DID Nick Harper jam with Jimi Hendrix in the musical hub that was Les Cousins in Soho? An eyewitness account has Harper singing there one night around the same time that Hendrix dropped in to check out the guitar talent that frequented the Greek Street niterie. There’s also a photo of Nick playing his ukulele left-handed – unusually: he’s right-handed – as if inspired by Hendrix’s approach.
We’ll probably never know. Nick can’t recall for sure – he would only have been about three years old – and it was the 1960s, the decade that, if you can remember them, you’re deemed not to have been there.
Nick was certainly around when his parents’ flat in Kilburn, north London, became another musical hub. Again he was too young to form any clear memories of the get-togethers that happened when his dad and his cronies gathered to compare recent developments in their guitar playing and songwriting. However, family lore and a degree of research have enabled him to compile the show he brings to the Edinburgh Fringe, 58 Fordwych Road, which celebrates a magical era that changed music forever.
“I have little pictures of the flat in my mind but I can’t say I remember Bert Jansch playing Blackwaterside in our living room, as he quite possibly did,” says Nick, whose dad, Roy, is the legendary singer-songwriter who inspired Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off to Harper and who sang Have a Cigar on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album.
Harper Junior has an admittedly less impressively documented Pink Floyd connection of his own. He remembers going with his dad to visit the Floyd’s David Gilmour on his houseboat and after Roy got Nick started on guitar, around the age of ten, by sellotaping three chord shapes – E, A and D – to the top of Nick’s guitar, Gilmour added a fourth chord to his repertoire.
“He showed me C major on his red Stratocaster,” says Nick. “Then, many years later, he came to a gig I was playing and I was able to thank him and tell him that I’d used that chord many times, sometimes quite profitably. He thought that was amusing.”
58 Fordwych Road isn’t about Nick Harper learning to play the guitar, though. It honours the jam sessions by acoustic guitar gods that his father remembers taking part in. Roy’s no slouch as a player himself – and if guitar talent is in the genes, Nick inherited more than his fair share – so he was certainly involved in these sessions on merit.
“We’re not even sure that one of the most memorable of them actually happened in our flat,” says Nick. “There also might have been some artificial stimulants involved but Roy told me about the time he, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham were sitting in a circle playing their guitars when Davey started playing Ravel’s Bolero and you could hear all the instruments of the orchestra coming in exactly as they did on the recording. The other three just put their guitars down and sat in awe as Davey played, and that seems to have happened regularly. As much as Bert was a great innovator and John was just brilliant, Davey was the one they all held in almost mystical esteem.”
Graham’s Folk Blues & Beyond album, with Beyond being the operative word, was a formative influence on Nick’s own career and he refers to it in 58 Fordwych Road. In putting the show together he read up on the acoustic guitar’s history and he’s in deeper admiration now than he was before for the achievements of Graham, Jansch and Renbourn.
“When you consider that, until Lonnie Donegan came along and turned everyone on to the guitar through skiffle, the acoustic guitar was still quite an exotic instrument, these guys were real pioneers,” he says. “A lot of homes had pianos but there weren’t that many guitars lying around. So for Davey Graham to have written Angi – possibly the definitive acoustic guitarist’s rite of passage and difficult enough for us to try and master now – just two or three years after the skiffle craze led to guitar sales skyrocketing is mindboggling.”
Such was Graham’s creativity and hunger for new sounds – he was playing world music decades before the term was coined and would disappear to Morocco on field trips – that the acoustic guitarists following in his slipstream would give each other almost weekly updates on his progress.
“There’s a great story about Ralph McTell meeting Bert Jansch on the street and saying, Have you heard what he’s doing now?” says Nick.
McTell was another visitor to 58 Fordwych Road, as were Paul Simon, the ill-starred American singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank (whose Blues Run the Game was taken up by just about all the others) and his equally ill-starred muse and girlfriend, Sandy Denny, whose Who Knows Where the Time Goes also features in the show.
“I’d thought about putting something together for a long time, to tell the story of that era and to honour my dad’s legacy because I’m a big fan of his music and there’s a lot of him in my own music,” says Nick.
“The idea of all these greats – and they were responsible for some fantastic music that’s as strong today as it was when they were all at their peaks – sitting in our living room, revealing their latest innovations makes me feel so privileged. I don’t suppose they thought that they were changing the world. Bert Jansch, for one, was an incredibly humble man. But it was a pivotal time and their influence extended into rock music and across the Atlantic. Jimmy Page and Neil Young cite Bert as an influence.”
Nick doesn’t claim to have played any part in the background to 58 Fordwych Road, beyond being the “annoying little toddler who was hanging around”, but the more he delved into the music that his dad and his pals created, the more he was compelled to try and bring the era to life.
“It’s been fascinating pulling the music together and telling the story of what happened because I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “I hadn’t really appreciated that what Bert Jansch did when he started accompanying Anne Briggs’ singing of traditional songs in the way that did was quite so radical. There were other guitarists accompanying folk songs but Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger created a pamphlet that included instructions for building your own guitar in 1961, the same year that Davey Graham recorded Angi, on an EP that was financed by Bob Monkhouse, no less. So it was all still quite new.”
When he took 58 Fordwych Road on tour earlier in the year, Nick learned a bit more about the era he’s addressing. It was a fan of his dad’s who reminded Nick about his having appeared at Les Cousins, although the song he sang that night is unlikely to figure in the show.
“Apparently I sang Baa Baa Black Sheep, which sounds about right because I would have been about three years old at the time,” he says.
“But it’s good to know that I did a gig, of sorts, at Les Cousins back in the day instead of just being an unknowing witness to the goings on at 58 Fordwych Road.”
Nick Harper: 58 Fordwych Road is at the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh from Sunday August 10 to Saturday August 17.