Popular music history has no shortage of artists who achieved success with wide audiences but not the respect of their peers. If the artist shot to fame after a period of obscurity spent making a honest artistic statement while trying to eke a living, comrades will blame said artist for selling out. But it is seldom that an artist will receive high accolades from prominent acts throughout his/her career, persist in the craft and release over 30 albums in nearly 50 years of activity, and remain terra incognita to most listeners. Such is the case of Roy Harper, who released a number of classic albums in multiple genres, one of them the 1971 album Stormcock, hailed as a masterpiece of progressive folk.
There is no doubt that Harper’s personality has something to do with this eluding success, and then some. Threatening to urinate on the first row at a live gig during the promotion tour for his 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk is not high on the list of tactics to keep a steady audience. Indeed audience appreciation was not abound, as Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull recalls one live set by Harper at Les Cousins folk club in London: “I remember Roy onstage one night being just awful and so pompous in the way only Roy can be. There was a ceiling fan and one night he decided this was interfering with the ambiance of his performance and he shouted a command at someone, “Please turn the fan off!”, and this voice comes back “I shouldn’t do that if I were you Roy, it’s the only one you’ve got in here.” And this from a dedicated follower, as Ian Anderson was. Glenn Cornick, Tull’s original bass player said of Harper: “During the time I was with Tull I listened to Roy Harper a lot. I mean, that’s were Ian invented himself from. Ian’s voice and guitar playing is taken directly from Roy Harper.”
Jethro Tull were not the only fans. Led Zeppelin formed a special friendship with Harper and so admired him for sticking with his art without compromise, that they dedicated a song to him and dropped his name in the song title with Hats Off to (Roy) Harper from Led Zeppelin III. Pink Floyd invited him to sing the lead vocals on Have a Cigar from Wish You Were Here. Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel performed his song Another Day on TV in 1979. That song was again covered wonderfully by Elizabeth Fraser on the first This Mortal Coil album It’ll End in Tears from 1984. I can’t think of another artist who got so much exposure from such great and successful artists and barely scratched the top 100 with any of his albums.
In 1969, following the example of other established record labels, EMI formed the boutique label Harvest to focus on progressive music. As amazingly as it sounds today, progressive music was considered an emerging market by business folks who run the major labels. Unable to fit the weird sounds coming from these artists into their mainstream marketing machinery, they created small labels to focus on that genre with the hope of finding acts who could make the leap into stardom. Decca formed Deram (The Moody Blues, Egg), Phillips created Vertigo (Gentle Giant, Magna Carta) . Even Pye, a second runner to the majors, formed Dawn Records. Dawn released another 1971 progressive folk classic album the same year as Roy Harper’s Stormcock, the timeless First Utterance by Comus. Harvest did a good job signing great artists in 1969 and 1970, including Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, Shirley and Dolly Collins, Barclay James Harvest, Deep Purple, Kevin Ayers and many more. Peter Jenner, Pink Floyd’s manager, signed Roy Harper to a long-term contract, which eventually lasted to the end of the 70s and yielded eight albums. Being part of the Harvest roster was supposed to increase Harper’s exposure, but even a label focusing on progressive music could not find the appetite to promote an album like Stormcock, released in May 1971 at the height of the prog era. Harper: “It was ridiculous. They hated Stormcock. No singles. No way of promoting it on the radio. They said there wasn’t any money to market it. Stormcock dribbled out. And yet, two years later, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were having hit albums with no singles on them. It was a very strange thing, peculiarly stuffy and English. Although it was professedly the underground label, it was about as underground as Lord’s cricket ground. I was absolutely distraught. I knew that I’d made something really special and it was completely trashed, totally ignored.”
But being part of Harvest had its benefit by giving Harper resources he did not previously have, including access to Abbey Road, the legendary studio that was owned by Harvest’s parent label EMI. The engineer on Stormcock was Phil McDonald, previously an assistant engineer on the Beatles classic Abbey Road album, who in 1970 worked on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. The increased recording budget also allowed Roy Harper to take more time and craft the songs structure and arrangement. Stormcock was recorded over a period of 6 months and Harper played 6 and 12 string guitars, moog synth, percussion and piano on the album. Jimmy Page, under the moniker S. Flavius Mercurius, played guitar on The Same Old Rock, Harper’s favorite track on the album.
The album features four long tracks that bear no resemblance to a standard radio-friendly song form. Harper: “I was very influenced by long poems and symphonies when I was very young, and that sort of an influence still motivates me because I have an impulse to deal in epic forms”.
My favorite track on the album is Me and My Woman, a 13-minute long and complex song with multiple parts. For me it is Roy Harper’s finest moment where the composition, performance, arrangement and recording quality all come together magically. Harper uses the studio very effectively with multiple tracks of vocal harmonies, guitar parts and tasty effects on the vocal tracks. Most striking is the superb orchestral arrangement by David Bedford. The strings and horns not only accompany Roy Harper, they play counter melodies, sometimes with short bursts of horns and at other times with lush string passages. Bedford: “It’s rather like an opera. The themes and the basic riff keep recurring. I decided to give the verses a kind of baroque feel, then have these big sweeping strings for the chorus to differentiate the two. Me and My Woman was almost three songs fused together”.
David Bedford was a man of many talents and a favorite among artists in the prog rock world. In 1970 he joined Kevin Ayers and The Whole World Band playing keyboards, where he met a young Mike Oldfield who played bass in that band. His association with Mike Oldfield was long-lasting, starting in 1974 with Hergest Ridge, Oldfield’s followup to the smash hit Tubular Bells. Bedford arranged and conducted the string orchestra and choir on that album. The collaboration continued later that year with the arrangements for the Orchestral Tubular Bells performances and live recording. Bedford also appears on the Collaborations LP in Mike Oldfield’s Boxed set as a composer, keyboard player, arranger and producer. The partnership took a break during Oldfield’s more commercial-oriented albums in the early 80s, but they reunited on the soundtrack for Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields in 1984. Another prog highlight for Bedford was the orchestral arrangement on Camel’s fantastic album The Snow Goose.
Roy Harper’s title for his album, Stormcock, is an old English name for the mistle thrush, a bird popular in European countries. The male has a curious habit of singing during bad weather, hence the name. Sounds like an allegory to Roy Harper’s challenging career as a singer. Or maybe he simply loves birds, as evident from his quote in the 1994 remastered CD release of Stormcock: “Among all the animals in my country, perhaps the birds are the most obvious, plentiful and entertaining. If I could be born again I’d love to be able to fly”.
Like most of Roy Harper’s records, Stormcock was in obscurity for a long period of time. Over the years younger generations of fine artists found it and took inspiration from it. Johnny Marr said of the album: “If ever there was a secret weapon of a record it would be Stormcock… It’s intense and beautiful and clever: Bowie’s Hunky Dory‘s big, badder brother”. Joanna Newson said this in an interview (by Roy Harper) in a 2011 issue of Bomb magazine: “my friends Zach and Kevin heard those Ys songs in early, demoed forms and told me I had to hear your record Stormcock. That was the beginning of the rabbit hole for me and your music. Stormcock quickly became, and has remained, my favorite album. There must have been a solid two years in particular when I didn’t listen to anything except Roy Harper.”
Here is Me and My Woman:
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