When I had the honour of putting a question to music legend Steve Harley during a recent radio show, I asked him whether he considered himself to be a seventies' artist who had managed to adapt his routine in order to keep going, or whether he saw himself as one who had simply begun at that time and who is continually evolving.
It was slightly mischievous because I knew the answer that he would give me, and he didn't disappoint. Even if it were true, no artist still wanting to make a living would announce himself as belonging to a bygone era. But in Harley's case the argument is incontestable. Some of his best material was written and recorded long after that glorious decade had hung up its sequinned loon pants (Ballerina, Irresistible, Heartbeat Like Thunder, Star for a Week, When I'm With You, The Lighthouse, A Friend for Life and Ordinary People to name just a few), and he continues to play to packed audiences comprising an unyieldingly faithful following at a rate which would be impressive for a man much younger than his 70 years. He is, in every sense, a developing artist. His voice today is, in his own words, "more emotional, more true to itself, more honest". And anyone who has seen the man perform live, as I have had the privilege of doing so many times, will testify that there is an innate timelessness about the entire experience.
But of course, his seventies' material spoke to me in a wholly different way – not because it was necessarily better, but because I was of "that" age when he recorded it. So whilst A Friend for Life, just to give one example, may stand favourable comparison with any of his earlier numbers, it is merely a brilliant song. It was not written about me, as Mr. Soft, Mr. Raffles and Judy Teen were written solely about me and the things I was going through during my formative years. In other words those special memories that I hold to my heart are down not to what he was doing in the 1970s, but to what I was doing.
Which is why I found episode 98 of the Cockney Rebel Connections radio show, featuring priceless if understandably unpolished audio footage (yes, "footage" is the correct noun - I checked!) of a 1976 interview with Peter Powell at Radio Luxembourg, uniquely engaging.
The "footage" came by courtesy of a 45-year-old second-hand cassette recording, hence the slightly erratic sound quality. In fact the process of conveying audio from radio to cassette tape in the 1970s was itself the stuff of legend, typically involving both machines being located in close proximity to one another to ensure the best possible transmission of sound, along with the enforced silence of everybody else in the room for the entire duration of the broadcast. Background coughs were an irritation, if in retrospect an integral and organic feature of the whole operation. When a tape malfunctioned and became entangled in the mechanism of the cassette, the remedial process involved a pencil (don't ask!) and a whole lot of patience. In the imperfect, but eminently listenable product which the DJ has preserved against all odds for our enjoyment there is a gorgeous authenticity.
But the interview is itself vintage Harley, shocking self-confidence ("It's my voice, it's my song – take it or leave it!") and commendable humility somehow rolled into one as only a rising young superstar in the seventies, supremely comfortable in his own creative skin, could be expected to pull off. With his (then) latest single and LP, both entitled Love's a Prima Donna, providing the hook for the discussion, the singer-songwriter gives us a fascinating insight into the things that informed his emergence as one of the great lyrical and musical innovators of the day.
A calculated risk
1976 was, of course, the year that Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel recorded Here Comes the Sun, the old George Harrison classic. According to Harley it was "a bit of a calculated risk" but as the long, hot summer bedded in it could not have been better timed. It was a clever, original interpretation of an already long-established masterpiece - always a risky venture but so very gratifying when it comes off. It came to define the year, and he still uses it as an opener at his gigs all these years on.
Perhaps the most instructive observation from an interview which was beguiling from start to finish was that, even back in those far off days, Harley considered his strength to lie in the special relationship which he felt he had with his audiences. He didn't care much for music critics ("Everything that's criticised, it's too late - the artist has already done his job"). Then, as now, his passion was to perform for those who appreciated him. Those who didn't were characters in another story, actors in another play - why was that any concern of his?
Any residual awkwardness which may have afflicted me after putting my question during the recent phone-in was truly swept away when the next caller asked him whether he regretted not having received the acclaim she felt he deserved. It was intended as a compliment, but inevitably came across in such a way that suggested he had somehow missed the boat. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has filled the Royal Albert Hall, packs most of the many venues that he plays ("You only sell out if the audience trusts you") and enjoys a following of whose fierce loyalty and dedication any artist would be proud. That he is on first name terms with so many of his fans should be acknowledged as a tribute to the love he has for them, not mistaken to be indicative that they are few in number. No other performer, to my knowledge, is as intimately engaged with his fan base as is Steve Harley.
Harley is, always has been and remains an evolving artist. There is no contradiction between recognising, and enjoying, that fact and reminiscing about the music and the memories that he gave us in the wake of glam back in the heady days of the mid-seventies. His music today sets new standards, he's not a man who believes in going backwards.
Whilst any comparison in terms of achievement would be absurd, I do find inspiration as a writer in this perennial artist's attitude to his work, to the way in which he has clearly identified his objectives and to his desire to reach his intended audience. As he tells Peter Powell, "I like to think I'm respected where it matters most - as long as you know me, what else matters?"
"There's an element of integrity to what I do," he continues. "I'm not going to do disco, just because it is in fashion. I don't follow trends, I'd rather create trends."
There is no greater achievement than to be true to oneself, to convey the sound of one's own soul. What a fine example Steve Harley has set, from the mid-'70s when we first came to know him right through to the present day.
To hear the 1976 Radio Luxembourg interview with Steve Harley in full, please click here.