If your favourite cricket team is losing, don’t despair. Just play this ballad. Only Harper could have written these lines…
If sometimes you're catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on,
And it could be Geoff and it could be John with a new-ball sting in his tail
How’s that for poetry? Of course, Geoff was Boycott and John was Snow, with Harper’s album HQ dedicated to both men. The brass of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band help to give this throwback of a song the timeless feel of a village green match, cradling the honeyed richness of the Mancunian’s voice.
There'll be one mad dog and his master, pushing for four with the spin
On a dusty pitch with two pounds six of willow wood in the sun
The DJ John Peel asked his producer John Walters to play the track in the event of his death. Walters, however, died first in 2001 so Peel used it on his show. Andy Kershaw did the same as a climax to his special tribute when his colleague passed away three years later.
Acknowledged by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Kate Bush, Pete Townshend, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and the harpist Joanna Newsom as a mentor, Harper was a complex character and eloquent lyricist as evidenced by his debut album, Sophisticated Beggar.
And he was truculent. I remember a performance in Birkenhead on Merseyside in the 70s when a good friend of mine was his supporting act. Harper was slightly worse for wear and looked as though he needed support. He struggled with his stool before the first number but recovered to perform flawlessly. It is curious how artists under the influence can sing unslurred words even if those used between songs are barely intelligible.
My friend also had trouble with the stool and the microphones – one for his voice and two for his acoustic guitar, exactly the set-up for Harper – until a roadie told him to leave well alone and concentrate on playing. Apparently ‘the herb was partaken’ backstage.
This cricketing elergy to a lost era and mortality itself, which conjures up England at its pastoral finest, is typical of a man who always adhered to his artistic convictions when commercial forces demanded otherwise. ‘Don’t shift because fashion has shifted,’ he told the Telegraph. ‘Don’t move from the original ethic you had, the original reasons. They’re part and parcel of you.’
Now officially retired, Harper is 75 and living in Ireland, reflecting fondly on a career spanning 32 albums which influenced generations of musicians and writers, from the skiffle set of the 50s through the bohemian coffee house folk scene to baroque and rock itself. It was a great innings, with perfect pitch, and he is still unbeaten.