[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Roy Harper: There'll Always Be An England (NZC)



Roy Harper: There'll Always Be An England
Andy Childs, Zigzag, May 1977

As the pound plummets, the economy slumps and the government totters, there
is yet hope for the fair isle of Albion? as we get a taste of pride and
patriotism the Roy Harper way.

During the last couple of months, when Roy Harper's extremely unfortunate
and debilitating illness has forced him into the spotlight more often than
even he would probably wish for, it appears that a lot of people have
forgotten about his excellent new album, Bullinamingvase (Harvest SHSP
4060).

In my humble opinion, as something of a Harper fan, I reckon that it's his
best album yet, eclipsing even the magnificent HQ. The album's tour de force
is the beautifully constructed and totally captivating 'One Of Those Days In
England (Parts 2-10)', which takes up the whole of side two and is quite the
most impressive song about our national heritage (at least, I think that's
what it's about) that I've heard for as long as I can remember.

Roy Harper has always written and sung about subjects that few other people
seem able to approach with the same skill or sensitivity, and for this
reason alone ? even if he didn't make great rock music ? Harper is
undoubtedly one of the very few really important songwriters in this
country.

A couple of days after walking right past Death's door, Harper was relaxing
in a London hotel and, unbelievably, doing interviews. Now I know that, more
than most people, Harper is somewhat pissed off at the way the press have
treated him, so to be honest I was slightly nervous of the outcome of our
meeting. I knew it would either be a really fascinating interview, or else I
would bungle it completely and make an asshole of myself.

As it happened, he was fascinating. He chose his words with great
deliberation and came across as one of the most genuine and charming guys
I've ever had the privilege to talk to. It was obvious that he still hadn't
completely recovered from his illness, and in fact the interview had to be
curtailed prematurely when tiredness overcame him and he flaked out on the
hotel bed.

What we did get down on tape, however, was really interesting, I think, and
I'm typing it out here almost in full. By the very nature of the way he
constructed his answers, Harper effectively edited it all for me.

*

It occurred to me that there might be a Roy Harper the songwriter and
musician, and Roy Harper the professional interviewee?

Yes, that's right. That's exactly what goes on. It's only in the fringe
magazines, like Zigzag for instance, that anyone ever asks me questions
other than "What happened when you blew the shit-house wall out with a stick
of dynamite?" It's the only chance you get to talk about the other things,
because whatever you say to the music rags, whatever information you give
them, they edit all the sensationalist junk out of it, and throw the rest
away.

I remember you once saying that interviews are valuable because you had more
to say than you could actually say in your songs... there were more things
to talk about...

You can't really get everything into your songs, but then again you wouldn't
want to, because a song is a song, a poem is a poem, and to try and
articulate meaning into it detracts from its value as a poem. So, really,
what you're asking there, or what is being deciphered there, is that there
are things to say other than what goes into poems... in the way that it goes
into poems or songs or whatever you want to call them.

There is stuff that you cannot say in a poem, and there is stuff ? by the
same virtue ? that you can only say in a poem. Words are a much more
difficult medium to work with once you scratch the surface into trying to
understand what the human being is doing when he's using words... when he
opens his mouth and makes a sound on some vocal cords that have spent
millions of years in their development from basic grunts to what we have
now. If you scratch the surface in trying to understand what's happening in
that process, and you've got below the surface, you realise that there's a
lot more to the use of words than you ever dreamt there was... and you start
to pick them very carefully.

I sometimes spend weeks and weeks trying to decide whether it should be
'and' that I use at the beginning of a certain line, or 'but'. Also whether
'and' or 'but' should be used at all. My words on this new record of poems
and whatnot are perhaps not as chosen as the words on records in the past.
On this record I've left them more to their own devices, which is what I
suspect everybody else does. I suspect that not many people have the same
neurosis about words that I do, and I don't think for one moment that the
general public will ever want to go into words in the same depth that
someone like me does. I say "will ever want", because in the future there
might be some incredible machines capable of deciphering the past, namely
our present, in a much more precise context than ever we were able to whilst
we lived in it. And for sure the devices that will be investigated in such a
futuristic view will undoubtedly be the things that we wrote, and the things
we said, etc.

Listening to HQ, and especially 'When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease',
it doesn't appear to be saying anything as revolutionary as some of your
earlier stuff, but it was saying something that nobody else seemed to be
saying, i.e. that England, the real England, is being worn away.

It's the values. It's the difference in values between now and then. There's
a lot of that sort of stuff on the new album. I just think that there's been
a tremendous Celtic revival at the expense of all things English, whereas at
one time the Celts, wherever they were from (I don't need to name the
various Celtic fringes that are around), basked in a great amount of English
glory... some of which they created themselves.

But now that the English sun has set, or seems to have done, so to speak,
there's a Celtic revival which tends a lot of the time to try and kick
England in the guts. Not consciously, I think, and certainly not as a wide
consensus, it's just that England has been eroded somewhat by all kinds of
forces ? not the least of which is the economic state of the world ? and the
Celtic fringe has decided to add its own weight to that erosion, whereas it
could have done the opposite... but people never do that. People always jump
on whichever bandwagon is going, rather than decide for themselves what the
forces are around and that it would be of much more help to themselves if
they helped Big Brother, because then Big Brother could perhaps get off his
hospital bed and help them again.

Humans on a personal level are very much more efficient, I think, than
humans on a large community level. On a large community level you lose all
kinds of personal contact, and life necessarily becomes less meaningful and
more meaningless... whichever one of those you'd choose? I would choose
"more meaningless". And so I felt it necessary in the last couple of years
to try and boost the Englishness that's around... reiterate my own
Anglo-Saxonness. 'Old Cricketer' is one of the fruits of that plant, in the
same way that the long song on this new album is really... although it's
more of a look at the world, in fact, in the middle of the song, but it
starts and ends in England.

I think that it's very important to actually maintain one's identity in that
way, because the forces alive in the world today are very splintering.
There's a whole splintering effect that the media is having, and the
bureaucracy, and the attempts at massive central government that are going
on. Because if Europe ever works on the same scale that the United States or
the USSR are working on now, then we at the bottom of the tree, at the
grassroots, become even more impersonal. And I'm a great believer myself in
de-centralization which isn't revolutionary.

Which brings me to the other point about which we were talking. I was always
mistaken for being a revolutionary when I wasn't. I was perhaps the nearest
thing that 1969/70 had to a revolutionary, but I don't think you get a true
revolutionary among humans as such until you get absolutely stinking
conditions, and we haven't had those for about forty years, and that's
before I was born ? a long time before I was born ? and consequently I don't
know too much about them. I've been angry for a long time about various
issues but you can't stir up people who have a fridge, a washing machine and
two cars into revolution, because they just don't want to go, and it's wrong
to think that even that you can, or would like to push them into revolution.
I think revolution is the wrong word.

You were, however, still putting ideas forward that other people were either
ignoring or hadn't even thought about?

Yeah, and I'll still do that. I'll do that for some duration of my life
because basically I don't know how to do anything else, because I've always
been like that. You could say that it's a reflex action on my part. I don't
think that I'm cleverer than anybody else for doing that, it's just that I
brought myself up in a different way than I now see that others were brought
up. And so my conditioned reflexes, or whatever you want to call them, are
slightly different from the normal guy who writes songs, and in fact the
normal guy who walks down the street. So I'm kind of stuck with that, except
that it doesn't amount to revolutionary at all. I would say that I score
quite heavily on awareness, I think, and I think there's a large section of
the community in any generation who are aware, but I often find that they
squander that. In terms of what is going on now in the world, awareness is
squandered a lot.

So you see, the reason that I can have 'When An Old Cricketer Leaves The
Crease' and 'The Spirit Lives' on the same album is because I'm aware of
both of them, not because there's any conflict going on in my character. I'm
sure there is, but I don't particularly want to make myself acutely aware of
those, because I don't want to stop the natural forces that prey on me. I
want to continue to do the things that I do.

Can you run through the tracks on the new album for us?

Well, the first song on the first side is just an ad generally for the
album, and an ad for the song on the other side. If you come to me in a few
years time I'll tell you what it's all about, but other than that you can go
away, listen to it, and try to decide what you think it's about. It's fairly
easy, but it's not anything I want to give away to the press. It's something
I can't tell the press at the moment. It seems like an ineffectual, nice,
kind little song that Radio One would be really pleased with, but if you go
away and listen to it, you might get a little more out of it than the
average housewife. That's what I'm saying, but I'm not going to say anymore
than that.

The second song, 'These Last Days', was the last song I actually wrote, and
it was the only song I wrote specifically for the album. The others are just
songs that either accumulated or that I was writing last year, or whenever.
When it came to making the record, I realised that it wasn't quite together,
there wasn't quite the right atmosphere about all the songs, and I thought
"Oh God, I've got to write another song", and I had an idea of how it should
be in my head. So I went away and wrote a song. I went up with the sheep on
my farm one afternoon in that parched summer we had, with not a blade of
grass to be seen hardly, sat down on a stool and wrote. And it came out as
'These Last Days'. Probably if I'd written it two months earlier, it would
have been a much maturer song by the time it reached the record.

As it is, it's not as mature as it could be, but I don't think the man in
the street will be able to pick too many holes in it. I can, and it just
bothers me when I can. It sounds as though it's a kind of "given in" thing,
like I've given in, and someone ? I think it was Allan Jones of Melody
Maker ? even said it was sort of whimpering, defeatist kind of stuff. But no
way is it that. How can it be with a verse in it like: "Sweet anarchy/Always
so real and peaceful to be/Moment by moment for facing the world honestly."

That's a fairly strong statement, and I do actually have a lot of personal
anarchy going, and so does everybody else... if you don't like something,
you stand up and say, "I don't like that", which is a form of anarchy.

The third song is 'Cherishing The Lonesome', which I think is a good effort
from everybody in the band. It's been a difficult song to play all along,
and we had to change it around quite a lot, moving the verses and choruses
around until it finally worked.

Fourth song is 'Naked Flame', which is a letter I wrote to someone. It's a
poem really, not a song. It was a letter to someone that just had "Love,
Roy" on the end of it, and I think the fourth verse is the best verse. I
think it's one of the best pieces of poetry on the record.

And the last song is 'Watford Gap', which is just my usual wind-down...
because like an elephant doesn't realise his own strength when he's stepping
on a twig, does he? He isn't even aware that the twig's there, really, and
in the past I think I've been very guilty of not recognising how much other
people can take. Some of the records ? namely HQ, for instance ? are really
very heavy, and in so far as that goes, I would say that this record is a
lot mellower. I'm at a stage in my life, in my artistic development, or
whatever, when I'm trying to find out how much people can take, rather than
blasting out full-strength and saying "Take that!". I'm now trying genuinely
to get some feedback.

We've already sold more copies of this record than we did of HQ, and it's
been out about three weeks, whereas HQ has been out about 18 months. That's
the difference already. I mean, I look at it all as an interested spectator,
an interested bystander, not wanting to jump on the commercial bandwagon and
think, "If I make more records like this, I'll have more success" and so on.
Because I'm quite capable, I think, of turning round and going straight back
to HQ or where HQ was, from this one...if I thought that was what I should
do for the sake of my own integrity, or for any other reason. In fact, I
think my own favourite records are Life-Mask, HQ and the new one, and I
don't know which one to put first, really.

© Andy Childs 1977