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Roy Harper (born 12 June 1941), is an English rock / folk singer-songwriter / guitarist who has been a professional musician since the mid 1960s. Harper has admitted being influenced by many forms of music, ranging from Miles Davis and Raga, to Stravinsky. His earliest musical influences were American blues musicians, Lead Belly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and folk musician Woody Guthrie.

As a musician, Harper is known for his distinctive, sophisticated fingerstyle playing and lengthy, complex compositions. He has released a large catalogue of albums as an artist, most of which are available on his own record label Science Friction.

His career and influence have been respected by many musicians including; Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, both members of the 1970s band Led Zeppelin, Pete Townsend of The Who, Kate Bush, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and more recently Californianmarker harpist Joanna Newsom. Harper is also known for his guest lead vocals on Pink Floyd's song "Have a Cigar".

Harper has been referred to as “the longest running underground act in the world”.


Early life

Harper was born in 1941 in Rusholmemarker, a suburb of Manchestermarker, Englandmarker. After the death of his mother, Muriel, during childbirth, he was raised in Blackpoolmarker by his father and stepmother, with whom he became disillusioned because of her Jehovah's Witness beliefs. Harper's anti-religious views would later become a familiar theme within his music.

At the age of 10, he began playing skiffle music with his older brother David, ("Davey" on the album Flat Baroque and Berserk), as well as becoming influenced by blues music. Harper was educated at King Edward VII School, Lytham. He left school at the age of 15 and joined the Royal Air Force. This eventually resulted in his rejecting the rigid discipline, feigning madness in order to obtain a military discharge and receiving Electroconvulsive therapy as a result. Upon his eventual discharge, he busked around Europe until 1964 when he returned to Englandmarker, gaining a residency at Londonmarker's famous Sohomarker folk club, Les Cousinsmarker.

The 1960s

Harper's first album, Sophisticated Beggar, was recorded in 1966 after he was spotted at Les Cousins, and signed to Peter Richards' Strike Records. The album consisted of Harper's poetry backed by acoustic guitar and recorded with a Revox tape machine by Pierre Tubbs. CBS Records recognised Harper's potential and hired producer Shel Talmy to arrange Harper's second album, Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith, released in 1968. The 11 minute track "Circle", was notable for marking a widening of Harper's musical style away from the more traditional folk music heard at the time.

In May 1968, Harper began to make regular appearances at free concerts in London's Hyde Parkmarker attracting a cult following of fans from the underground music scene . Harper also toured the UK, performing at numerous venues that would later become recognised for the variety and quality of their musical acts; Mothersmarker in Birminghammarker was one venue to which Harper would frequently return.

1969's Folkjokeopus (Harper's third album), in a similar vein to his previous album, included an extended 17-minute track called "McGoohan's Blues", which Harper referred to as the "main statement" within the album. The track's title referred to actor Patrick McGoohan, who was at the time starring in the UK TV series The Prisoner.

The 1970s

Harper's first tour of the United Statesmarker followed the release of his fourth studio album, Flat Baroque and Berserk, in 1969. The album also featured The Nice on the track "Hell's Angels". Its ethereal sound was achieved by a wah-wah pedal attached to Harper's acoustic guitar. This album also marked the beginning of Harper's long and sometimes confrontational association with EMI, whose subsidiary Harvest Records he was signed to.

After the Bathmarker Festival of 1970, Led Zeppelin paid tribute to Harper with their version of the traditional song, "Shake 'Em On Down", the definitive version of which was originally recorded by blues artist Bukka White. Retitled "Hats Off to Harper", it appeared on the album Led Zeppelin III. According to Jimmy Page, the band admired the way Harper stood by his principles and did not sell out to commercial pressures. In mutual appreciation of their work, Harper would often attend live performances by Led Zeppelin over the subsequent decade, contribute sleeve photography to the album Physical Graffiti and appear, albeit uncredited, in the 1976 film, The Song Remains the Same.

Harper's critically acclaimed 1971 album was a four song epic, Stormcock. The album featured Jimmy Page on guitar (credited as "S. Flavius Mercurius" for contractual reasons) and David Bedford's orchestral arrangements (Bedford would also collaborate on future Harper releases). Johnny Marr, The Smiths' guitarist, said that Stormcock was "intense and beautiful and clever" . In 1972, Harper made his acting debut playing Mike Preston alongside Carol White in the John Mackenzie film Made. The soundtrack for this film appeared the following year as the album Lifemask. At the time, Lifemask was created as Harpers final bow; a (then) little known lung condition HHT, which caused polycythemia, incapacitating the singer. The cover art shows Harpers 'death mask'.

Recovered, Harper's next album Valentine, was released on Valentine's Day, 14 February 1974 and featured contributions from Jimmy Page. A concert to mark its release was held on the same day, at London'smarker Rainbow Theatre with Page, Bedford, Max Middleton (of The Jeff Beck Group) on keyboard, Ronnie Lane on bass and Keith Moon on drums. The live album Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion, recorded at that concert, soon followed.

Pink Floyd's 1975 release Wish You Were Here saw Harper sing lead vocals on the song "Have a Cigar". David Gilmour returned the favour by appearing on Harper's next album, HQ, along with Harper's occasional backing band, Trigger (Chris Spedding on guitar, Dave Cochran on bass guitar, Bill Bruford on drums) and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. The single "When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease", taken from the album, is Harper's biggest selling song to date. Harper also co-wrote the song, "Short and Sweet" with Gilmour for Gilmour's first solo record, David Gilmour released in 1978.

Controversy followed the release of 1977's Bullinamingvase. The owners of Watford Gap service station objected to criticisism of their food ("Watford Gap, Watford Gap / A plate of grease and a load of crap…") in the lyrics of the song "Watford Gap". Harper was forced to drop it from future UKmarker copies of the album, though it reappeared on a later CD reissue and remained on the U.S.marker LP. The album also featured the song "One of Those Days in England", with backing vocals by Paul McCartney and his wife Linda, an edited version of which became a Top 40 hit. In April 1978, Harper began writing lyrics for the next Led Zeppelin album with Jimmy Page, but the project was shelved when Robert Plant returned from a self-imposed sabbatical after the death of his son.

Between 1975 and 1978, Harper spent a considerable amount of time in the United Statesmarker. During this period Harper signed with the USmarker division of Chrysalis Records, who released HQ with a different title (When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease) and cover. Chrysalis considered the original UK sleeve photo of Harper walking on water to be too offensive for an American release. Harper disagreed, but had no choice. Chrysalis also changed the title of Harper's next album, Bullinamingvase, to One of Those Days in England. In 1978, US Chrysalis reissued Harper's first four Harvest albums, only one of which (Flat, Baroque and Berserk) had been previously released in America.

For much of the Seventies, Harper was managed and produced by Britishmarker manager and record producer Peter Jenner, initially acting for Blackhill Enterprises. According to Jenner ; "Harper is a terrific songwriter, but a bit crazy"

The 1980s

Harper began the decade with the release of The Unknown Soldier which was to be his final Harvest release. The album contains a duet with Kate Bush on the track, "You". (Harper reciprocated by singing backing vocals on "Breathing", on the Kate Bush album Never For Ever). Of Bush, Harper later stated; A decade later, Harper and Bush would collaborate again on his album Once.

Harper's 1982 album, Work of Heart, marked the formation of Harper's own record label with Mark Thompson, (son of Englishmarker historian, socialist and peace campaigner. E.P. Thompson) entitled Public Records. The album itself was chosen by Derek Jewell of the The Sunday Times as "Album of the Year" in 1982. The original demo version of this album was later released (in 1984) on a limited edition (830 copies) vinyl release entitled Born in Captivity.

Contrarily (though perhaps more to do with Harper's financial situation at the time) of this period, Harper stated;

Throughout 1984, Harper toured the United Kingdommarker with Jimmy Page, performing a predominantly acoustic set at folk festivals under various guises such as The MacGregors, and Themselves. In 1985, they released an album called Whatever Happened to Jugula?. This album caused a resurgence of interest in Harper and his music. (Tony Franklin, bass player in Harper's group at this time would later join Page in The Firm). In April 1984, Harper and Gilmour performed "Short and Sweet" (the song they co-wrote) during Gilmour's three night run at The Hammersmith Odeonmarker. This version later appeared on the David Gilmour Live 1984 concert film. Harper also provided backing vocals on Gilmours newly released album, About Face.

Perhaps due to the popularity of Whatever Happened to Jugula?, Harper resigned to EMI and in 1986 released a live album, In Between Every Line, containing recordings from his performances at the Cambridge Folk Festival and in 1988 the studio album, Descendants of Smith. The relationship between Harper and EMI did not last and from 1985 more of his earlier albums became available on the Awareness Records label. 1988 also saw the release of Loony on the Bus, a collection of tracks intended for release in 1977 as Commercial Breaks but held back because of disputes between Harper and EMI.

The 1990s

The Nineties was a highly productive decade for Harper that saw the release of 4 studio albums: Once (1990), Death or Glory? (1992), Commercial Breaks (1994), The Dream Society (1998) and 8 live albums: Unhinged (1993), Live At Les Cousins (1996), and six individual CDs of concerts recorded by the BBC (1997).

In addition, Harper released a live video Once (1990), an EP Burn the World (1990), a CD single The Methane Zone (1992), a limited edition live cassette Born in Captivity II (1992), a compilation album An Introduction to ..... (1994), a collection of poetry and spoken word tracks Poems, Speeches, Thoughts and Doodles (1997), and a reissue of Descendants of Smith (his 1988 release) renamed Garden of Uranium (1994). In 1994 much of Harper's back catalogue became available on CD through his own record label Science Friction.

If Harper's public profile had been relatively low since 1986, 1990's Once was a tour-de-force, featuring contributions from David Gilmour, Kate Bush, Nigel Mazlyn Jones, and brought him more attention. In 1992 the spotlight was also on Harper after the end of his marriage to Jacqui. 1992's melancholy Death or Glory? contains a number of songs and spoken words that reference his loss and pain. On tour, Harpers' emotional reactions to his loss were clearly, and very publicly, visible.

Throughout the decade, Harper's musical influence began to be recognised by a younger generation of musicians some of whom covered his songs or invited him to make guest appearances on their albums. In 1995 Harper contributed spoken words on The Tea Party's 1995 album The Edges of Twilight. In 1996 Roy recited "Bad Speech" from the album Whatever Happened to Jugula? on the album Eternity by Anathema (the album also contains a cover version of "Hope" from the same album). The track "Time" from The Tea Party's 1996 multimedia CD, Alhambra, was sung and co-written by Harper.

Harper contributed his version of Jethro Tull's song, "Up the 'Pool" (from Living in the Past) for the 1996 tribute album, To Cry You A Song - A Collection Of Tull Tales. In 1998, Jethro Tull singer Ian Anderson contributed flute to the song, "These Fifty Years" on Harper's The Dream Society, an album based on Harper's life, particularly his youth. Reportedly, Anderson said that the only reason he originally left Blackpool was because Harper did. Other artists who covered Harper's songs (or songs on his albums) throughout the decade include, Dean Carter, Ava Cherry & The Astronettes (People from Bad Homes), Green Crown, The Kitchen Cynics, The Levellers, Roydan Styles and Pete Townshend.

Harper also undertook a small tour of the USAmarker, where some performances were supported by Daevid Allen; former Soft Machine and Gong band member.

The 2000s

In 2000, Harper released an almost entirely acoustic album, The Green Man, accompanied by The Tea Party's Jeff Martin on guitar, hurdy gurdy and numerous other instruments. The Following year (2001) Harper celebrated his 60th birthday with a concert at Londonmarker's Royal Festival Hallmarker. Harper was joined by numerous guest artists, including David Bedford, Jeff Martin and John Renbourn. A recording of the concert Royal Festival Hall Live - June 10th 2001 was released as a double CD shortly afterwards.

In 2003, Harper published The Passions of Great Fortune, a large format book containing all the lyrics to his albums (and singles) to date, including a wealth of photographs and commentary on his songs.

In April 2005, Harper released a lengthy CD single, The Death of God. The 13 minute song, a critique of the 2003 Gulf War, featured guest guitarist Matt Churchill, who has also joined Harper on stage at his live performances. A video of this song, intermixing animation with a live performance, is available in four parts on YouTube. The same year saw the release of Harper's latest album Counter Culture, a double compilation album featuring songs from a 35 year songwriting period. Counter Culture received a five star review from UNCUT . Harper also contributed a recital of "Jabberwocky" for The Wildlife Album, an 18 track compilation CD to benefit the World Wide Fund For Nature and the Ulster Wildlife Trust.

2006 saw Harper release his first DVD, Beyond the Door. Composed of live footage recorded in 2004 at Irish folk club "De Barra's" in Clonakiltymarker, Cork, the package includes an additional 10 track audio CD and received a 4 star review from both Mojo, UNCUT and Classic rock, who made it their DVD of the month.

In September 2007, Harper supported Californian harpist Joanna Newsom at her Royal Albert Hallmarker performance. Newsom had been impressed by Harper's 1971 album Stormcock and it served as an inspiration for her second album, Ys. On the night, Harper played Stormcock in its entirety. This was Harper's last live performance, and he announced on his website that he " now taking a break from the live scene... that he has retired from gigging and just wants the time and space to write..."

Harper has dedicated the last few years to collecting and compiling his life work in various formats. One of his future projects is likely to be the making of a documentary DVD to round off this process.

In 2008, plans were announced for a Roy Harper Tribute album. The album, All you Need is What You Have (named after songs on Harper's 1969 release Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith), is compiled by Laurel Canyonmarker Folk singer Johnathan Wilson and features Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), Gary Louris (The Jayhawks), Johnathan Rice, Eric Johnson (Fruit Bats, The Shins), Benji Hughes and others. At present, the unfinished collection is planned with a 2009 release date. Some of the tracks can be heard on the artists Myspace page.


HQ was awarded Record of the Year in Portugalmarker in 1975. That year Harper also received a similar award in Finlandmarker for the same record.

Work of Heart was awarded The Sunday Times Album of the Year in 1982.

After an influential, individualistic and uncompromising recording career spanning 40 years, Harper was awarded the MOJO Hero Award by the staff of Mojo magazine on 16 June 2005 at the Porchester Hall, Central London. The award itself was presented by long time collaborator and friend, Jimmy Page and now hangs upon the wall at De Barras Folk Club in Clonakiltymarker, Irelandmarker.

Nick Harper

One of Roy's sons, Nick Harper, is a successful singer / songwriter in his own right. Nick occasionally tours and records with Roy, and has appeared (as guitarist) on a number of his albums since 1985.


Studio albums

Live albums

Compilations, remixes, etc.


Singles / 12" Singles / EPs





  • 2003 - The Passions of Great Fortune - The Songs Explored (ISBN 0-9545264-0-6)


  1. 1994 Roy Harper Interview
  2. British Pathe news reel footage of 1968 Hyde Park concert
  3. Arts Guardian
  4. Peter Jenner Quote
  5. Roy Harper Official Site
  6. Roy Harper Fan Site
  7. Roy Harper Official Site
  8. Cover artists Myspace page
  9. Mojo Honours List 2005
  10. YouTube short movie starring Roy Harper

External links

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