Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Steve Harley - '70s Creative Legend, Ongoing Creative Legend and Good Bloke

Sometime, late in 1974, I by some means or another became the proud owner of the Cockney Rebel LP The Psychomodo.

I'm pretty sure I didn't buy it, at least not at full price and from a shop. I hadn't long had my paper round and in those days, for us pre-teens, investing in a long playing record was like buying jewellery. Then it was all about singles, which were 50p if one purchased them from Memorydiscs or Rumbelows in Hounslow. At Woolworth's they were a penny cheaper, but the appeal of making a saving was always somewhat negated by the possibility of being recognised from a previous excursion by a store detective (not for nothing did it come to be affectionately known as Twickenham's first ever take-away).

My suspicion is that it was swapped at school, maybe for a week's tuckshop allowance or a brace of Donny Osmond singles (in which event good business, in retrospect).


I should stress that Judy Teen and Mr. Soft were already part of my burgeoning singles collection. I wasn't at all unfamiliar with the Cockney Rebel sound. But in my personal hierarchy of inspiration The Psychomodo transformed Steve Harley from a slightly come-lately glam artist with a bit of a difference into a songwriter whose lyrics and sense of the theatrical stood him quite apart from the acts that I'd spent the past two years paying homage to with my pocket money. He ascended in my musical affections to a place where only Bowie, who was already there, had any right to be.

There was something else about 1974, and thereabouts, which deserves a mention. Those who, like me, first discovered pop music when it was at its glammiest, in my case during the peak Slade-Sweet-Glitter era of 1972-73, felt just a twinge of disconcertment when the genre seemed to tweak itself in the direction of 1950s nostalgia a year or so later. When Mud became teds, when Showaddywaddy won New Faces, when Suzi Quatro released an LP full of old rock'n'roll covers, when The Rubettes sang about jiving in '55, and when David Essex appeared in That'll Be The Day, something was happening which I didn't entirely get.

Sure I bought many of their records and even turned up to school in a pair of pink luminous socks (albeit discreetly hidden beneath my ample flares out of respect for the regulations). But it wasn't glam was it?

It was because Harley wasn't glam in the same sense as Bolan or Glitter or Noddy Holder, but rather added charisma and creativity to the most enduring remnants of what was always going to be a very temporary and transient genre, that he continued to grow as the sequins began to sprinkle away and the platform boots gradually, and incrementally, descended back to terra firma.


Not that that was a complete consolation to me at the time. I still pined longingly for the foot-stomping, loon-panted days of my distant past of two years back. And my obsession with charting the hits as the radio announced their latest movements every Tuesday lunchtime waned rather a lot. But whilst the pure glam acts which had not quite gone away struggled ever more desperately to make the Top 30, Bowie and Harley stood tall before their respective fan bases, alongside other quality artists of the time such as Rod Stewart and Elton John.

It was in that context that The Psychomodo made a real and lasting impression on me. I wasn't sure I knew what the songs were about, and was not entirely convinced that the writer did either (of his earlier classic Sebastian Harley himself subsequently said: "Sebastian is possibly a sort of Gothic love song, possibly not: I'm not really sure to be honest … It's poetry. It means what you want it to mean").

Indeed, I've long been of the view that the mark of a great song is not so much about what it means to the person who wrote it as what it means to the person listening to it.

With that in mind, The Psychomodo to me is about fishing under Staines Bridge with my schoolmates. It's about wearing pink luminous socks and wedges that I didn't feel altogether comfortable about wearing. It's about thinking it was about time I had a girlfriend, as all my fellow thirteen-year-olds had girlfriends with whom they enjoyed exhilarating sexual relationships (or so they told me, so it must have been true). It's about going on rambles with the church club, and growing my hair long, and staying out till ten.


But essential though it was to me and to my life at the time, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel can hardly be defined by one album; by one moment in time. He and they had already released The Human Menagerie, which joined my back catalogue as soon as my paper round wages would allow. And in 1975, of course, came The Best Years Of Our Lives, which was arguably stronger still and in tribute to which I named my novel, set in 1976 (we were always a few months behind the release date when it came to buying albums).

Which brings us conveniently to that year, which after all is what my writing is mostly about, and the contribution made to it by Harley, both in terms of the bigger musical picture and of my own personal experience. During 1976 he and Cockney Rebel recorded two studio albums, Timeless Flight and Love's a Prima Donna, and four singles, two of which for me helped to define that wonderful year and the life that I had come to lead and enjoy.

The first, White, White Dove, was an awesome song. It never quite made the UK Top 50, which didn't really surprise me as it was lyrically quite deep, or at least it gave that impression. Lots of stuff about the Rosicrucians, which meant precisely nothing to me at the time and doesn't mean a great deal even now. But it extolled peace, and in the battles which I and those around me fought for dominance in our neighbourhood it was an option that always had a certain appeal, especially when things weren't going particularly well for us. For some reason I remember that I picked up my copy from the local newsagent's, some weeks after it had "peaked". Harley never performed it at any of the gigs I attended in later years, which I will always consider a great shame, but he did appear with it on Supersonic (a latter-day rival to Top Of The Pops) around the time of its release.

And then there was Here Comes The Sun. Usually for me a certain disappointment accompanies the recording of a cover version by a creative artist. It's okay when you're Rod Stewart performing Sailing and in so doing effectively taking ownership of it. But this was a Beatles classic! Nevertheless it could not have been more apt as it provided the backdrop to what was the most glorious summer in living memory (there have been hotter ones since but seasons induced by global warming, like athletes on steroids, don't really count). It also, as cover versions go, happened to be very, very good.


Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel still perform live today, drawing respectable attendances although smaller, in my opinion, than they deserve. He has written a whole lot of new material since the 1970s, including a beautiful number entitled A Friend For Life which has been covered by Rod Stewart. Cannily he tends to mix his old material up with the new for the benefit of his largely mature audience.

He also, so I'm reliably told, has the added benefit of being a thoroughly nice bloke. Certainly when I sent him a copy of my novel he was decent enough to take the trouble not only to read it (twice), but also to send me some words of encouragement which he gave me permission to use in my subsequent promotional material. I'm only too aware that he's a busy man and didn't have to do that.

On stage he exudes just about enough ego to carry off the pop star thing, whilst at the same time somehow remaining self-deprecating. It's a difficult balancing act which he has managed to perfect over the years. My wife, my friends and I will be seeing him and the band perform for the umpteenth time shortly before Christmas, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it as I always do.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice writing indeed and actually stirred the parts of the grey matter - specifically memory!
    I'm not too sure about the statement he only draws smaller crowds now- this I guess is partly true when he plays small venues but I not so long ago attended the Lowry in Manchester and it was packed to the rafters !
    Hope to get the chance to read more of your story !
    Well done