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Roy Harper - Flat Baroque and Berserk

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Artist: Roy Harper

Album: Flat Baroque and Berserk

Label: Science Friction

Review date: Oct. 7, 2008

Roy Harper grew up in Blackpool, a coastal town in Lancashire. He joined the Royal Air Force at 15, only to feign insanity a few years later as a way of getting out. By the time he made his way to London in 1964, he had been to prison, a mental institution and seemingly everywhere else around Europe. After gaining notoriety through the folk pub-scene, he released his debut Sophisticated Beggar in 1967.

The recent reissue effort by Harper’s label Science Friction begins with his fourth album, Flat Baroque and Berserk, produced by Peter Jenner and recorded at Abbey Road. Released in 1970, the record wasn’t just a studio upgrade; it was the clearest statement to date of his defiant ideals. Harper solidified his apolitical stance on the song “Hell’s Angels” with the mantra “Live your own law.” His sinuous weed-fueled meditations would peak here and on the subsequent Stormcock.

The title’s wordplay is indicative of Harper’s sardonic prose (his first paid gig was a Newcastle poetry reading). Opener “Don’t You Grieve” spells it out: “I’ve got endless books to write to you but my tale I cannot tell / Because the only way you’ll ever hear me is if your living in the same hell.” Later in that same song, he alludes to Judas and offers: “And now you’ve got all the silver and no forgiveness in your hearts / I’ve got 20 feet of rope to end just where your guessing game starts.” On the derisive “I Hate the White Man” Harper rails poignantly against “evergreen excuses” and blames his own race for the decadent state of the world. It’s right up there with the Groundhogs’ mocking “Thank Christ for the Bomb” in the pantheon of British protest songs. Harper was down for “plenty of conflict,” but not for war.

True to its name, Flat Baroque And Berserk is his most varied effort, an all-together different animal than the epic Stormcock, trading off acidic diatribes with brief vignettes of pastoral folk. “Feeling All the Saturday” bridges Dylan’s inflection and Syd Barrett’s psyche, while “How Does It Feel” takes the same inquisitive thread as “Like A Rolling Stone” with Harper aiming questions like “How does it feel to hold the white flag in your hand?” at the anointed.

For the most part Harper rhythmically strums rich chords with an occasional alternate tuning, but additional instruments surface around the edges of number of songs. A grey violin wisps through the stately “Another Day” and the harp on “Song Of The Ages” lends it an elegiac feel. Elsewhere, the plaintive harmonica solo that rides out the animist-themed “East Of The Sun” seems to transcend an otherwise placid ballad. On “Tom Tiddler’s Ground,” famed producer Tony Visconti plays a mean recorder. The weirdest detour comes on “Hell’s Angels,” where Roy goes electric and prog band the Move run an acoustic guitar through a wah-wah pedal.

In the liners he thanks “Cousins, where it all began,” a folk club in the Soho district that was the center of the mid-’60s British acoustic scene that also spawned Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Jackson C. Frank, John Martyn and John Renbourn. A footnote about a Harper performance at Cousins in Colin Harper’s Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival underscores his polarizing position. One night he felt a ceiling fan was hindering the mood, and barked to have it turned off. A voice from the crowd quipped: “I shouldn’t do that if I were you, Roy. That’s the only one you’ve got in here.” These reissues should go a long way in making sure that exchange never happens again.

By Jake O'Connell

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