This year, British folk legend Roy Harper celebrated his 70th birthday. Feted by many in the British pop/rock pantheon – Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Led Zeppelin (who immortalised him in the song ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’) – the septuagenarian, who found his voice amongst the smoky coffee shops of 1960s London, is re-releasing 19 of his 23 studio albums via mainstream digital stores for the first time.

First to fall ripe from the tree are Harper’s 1966 debut Sophisticated Beggar; Flat Baroque and Berserk (1970); Stormcock (1971) and Bullinamingvase (1977). The title of the later was changed to One of Those Days in England in the U.S. It makes sense to tackle this quartet of re-issues in chronological order, so stark is the sense of development between the Mancunian’s debut and his ninth album (the aforementioned Bullinamingvase), released a little over ten years later.

Sophisticated Beggar is an inauspicious start. A fairly standard collection of folk songs are given little room to breathe by producer Pierre Tubbs; it sounds clumsy and claustrophobic. Chock full of then fashionable backwards instrumentation (blame those pesky Beatles), it’s a very ‘60s’ sounding record. Despite the poor quality of the recordings however, there are some pointers - the beautiful, intricate guitar work on ‘Blackpool’, the anti-religious sentiment articulated so resolutely on ‘October Twelfth’ – which suggest he was headed for greater things.

If Harper sounded a little green around the gills on his first effort, by the time of his fourth, Flat Baroque and Berserk, he was firing on all cylinders. Infinitely more confident, it opens with the very Velvet Underground sounding ‘Don’t You Grieve’, a song so thrilling in its simplicity one feels duty-bound to form a new wave band with the sole purpose of performing a spiky, doo-wop cover version. Harper’s voice, unsteady on his debut, had by now taken on a silky vibrato which permeates the record fully. There are touches of the 60s clichés which marred ‘Sophisticated…’ – the Dylanesque ‘Goodbye’, with its talk of walking “the clover meadows, in the dandelion days” – but by this point he had already begun to experiment with the bolder, lengthier arrangements that would characterize his next long-player.

Stormcock is widely considered to be Harper’s masterpiece, a four-song (none of which clock-in at under seven minutes) opus, incorporating all of his tricks and nuances. With a little help from Jimmy Page on guitar, the then 30-year-old was at the peak of his powers, boldly jumping between keys and tempos, from bluesy desert rock (‘One Man’) to lovelorn muscular ballad (‘Me and My Woman’) - the later seems to morph into a Who song halfway through, before returning to its original blueprint. Opener ‘Hors d’Oeuvres’, reminiscent of Tim Buckley at his most majestic, features a lyrical couplet Morrissey would give his right arm for: “The judge sits on his great assize, twelve men wise with swollen thighs’. This is a wonderful, accomplished record.

Bullinamingvase, released six years later, doesn’t come to close to scaling the heights of Stormcock, but is a fine collection of songs nonetheless. Veering between classic Kinks-like observational pop (‘One Of Those Days In England’), West-Coast rock (‘Cherishing The Lonesome’) and jovial drinking songs (‘Watford Gap’), it was released at the height of punk but sounds just as English as anything by the Sex Pistols, The Clash or The Damned.

  • Sophisticated Beggar – 6.5/10
  • Flat Baroque and Berserk – 8/10
  • Stormcock – 9/10
  • Bullinamingvase – 8/10