“The rules are set to paradox, coercion and blind faith.”
—Roy Harper, The Game
…is the lyrics to Roy Harper’s epic song The Game (parts 1–5). You can say that a classic rock band like Black Sabbath defined, if not created—along with Uriah Heep—the entire ‘metal’ genre; you can say Zeppelin was King of mythic rock in the undying strains of Stairway to Heaven; you can say Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Gentle Giant were the Mozarts and Beethovens of Prog Rock; but only about Roy Harper can you say that he captured in one song the vast sweep of ‘civilization.’ I was lucky enough to stumble upon Harper’s work in a discount record bin in Cranbrook, BC in the early ’80s, where I discovered the classic One of Those Days in England (1977). I was blown away. I’ve been a dedicated fan ever since.
In The Game (1975), he nailed what he’d been slashing at with great gusto since Keep On Fighting Genghis Smith in 1967. He came close with McGoohan’s Blues (Folkjokeopus, 1969), riffing on the genius of the British TV cult classic The Prisoner, but without quite writing a song that would echo down through time. I Hate the White Man (Flat Baroque & Berserk, 1970) is an early entry into Harper’s classic canon of seething social satire. Not to mention a favourite of buskers all over Britain and Ireland. But with The Game Harper is an Aquarian Age Hamlet who sees everything a little too clearly and must somehow live with the knowledge. Fully aware of the contradictions inherent in fighting for social change, yet a dedicated fighter nonetheless.
There are some brilliant lines here. If he were writing a haiku instead of a folk-rock epic, he could have pared it down to just this one line from The Game: “The rules are set to paradox, coercion and blind faith.” That, and the closing chorus: “So please leave this world as clean as when you came,” a refrain that’s sadly plaintive in light of other lyrics such as, “While propaganda spreads the same old theme / You is me and we can change the game, bullshit… Please leave this world as clean as when you came…”
Patrick McGoohan of ’60s cult classic ‘The Prisoner’ was an inspiration for Harper’s song ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ on ‘Folkjokeopus’ (1969).
Actually the entire album nails it. HQ, or as the Canadian version of the LP was titled when I bought it, When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease, is Harper at his acerbic, folk-rocking best. Though there are many classic Harper albums, this one achieves complete artistic cohesion within the context of social satire. Songs like The Spirit Lives and Referendum are bookends for I Hate the White Man and The Game: “Alas our forebears drank the cup of poisoned alibi / and made excuses far and wide / and made god in the sky… The history of religion is the history of the state…” (The Spirit Lives) In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper’s lyric book, Harper says Referendum is about Britain’s entry into the EU. I always felt it made a great allegory for the Irish Famine and the British Parliament’s complicity in the starvation. Great writing works on many levels, often unintended by the poet.
Roy lightens up on HQ and has some fun with Grown-Ups Are Just Silly Children, with its Chuck Berry choogle (as Creedence would call it). The chorus says it all. A buddy of mine is probably the only person I know to have used this song at his wedding dance. I wonder how many of the guests got it.
And then to completely capture your heart, Roy gives us the gorgeous melancholy of When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease. It probably helps if you have at least some English blood. Even so, Roy’s melody is hauntingly nostalgic, the champagne twilight of a bygone day on a cricket pitch, smell of scrunched grass and dark ale. You’re so at his mercy you begin to wonder if some part of your past has been there once.
Harper wasn’t interested in playing The Game. The ‘star’ trip came with too heavy a price. He was already well ahead of the wave of singer-songwriters blossoming in the early Seventies. It’s easy to forget too that the world of rock ’n roll then—at least in Britain—was actually a fairly small group of friends. As Roy sings of that innocent era, “Everyone a pop star…” Roy and Jimmy Page first worked together on Stormcock, and then many times after, including the uneven Whatever Happened to Jugula. David Gilmour and Kate Bush have guested many times on Roy’s albums. On the sublime Bullinamingvase (One of Those Days in England), even more rock royalty shows up: Paul and Linda McCartney, Bill Bruford (of Yes), Henry McCullough (Wings) and anyone else who happened to be walking by the control booth at EMI Records that day. Chris Spedding laid down possibly the most white-hot guitar solo of his career in The Game. Current British sensation Joanna Newsom has toured extensively with Harper and son Nick Harper is by now another established master.
Despite the veneer of cynicism, Roy’s lyrics have always erred on the side of social justice. It’s this tension between dogged idealism and jaded realism that distinguishes his work from other songwriters of the period. I respect him for succumbing neither to paranoia nor naïevté. Since he first picked up a guitar in the early ’60s, he has been uncompromising. His remorselessly frank lyrics have landed him in many a dispute with record companies seeking just another safe, syrupy Top 40 hit song. A wild-eyed Ezekiel with a guitar, he’s determined that civilization’s shadow will go on record in popular music. If Black Sabbath at times turned our shadow into a brilliantly scored B-movie, Harper laid out the folk troubadour form with an eviscerating social logic.
Not to mention, writing some of the most haunting melodies hardly ever heard by the masses. And a deft touch on the guitar worthy of the greats of the classic era.
“Please leave this world as clean as when you came…”
To watch some clips of Harper: The Game live is a lovely solo effort—the vocals are amazing—but try to catch the full instrumentation version from the album too. The footage from last year’s Royal Festival Hall concert with Jimmy Page is worth seeing, if poor quality. Referendum is another great song from HQ featuring Roy’s best rock lineup.
To see Roy Harper’s official biography, click here: http://www.royharper.co.uk/magento/biography
The Game, Parts I-V (Roy Harper)
There’s an owl in the valley fixing his prey
He’s not counting the tally
It’s down to what comes up before the day
And the trees in the orchard were taken from a narrow view of time
Where the minds of the tortured perpetuated patron saints of crime
I can fit into your puzzle but it’s hardly, hardly ever a hold
And I’ll tell you, yeah, tell you the trouble
The habits I’ve got are more than 10.000 years old
And we cannot sell our souls to learning morals
Big brother is no place for us to slide
We cannot live by numbers or on laurels
And hardly on how far from death we hide.
And it’s not a case of rampant paranoia
But just an age I’d love to see unborn
Not that I’d be missing playing Goya
More like I feel awkward passing on
Civilisation, civilisation down to my children
Without a question.
While the prophets of freedom, battery farming brains for narrow minds
Have decided, yes they decided that meaning is far beyond the lives they left behind
As two thirds of the population dine
On scraps in shadow lengthening with time
While propaganda spreads the same old theme
You is me and we can change the game, bullshit.
Oh but how many times have we written these lines
And delivered these signs and not made it happen
Walking the tightrope of talking our head off
Losing the rhythm, idealising and all criticising
And not realising that we’ve changed and left and we’ve gone.
And sad to be leaving the things we believe in but time has a way and we fly
The next age is born and the old hands are gone and done in the wink of an eye
No point in passing bad reason good guessing, no time for massing much more than can flourish with love.
And right now, my darling, I’m lying here dreaming of feeling, no daylight between us
So wherever you are and whenever I’m there is someplace we’ve got to be ours
Can we right-heartedly stand in this light and see what might turn out to be crazy enough, enough to be we?
When we’ve had a past sad enough to last for sometime into the future
These storms have torn and true love is alone and the past is almost a failure
Consciences burn in the programme turn, computing the social behaviour
But the yoke revolts, the foundation bolts and cries for yet another saviour.
And I’d pack my things on a pair of wings and tomorrow I’d be parting
With the summer birds and the winter herds for a place to face a new heart in
But it makes no difference, where I am I’m in the game first hand
There are no certain answers and no time to understand
The rules are set to paradox, coercion and blind faith
The goal’s a changing paradise, a moment out of date
The dream is righteous grandeur fit to flood the universe
The fact is more than meets the eye but less than runs the earth, running the earth.
And the prisoner of the present paces up and down inside his cell
He’s the living replacement, somersaulting from this psychic well
Screaming: ‘I’m the sponsor of a hell’
Voices like the sea inside a shell
Telling me I cannot stake a claim
Possession is a clue but not the game
So please leave this world as clean as when you came.
So please leave this world as clean as when you came
Please leave this world as clean as when you came
Please leave this world as clean as when you came
Please leave this world as clean as when you came.