You know, for me, there’s one reason I’ll give Jimmy Page a lifetime pass, it’s for his brief period supporting the genuinely offbeat, yet equally brilliant Roy Harper, and in doing so delivering both of their best work. Released in 1970, “The Same Old Rock” from Roy Harper’s Stormcock ushered in a new age where acoustic folkies could create humongous epics and complex aural visions that rivaled any rock anthem. Maybe, in Roy he saw someone similar to himself. Could it be that Jimmy was more in tune with folk music than blues? I’d argue its a part of him that he felt more at ease exploring. How did Roy get to that point though?
Roy had by the time of this recording been thought of a great guitar player but somewhat of a second rate artist. Second rate to all the influences he drew from the Dylans, Donovan, John Renbourns, and Al Stewarts of the world. He was a great synthesizer of such artists, he’d take the long winding lyricism of Dylan and combine it with the open-tuned guitar sound of Donovan and Renbourn, but lacked all of the melodicism to even match the pop smarts of a young Al Stewart. It seemed at the time that too many philosophies and tangents were pulling on him, preventing some kind of vision from stamping through as uniquely his own. In a way, his life had been leading him to this point.
Born in 1941, in Manchester, he lost his mother just weeks after being born. His father got remarried and joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, such forced indoctrination, inculcated for Roy a deep seated distrust of religion from a young age. As he grew up, he developed a love of blues music and joined a skiffle group giving him his first taste of the pop life. However, as time passed by, he wanted to try his luck at becoming an aviator pilot. He joined the Royal Air Force at age 15, a decision he ended up regretting.
A naturally anti-authoritarian person was now faced with strict discipline and routine. Rather than continue on he faked that he’d gone and willfully submitted himself to electroshock therapy to gain a military discharge. After getting “treatment” he spent a bit of time in a mental institution and in a juvenile detention center, he proceeded to try to earn a living busking. He’d live the bohemian life in North Africa and Europe, only getting a true opportunity by doing a residency at Les Cousins where other famous folkies like Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, John Martyn etc. were discovered. That experience of playing in this venue where various artists commingled and mutated their sound to match the open, communal vibe of the place spurred Roy to try his lot at recording an album. It was his hope to use the recording medium to present his idea of heartfelt sung poetry. This first album started a string of bad sonic decisions though for that reason.
|Roy Harper – 1969|
What you hear on 1966’s Sophisticated Beggar was the sound of a man who placed more emphasis on trying to make his guitar match the sound of his long-winded lyrics than use a proper melody to engage the listener. Some songs, like the romantic Jansch-life folk of “Forever“, showed a hint of the comprehensible complex mind that lay underneath, one that could be better served by applying some of the same editorial focus on the other tracks. Then came 1967’s more experimental, but still messy Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith which had quasi-prog song cycles like “Circle” which tried to surpass Cat Stevens by inflating song lengths, topics and lyricism to a naively unnecessary level. 1969’s Folkjokeopus, sounded exactly like the title, the album had half brilliant extended folk-rock workouts and half thoroughly ridiculous, bordering on affected, crazy, psycho blues Dylan-with-half-the-talent songs like the trying 18-minute folk monolith “McGoohan’s Blues.” Somehow, though, in spite of all this, he was taking dervish steps to head in the right direction.
After signing with the Harvest label, he was allowed more leeway to take his time to think out his ideas through. 1970’s Flat Baroque and Berserk, was the turning point. Maybe in that thick head of his, he was realizing that most other “crazy” psychedelic folkies were now lost in space and such weird experimentation was leaving them falling behind from the modern sound of folk music. It didn’t help that his influences had turned to more insular, relatable work, something that must have spurred him to try to make more inviting music to compensate.
How’d did he compensate? Well, on this release you hear a less vagabond guitar, and one more focused on setting a mood. You could hear a rise in sophistication and resourcefulness in acoustic sound. Simply listen to “Another Day‘s” wonderfully lilting delivery, a sound so thoroughly progressive that its no wonder Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel later chose to cover it. Roy was starting to pick the right melodies to go with his poetic delivery, and in essence rendering a sound that no one else could create. In a way, this brief, concise album allowed him to take stock of what makes Roy, Roy. A change marked on the opening track of the album itself, the searching “How Does it Feel.” It seemed the wild man was controlling his chaos now.
|Stormcock album cover.|
This controlled chaos turned into fission sound with the next album, 1971’s masterpiece Stormcock. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, Roy finally presented his uncompromising vision. Coming to terms that he’ll never be the next Dylan, or that he would lead an army of poets to change the world, he realized a more personal goal to show that one man. and give or take one or two acoustic guitars. could revolutionize rock music as much as folk music. This album with four tracks in total, was revolutionary in its goal. Roy would lay bare all the complex melodies and phrasing that had always been hidden by something else in other recordings. Now he wasn’t afraid to go longer because a jaw-dropping set of songs necessitated this length. It used to be only the real of rock music to go progressive, but Roy knew that a one man band could do that same. What astounds to this day, is that nearly all you’ll hear carrying these epics are Roy’s voice and guitar.
Using every trick in the book, from double-tracking his voice, through running his acoustic guitar through all sorts of effects, he spared no expense to expand how one can completely fill out the sonic space of a track with those two bare bone instruments. The opening track “Hor d’Oeuvres” starts the pulsating feel of this album. A feeling that just positively radiates once his friend, and fan, Jimmy joins him for “The Same Old Rock”. Performing under the pseudonym S. Flavius Mercurius, so as not to detract from Roy’s work, Jimmy finally allows Roy to work with a folk artist that could match and roll with whatever manic guitar passages he had exploding in his head. Combining all their shared folk knowledge (going beyond recent traditional and digging through Medieval or Moorish styles) and just nearly peerless guitar chops, they unleashed a death-defying folk juggernaut that could rival any rock song out there in heaviness and complexity.
After you pick up your jaw from this duo cycling through the torments of the past, can you believe the next song is as equally amazing? That’s the one I’ll leave you to discover. “Me and My Woman” orchestrated by David Benford (ex-Kevin Ayers band member), recorded by John Leckie (future REM, Radiohead) and Alan Parsons (future Pink Floyd engineer) pulls out all the stops on tugging at your sleeves baroque folk. This is the sound that you could hear the influence on future Pink Floyd epics like Animals, or Zeppelin recordings like Led Zeppelin IV. Playing with equal amount force and tenderness, its another epic you’ll never forget.
It’s no wonder Led Zeppelin gave a nod to Roy in their own recording, and Roger Waters invited him to sing on “Have a Cigar” there’s something about Roy that even they could only hint at touching as Englishmen. Anyway, onwards we continue through England’s neo-folk history tomorrow.
Bonus track time, a brilliant live performance of “The Same Old Rock” on the Old Grey Whistle Test: