In his new unflinchingly candid liner notes accompanying this superb vinyl reissue of 1968’s Come Out Fighting Ghenghis Smith, Roy Harper describes the album as “the skeleton in my closet”. Confessing to cringing with embarrassment upon hearing the finished record, his discomfort was not caused by the breezy strings or fashionable sprinklings of harpsichord producer Shel Talmy had added for extra pop appeal. It was his own spoken-voice sections of Circle and the title track. The ponderous, theatrical declamations have Harper acting out the dividing tensions between father and son, and expectation versus reality.
Although awkward and obstructive to the songs’ narrative flow, such youthful missteps also provide a first glimpse of experimental inclinations with long-form, multi-mood excursions which he would refine later. It’s clear even at this stage that Harper was never going to be a tame folkie in a Dylan cap surfing the late-60s singer-songwriter wave.
While resistant to being shoehorned into light pop, Harper later had developed a hankering for rocking out and indulged it where he could. 1975’s HQ, featuring his Bill Bruford-powered band Trigger, is perhaps his most successful electric-edged detour. Hearing Harper’s fiery, echo-drenched vocals rolling with the jabbing, one-two punches throughout The Game is hair-raising stuff. While the elegiac chimes of When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease has seeped far beyond hardcore fans and into the wider public consciousness, as special as it is, it’s not even the best track on what is arguably his most consistent album since 1971’s Stormcock.
1977’s Bullinamingvase veers from the throwaway Watford Gap to the sublime One Of Those Days In England. Far removed from 1968’s dramatic affectations, the line of continuity running through Harper’s use of the extended song cycle is strikingly evident. Honed to perfection, with keyboard and arrangements from Greenslade’s Dave Lawson, it explores the artist’s ongoing concerns with society, identity and Englishness. That he does so without recourse to any dewy- eyed nostalgia has always been one of Harper’s enduring qualities. A committed outsider, when it comes to mapping the boundaries of Albion, he is as distinctively unsentimental and as impassioned as William Blake or Ralph Vaughan Williams were in their own time and space.
Beautifully presented in gatefold sleeves, these new editions remind us that although decades have passed since their original release, Harper’s perspectives on society’s interactions with the churn of history remain incisive and relevant.