Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Roy Harper - 2

I often wonder how recording engineers and producers stumble into their (often accidental) careers. I found this in my archives the other day and enjoyed revisiting an eyelash of my own, and UK recording, history. Maybe it might interest others?
HARPIC (Roy Harper)

Bear with me, dear reader (if you do in fact exist) as I delve into the fading greyness of my hazy memory banks to recount a strange, strange episode in my professional life.

I spent most of the 1970’s developing a business, Buzz Music, in Hereford, a sleepy and forgotten but extremely beautiful English county town a ten-league-boot stride or so from the Welsh borders, half an hour’s drive north of Kingsley Ward’s famous (infamous?) Rockfield recording studios in Monmouth.

From humble roots as a small record shop, Buzz had stretched and yawned it’s hippy wings and spawned guitar, drum and keyboard sales departments, a large flightcase factory and touring PA rigs, putting us at the heart of the anarchic two-tone and new wave music scene of the late 1970’s. I could write chapters about my madcap adventures with The Selecter, The Beat, Bad Manners, The Pretenders and more, but will spare you this indulgence. Suffice it to say that these were crazy days – the archetypical sex, drugs and rock `n` roll years of ill repute. Please kiddies, be warned – such a lifestyle is seriously prejudicial to your health and should be avoided at all costs. Stick to liquorish and pussycats, don’t inhale and live a quiet, uneventful life. Otherwise…you might end up like me (heavens forefend). Those days are far behind me now but I wouldn’t have missed them for all the microphones in China.

Back to the plot…

Like Icarus drawn to the sun, Buzz reached for the skies and eventually burned its wings. The collapse was slow and painful as my partner, Alan, and I spent a year working for the receiver to pay off the company’s debts. We succeeded, but emerged in 1978 broke and jobless.

By this time, I knew how to coordinate a rock and roll tour, knew the promoters, the sound rig and lighting suppliers and found I could turn a buck applying my knowledge and contacts for the benefit of clients. So it was that I found myself scraping by with a series of tour production gigs that kept the wolf from the door.

One fine day, totally out of the blue, I received a call from a Mr. Ian Tilbury, self-styled impresario and artiste manager. One of his clients had recently moved to a small village outside Hereford and wanted to hire some bits and pieces of recording equipment to make a demo of his next album. Could I supply a Brennel Mini 8 recorder and a Roland space echo, a DI box and some cables for a couple of months?
Indeed I could, I replied, at a price. A deal was done (I could sub hire the eight track and the margin would pay at least a week’s rent), and I arranged to deliver. And who was the client, I asked?

Roy Harper, came the reply.

I drove the equipment to Roy’s farmhouse– The Vauld – in the village of Marden with my hands trembling at the steering wheel. For this was my one, true musical hero, a man who’s Magnus Opus – Stormcock – was rarely off my battered turntable. I was about to meet my musical god. It was a feeling that I’ll never forget, a high that ranks with any I’ve ever had before or since.

Roy had bought The Vauld with the proceeds of a large EMI advance after renegotiating his Harvest contract following success in the mid 1970’s. Part of the deal was that EMI supplied him with a recording console – one of only three dedicated studio desks built by Jeff Byers under the ‘Midas’ banner. Very Neve-like and built like a battleship, this was a quirky twenty four input, eight buss beast bristling with transformers. It was somewhat idiosyncratic but (as I now appreciate) it sounded great.

Roy had converted the old Granary behind the farmhouse into a grand annex, including a gallery where the Midas lived. By this time – 1978 – he had parted company with EMI after the failure of the horrifically expensive ‘Unknown Soldier’ album (initially recorded as ‘Commercial Breaks’ but revamped at great cost after EMI’s cold response). In typical Harpic fashion (Harpic being Roy’s nickname in the bizz) Roy had retired from the music scene to breed sheep (an occupation for which he was utterly unsuited) and smoke dope. Meanwhile, he had fallen out with his longstanding manager, Pete Jenner, and entrusted his career to the slick but shadowy Ian Tilbury.


Roy’s coffers were pretty well exhausted by now, but Tilbury claimed to have Geffen Records hanging by a string, hot to trot, ready waiting and willing to sign with a huge advance, subject to…subject to hearing demos of the next album. There was insufficient dosh in the kitty to put Roy in the studio (in no uncertain terms, as I was later to discover) so the cheap option was to let Roy loose with an eight track, his old Midas, a Shure mic (yes – one mic) and some bits and pieces. Ian was confident that a set of polished demos would result.


I unloaded my bits and pieces from my trusty old Volvo, tugged my forelock with trembling fingers, humped the Brennel upstairs via the tradesman’s entrance, hooked the machine up to the old Midas and made sure that everything was working fine. I recall that Roy seemed confident that I could leave him to it, and Verna, Roy’s girlfriend, made me a cup of scented tea before I tugged my forelock once more and hit the road for Hereford and home.

I had met the great Roy Harper. What’s more, he seemed like a nice guy. Lovely gaff. Ah…what a memory for the collection.

I slept well that night.

Two days later I received a phone call. Apparently Roy was having some problems recording electric guitars (he was experimenting with a couple of early Tokai’s sent to him by the importer as a mark of respect – another fan. They were exceptional Fender copies…better than the real thing, I’d go so far as to say). Like a sloppy Labrador at his master’s beck and call, I headed back for Marden, The Vauld and Harper’s modest home studio.

‘I can’t seem to get the DI box working,’ muttered Roy, his forehead creased into an uncomprehending frown, his finger pointing at the small metal box on the floor.

‘I’m not surprised…’ came my reply, wide-eyed and horror-stricken.

This was the moment when I realised that, musical genius or not, matters electronic and mechanical were not Roy Harper’s forte. Lying on the carpet was an MXR DI box with one cable going to Roy’s guitar, one cable going to the Midas desk, and the third going from the XLR output to…to the mains. For reasons best known to the Muses of Marihuana, Roy had decided to slam a mains plug on to one end of a mic cable and plug a redundant output of the DI into the 240v mains supply. That he lived to tell the tale is remarkable.

One thing was crystal clear. This man should never, ever, EVER be left alone with any kind of electrical appliance, let alone the spider’s web of cabling associated with a multitrack recording rig.

And that is how I was called upon, by force of circumstance, to apply my fairly extensive live sound engineering skills to a humble recording rig. As of that moment, I became Roy’s demo engineer.

Over the course of the next two months, I visited The Vauld every evening after my other freelance duties were done, with double-bubble at the weekends (thanks to the tolerance of my longsuffering girlfriend, Annie Jay). Personally, it was anything but a drag as Roy, Verna and I became friends. I found Roy one of the most cultured and learned musicians I’d ever met; beneath the surface, he was miles from his eccentric public persona. Thoughtful, considered and…well, to be honest he was (and probably still is) somewhat bonkers in the best tradition of English eccentrics. Musically, though, the period was an education that went beyond any I could have hoped for.

By this stage in his life, Roy had made half a dozen (or more) albums and had probably done more gigs than most successful artists do in their lifetime. The bulk of his previous recording had been done at Abbey Road with a roster of engineers that reads like a who’s who of recording alumni – Alan Parsons, John Leckie, you name them, Roy had worked with them. Whatever anyone might think of Roy’s voice, he was a singer with few peers, capable of effortlessly and meticulously double, triple, quadruple tracking a vocal in one, two or three takes. He could instil a degree of emotion or subtlety or finesse to his extraordinary lyrics without parallel. His guitar style was extremely personal, and although not an ‘educated’ player, his style has influenced hundreds of acoustic musicians down the years. Moreover, he had a unique way of leaving gaps in an acoustic track, ready to overdub a related part and build up the backing with crossed rhythms and guitar harmonies, creating a rich patina against which his voice could weave and soar.

For a young, naïve makeshift engineer, the experience of working with such a sophisticated and practiced musician provided an education without parallel. As a studio virgin, of course, I wasn’t aware of how privileged I was to work with someone capable of such intense and relatively faultless performances, take after take. The recording rig was basic to the point that any experienced engineer would cringe. There was no click track, no sequencing, no computer (computer? Roy would have had a heart attack) – nothing other than the Midas, the Brennel (with no autolocate, of course), a pair of Tannoys, a Delta Lab DL1 delay/modulator (for Roy’s electric guitar) and (I think) a Roland Space echo for reverb and delay. Yet over the course of those two months, Roy and I recorded what was later to be released as an album – Born In Captivity.

I contributed a lot of ideas to the arrangements and even sang backing vocals on one song – Stanley – but take no credit. I’d aways arranged the songs in all the bands I’d played in, and enjoyed chipping in ideas and making suggestions. They talent was Roy’s and Roy’s alone. But somehow I engineered the sessions and achieved a passable result, sufficient to meet with Ian Tilbury’s approval and conviction that the tapes would swing the Geffen deal. Tilbury remained bullish about this until, that is, his cheque for the gear hire bounced and he disappeared to America having mortgaged Roy’s house to the hilt (by virtue of the Power Of Attorney Roy had granted him during a particularly dumb and trusting moment) and pocketed the proceeds.

So there we were, Roy and I, me an avid fan, the two of us good friends, a decent set of demos in the can and…and Roy staring ruin and bankruptcy in the face. Drastic action was called for.

Enter John Leckie, engineering genius and human being par excellence. Out of the goodness of his heart, John came up to The Vauld and rerecorded some of my demos and polished others (a few were left alone, inflating my ego hugely). He did a superb job given the lack of gear, but then John Leckie will ALWAYS do a superb job without complaint or fuss. (Come on, some of you ‘credible’ superstars – get John on the case with your next album. He’s too modest to hustle his credentials, but he has more talent and musical ability in his little finger than most ‘happening’ producers who seem to dominate to plumb jobs these days). Meanwhile, I was preoccupied with an extremely time consuming but surprisingly lucrative tour production gig. Despite this, Roy’s predicament remained at the forefront of my mind.

By this time – 1979, I guess – I’d established an enviable reputation for providing top class sound, lighting and logistics for UK and European tours. I knew the ropes, and could usually skim twenty or more percent from other quotes and come in on budget.
I was offered several potential tours by major record companies, but could only take on one. I recall that I whittled the options down to two possibles – a new EMI band that offered a decent profit and an Arista act that intrigued me. I submitted a reasonable budget to Simon Potts at Arista but he came back to me with an alternative proposition; the band in question was not a priority act, and Arista were looking to trim costs wherever possible. If I was prepared to undertake the tour production and coordination at cost, he was prepared to agree a contract whereby I would get 20% of any profits the tour generated. Now, as all you pros out there know, agreeing to such a deal on an unknown act is tantamount to commercial suicide. Bands lose dosh on the road in the early stages of their career, and the dates that the band’s agent had booked hardly left much scope for profit even if they sold out. However, I really liked both the band and their as yet unreleased album and went with my gut instincts. Although I was skimping and scraping to make a living, I negotiated a bonkers contract with Simon Potts and Arista. I’d do the tour at cost, but would pocket twenty per cent of any profits generated.

And the band?

An unknown act called Haircut 100.

The week before the tour hit the road, Haircut’s first single raced to the top of the charts. Hysteria broke out. The tour gigs were swapped for larger and larger venues, and as many punters were locked out as could be shoehorned in. And then the tour was extended. The clubs were cancelled in favour or Top Ranks, and then municipal halls were added – larger and longer and longer and larger. I recall sitting with Simon Potts at the back of the (then) Hammersmith Odeon on the first of five sell-out nights, looking at Arista’s sales figures. Two weeks before Christmas, Haircut’s first album was shifting one hundred thousand copies A DAY. Eat your heart out, Artic Monkeys. This was the 1970’s. When an album shipped big, it shipped B-I-G. And the band put on a great show, night after night. Sadly, they couldn’t cope with the pressures of so much sudden success and record company politicking destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg. After my involvement, the band bombed in Europe and the States, Nick Heyward (a decent talent) was persuaded that his future lay in a solo career and that was that – another ink blot on the history of pop.

So I had brass in pocket, the opportunity to take my foot off the rent-gas and a continuing belief in Roy Harper and what I genuinely believed was a great album waiting to be recorded. But Roy needed a manager. He was broke, The Vauld was close to being repossessed by the bank and there was no sniff of the promised Geffen record deal in the air.

A longstanding friend at the time was John Mostyn, formerly manager of The Beat (and later manager of Fine Young Cannibals). John was currently at a loose end, so I drove him out to see Roy and we spent the afternoon chatting. Fingers crossed, I drove John back to Birmingham, imploring him to take Roy on as a client. As we hit the outskirts of Brum, John shook his head. He didn’t believe sufficiently, he confessed. Roy just wasn’t his bag. However…he turned to me and winked…why didn’t I manage Roy? I had the belief John lacked. I knew Roy. And for the first time in years, I had filthy lucre in the bank. And after all, management was a combination of common sense, efficiency and industry contacts. I would learn the rest in time.

Why not?

Why not indeed?

And that’s how I was persuaded to embark upon one of the more crazy episodes of my life…

(to be continued…)

Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Roy Harper pt 1

I've had several emails asking about Mr. Harper lately, so I'll post the three part chronicle of my years with Roy that I previously posted on another blog. Apologies to those who've already read it, but ,maybe it will satisfy more recent reader's curiosity...

Roy Harper     Stormcock/Work Of Heart. Part One

Let me take you back to one of my many previous incarnations…

Buzz Music was an adventure that occupied my time and energies for much of the 1970’s.

Buzz started for the want of anything better to do, I guess. After graduating from college (history and economics), I plied a trade as an itinerant musician, doing sessions in a variety of theatre pits and recording studios around the midlands (doubling and occasionally trebling on guitar, sax and flute if you must know; not just double bubble, but as MU members out there will know, triple bunce…) However, having acquired a wife and child en route, I decided that I needed a more secure means of existence and invested my modest savings in a tiny record shop in…well, in Hereford of all places.

Therein lies another story.

In this present age, we bemoan the passing of small, specialist record stores but the rot set in decades ago. Believe me – I was there. In the early 1970’s, the government abolished something called the RRP – the strict resale price set by manufacturers to enable them to police selling prices of their products in the high street. In many ways this was positive, and amongst other things led to the growth of discount mail order stores such as the original Virgin operation. However, it also meant that chain stores and supermarkets could slash the price of top selling albums to the bone and use them as lost leaders to attract punters into their stores to buy their other overpriced wares - toothpaste, vitamin pills aftershave and the like.

Buzz Music therefore found itself deprived of the juicy sales that effectively subsidised our heaving racks of obscure back catalogue. Without a bumper harvest of chart sales, times became leaner and leaner and leaner and my partner, Alan Kitchen, and I struggled to make a living wage. We therefore looked around for ways to supplement our paltry incomes.

For a while I taught guitar part-time and delivered freezers and washing machines for the new Comet electrical store across the road. Alan was an excellent electronics engineer and took in repairs in his spare time. Thus we scraped by.

As my guitar pupils progressed, they asked me to find them better guitars. Alan and I cleared out a derelict room at the back of the record store and I cut a deal with Ivor Marantz guitar shop in London to buy new Spanish guitars at wholesale prices. Word got round and those initial orders financed a small stock of acoustic guitars, strings and accessories and within a few months our guitar room had become the haunt of local musos from miles around. This was when I invested in my first commercial teapot. Indeed, I recall Buzz’s sales slogan…’If the prices don’t slay ya, the tea will…’ Very Funky Junk.

By 1975, the Buzz Music guitar shop had become perhaps the best outside London and bristled with vintage Fenders, Gibsons, Guilds and Epiphones brushing shoulders with new US axes and some of the excellent instruments beginning to emerge from Japan – Yamaha and Ibanez in particular. We employed one of my pupils, Jimmy Scott, to run the show and he became the biggest guitar geek in the universe, able to identify the year of any Fender or Gibson at one hundred paces. Oh, he also became an ace guitarist and eventually joined a modest little band in London called The Rhythm Method (quickly changed to The Pretenders at the record company’s insistence) and made quite a decent name for himself (although he chose to add his middle name – James Honeyman Scott.) Sorry folks, but scurrilous tales of me, Pete Farndon, Jimmy Scott and the Hereford crew must also wait for another day.

Following the success of our guitar shop, we moved naturally and not so gradually into other areas of musical retail, taking over the rest of our building with a series of departments that included killer drum and keyboard showrooms, perhaps the largest PA store in the country and eventually the first serious pro recording supplies outlet in the UK (although our London rivals - Andrew Stirling, Andy Beresa, Andy Monroe and Ivor Taylor collectively known as Turnkey - would no doubt dispute this.)

Buzz mushroomed, adding a flightcase factory - Sound Enclosures - and a backline and PA hire company, Soundgate, to the rosta. By the late 1970’s, our rigs and backline were on the road with Selecter, UB40, Madness, Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), Duran Duran and many other top bands. We even did Glastonbury one year, summoned at short notice by Michael Eavis to do the sound for a modest gathering in one of his larger barns – Hawkwind (of course) and a few selected invited acts including my all time favourite….Mr. Roy Harper.

Now, as you’ve probably gathered, I was something of a musical snob back then. Don’t get me wrong – I had eclectic tastes. In between my ECM and jazz favourites (Pat Martino, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Tjor Ripdal, Bill Connors et al) nestled equally treasured albums by Supertramp, Gentle Giant, Yes, Lou Reed, Jefferson Starship (‘Ride The Tiger’), Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Jackson Brown (‘Late For The Sky’) Joni, Bob Dylan and many more. But one record spent more time than any other on my Transcriptors turntable, warming my Tannoy 111LZ speakers – ‘Stormcock’ by Roy Harper.

When I first heard Harper, I hated him. His voice was a whine, his music meandering and incomprehensible, his acoustic guitar phasing in a strangely electronic way compared to the pure precision of my early guitar heroes, John Renbourn, Burt Jansch and the governor, Davy Graham However, the gateway to Roy’s genius came one insane night when I visited a former schoolmate for a weekend binge at Manchester University. His college was hosting an all night hootenanny – the predecessor of raves, I guess. Headlining were a wacky bunch called ‘Pink Floyd’ who drowned the main hall with an echoey racket for an hour and a half. As an aside, I should mention that their gig was recorded and later released as most of ‘Ummagumma’ although the album bore little relation to the gig. Apparently, even back then they were masters of studio overdubs and fixing in the mix. Still…

Well after midnight a hundred or so of us defied whatever drugs we had ingested and made our way to the refectory upstairs to witness an hour of sheer genius by a longhaired bearded weirdy wielding a small-bodied Martin acoustic (000?), a massive spliff and an anarchic attitude to his hosts. At his bidding we raided the kitchens to satisfy the communal munchies while we sat spellbound by his performance.
This was Roy Harper at his best, sharing his world of poetry and emotion, leading us on a musical journey without parallel. His intricate guitar work was a universe away from the naïve finger picking of Nick Drake, his style unique - aeons beyond any other musician I had ever heard. Here was a true visionary who had developed a complex guitar style to express concepts normally untouched by popular music. And his voice…it weaved, ducked, dived, soared. He was (and I believe, still is) a musical one-off, creatively head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

The gig was a seminal experience for all those lucky enough to be there. We shared that night with Roy, and he let us into his life with a candour beyond anything I had previously experienced.

From that moment I became an avid Roy Harper fan. I can honestly say that Roy was the only artists that I travelled the country paying precious bucks to see perform. I had many musical heroes but only one true idol – Roy Harper.

‘Stormcock’ epitomises the genius of the man. The album contains four songs and four songs only, but their breadth, diversity and lyrical depth provide a variety unmatched by the lifetime’s output of many lesser artists. Recorded at Abbey Road, of course, for EMI’s flagship ‘Harvest’ label and guided by Pete Jenner’s wonderfully sympathetic and understated production, the album features Roy’s stunning multitracked vocals and acoustic guitars assisted by a second guitarist – Jimmy Page, with perhaps his best recorded acoustic guitar work. Yes, there are passages where Roy and Jimmy are reinforced by an orchestra and yes, there are piano stabs, percussive jabs ad even the odd sitar here and there, but only where the tension or melody need underlining. Even today, the record sounds modern and uniquely inventive. The production was wholly original, although many of the techniques have since been copied, pasted and kneaded into the mainstream. Like true love, however, the first adventure is always the best.

I listened to Stormcock endlessly and despite years of immersing myself in these four songs, always found more within the grooves. A subtle melody here, a lyrical phrase there, pangs of emotion everywhere. For a decade I lived with an image of the Romantic visionary to whom Led Zeppelin dedicated a famous track (‘Hats Off To Harper’) who lit up Pink Floyd’s albums with his vocals (‘Have A Cigar’ from ‘Wish You Were Here.’) and who was invited to open headlining tours and festivals for The Who and Pink Floyd. Yes indeed, Roy Harper was the ultimate musician’s muso, the English Dylan, the poet to a generation of rock superstars.

So ‘Stormcock’ must be included in my ten most seminal albums. Thirty-five years on, it remains fresh, original and unique. If you don’t know the album check it out. You may hate it, but give it time. Like Bob Dylan, Olives or Provolone Cheese, Roy’s music is an acquired taste but by god it’s a taste worth acquiring.

In most reviews of Roy’s discography, Stormcock is rated as his ultimate achievement. Many, however, rate ‘Work Of Heart’ as his second greatest album, and it was perhaps his most critically acclaimed on release, being voted ‘Album Of The Year’ by both The Sunday Times (Derek Jewell) and Music Week in 1982. It was also the first album I ever produced, albeit accidentally.

How an unknown fan came to manage, form and run a record label and ultimately produce his long-time musical hero is a strange tale indeed, and one that I will recount in part two of my examination of Roy’s music, with special reference to ‘Born In Captivity’ and ‘Work Of Heart’.

Strange times, my friends…those were strange times indeed.

Roy Harper     Stormcock       Science Friction HUCD004

(note; sadly the CD has been badly remastered. If you can find an original copy of the Harvest release on vinyl, the full dynamic scope of the album will be revealed)