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Sophisticated Beggar—8


Released:  1966

1) China Girl  2) Goldfish  3) Sophisticated Beggar  4) My Friend  5) Big Fat Silver Aeroplane  6) Blackpool  7) Legend  8) Girlie  9) October 12th  10) Black Clouds  11) Mr.Stationmaster  12) Forever  13) Committed


Roy Harper was born June 12, 1941 in Rusholme, a suburb in the notoriously rough Northern English city of Manchester.  His first month on this planet could be seen as foreshadowing his later work, for his mother died from complications of delivering him just a few short weeks after Harper was born.  And just as those days were undoubtedly full of sheer amazement and jubilation for the family as it welcomed their new child, there must have been utter dread, terror, and darkness lying beneath the surface as they realized his mother was not going to survive—an off-putting mixture of emotions.  Those same emotions could be used to describe Harper’s career and life itself: an unbalanced, amazingly talented guitar player with songs of jubilation that have a dark, poetic, tragic edge.


After his mother’s untimely death, Harper’s father soon remarried a devout Jehovah’s Witness.  Her religion teaches that heaven is reserved for only a select number of people of her faith (144,000 actually) and thus, a Jehovah’s Witness has firm rules including not being allowed to perform many traditional norms of society like celebrating Christmas or birthdays, joining the armed forces, voting, saluting the flag, or allowing men to wear their hair long or grow a beard.  Roy, in traditional teenaged fashion, rebelled against his stepmother’s beliefs at an early age and religion became a constant theme throughout many of his later songs.


At 15, Roy ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the Royal Air Force.  What followed is uncertain.  What is known is that the discipline of military life was too much for Harper and he either faked madness to get discharged or actually did have a nervous breakdown.  After his discharge he was committed to Lancaster Moor Medical Institute and received electro-convulsive therapy, which had been begun in the military.  At some point in his short stay at the institute, Roy was beaten for dressing without permission and escaped out a bathroom window while still wearing his pajamas.  He was eventually arrested a few weeks later while attempting to climb the clock tower at St. Pancras Station in London.       


While serving one year in Walton Jail, Liverpool, he was put in charge of the Prison Library and began reading philosophy and writing poetry all the while practicing his guitar playing.  He was released in 1964 and bummed around North Africa, London, and Europe for over a year playing his guitar.  He began to perform in folk clubs to make a living and express himself, and was soon offered a chance to record by a tiny independent label called Strike.  Despite the small label, Harper was able to get John Renbourn and Bert Jansch to contribute guitar parts on the songs he was putting together and a young Richie Blackmore showed up during a few sessions for the album that eventually was titled “Sophisticated Beggar.”


Harper’s hometown probably had a lot to do with the album’s opening tune, “China Girl.”  Rusholme, at just about the time Roy Harper was entering his teens years, was attracting large numbers of immigrants from newly independent Asian countries like India and Pakistan, and also was seeing a large number of immigrants coming in from China following WWII.  These immigrants established themselves in the local scene, eventually creating a chain of Asian style restaurants along a section of Rusholme still known today as “Curry Mile.”  It is probable that the “China Girl” that the song longs for is a remembrance of a childhood crush.  The tune itself features backwards guitar (extremely radical for the time), and has a melody loosely oriental sounding, with desperate vocals—all in all, a good song, but not great. 


Goldfish” follows and Harper has since claimed that it was the first song that he ever wrote.  It seems to be a child’s song with a folksy-bouncy rhythm and lyrics about goldfish, bees, and birds.  Definitely the most pleasant sounding song on the record, this is a nice little harmless tune.  The title track is next and is anything but innocent.  It features excellent guitar picking and lyrics about a man who is happy dropping out of society and being a beggar rather than attempting to follow their “plastic gods, tin-pot religions and silly ideas.”  Harper’s voice, above all else, stands out on this song, which is clearly an album highlight.  My Friend” has a false start with Roy stopping because a spider crawls across his microphone…he sounds absolutely mad laughingly calling the spider a bastard, but he keeps the tape rolling and just jumps into the song dealing with lost friendship (Actually, this is a moving tribute to fellow folk artist Jackson C. Frank, marking the first of many Roy Harper tribute songs).  The guitar here is top notch and the melody is haunting, complete with very effective harmonics.  This rather creepy song gives way to “Big Fat Silver Aeroplane,” an extremely descriptive anti-drug song which has a very Dylan feel in both its structure and verse.  Roy though shows he far surpasses Dylan’s guitar ability on the mainly instrumental “Blackpool.”  Without a doubt, Harper, even at this early stage, is a guitar virtuoso, and “Blacpool” drives this point home.


Legend” has a more bluesy feel than the rest of the album and features the best lyrics of the entire record.  If Harper showed he was Dylan’s better on guitar previously, he comes close to matching the master in lyrical imagery here on this song influenced by T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Girlie” qualifies as filler.  Although it is nice enough, it erases the tension built up by “Legend.”  Perhaps this was the purpose of its placement at this point on the album.  Whatever the reason, it is just a well played folk song poetically propositioning a girl.  October 12th” is a poignant protest song dealing with religion, war, environment, and self.  This is Harper’s “Masters of War” or “Working Class Hero,” but unlike those masterpieces that blame the government, Harper blames himself: “I think you're all right and it's me that's all wrong.” 


Black Clouds” is another filler folk tune.  It isn’t bad of course, but it isn’t too memorable either.  And at four and a half minutes, it is far too long and boring.  Mr. Stationmaster” immediately puts the boredom to an end though as it features pipe organ instead of guitar.  The only danceable tune here, it sounds a little like Procol Harum, and rules.  Taken by itself, it really isn’t anything special, but placed within the context of this album, it works and works well.  Forever” has a somewhat similar melody to the Stones “Factory Girl” and like that tune, this is a lovely little love song, with a nice guitar break in the middle.  The record ends with “Committed.”  As the title would suggest, this song is about Harper’s time in a medical institute.  It features electric guitar and a crazy 60s style psychedelic groove.  It is bizarre, insane, and dark, but somehow upbeat.  Think Syd Barrett freaking out with Robbie Krieger playing guitar in the background.  It sucks, but rules all the same.                     

Overall this is a mainly acoustic album that introduces Harper’s signature guitar sound, his volatile poetic imagery and his amazing voice.  There is not a bad song on here and each tune (except for “Black Clouds”) is short enough to keep you interested.  Harper includes enough unusual chord changes and guitar picking on the folk numbers to distinguish them from each other and offers a very appealing blend of restrained madness.                   


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