Album review: STEVE HARLEY & COCKNEY REBEL – Birmingham Live With Orchestra & Choir

Comeuppance   [Release Date: 14.10.13]

The commercial potential of pop or rock music is largely determined by a time, a place and a context. This was never more so than with the ego posturing of Steve Harley (and Cockney Rebel), who in spite of penning some of the best songs of the era, was erroneously labelled Glam Rock.

In the mid 70’s Steve was hailed as the second coming and by the 80’s he had all but been forgotten about. His songs though have not lost their poise or resonance. Harleys unique phrasing, cryptic word plays and sweeping melodies always marked him out as special, even if it the music was tied to a particular era.

The best moments on this orchestrated double album set, remain exactly as they were nearly 4 decades ago – ‘Sebastian’,  ‘Mirror Freak’ and ‘Death Trip’ from ‘The Human Menagerie’ and  ‘Sweet Dreams’, ‘Mr. Soft’ ‘Sling It’,  ‘Tumbling Down’ and the title track from ‘The Psychomodo’.

Steve Harley’s lyrics were clever, dark and eclectic by turns. His lyrics and music were far more eclectic and arty than his Glam image would suggest, though you suspect that image suited his career trajectory at the time.

With an electric violin as lead instrument, the emphasis is on the instrumentation supporting his word plays and phrasing. He may have been billed as Cockney Rebel, but much like Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull his lyrics and music made him the personification of the band.

In retrospect ‘The Human Menagerie’ sounds like a work in progress, but with enough highlights to establish Harley as a new significant player on the scene. And by the time he popped up with ‘The Psychomodo’ he had honed his craft with outrageous phrasing to match his catchy word plays.

The second album in particularly is given fresh vigour and substance here by the accompanying Orchestra Of The Swan and Chamber Choir and the superb arrangements of Andrew Powell. If ‘The Human Menagerie’ was an album by a star on the rise, ‘The Psychomodo’ delivered the beef.

‘The Human Menagerie’ opens with the beguiling and delicate touch of ‘Hideaway’, which could easily fit into Mark Knofler’s current set, albeit without the guitar.  Both the character based songs ‘What Ruthy Said ’ and ‘Loretta’s Tale’ evoke the early 70’s Kinks, while the rockier violin led ‘Crazy Raver’ is very much of its time, with Steve’s phrasing sounding like Mott’s Ian Hunter, or perhaps it was the other way round at the time?

The gothic ‘Sebastian’ still sparkles as a piece of orchestrated art-pop. Harley’s sublime phrasing has mercifully lost its faux Bowie cockney affectation, as the hook sweeps you along on a melody line that evokes The Moody Blues, but with better lyrics.

The angelic choir is exquisite and the orchestra and horns perfectly capture Harley’s sense of grandeur. ‘Sebastian’ has a presence that has been rarely equalled since its release and the final crescendo sends shivers down your spine, as Harley jocularly comments: ‘That should put the wheels back on the bike’. Indeed it does!

‘Mirror Freak’ still sounds fresh, original and different and is a vehicle for his exaggerated phrasing, with echoes of Bowie, Ferry et al, but perhaps only

Harley could make his impenetrable lyrics sound so weighty. Barry Wickens’ violin perfectly offsets Steve’s slurred vocals, with keyboard player James Lascelles emphasising the melody that underpins Harley’s trademarks lyrics: ‘But sweet Loretta she knows all the tricks (elaborately phrased), So you perform like it’s your very best show, You turn her on but she’s never gonna know, Then you can shuffle your hips, or M-M-Mae West your lips’.

Steve also nails the underlying importance of a time and place when he tells his audience: ‘I was 22 when I wrote these things and I’ve got a son now of 30, it’s all relative’.
’My Only Vice’ is full of feverish violin, pumping strings and some Dylan style phrasing of his surreal lyrics: ‘My Only Vice (is the Fantastic Prices I Charge for Being Eaten Alive)’.

The stuttering rhythm of ‘Judy Teen’ is still quirky, catchy and essential, with the crowd filling in the end part of the hook. ‘Death Trip’ remains an epic finale with the band at its best on a majestic melody line given the full treatment by choir and orchestra.

‘The Psychomodo’ feels like a step forward and opens with a creepy, cacophonous orchestrated intro on the otherwise sublime ‘Sweet Dreams’. Steve adds stuttered phrasing over a beautiful descending piano line and violin. It segues into the title track a rock & roll masterpiece that was surely influenced by Ian Hunter or vice versa? Either way it deservedly gets a monumental reception and makes you wonder why he never cracked The States.

Perhaps the following ‘Mr Soft’ answers that question, as it sounds like a weird Ray Davies piece that the yanks might find too eccentric?

‘Singular Band’ is a funky almost fusion piece on which keyboard player James Lascelles excels. Harley’s vitriol filled lyrics are slurred to the point that he sounds like he’s scat singing, but as ever it all works splendidly.

‘Ritz’ is an eerie sounding word play neatly captured in the couplet: ‘Careless, caress, curt up beside me, Visit, sleep and smile and drown me’.

The dirgy ‘Cavaliers’ doesn’t quite the have the substance to match it bluster, and his ropey vocal is saved by a combination of bv’s and superb orchestration and Steve Norman’s sax solo, while the poppy ‘Bed In The Corner’ could again be The Kinks.

On the bombastic ‘Sling It’ he sounds like his mentor Dylan, and the combination of a rich narrative and orchestra on ‘Black or White’ suggests a confident songwriter who had outgrow his glam trappings.

Ultimately there an irony to the choral finish and community style sing-along of ‘Tumbling Down’ because for all his intricate word plays he obviously connected with his audience on a much more mundane level.

Both these albums have been re-released in re-mastered format before, but the ebullient orchestral arrangements reinvigorate both with a fresh sense of purpose, and because of that this is a recommended release. ****½

Review by Pete Feenstra


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