Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

Absolute [Release date 14.10.13]

Somewhere, in the bowels of my long player collection lies a pristine copy of Cockney Rebel’s The Psychomodo acquired circa 1974.  It is, however, many, many years (quite possibly decades) since it last saw the rubber of my turntable mat.  And for some reason I’ve never explored the band or Steve Harley any further.

But I have to admit to being drawn to this double DVD (also available on CD), which has received rave reviews in the mainstream press and captures a special one off performance in 2012 featuring the band’s debut album The Human Menagerie and the follow up The Psychomodo played in sequence and in their entirety.

But I have to say, I was disappointed.  Firstly, it’s perhaps no surprise in hindsight, that The Human Menagerie failed to chart when released in 1973.  It came from left field and failed to make much of an impression with the wider record buying public.  With hindsight sounds like ‘work in progress’, although there’s no denying that the two longest numbers – Sebastian and Death Trip have stood the test of time particularly well.

But even hearing The Psychomodo again after all those years failed to overly excite.  In part, that may be down to the presentation – it has to be said the production isn’t the greatest of visual feasts – the camerawork is fairly pedestrian, there isn’t much of a ‘show’ in terms of light work, and some of the players – in particular backing singers / players Ashley and Faye Lartey looked distinctly uninterested in proceedings.  In sharp contrast, guesting ex Spandau sax and percussion player Steve Norman was clearly having a blast and contributes some outstanding playing.

Naturally enough, Harley holds the centre stage convincingly well, and while his vocal work may have even improved down the years.  Keyboard player James Lascelles also deserves a mention for some marvellous piano work, as does the excellent Orchestra Of The Black Swan and their Chamber Choir conducted by original arranger Andrew Powell who do a wonderful job recreating the albums’ heavily orchestrated sound.

But lovingly recreated as they are, and despite having high expectations, Birmingham failed to ignite a spark.  I can only conclude that, as it was back in the early 1970′s, Cockney Rebel remain an acquired taste.  If you weren’t a devotee then, you’re unlikely to be converted now.  The whiff of nostalgia certainly whetted my appetite and there’s no denying musically this is an outstanding show.  But would I go out of my way when Harley reprises the project with a series of dates in 2014?  I’m unsure.  ***1/2

Review by Pete Whalley

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