THE HUMAN MENAGERIE (1973)
Hideaway/What Ruthy Said/Loretta's Tale/Crazy Raver/Sebastian/Mirror Freak/My Only Vice/Muriel The Actor/Chameleon/Death Trip
In 1973, we were only just getting used to David Bowie and then Roxy Music, then out of nowhere came Cockney Rebel. Led by the irritatingly cocksure and often pretentious Steve Harley, they evoked “Cabaret”-era Berlin and dressed accordingly. Harley's lyrics were full of bizarre imagery and he had a penchant for making somewhat preposterous pronouncements on the music industry, politics and life in general. Basically, Harley was a pain in the posterior, but wow - what a debut album he and his band mates came up with.
Harley's vision for his music had the use of a huge orchestra, on the overblown tracks like Sebastian and Death Trip. Here he recalls how it all came about -
"....In the backyard of a Chelsea bistro, under a blue sky, late summer seventy-three, Neil Harrison and I were sharing a pot of coffee when he told me he would like to record an orchestra and choir onto "Sebastian" and "Death Trip". The album was being recorded at Air Studios. We were about three-parts through, I should say, so Neil, my producer, must have known his announcement that afternoon would bowl the young Steve over. And it did. But seeing them in there, fifty-plus classical musicians, mostly old enough to be my dad, was a real shocker. We were young and full of dangerous ideas and adventure; ready to experiment without consideration for the consequences or cost. And Joop Wisser, EMI's head of A & R and the man who discovered us, was a consistently kind ally to Neil and myself; otherwise there would have been no orchestra or choir!..."That first line from Harley's quote, "in the backyard of a Chelsea bistro" sounds like it could have been an opening line of one of his songs. The album, by the way, was engineered by legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. He did a good job, because Harley and his band were certainly pushing a few boundaries, sonically. This was no ordinary rock (or glam rock) band.
Cockney Rebel's sound saw acoustic guitars married with a wailing electric violin and piano and a glam rock drum sound. Heady stuff indeed. Check out upbeat tracks like the acoustically-driven art rock of Hideaway, the jaunty Muriel The Actor and the frenetically bonkers Spectoresque rock 'n' roll of Crazy Raver.
Then there are the two “biggies”. The mysterious, moody, magnificent Death Trip with its operatic Russian “Volga Boatmen” backing vocals and perplexing lyrics. Could it get any better? You bet it could. Sebastian. Seven minutes of glam rock’s first true opus. Tinkling piano, Harley’s plaintive opening vocal, the intoxicating lyrics, the monumental chorus. Way, way ahead of its time.
Mirror Freak was written about Marc Bolan, apparently. Harley thought he was vain. Takes one to know one, Steve. What Ruthy Said indirectly quotes Bob Dylan's Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again. The quirky My Only Vice, driven along by a lively electric violin, also has a lot of Blonde On Blonde influence in it.
The non-album single, Judy Teen was our first introduction to this remarkable, creative band. Hearing it and seeing Harley camping it up on Top Of The Pops caught everyone’s attention. The song was actually re-recorded by the band after Sebastian, perhaps unsurprisingly, had failed to crack the charts. Judy had initially been rejected by Harley and left off the album. It was a good job he changed his mind, as it became a big hit.
THE PSYCHOMODO (1974)
Sweet Dreams/Psychomodo/Mr. Soft/Singular Band/Ritz/Cavaliers/Bed In The Corner/Sling It!/Tumbling Down
After 1973’s quirky, innovative debut The Human Menagerie that took many by surprise, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel continued in the same vein in 1974 with an even better piece of avant-garde pop/rock songs. Full of Dylanesque lyrics that alternate between sixth form poetry and sheer genius and a sound dominated by electric violin and keyboards, there was some truly unique stuff on here. Harley’s strained voice and drawn-out vowels was somewhat unusual too. Musically, only Roxy Music and Sparks were as adventurous and different at the time.
Harley reflected on the album on the liner notes for the Cavaliers box set, which contains this album, amongst others -
"...The Psychomodo, too, was a record whose time we laughed through. Alan Parsons came in as co-producer/engineer, and his own willingness to accept many offbeat ideas made life easy enough. More strings and horns, and again we had Andrew Powell, with his brilliant classical-rock thinking, to orchestrate. I do remember where the songs came from. They came from a young man's dream, where the blending of musical literature and mad, formless imaginings, could hang out together at the same folk club and present him with an entire raison d'etre..."
The last sentence of that quote from Harley gives in insight in to the man's marvellous, expressive, but sometimes irritating pretensiousness. Despite this, I couldn't help but love him.
On to the songs. The double header upbeat openers, Sweet Dreams and Psychomodo and set the tone and then we get the jaunty single Mr. Soft with its “Cabaret” stylings. It is a bit of a similar vein to the previous single, Judy Teen.
Cavaliers is an eight minute slow burning opus, full of bizarre and memorable imagery. It is my favourite Harley track of all time. Take a look at the lines. Nonsense, but wonderful nonsense -
"...Long-tailed coat, a silly joke
They drink like men then see them choke on Coca-Cola
Your morgue-like lips and waitress tips
And you shuffle around on your Sabrina hips..."Ritz is similar, but more somnolent and not quite as intoxicating. It is jam-packed full of Shakespearean references and other literary/artistic ones -
"....It's okay to laugh in harmony
See the white-faced Auguste's army
Come to Pablo Fanque is in Indigo
We'll show you pastel shades of rhyme.
Take a letter Ophelia, write
'Sorry Desdemona', bright
Peeking through the Nimbus coversWe see the twisted tale of Man...."
Hmmm, make out of that what you will. There are many more verses like that in the song. Gratuitous and indulgent it may be, but it was quite unique, really.
Bed In The Corner, Singular Band and Sling It! are shorter, more melodic and maybe less imposing, but all is returned to melodramatic majesty with the closing track, Tumbling Down, Cockney Rebel’s unforgettable concert-closing anthem.
Who knows what “oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues” meant but if you have ever been at the final few minutes of a Cockney Rebel gig, you simply won’t care. I have never forgotten it. For more information on Harley's performances at my local music club when growing up, Friars, Aylesbury, check out https://www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1975)
Introducing "The Best Years/Mad, Mad Moonlight/Mr. Raffles/It Wasn't Me/Panorama/Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)/Back To The Farm/49th Parallel/The Best Years Of Our Lives
1975 saw The Best Years Of Our Lives be the album that briefly saw the (now named) Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel crack the commercial mainstream with a number one single in the catchy Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) and a mid chart hit in the quirky groove of Mr. Raffles. I have to admit that, even from way back then, I have never been a particularly huge fan of Come Up And See Me. Its effect on me is one of nostalgic pleasure more than anything. The album was a good one, though, on the whole. The electric violin that so dominated the first two albums had gone, as had half the original band (see lower down). A new band in place saw a slightly more polished, pop sensitive sound with those two singles and tracks like the beguiling Mad, Mad Moonlight and the upbeat Panorama. I always liked the line "Teddy boys in armour - threatening my whole panorama...", for some unaccountable reason. It has stuck in my head for over forty years.
The old Harley poetic weirdness was there, however, in the slightly disturbing Back To The Farm and the similarly unsettling It Wasn't Me, with its incomprehensible lyrics and imagery. Then there was a rival for Tumbling Down as a Cockney Rebel singalong live anthem in the glorious strains of The Best Years Of Our Lives .
Regarding the album's personnel, Harley had an acrimonious fall-out with the previous members Cockney Rebel - he sacked/or they quit, depending on who you believed, Milton Reame-James, Jean-Paul Crocker and Paul Jeffreys leaving only drummer Stuart Elliott with Harley. He had insisted on sole songwriting control, something the others didn't agree with, wanting to contribute their own songs. In a typically arrogant move, he announced to the music press that he was going to return with "the greatest rock band in the world". It wasn't quite that, but ex-Family guitarist Jim Cregan, Curved Air's keyboardist Francis Monkman and bassist George Ford were pretty solid. Monkman didn't last long and was replaced by Duncan Mackay. Harley said later of the situation -
"....The people at my record label, EMI, were right behind me. They believed I could find new band members without too much of a problem and continue on to a new level of success. They believed it wasn't a major stumbling block...."
The album has been remastered perfectly. It will never sounded better than this. There was a lot of hype around it, though. Record Mirror said it was "completely fulfilling. A monster unleashed..". It was good, but not quite that good, however. Tracks like Back to The Farm and It Wasn't Me certainly didn't fall into the "monster" category.
The live cuts from April 1975 at Hammersmith Odeon are not perfect, sonically, certainly not a patch on 1977’s live Face To Face, (Harley makes The Best Years into a drug-addled mess) but neither are they bad and they provide a welcome slice of previously unavailable live material from the brief era of "Rebelmania".
The 14 minute "medley" of Bed In The Corner/SweetDreams/Psychomodo/Sling It!/Instrumental doodling see Harley at his preposterous vocal delivery/twisted vowels best. Great stuff. Harley seems pretty wired throughout, high on his own success and God knows what, a feeling confirmed with the DVD live clips that are, of their time, shall we say. Quite amusing are the brief interviews with fans at the gig. "He's better than Bowie", said one. Well, maybe for that one evening in April 1975 he just was.
TIMELESS FLIGHT (1976)
Red Is A Mean, Mean Colour/White White Dove/Understand/All Men Are Hungry/Black Or White/Everything Changes/Nothing Is Sacred/Don't Go, Don't Cry
Apparently recorded under swelteringly hot conditions, Steve Harley has stated that the general torpor of the heatwave had led to a certain tiredness and lack of energy from the band, hence the album’s slightly laid-back ambience. However, they were slower-paced, acoustic led songs in the first place, so the weather is only really a small percentage of the story.
For many, it is Harley's greatest album despite its slipping under the radar, hidden by the previous three offerings. This is what Harley has said about it in retrospect -
"Well, years ago I would have said "Timeless Flight" because it got the worst reviews. It's my precious boy, my favourite child. It was such a change for me and the critics weren't ready. It's like I heard Mick Jagger say about one of the Stones albums, it was his favourite because it was nobody else's! I never realised it was the favorite album of so many people. "Nothing is Sacred" is on there and when I started to play that live I sensed it was something they really wanted to hear. Now it's a real blinder and it meant a lot to a lot of people to hear it. And "Red is a Mean Mean Colour" is a really personal song for me. There's a lot of personal stuff in there. "All Men Are Hungry" is another I like to sing. It's a song people can relate to."
For me too, this is Harley’s last worthwhile album, and yes, it is possibly his best, in many respects. It is a collection of eight non-commercial, “serious”, often poetic, imagery-full and reflective songs. There is no Come Up And See Me, the great commercial success of the previous album, or even a Mr Raffles, that album’s lesser hit.
Harley’s perceived (and often real) arrogance had the music media queueing up too knock him down at the first signs of commercial and artistic failure. The decision to release the sprawling attempt to write a Tumbling Down-style anthem in Black Or White as a single was commercial suicide. It failed to make the UK top 50, this after a huge number one only a year previously in Come Up And See Me. The follow-up, the quirky, staccato, horn-driven and funky White White Dove failed to make the top 50 either. The vultures were circling. “Rebelmania” was well and truly over.
This was all a shame. The album actually did acceptably on the charts and contained, as I said earlier some good material. Black Or White was a “build-up”, verse and dramatic chorus, with cascading piano that I, personally have always liked. Typical affected Harley vocals on it too. White White Dove was upbeat and attractive, with some good jazzy bits and a killer chorus.
Understand is a lyrical, sensitive song with some intriguing lines like “consider me lost in aspic I’d give in but that’s not my shtick..” and Red Is A Mean, Mean Colour is an addictive number, with a great hook although its political imagery is all rather confusing. It was supposed to be a critique of communism, but apart from the chorus, I could never quite see it. All Men Are Hungry has a delicious melody, lovely guitar and alluring lyrics about sitting in a Stockholm cafe talking about “Papa” Hemingway. A most evocative song. With that sort of thing in mind, the beautiful Nothing Is Sacred has even more beguiling lyrics. Just get a load of this lot:-
“....We heard Phaedre speak of the Philistines of Paris
But she talked to herself like a parasite so we both struggled
I said: "Zizi Jeanmaire wouldn't take this and neither will we
"if they call me Napoleon again I'll be forced to let the lion free...”.
Ok Steve, if you say so.
It also has an addictive “ooh la la la..” chorus. Great song.
Everything Changes has a choppy, almost waltz-like but semi-funky rhythm and an extremely exaggerated vocal from Harley. Don't Go, Don't Cry has a jaunty, even funkier, clavinet riff and is upbeat end to a much underrated album and one I have always rated.
Maybe the last word should go to Harley -
"...There were magic moments on Timeless Flight that I'd never experienced before. It wasn't the most commercial album ever following up the very commercial "Best Years of Our Lives". I understand that. But there you are....".
FACE TO FACE (1977)
For a long time, this album, released in 1977 was the only live material available from the charismatic live act that was Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. In many ways, it did not quite catch the band at their best, dating as it did from 1976. They were “on fire” live, so to speak, in the 1974-75 period and this has subsequently been covered by a 1975 concert available on the “deluxe edition “ of The Best Years Of Our Lives and some BBC 73-74 sessions on the Cavaliers retrospective box set.
This album was all there was and it goes some way to replicating the euphoric atmosphere of a Cockney Rebel gig. Certainly it does with the great audience reaction upon the first notes of Here Comes The Sun and into the next track, the hit single Love’s A Prima Donna, and the spine-tingling finale of Seeking A Love/Tumbling Down/Come Up And See Me, which sees Harley at his crowd-controlling best. Other highlights are the atmospheric Red Is A Mean, Mean Colour, the romantic Love Compared To You, the gothic, dramatic majesty of Sebastian and the singalong fun of The Best Years Of Our Lives.
Where the album falls down is in “experimental” interpretations of songs which are far worse than the originals, such as the over-funky Mad, Mad Moonlight and the mess that is Sweet Dreams/Psychomodo, criminally interspersed with the execrable Finally A Card Came. Mr. Soft lacks the appeal of the original and then there is the awful If This Is Love Give Me More, which is an extended piece of pretty unlistenable indulgence.
In conclusion, it is an album that veers from the sublime to the ridiculous within the one album. Maybe that sort of summed up the character that was Steve Harley in many ways. I still love him though. Great memories of some great, singalong, dramatic, hammed-up gigs.