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Published: 2008/11/24
by Randy Ray

Flat Baroque and Berserk – Roy Harper

Flat Baroque and Berserk – Roy Harper

Stormcock – Roy Harper

Whatever Happened to Jugula? – Roy Harper

Science Friction

Three CD reissues from two distinctly different eras crafted by one truly eccentric minstrel. Roy Harper is an English singer/songwriter who began his career in the mid-1960s, playing clubs and free shows in Britain’s Hyde Park. He would go on to modest success in the 1970s and '80s, before a full career renaissance would slowly begin in the 1990s. Today, he is a semi-retired artist who works at home on his writing and documentation of his career in books and DVDs. His early work was produced by Peter Jenner, who also managed and/or produced the early Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, and later, The Clash.

Flat Baroque and Berserk was Harper’s fourth album, originally released in 1970, and it features 12 songs of humorous and melancholy societal tales of the downtrodden, the love-smitten, and wistfully English. The work is filled with adrenalized folk blues (“Don’t You Grieve”), an epic dirge-like poem/rant/classic enraged hippie’ masterpiece (“I Hate the White Man”), a heady social diatribe with bite (“How Does It Feel”), nods to a fellow musician (“Davey”), a stab at prog rock with Keith Emerson and The Nice on a seven-minute nut rocker (“Hell’s Angels”), and timeless spatial teacup nods to an era that is both now, and very much long gone (“Goodbye,” “East of the Sun,” and “Tom Tiddler’s Ground”). Harper is equally inventive on acoustic guitar, playing the wooden axe as a resourceful craftsman, inspired instrumentalist, and a gifted creature filled with the heady spice of a muse resting on rhythmic and percussive bedrock.

Stormcock followed as his fifth release in 1971, and very much like the career of Pink Floyd, Harper took all of his disparate and experimental strands and unified them into one powerful statement of artistic purpose. Unlike the Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Harper continued to mine material with a nod to the wandering minstrel who had neither need nor want for the current electronic and trippy studio sounds available to a musician. Instead, Harper wrote four long lyric-laden and texturally-adventurous songs that consolidated his strengths into one fine pointsocially-relevant, controversial, and wickedly weird lyrical poems wedded to an angelic-sounding acoustic.

On Stormcock, Harper found his immortal niche, and the four tunes are so potent, definitive, and comprehensive that one is either hesitant or hard-pressed to single out individual highlights (very much like the aforementioned DSOTM by his future Floydian collaborators). “Hors d’Oeuvres” features a revolving kaleidoscope of imagery attached to a beautiful acoustic and organ motif while Harper recites his litany of magical wit. “The Same Old Rock” follows and continues the slow, gradual journey through the sonic heavens. Clocking in at 12+ minutes, Harper created a multi-sectioned piece that is both enchanting and unpredictable, and features S. Flavius Mercurius on a transcendent lead guitar. Oh. Mercurius. Yes. Who dat? Any relation to Freddy? No. Mercurius is none other than Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and Page would continue to support Harper in numerous fashions through his career in various equally eccentric ways. On “The Same Old Rock,” Page compliments Harper’s 12-string acoustic in an inspired cameo.

“One Man Rock and Roll” follows, and features Harper on more passages of exquisitely distinctive guitar playingtaut, loose, refined, clever and smart. The closing “Me and My Woman” clocks in at 13 minutes, and features a rather fine and brilliant string arrangement by David Bedford, finishing Harper’s masterpiece on a note of dense grandeur which neither resolves nor summarizes the imagery contained within. Harper wandered far into the artistic fields and returned a changed man.

The rest of the '70s were hit and miss for the solo Harper as he also appeared as the subject of a tribute at the end of Led Zeppelin III (“Hats Off (to Roy Harper)”), and as a lead vocalist on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (“Have A Cigar”). The early ’80s was a catastrophic wastelandartistically and commerciallyfor Roy Harper, but he finally got back on his feet with the help of the unlikeliest of alliesa recently recovered heroin addict that needed to work again and desperately needed a friend to help him. In walked Jimmy Page, who cleaned up in late 1983 to play the A.R.M.S. benefit gigs for Ronnie Lane with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Paul Rodgers, and a legion of British musicians.

By 1984, Page was ready to rock in any way possible, and with Harper, the duo created Whatever Happened to Jugula?. The album served as a much-needed ass-kicker for Page who would form the Firm with Paul Rodgers later in the year, and Harper who would finally release another successful album, and gain renewed interest in his back catalogue. The overall album features some beautiful playing, melodic gems, and ruthlessly brutal and poignant Harper lyrics on an Orwellian apocalyptic tone poem (“Nineteen Forty-Eightyish’), an ’80s liquid-trance ditty (“Hope”), an old school dirge-and-rant (“Hangman”), and a dreamy waltz detoured by Page’s tortured ride through his bluest of blues jamssad, wrecked, depressed, and filled with poignant remorse (“Elizabeth”).

Whatever Happened to Jugula? is not essential Harper, or Page for that matter, but it captures two important artists at a key transition point where neither chose to give in to either defeat or lazy 1980s pop posturing like so many of their other colleagues. In the end, Harper stands as an artistic cat that got away, running down the back streets that are dark, deserted, and dangerous. He knew where he was going, but his audience didn’t always get the map ahead of time to follow his intriguing footsteps. These re-issues serve notice that Harper is still out there, still on the prowl, and waiting for rediscovery.

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