enrage critics and ensure no air-play. Roy played The Game and never played the game.

It was precisely because of this uncompromising stance that Roy never achieved the giddy heights he should have.

Now at the age of seventy five the passion is still there but the fires have died down. He is polishing the diamonds. There are no cries of ‘Get on with it’ they have mutated into ‘We love you Roy’. We have the performances he was always capable of and I have my memories of that fiery lunatic who seared his dreams into my ears.

 

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