Sunday, 30 August 2020

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel




"Cockney Rebel started as a non-guitar band, and here we are offering up lashings of electric mayhem!" - Steve Harley 

The Human Menagerie (1973)
                                                   
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, doesn't it? The album, by the way, was engineered by legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. He certainly did a good job, because Harley and his band were certainly pushing a few boundaries, sonically. What was for sure was that this was no ordinary rock (or glam rock) band. 

Cockney Rebel's sound saw acoustic guitars married with a wailing electric violin (played by Jean-Paul Crocker), melodic piano and a punchy glam rock drum sound. Heady stuff indeed. As examples, check out upbeat tracks like the acoustically-driven art rock of Hideaway, the jaunty and irresistibly catchy "la-la-la" of Muriel The Actor and the frenetically bonkers Spectoresque rock 'n' roll of Crazy Raver.

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 Vicedriven 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. 

The Psychomodo (1974)

After 1973’s often oddball, innovative debut, The Human Menagerie, that took so 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-Shakespearean 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, melodramatic voice and drawn-out vowels was somewhat unusual too. Musically, only Roxy Music and Sparks were as adventurous and different at the time, and that includes David Bowie (I did say musically).

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 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 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.

On to the songs, then. The magnificent double header upbeat openers, Sweet Dreams and Psychomodo grab you by the ears with their energy and waterfall-like lyrical overflow, setting the tone for the whole album before we get the jaunty single Mr. Soft with its theatrical “Cabaret” nuances. It is in a bit of a similar vein to the previous vaudevillian single, Judy Teen. 

Cavaliers is an eight minute slow burning opus, full of bizarre and memorable imagery that appears to mean so much but actually means nothing. It is my favourite Harley track of all time, however. Just take a look at these lines - nonsense, but my, what truly 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..."

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 -

"It's ok to laugh in harmony
See the white-faced Auguste's army
Come To Pablo Fanque's in indigo
We'll show you pastel shades of rhyme
Take a letter Ophelia, write
'Sorry Desdemona', bright
Peeling through the nimbus covers
We 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, 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.

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1975)

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 enigmatic groove of Mr. Raffles.

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.

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 really 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 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 14 minute "medley" of Bed In The Corner-Sweet Dreams-Psychomodo-Sling It!-Instrumental doodling sees 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.

** 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. 

Another fine review of this album is by the worthy Mark Barry :-


Timeless Flight (1976)

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 favourite 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 jerky, 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. As it happens, though, I like both those tracks so who cares whether they charted or not. Certainly not me.

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:-

"We heard Phaedre speak of the Philistines of Paris
But she talked to herself like a parasite
So we both struggled free
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. It is a great song, despite its lyrical pretentiousness. So much of this album is so damn good that any minor quibbles about the floweriness of the lyrics go out of the window. Anyway, within the lyrics lie a lot of Harley's intriguing appeal. 

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  -


"...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....".

Love's A Prima Donna (1976)

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...


Related posts :-
David Bowie
Roxy Music
Mott The Hoople

2 comments:

  1. Prima Donna is one of my favorite albums ever. it's so much fun. And funny. And what makes it good is that the music matches the humor. it's like early 10cc but better. And the 50s nostalgia stuff is the best I ever heard. I like some of their other albums too but I thought they were just too much. I thought they were kind of overblown sort of. Some of it was pretty good though.

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  2. We'll have to disagree in this one. I was underwhelmed at the time, having loved the four previous albums, and unfortunately I still am.

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