Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel @ THSH

…a tug of war between Glam and Gothic


Last night was the 40th Anniversary celebration tour of Steve Harley + Cockney Rebel at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham. They performed The Best Years of Our Lives in its entirety as well as some well loved extras (including Sebastian)

This album came out 10 years before I was born, so what exactly turned me on to Steve Harley? Well, wearing a bowler hat on Top of the Pops 2 earned him some points early on. Make Me Smile was impressed upon my mind at an early age. It’s what some cockney’s might call a ‘bobby dazzler’.
But, it wasn’t until my bumhemian days at Bournemouth Polyversity, that I was sucked into the orchestral, madly captivating land of Sebastian. I remember it well… being the diligent student I so definitely was, I would be eyeball scanning an essay on the Duality of Nature as described by the poet Ted Hughes when a certain song would keep fighting for attention.
I don’t know the technical term for it, but the instrumental orgasm was as breathtaking as another song that was getting quite a lot of iTunes plays at the time, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.


But I doubt old George ever wore a furry bomber jacket or took LSD.

“It’s poetry. It means what you want it to mean. “Sebastian” is the conduit, the tubes through which I took myself on that journey to write the story. I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t have been far away from tripping when I wrote “Sebastian”. LSD, certainly, created so many incidents in your life, so many images, so much madness and mayhem, as well as great tranquility if you were lucky. I can’t define its meaning. It’s like most poetry, it’s a lovely word.” (Steve Harley)

And, it wasn’t until some years later that I discovered the rest of the album; henceforth ‘The Human Menagerie’ will always be one of my preferred pieces of art. If Picasso was to turn up on my doorstep and say ‘Jamie, you handsome rogue, tell me your most beloved pieces of art. What paintings tickle your fancy?’ I would say, ‘Pablo, you demented genius, that’s a hard question and please don’t take offense, but i can’t possible answer without a few days to make a list.’ And Picasso would walk off and board the Goldline bus to visit someone else, like a peaceful grim reaper, and I would never see him again. Hours later, I would burst into eureka-like exuberation and shout ‘THE HUMAN MENAGERIE’. But no one would hear me.

So, that sets the scene for my level of reverence for Steve Harley and the band. And, most of all, the song that sends shivers down my invertebrate, chitinous exoskeleton.


Back to the Farm

Band Members, Rumors and a New Song

There were six band members in all, that’s Steve, Stuart Elliott (drums), Jim Cregan (guitar, vocals), Marty Prior (electric and double bass), Duncan Mackay (Keyboard), Barry Wickens (Violin) PLUS backing from The MonaLisa Twins (one of whom sounded a bit like a Viennese Kate Bush)


Hands off the blonde twin, she’s mine

The first thing that strikes me is that Steve’s voice is well preserved, and in fact he mentions trading secrets with a much older rocker on how to look after your built-in chords. Getting an early night is what he says. But he doesn’t drop any names, and whatever croaky old crooner he was rubbing shoulders with remains a secret. Until, that is, I check his web page and find this photo;


Go to bed, Rod!

Anyway, the first part of the performance got underway, they played some newer stuff – ‘Ordinary People’ being their latest single, and invited The MonaLisa Twins to take center stage and perform one of their songs. Everything was shaping up to be an enjoyable show.


Then they played Sebastian. Steve once said that he used to play the song early on, during them busking days, and people didn’t know what to make of the 7 minute ‘gothic love song’ – According to several sources it took a while for the song to gain acceptance among the UK crowd when it was released as a bonefide recording in 1973, but it has slowly gained a reputation as being one of their finest creations. And it was a very special moment in the set, which earned the eight piece their first standing ovation.

The Best Years of Our Lives


Without too much pomp or sentimentality they introduced the album which was to be the main focus of the evening. I say ‘without pomp’ partly to use a word I’ve never used before, and partly because it highlights an interesting point. With Cockney Rebel, the music contains the theatrics, the court jester antics, the wurlitzer of ascending and descending strains of over-the-counter madness. The pomp! Say it out loud it feels good. On stage, the band retain a humble and understated presence. Even the lead guitarist is a humble contortion of red velvet, playing an invisible game of human tetris to get the jams out.
Maybe it’s the age in which I’m seeing them, but I don’t get even a hint of egocide or showboating. Just a band that love to play music, and give the crowd what they want. When I saw Echo and the Bunnymen it was a different matter. That time it was a long-term case of Ego Marriage, which is a term I’ve come up with to mean the opposite of Ego Death. There you go.

Mad Mad Moonlight and Mr Raffles (Man It Was Mean) get the party started, with the repeated refrain ‘we’re having a party… we’re having a party’ merging into the first song that gets my music buds licked all over – It Wasn’t Me – an atmospheric and synthy tune that washes over you with some slightly anguished vocals and a nice chord progression.

Next up is Panaroma, which ticks the glam-rock check box in every sense, but is too conventionally crafted to stick out to my ears. I still like it, but I prefer the arrangements with some violin and more of a Gothic edge. Time and again it seems to be a tug of war between glam and Gothic and I’ve chosen my side a long time ago. Same goes for the album really, it’s a mix of both – I don’t feel qualified to go into any detail but that’s what it feels like.
Make Me Smile was performed in a stripped-down, original vision sort of style. Steve remembers that someone in the business told them to put a hit song at the end of sideA, seemingly this gives it a good position on the record to get noticed/have a greater effect. The only scientific explanation I can give for this is because the track is immediately followed by silence, or more precisely a crackle from the record player, and in the music world – music is preferable to silence unless you’re John Cage. With that said, surely a more lucrative approach would be to add a minute long commercial advertising more records, and you would as well wouldn’t you, you greedy bastards!
I forgot to mention that the rest of the band took a short tea break for this song, so Steve could provide some added value to the evening with an anecdote or two about getting twatted every night whilst recording the album at Abbey Studios, and how their sadly missed band mate George (son of Emile Ford) would stay in the hotel during their all night benders. Presumably his voice was in great shape.

The MonaLisa Twins performed another song.

Next was Back to the Farm. This is the LSD drenched song I was waiting for. Like the acid trip bit in Dumbo or a sick twist in a Roald Dahl story. It’s like getting on a carousel with Ken Kesey, Syd Barret and a smoking caterpillar and somehow your cerebral circulatory system is hooked up to the carousel which is in turn hooked up to a sort of drug metabolising mollusca.
What I’m trying to say is that this song doesn’t sound common-place, it doesn’t fit in, it exists in it’s own fantastical arena of sinister promise. The only song that tops it is Death Trip (there is a pun there).
I will add that the twins added great backing vocals for this part, and it’s at this point that I notice one of them has stolen Kate Bush’s vocal pitch.

They rounded up the night with performances of 49th Parallel and The Best Years of Our Lives, and the audience was satiated. The beast was quietened by an evening of musical entertainment. What more could they wish for?
Well, we got a full performance of Make Me Smile – which got the crowd out of their seats for the second time, and we remained upright for a special Tumbling Down finale. And with solidarity we sang;

Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues, blues, blues
Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues, blues, blues
Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues, blues, blues





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