"Cockney Rebel started as a non-guitar band, and here we are offering up lashings of electric mayhem!" - Steve Harley
Then there are the two melodramatically-overblown “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. "Your Persian eyes sparkle, your lips - ruby blue..." was always my favourite line.
Mirror Freak was, apparently, written about Marc Bolan. Harley thought he was vain. Takes one to know one, Steve. Regarding the music, it is a slow pace, mysterious bass and electric violin backed number, packed full of atmosphere. It's violin actually reminds me of the sound folk rockers Steeleye Span were using in the seventies. Harley introduces the lyric "shuffle on your Mae West hips" that would be used again on the next album's Cavaliers as "shuffle around on your Sabrina hips". It is, in its understated way, one of the album's best cuts.
What Ruthy Said indirectly quotes Bob Dylan's Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again and the quirky My Only Vice, driven along by a lively electric violin, also has a lot of Dylan's influence in it (this time Blonde On Blonde) with hints of David Bowie's early seventies work in its its Queen Bitch-esque acoustic guitar intro too. Harley was in full on bemusing lyrical form on this one - "My only vice is the fantastic prices I charge for being eaten alive" is a most intriguing lyric. Chameleon is a track that ends after less than a minute before it gets going, which was a shame, but Loretta's Tale was another enthralling Dylan goes baroque offering.
** 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.
Other non-album tracks from the album's sessions were the lively rock'n'roll-influenced Rock And Roll Parade and Spaced Out, the former was an early prototype of the sound Cockney Rebel would use in the 1973-1974 period. Despite a fine, rollicking piano bit in the middle, I can't really put my finger on why, but it doesn't quite come together for me. The latter ploughs the same furrow with an even faster pace and some manic electric violin. It sounds a lot like an early version of Psychomodo (the track) in places. Once more it features some great piano (introduced by Harley with a mannered "piaaanoh"). Harley probably quite wisely left these two off the album in favour of less rocking but more interesting songs.
Harley was guilty of a huge amount of vaingloriousness, particularly in his dealings with the music media, with whom he seemed to have almost weekly run-ins and also of going totally over-the-top with the bizarre imagery and literary/artistic references. They must have worked, though, because I recall at the time thinking how clever this guy must be - why, he references Shakespeare characters all the time. While it was a shimmering bombardment of quasi-intellectual stylings it definitely added a certain élan to his compositions that put him in the somewhat clichéd art rock genre.
Harley reflected on the album on the liner notes for the Cavaliers box set, which contains this album, amongst others -
The last sentence of that quote from Harley gives in insight in to the man's marvellous, expressive, but sometimes irritating pretentiousness. Take a look at the album's somewhat faux arty cover too. Despite this, I couldn't help but love him. He had something about him that put him up there with other great seventies frontmen - Bowie, Mercury, Ferry, Stewart, Elton, Hunter, Mael et al.
The David Bowie-Quicksand-influenced Ritz is similar, but more somnolent, sombre and not quite as intoxicating but the mysterious-sounding, haunting electric violin on it is quite superb, and, of course, it is still jam-packed full of those Shakespearean references and other literary/artistic ones -
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, it really was. Harley took Dylan and Bowie influences to the nth degree.
The quirky, catchy, keyboard-driven Bed In The Corner, the intoxicatingly staccato Singular Band and the frantic Sling It! are shorter, more melodic and maybe slightly less imposing, but all is returned to wonderful melodramatic majesty with the closing track, Tumbling Down, Cockney Rebel’s unforgettable concert-closing anthem. The atmosphere when the crowd joined in, football crowd-style, on the memorable denouement of the song was unforgettable.
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 period's non-album tracks were the manic, staccato insanity of Such A Dream, which had shades of Death Trip from the previous album and was a track that explored the whole "asylum" thing that would be continued on the next album's Back To The Farm and the altogether more accessible strains of Big Big Deal, which could have easily fitted on the album. It is a mid-pace song with lots of typical 1974 Harley in its ambience and overall sound.
I have to admit that, though, 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. Maybe I have just heard it too much, but I recall not being too overwhelmed by it at the time and was most surprised when it got to number one, despite my pleasure at one of my favourite groups hitting the top spot.
Regarding the album's personnel, Harley had an acrimonious fall-out with the previous members Cockney Rebel - he sacked them-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.
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 non-album track from the era was the quite appealing Another Journey which was more accessible than both Back To The Farm and (to a lesser extent) the quirky clavinet-driven funk of 49th Parallel. It also includes the relatively rarity in a Harley song of a harmonica solo, used, no doubt, to replicate the much-missed electric violin sound from the first two albums. Actually, I've re-assessed 49th Parallel, it is the better track, quite considerably. It has flown under the radar for me for years and I am finally discovering its quality. Oh, and just digitally program to play Another Journey along with the rest of the tracks - much easier.
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 -
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.
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.
The lovely 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:-
Everything Changes has a choppy, almost waltz-like but semi-funky rhythm and an extremely exaggerated vocal from Harley, something he was regularly guilty of, I have to say. 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. It was a shame that Harley's star fell to earth with the release of debatably his finest offering to date.
** The non-album track from this album's sessions was the slow burning, semi-jazzy, rhythmic torch song vibe of Throw Your Soul Down Here, an entrancing track that would have benefitted the album and should really have been included.
Maybe the last word should on the album go to Harley, appropriately -
This late 1976 album was a sad postscript to the short but extremely innovative career of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. Three years and five albums ended with this unfortunate, at times unlistenable, mish-mash. I struggle to understand what Harley, albeit ever the innovator, was trying to achieve with some of the material on here. After the sublime Timeless Flight from earlier in the same year, this one seriously paled in comparison.
The short, bombastic and orchestral intro, Seeking A Love, ends before it has got going, and morphs into another short one. This time it is an organ-powered thrash in G.I. Valentine that subsequently segues into the slightly longer but irritating rock 'n' roll pastiche of Finally A Card Came. It is basically experimental, indulgent drivel and it is safe to say that this Abbey Road-style introduction to the album was a rampant failure.
The album's first "proper" track is the funky, staccato groove of Too Much Tenderness. It is nothing particularly outstanding, but, coming after the previous nonsense, it serves as a blessed relief. The same can be said for two of the album's three genuinely decent numbers that are up next. (Love) Compared With You is a lovely, tender Harley ballad - he did this sort of thing very well. It has long been a favourite of mine, especially the "I'm in love with you" bit at the end when razor sharp acoustic guitar, piano and Harley's voice merge perfectly.
I have to say, too, that the catchy (I Believe) Love's A Prima Donna made a great single and stands as Harley's last great original moment. As a big fan in the seventies, I remember when we got to this track on the album I thought "phew - he hasn't complete lost it". It was typical Harley and I loved it then and I still do today. It stands out as so good when so much of the rest of the album was truly dreadful. Jim Cregan also provides a great acoustic guitar solo. Harley knew how to use an acoustic guitar as an enhancement to a rock song. Cregan supplied a similar solo on Rod Stewart's I Was Only Joking.
The old "side two" begins with some more orchestral chamber-style bombast on Sidetrack II, before the vocal refrain of Seeking A Love II is reprised. (If This Is Love) Give Me More is another rock 'n' roll-influenced one, featuring some nice riffage. It is just about ok here, but is awful on the 1977 live album, Face To Face. The track has always annoyed me, unfortunately. Harley's vocal shrieking at the end is execrable. The bassy and vaguely funky feel of the oedipal Carry Me Again redeems things a bit, although once more Harley is suffering, vocally. Harley's cover of George Harrison's Here Comes The Sun was a big hit, though, and it is the album's other quality track. He does the track justice with a fine, vibrant interpretation.
Talking of The Beatles, Innocence And Guilt was surely Harley's Revolution 9. Any acceptable material on the album ends with this unlistenable mélange of farmyard noises, children's exclamations, nursery-style keyboards and distorted Tubular Bells-style vocals. I am loth to condemn anything as utter rubbish, but I am afraid to say that this is exactly that. Is It True What They Say? is equally unworthy of any real comment.
What a sad way to end what was a brief but uplifting and vivacious career. This album plumbs the depths in places. It has been critically acclaimed by many as a brave, adventurous piece of work and although some of the tracks grow on me after several listens - the longer, funky ones - I still can't accept that on the last two tracks we saw anything other than an artist desperately running short of creativity. Harley, always the converse arguer, would no doubt vehemently disagree. Indeed, I have read interviews where he really rates the album as containing some of his best work, so what do I know...