01. Sebastian (Cockney Rebel Single A Side August 1973)

02. Loretta’s Tale (Cockney Rebel The Human Menagerie LP November 1973)

03. Mirror Freak (Cockney Rebel The Human Menagerie LP November 1973)

04. Muriel The Actor (Cockney Rebel The Human Menagerie LP November 1973)

05. Death Trip (Cockney Rebel The Human Menagerie LP November 1973)

06. Judy Teen (Cockney Rebel Single A Side March 1974)

07. Psychomodo (Cockney Rebel The Psychomodo LP June 1974)

08. Mr Soft (Cockney Rebel The Psychomodo LP June 1974)

09. Ritz (Cockney Rebel The Psychomodo LP June 1974)

10. Tumbling Down (Cockney Rebel The Psychomodo LP June 1974)

11. Big Big Deal (Single A Side November 1974)

12. Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel Single A Side January 1975)

13. The Mad Mad Moonlight (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel The Best Years Of Our Lives March 1975)

14. Mr Raffles (Man It Was Mean) (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel The Best Years Of Our Lives March 1975)

15. Back To The Farm (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel The Best Years Of Our Lives March 1975)

16. All Men Are Hungry (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel Timeless Flight LP February 1976)

17. Nothing Is Sacred (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel Timeless Flight LP February 1976)

18. I Believe Love’s A Prima Donna (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel Single A Side October 1976)

19. (If This Is Love) Give Me More (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel Love’s A Prima Donna LP October 1976)

20. The Best Years Of Our Lives (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel Face To Face LP June 1977)

 

Toiling away on a pleasant Sunday morning, I was shocked to hear that Steve Harley had just died at the not so old age of 73. Another major, influential figure from my teenage, as I stood taking it in, my mind went back to the 23rd March 1975, almost 49 years ago, when I had the indescribable thrill of seeing him perform at Bristol Colston Hall for what was my first ever live show. I would go on to see most of my favourites that year, but only Bowie came anywhere near close to matching the alien otherness of that incredible night.          

      In fact, that show was the high point of an infatuation with Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel that stretched back two years to the moment I heard the lush orchestration of their debut single ‘Sebastian’. Oozing arty sleaze and decadent decay, the beguiling frontman’s embrace of literate composition and the avant-garde was exactly what I was looking for in a British music scene dominated by Neanderthal, denim clad, hard rockers and their dumb arse, sexist bullshit.  

      Coming out of New Cross as a teenager with a knowledge of literary giants like T. S. Eliot, D. H Lawrence, Steinbeck and Hemingway and more obscure characters like French painter of clowns Georges Rouault and the black English circus proprietor Pablo Fanque learnt during long, polio enforced stays in hospital, in 1973 the 22 year old Steve Harley may not have been a cockney but he certainly fancied himself as a rebel. Predisposed to making controversial, headline grabbing statements rightfully attacking the hard rock and prog excess of the times, he took great pleasure in winding up the music press by denouncing the dominance of the electric guitar as a hippy anachronism.

     True to his word, he let a caustic violin and classical keyboards battle it out on Cockney Rebel’s debut album The Human Menagerie. Drawing from the same sources as Bowie and Bryan Ferry, he pushed the envelope still further, past the Berlin of Isherwood and Fritz Lang films to the grim reality of the German Reich and the dark cabaret beyond, songs like ‘Muriel The Actor’, ‘Mirror Freak’ and ‘Death Trip’ possessing a rare confidence, arrogance and doomed, decadent insanity. 
     I proved my devotion to his cause by drawing the Cockney Rebel logo on my arm for all to see while ignoring the abuse of my schoolmates who openly mocked me for liking such a ‘mincing dummy’. And yet, there was nothing mincing about 1974’s stand-alone hit ‘Judy Teen’ or the The Psychomodo that still stands as a lost glam masterpiece. After, the vaudevillian circus madness of ‘Mr Soft’, it was the opening punch of the bouncing title track, the gorgeous drone of ‘Ritz’ and the sad piano ballad ‘Tumbling Down’ that made it so strange and appealing. Sounding not unlike a song Bowie inexplicably left off Hunky Dory, the rousing finale of ‘Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues, blues, blues’ felt very much like glams last hurrah.

     The artistic good times couldn’t last and they didn’t, Harleys dictatorial leadership and hubris causing the original Cockney Rebel line-up to depart, his most fondly remembered tune ‘Make Me Smile’ arriving months later as a public denouncement of his former co-conspirators demands over shitty pay and a share of the songwriting credits. Ironically, by replacing them with the kind of session yes men he had always professed to hate, his control freakery gradually began to diminish his muse, right at the moment ‘Make Me Smile’ and its parent album The Best Years Of Our Lives turned him into a bonafide star adored by the same dumb fucks who’d once ridiculed me so mercilessly.
     Of course, just eighteen months later, like many others the Sex Pistols and punk made Steve Harley instantly redundant. The unsuccessful yet wonderful Timeless Flight had already been and gone by then. And yet, despite my love for him fading fast, the oblique messages and new found romanticism on that record seemed to reflect my own, just turned 16 year old, sense of longing and self-doubt. However, eight months later, Love’s A Prima Donna completed his journey into sappy sentimentality once and for all. One year oozing arty sleaze, absinthe and decadent decay, the next chirruping a sad old Beatles tune, he had finally defused the last lingering hangover of his former triumph.

     Following a couple of duff solo albums and the inevitable being dropped by his record label, apart from some showbiz stuff and even more albums that did nothing, a career in the late nineties as a radio personality and all round top bloke awaited him. Even then, he continued to play live at every opportunity. In 2005 I was lucky enough to catch him myself at Reading’s Hexagon Theatre for a full blown rerun of a vintage Cockney Rebel show. As passionate as ever about his music, his natural generosity with fans old and new still shone through, so much so that I dug out The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo for the first time in decades. 

     The mid-seventies may not have been the best years of my life as they were for Steve Harley, but his grand, often over reaching, artistic vision always made them infinitely more interesting and bearable. While the records he released during those few short years continue to be ignored and hugely underrated, the songs and subject matter actively encouraged my generation to escape the weighty chains and ghosts of the sixties and much more besides, providing us with some incredible, unique music while furthering our education in literature, poetry and art. For that alone I remain eternally grateful!  

 

Stay your way.

 

Chris Green. 17th March 2024