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Once—8

 

Released: 1990

1) Once  2) Once In The Middle Of Nowhere  3) Nowhere To Run To  4) The Black Cloud of Islam  5) If  6) Winds of Change  7) Berliners  8) Sleeping at the Wheel  9) For Longer Than It Takes  10) Ghost Dance

 

Roy Harper ended the 1980s by returning to his roots, abandoning synthesizers completely and coming up with a cultural and musical tour-de-force.  Not only does he sound fresh in terms of his playing, but also lyrically the album is one of his best, dealing with problems and happenings of the time.  From the collapse of the Berlin Wall to Salman Rushdie…from Tiananmen Square and Deng Xiaoping to the end of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev…virtually every major event of the age is represented here, and none of it sounds preachy.  Harper wrote and recorded a string of tunes with the poignancy of Sixties protest songs, but he kept the level of relevancy current throughout the entire record.  Basically, with “Once,” Harper was able to make a time capsule of what the world was like approaching 1990, making this album one of the greatest reflections of the 1980s.       

 

It all starts with the eight-minute title track.  This isn’t the catchiest of tunes, but it isn’t supposed to be…its atmosphere paves the way for the entire record: acoustic-based, ominous, and eerily penetrating.  In the album’s linear notes Harper explains that he called the album “Once” because the moments we are experiencing now are but once…they will never return.  The song itself attempts to demonstrate this notion and acts as an overture for the album as a whole.  Although not really amazing, it is essential and features David Gilmour, Kate Bush, bassist Tony Franklin, drummer Steve Broughton, and Harper’s own son Nick as guest musicians.  Once In The Middle of Nowhere” is a one-minute, pointless chant that acts as an intro to “Nowhere To Run To.”  This song features some powerful, yet restrained blues harmonica playing, and like the opening track, is another atmospheric mood piece.  But here, Harper metaphorically blasts government and religion for narrowing people’s perspectives and limiting what there is to know.

 

He throws metaphors out the window with “The Black Cloud of Islam” and bluntly goes straight for the point.  Understandably outraging Muslims, Harper isn’t really insulting all of Islam, but he does verbally blast Islamic Fundamentalism with his usual wit and candor.  The melody resembles Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and actually this is just as much a song about having freedom of speech as it is about slighting religious extremists.  In a time of Ayatollah Khomeini and Cat Stevens condemning Salman Rushdie to death and the bloody war between Iran and Iraq just concluding, Harper bravely speaks out against religions that preach peace, but act out with force.  While it is far from the first time Harper has expressed these same views on organized religion, this is a very direct attack on one specific religion and that is why it was taken so personally.  Still though, the song conjures up the spirit of the 1960s and refreshingly proves that protest songs can still be worthy in today’s society.

 

If” has virtually the same message as “The Black Cloud of Islam,” but is doused with saccharine.  Here Harper questions anyone’s beliefs in God if it forces you to see groups instead of individuals: “Where’s the love you’re always talking off, if you can’t stand man to man?”  The tune is beautiful, with elegant acoustic picking and moving background vocals, and shows the other side of Harper’s songwriting…for every “I Hate the White Man” or “The Spirit Lives” there is another song in his catalog that explains the same message, but does so disguised with splendor.                

 

Winds of Change” is a short little funky tune, sounding like Pink Floyd circa “The Final Cut” in which Harper calls out Gorbachev, Xiaoping, Thatcher, and all humans asking if the actions you have taken these past few years are really how you would like to be forever remembered.  Inspired by Laurence Binyon’s poem, “Berliners” obviously updates Berlin’s struggles from WWII into present times and joyfully covers the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  The tune is celebrating and touching, but failing to mention David Hasselhoff’s famous concert on the Wall was just snobbish. 

 

The next two songs are not really comments on social issues, but “Sleeping At The Wheel” and “For Longer Than It Takes” are two of the best songs Harper has written in years.  The former is a beautiful love song about coming together despite differences.  It has an excellent melody and gorgeous guitar fills curtsey of Roy’s son Nick.  The latter isn’t quite as exquisite, but the lyrics are better, the mood is just as pleasing, and the younger Harper’s guitar work is just as striking.  Ghost Dance” cleverly closes the album out with one more message type tune.  The chorus,  “You imagine you can change the world and you are right” sounds uplifting and caring, but Harper actually intends for it to be a warning for the West to stay out of other people’s business where they are not needed.  Of course, the title recalls the late 19th Century Native American ritual that was supposed to bring back the spirit of their ancestors and help them purge the white settlers.  Needless to say, it didn’t work, and Harper cautions that our Western society is still continually eliminating cultures to this day despite our good intentions—A very moving song and a stellar way to close out the album.                

 

There is a reason why protest songs are written by the youth, and why even the great Bob Dylan has claimed that he simply can’t write songs like he used to…the reason is because as you grow older the frenzy you felt is replaced by acceptance.  For Harper (who in 1990 was almost 50) to write such passionate and political songs, still fighting for his beliefs, is both inspiring and admirable.  This album should have made headlines across the West for its insight and message, but like all Harper’s albums, no one bought it.  Still, "Once" is easily one of his most compelling recordings and ranks up with his best work.

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