‘The kettle’s on, the sun has gone, another day…’ As I’ve mentioned more than once, it was not unusual in the late 60s/early 70s for my brother to come home with a long playing disc of an artist hitherto unknown to me. Here was a classic case: the album ‘Flat Baroque And Berserk’ was both captivating and intriguing. On the one hand, there was some very nice acoustic guitar work, either with crisply strummed chords or some neat twiddly finger picking, and a few of the songs were par for the course in early seventies English folk prog imagery, with sunshine/ countryside/ seaside allusions, all not too far from McTell. But with far more of them there was a different tone too, a Dylanesque sharpness, an edgy angry quality. And let’s not forget to mention that voice – that lovely leaping range he has, from quiet/tender/menacing in the lower registers soaring up to strident/piercing/ challenging/pleading in the higher registers. ‘I hate the white man’ is a perfect example . One interesting feature was a long monologue (would we pretentiously have referred to it as a ‘rap’ back then??) before Harper launches in to that particular angry song. It’s a bit rambling, bordering on semi-incoherent, possibly fuelled by, ahem, substances… does it explain some of the ‘impressionism’ of these early songs?
Which is not meant as a put down, because this song ‘Another Day’ from the same album, is stunningly beautiful – but it feels like a case of words and images getting collaged, sort of, by slightly spaced out intuition or serendipity or because they sound good, rather than, I suppose I mean, by more conscious language choices : and maybe that was the creative spirit of the time and the perceived value of mind-altering stuff – freed you from over-cerebral, overly-prosaic construction? So we listen to ‘Another Day’ recognizing that it’s in the feel and the general tenor that emerges from the accumulated images – a feel of endings, missed chances, transitions ,loss, and I’m not sure the lines will hold up to too much individual analysis – ‘I must take her while the dove domains..run my wings under her sighs/ as the flames of eternity rise..’.
But I’m also thinking that to see it like this might slightly be doing Harper a disservice – he was avowedly a fan of the romantic poets so let’s assume it wasn’t just their toothache-remedies he emulated, but also their conscious lyrical power. There’s genuine aching loss in some of the lines – ‘I loved you a long time ago/ Where the wind’s own forget-me-nots grow/ But I just couldn’t let myself go/ Not knowing what on earth there was to know..’ and an attempt to explore distances between people – ‘sat here with ourselves in between us..’ And there’s enough consistency to make it a thing of a unified, coherent mood – a delicious, almost colourful sadness which ends with a ‘without a sound… walk away’. Whoever produced the album wisely and sensitively accentuated this simple minor chord sequences and ambience with a beautiful string arrangement , and you could play it over and over..
I only ever saw him once, and that was my first year in Swansea University, where he played a set in a very cramped and dingy student union bar. His song introductions, his chat between songs, were as mumbled, profane and semi incoherent as that album had led me to expect! But similarly I was not disappointed by this searing, incisive voice, and yes, he even included ‘Another Day’ in the set.
What of this second song? I didn’t really follow the Harper trail, I’m afraid. I got a bit lost after ‘Stormcock’ – which, while I appreciated the ambition and the artistry..I dunno – blame it on my short attention span. Anyway,I can’t remember when I first heard ‘ When an Old Cricketer leaves the crease..’, and I suspect it was long after Roy Harper had ceased to be part of my familiar listening repertoire. I know now that it comes from the HQ album , which actually was released a mere five years later. One of the things that struck me about it was that it seemed, in its rather gentle evocation of English village green cricket matches, a far cry from the anti establishment anger stances with which I associated him in my memory. But I am no Roy Harper aficionado, and perhaps those who have followed his career, and know the canon of his work more fully and more intimately, might be able to tell me that there is more seamlessness between the two Harpers than I was aware of. The other thing about the song, bearing in mind what I said earlier, is that this one does seem more carefully, almost intellectually crafted, and gently sustaining its cricketing metaphor throughout.
I say metaphor , I assume metaphor, because surely this is a song about mortality, isn’t it. ‘When the day is done and the ball has spun’.. and so on. (And I identify with this because as I look back at some of my own songs, a lot of them end up musing on mortality!) Even if it’s a tribute to the classic gentlemanly sport, it’s seeing it in the context of endings, and yet with the sense of the enduring spirit ? so ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone/
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly Mid-on..’ There even seems something semi-mystical as we get into the second ‘verse’ – ‘Well this way of life’s recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze/The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days’. The lovely vocal range is still there, the ability to leap up the octave. And back to the crafting – wow, this one’s workmanlike – that neat aabccb rhyme pattern in the first two lines of the verse, ferinstance. And – I don’t know if I’m getting this right but – I like the gentle ‘defusing’ of this perspective by equating it with the ‘sting in the ale’…it’s all a graceful ‘sunset’ (of an English summer Sunday? of life? Of old guys? Of village green cricket matches?) evocation. And in keeping, this time, production gives us comforting low-key brass band music rather than moody strings.
Two classics, two special songs, ladies and gentleman, deserving to be known and enjoyed. As does Mr Harper senior.