Roy Harper

Roy Harper

Roy Harper's first record, released in the latter half of the 1960's, was remarkable for the way that a matrix of complex and crystalline guitar compositions animated and framed intense, mischievous, intelligent, personal and poetic lyrics. His most recent release of new songs, at the start of this century, arranged thoughtful, honest, mischievous and insightful words in startling constructions of extraordinary guitar music. Between these two records - one on heavy vinyl the other on digital cd - lies a body of work that has expanded the possibilities of the acoustic guitar (he is one of the most thrilling players Britain has produced). For four decades the work has experimented with forms and arrangements of popular music, played with the dynamics of the classic rock band and investigated the colours and dynamics offered by classical orchestras and even the colliery brass band. He has pioneered and mapped the outer-limits of the complex symphonic acoustic song cycle. Harper has written some of the most romantic and affecting love songs of our time and delivered dense and blistering diatribes anatomizing the idiocies and accidents of human belief polity and society. He has also written critiques of catering at British road-side service stations and delivered jazzy celebrations of drug enhanced altered states.

His songs explore ways that individual liberty may be understood and expressed, and they have described the ways that social, religious and cultural forces have worked against this drive. These concerns animate his work: the songs that illuminate and celebrate moments of tenderness or regret between two people at a certain lucid point, caught in the moment - to those compositions that delve deep into biology or the bronze-age, and which range across human history and myth to describe an index of survival and loss - all seek to understand the ways that we try to achieve freedom, and how this quest brings both victories and sorrows. This also shapes even the incidental songs about smoking, busking, Glastonbury and grown ups. On one level, the work is informed by a specific time when a significant minority - of youth, Bohemia, Alternative culture - sought new models through their optimistic experiments of living through free love, chemistry, communality and new forms of social and political organization. But they also work beyond the realms of documents or historically specific artifact, to work as a manifesto, a universal, an ideal.

At the same time, there is a specificity to much of the work where the songs touch on the matters and images of England, both in their lyrics and the forms of music which often uses figures and tropes taken from non rock and roll traditions. They talk about dole offices or cricket: there are the frequent references to nature and bird life - the 'stormcock' (the mistle thrush), cuckoos, owls, flycatchers et al, and there are photographs of the artist with a knotted hanky on his head or walking away from the wicket. These references combine with images and themes drawn from the past, the stories and myths of the country and the culture. This is not a reactionary strategy (which these things often are, or at least become, where references to a lost heroic past are used solely to denigrate the present) but one that allows Harper to locate his themes and concerns for the preservation of freedom deep within the warp and weft of the history and legends of his native culture, and/or our native planet, and to reveal the radical antecedents of liberty within culture, along with their mythic dimension and weight. In seeking to outline these antecedents and explore their possibilities, his work joins and echoes other traditions of the English radical visionary non-conformist voice such as a Blake or a Milton albeit in Harper's case, it has to be said, from a determinedly anti-theist position.

The current questioning of the dominant values of the market and parallel cultural re-assessments that are gaining momentum, reinforce the weight and import of his extraordinary, bloody-minded, beautiful, ambitious body of work. Harper's visionary worldview, his honesty, his hard won freedoms, his commitment to his art, the manifest refusal to operate within whatever the 'norm' might be, exemplify approaches and models for free thought and operation which remain crucial in our quest to develop engaged and critical alternatives to mainstream constructions and in our continuing search for models of possibility, and finally, of the kind of liberty that may encourage that possibility.

- Richard Grayson
Artist curator and writer; Artistic Director of the 2002 Sydney
Biennale, Research Fellow Department Arts and Cultures Newcastle University