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Steve Harley: The 1970s London rebel whose talent was almost as big as his ego


Steve Harley was many things, but being crippled by modesty was not one of them.

In his first major music press interview – before Cockney Rebel’s debut album emerged, they had only released a single with a 40-piece orchestra that failed to enter the UK charts – He declared his band “a musical.” He suggested that the “London rebel” would kick David Bowie’s “butt”: “He would say ‘I have to step on it to stay’ at the top.”

When it came out, Cockney Rebel’s debut album included a song called Mirror Freak, which loudly announced that he would replace Marc Bolan – “too cute to be a big rock star” – by Public love: “We can feel changes happening.” The way… he seems to have won over a new guy… you’re still the same old guy we’ve always known. “

Harley had a habit of dismissing any band with a lead guitarist, and one musician was noticeably absent from Cockney Rebel’s line-up, and on another occasion claimed that the band was so good that divine intervention had to be involved: “I felt like God moved me and Say ‘This is a mission and someone has to do it’.”

It’s a big rant, and it might tell you something about Harley’s background as a journalist: He may have only worked for local newspapers, but he knows how to craft vivid copy. The thing is, for a while at least, Harley seemed to have the goods to back up his more extravagant claims.

Cockney Rebel’s first two albums, The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo, came at the same time as the first signs of glam rock’s decline, or at least that its most ingenious practitioners were moving on – Bowie Killed Ziggy Stardust, Bolan declared the genre “dead.” ” and “embarrassing” — and hinted at new ways of filming to come.

Whatever you think of Harley’s take on electric guitars, their relative absence (if not completeness) from the Cockney Rebel’s sound gives them a distinct point of difference. Driven by electric piano and Jean-Paul Crocker’s electric violin, you can definitely see the influence. Bowie and ’50s rock were the touchstones of the whole fascination, but their sound also drew on psychedelic music, Brecht and Weir cabaret, folk (Harry worked for a time in UK folk clubs and as a busker with an acoustic guitar), and occasionally classical music.

“Narcissus/tells the story of the white gardenia”—and is full of withered contempt.

Steve Haley, March 1975 Photo: Frank Tewksbury/Getty Images

If the lyrics occasionally seem a bit flowery, Harley is clearly an impressively gifted songwriter: listen to the blandly talented Ritz in “The Psychomodo,” the sparkling “Hideaway” in “The Human Menagerie” or “Tumbling” Down. He was willing to take musical risks – The Human Menagerie’s finale “Death Trip” was over 10 minutes long; perhaps the reason their debut single “Sebastian” failed in the UK was because of its dramatic arrangement and UK charts The other songs on are completely out of place – and clearly capable of writing hits to order.

Shocked by the poor-selling failure of Sebastian and The Human Menagerie, he beat out Judy Teen, who was extremely catchy and had a soundtrack that seemed to be channeling Lou Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and the song’s nod in the direction that effectively banished “Cockney Rebel” from the music press. Give blackness mainstream fame.

But almost as soon as the initial London Rebels achieved success, they fell apart: arguments over money, apparently fueled by Harry’s grandstanding insistence that the band stay in the most expensive hotels while on tour, led to All members except drummer Stuart Elliott defected. He displayed disloyalty in the music press and released a failed single, “Big Big Deal” – which was better than its cool commercial response suggested – and then had the last laugh in quite spectacular style, poured his bitterness and resentment into a perfect pop single: “Make Me Smile” and “See Me”, masking the maliciousness of the lyrics with a completely irresistible melody and arrangement, and soared to number one.

The subsequent album, Best Years of Our Lives, was the biggest hit of Harley’s career, and was recorded with a superb group of musicians, creating a carefully crafted set of songs. His two albums, Timeless Flight and Love’s A Prima Donna, released in 1976, also had their moments – the former’s dreamy understanding, title track and (Love) With You – the latter but with the simmering Trouble is different. Bowie, Boland or Roxy Music, Harley wasn’t one of those glam-era stars to be named after; he was still fashionable during his punk days (although XTC’s Andy Partridge was clearly a fan , which is evident in his early vocal style), and his struggle to find a place in the new musical landscape: 1978’s Hobo didn’t do him much favors. Grin, an ill-advised attempt to blunt his own idiosyncrasies and make an album that would appeal to the mainstream American rock market – he later denied it was “the worst thing I’ve ever done”.

The following year’s “The Prisoner” was a significant improvement. The distorted guitar and synthesizer in “Freedom’s Prisoner” re-adjusted the sound of Cockney Rebel’s 1974 single Mr Soft to suit the new wave era and in typical Harley style. To promote: “I’m Back”, the album failed to chart, causing Harley to be dropped by EMI. It was the last album he released in 13 years.

Although he released occasional singles and sang with Sarah Brightman on the title song of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, Sarah Brightman’s duet made a surprise return to the top 10, but he was mainly focused on raising his children, a break presumably due to the fact that: “Make Me Smile” (Come Up and See Me) ) is a song he wrote, which means its author worked without much financial need. By Harley’s own estimate, the song has been covered more than 120 times, most notably by Duran at the height of his fame in the 1980s. It has appeared on countless film soundtracks and adverts for everything from Viagra to Marks & Spencer, and remains one of the most played songs in British radio history.

He returned in the 1990s, releasing a sporadic series of albums. He happily admits that most people only know him for “Make Me Smile” (Come Up And See Me) – “I realized that half the world and its grandmother thought I wrote just that song” – In fact, there’s a feeling that Cockney Rebel’s early albums never got the attention they deserved. Sometimes, even in his later years, he could evoke the optimistic Steve Harley of old and snap at interviewers. Hinting at Cockney Rebel being influenced by Bowie or Mott the Hoople (“I wouldn’t believe any of them”), or still being happy to put an album on a bandmate who left him in 1974: “It must have been difficult, ” he told The Guardian with obvious relish, “watching me sing that song on Top of the Pops”.

Still, as he points out, he’s earned the right to self-aggrandizement. Even if he never actually delivered the “kicking ass” that David Bowie once promised, he made an astonishing contribution to 1970s rock – The Psychomodo in particular remains a deliberately OTT masterpiece of decadence: 50 years later , it still sounds unique. “Ritz, Tumbling Down, Cavaliers,” he said, listing the album’s highlights. “I would go to my grave believing that no one” in the world but me could have written these songs. This is not bragging. I hear them and think ‘Ah – that’s me’. “



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