Fricke's Picks: Hats Off to Harper

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In this country, the British singer-songwriter Roy Harper is best known as a song title — "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper," on Led Zeppelin III, was named in tribute to him — and a legendary accident: In 1975, when Pink Floyd's Roger Waters had trouble nailing the vocal on his record-biz satire "Have a Cigar," Harper — a friend of the Floyd, making his own record next door — sang it to scathing perfection. Harper knew the sleaze and insult in Waters' lyric more intimately than the Floyd or Zeppelin. His first albums of Dylanesque invective and pastoral sensuality — 1967's Sophisticated Beggar and Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith; 1969's Folkjokeopus and 1970's Flat Baroque and Berserk — came out on four different U.K. labels, and most of his nearly three dozen studio and live records were never formally released here. Incredibly, Harper's greatest album, 1971's Stormcock, makes its first-ever U.S. appearance in a hard-bound reissue from Harper's own Science Friction label, which now holds his entire catalog. Stormcock is still eccentric majesty, four long songs of challenge ("Hors d'Oeuvres"), frustration ("The Same Old Rock"), mission ("One Man Rock and Roll Band") and desire ("Me and My Woman"), sung by Harper in dark-tenor whispers and keening multitracked chorales, through hall-of-mirrors guitars. Zeppelin's Jimmy Page plays the spider-walk leads in "The Same Old Rock." He and Harper later made a full album together, 1985's Whatever Happened to Jugula. Uneven in drama and production, it is Harper at his most enraged ("Hangman"), stoned ("Advertisement") and loving (the haunting stasis of "Frozen Moment") all at once. Flat Baroque and Berserk was my personal introduction to Harper. Spare in strum, it remains perfect in its extremes, from the soft, gorgeous "Another Day" to the torrent of bile in "I Hate the White Man," aimed at then-apartheid South Africa. Oddly, this reissue opens with what was Side Two on my old vinyl — it's like I'm hearing the record backward, although it now ends logically with the electric tumult of "Hell's Angels," which is Harper armed with prog-rock trio the Nice.

[From Issue 1062 — October 2, 2008]

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