These are some of Steve Harley's studio albums, together with introductions from my longer reviews (which can be accessed here) :-
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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...