Sunday, 22 June 2014

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

21st June 2014

Gateshead Sage
Barry Wickens

It must be pretty close to exactly forty-years since when listening to, and indeed recording, Alan Freeman’s Saturday Afternoon Rock Show on Radio1 that I first heard the Cockney Rebel songs Bed in the Corner and Sling It.  Prior to this experience I had only been vaguely aware of Cockney Rebel as a pop group who had enjoyed a couple of pleasingly quirky hits Judy Teen and Mr. Soft

But this brace of songs played by Fluff, which ran into each other, struck me a something really rather special and purchase of the band’s The Psychomodo album soon followed.  I have written a bit about this album in a previous Cockney Rebel post, so will not bore you with it again, but you can find it here should you wish:

For this tour Steve Harley had roped in a choir and orchestra in order to help perform the first two Cockney Rebel albums in their entirety.

Harley was the only member of the original Cockney Rebel present this evening, although Andrew Powell who had a orchestrated the first two albums was present to look after the choir and orchestra.  Long time band-member fiddle-player Barry Wickens was in the line-up as was, slightly incongruously, former Spandau Ballet percussionist Steve “Spiny” Norman.

The set began with The Human Menagerie album, that odd collection of songs relating the lives of a bunch of dysfunctional vaguely Parisian/Weimar/Bohemian characters.  As the set progressed I realised I had forgotten how strong many of the compositions were: Hideaway, Sweet Muriel and the melodramatic Sebastian.  

The non-album single Judy Teen, (and its associated b-side) were tossed into the mix before the evening's first real tour de force: Death Trip.  Lyrically both evocative and pretentious in equal measure, it is Powell’s arrangement which gives this song its power, I feel.  It received one of the many standing ovations at its conclusion.

Between many of the songs Harley kept us entertained with a number of anecdotes from both back in 1974 and also more recently.  During a Tom Jones story, he opined that Tom looks much better now he has “gone natural” (i.e. stopped dyeing his hair).  I wasn’t sure quite the extent to which Harley was having a poke at himself here; he himself being one of rock music’s best known rug wearers.

After the break, I have to say I was really, really looking forward to The Psychomodo set, this album being the backdrop to much of my formative teenage years, and Harley really did not disappoint.  Only Mr. Soft of the first side songs was a bit of a let down, I felt.  The original recording has a beautifully efficient stripped back arrangement, but the performance this evening was just too busy. 

And the keyboard player, clearly feeling he was above replicating the original keyboard solo (stolen from Offenbach), instead injected some proggy-synthesiser abomination into the mix.

I had been dreading slightly the approach of Cavaliers - the one song on the album I never really enjoyed.  And a few minutes in, Harley appeared to be sharing my disinterest for he fluffed a number of lines and looked on the verge of having a stroke.  To all our surprise he did the Greg Dyke cutthroat gesture, and the band stopped midway through.  He apologised for “the fuck-up”, blamed it on technology then we went again. 

And I have to say the band, choir, orchestra and Harley nailed it.  Perfectly.  I was a touch surprised to hear him retain the "n….r" word in the lyrics, and was amazed he managed to keep a straight face singing the lines:

“Masturbation, you can scoff.
Your ideals offer nothing new”

But this, my least favourite CR tune, proved to be a real unexpected high point, particularly the run out jam between Harley’s harmonica and Norman’s sax.  The main set closed with that preposterous piece of enjoyable hokum Tumbling Down, before Harley returned to play, as he called it, his "pension”: Come Up And See Me.

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - Gateshead Sage June 2014

I think for many musical folks of my generation Harley (if he is remembered at all) is regarded as either a figure of mild ridicule or a one-hit wonder.  But I think it is long past time to reappraise those first two Cockney Rebel albums, for they really were something rather unique.  As important as Ziggy Stardust or For Your Pleasure?  Of course not, but to dismiss them as run-of-the-mill Seventies pop-fodder is to underestimate their influence immeasurably.

I did a bit of digging before this gig to ascertain where the rest of the original band members are now:

  • Drummer Stuart Elliot remained in Cockney Rebel for some years, as well as enjoying an extensive session career. 

  • Jean-Paul Crocker ditched his violin and returned to being plain old John Crocker.  He now can occasionally be found out and about playing in the bluegrass band The Crocker Brothers.

  • Film soundtracks are where keyboard player Milton Reame-James’ musical journey has presently taken him.

  • Bassist Paul Jeffrey’s was, I already knew for I have visited his memorial, a victim of the Pan-Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie in 1988.  He was on his honeymoon.  It would have been nice had Harley referred to him by name this evening.  

What Ruthy Said
Loretta's Tale
Crazy Raver
Mirror Freak
My Only Vice
Muriel The Actor
Spaced Out
Judy Teen
Death Trip

Sweet Dreams
Mr. Soft
Singular Band
Bed in the Corner
Sling It
Big Big Deal
Black or White
Tumbling Down

Come Up And See Me

1 comment:

  1. Great setlist - sounds like an epic memorable concert.