Steve Harley

& Cockney Rebel

Swedish web mag interview by Bengt Wallman (English translation)

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The Steve Harley Story.

This is no proper bio I am afraid. However i hope you will find it interesting. It's an interview with Steve which I did for the Swedish web publication Bomben in June 2000. You can find the original article (in swedish) by clicking here. The version of the article which can be found here below is in English and it is a bit longer than the original Swedish version, this to make it a bit more interesting for the die-hard fans. Big thanks to Deborah Rollings for acting as my editor on the English translation and making sure I don't make a fool of myself grammatically! :-) And big thanks to Dave Hornby for making the interview happpen and of course to Steve himself for sharing his thoughts with us all.

Steve Harley - Still Curious

Bloomsbury Theatre, London. A warm Saturday night in May. The huge grey building so typical for the area around Euston station in north London seems almost deserted. But as soon as we open the doors we hear voices from the theatre bar, much laughter and even some singing. The bar is crowded; some customers already have had one too many, probably arrived straight from the afternoon’s game. The atmosphere is merry and full of anticipation.

At the fanclub stall the most dedicated gather to buy the latest releases, "Hobo With A Grin" and "The Candidate". Both over 20 years old, for the record, but only a few weeks old on CD. The fans around the stall have obviously got them already; probably more than one of each just in case they wear one of them out. But they buy the CD's all the same, for the bonus tracks. Two on each record. Steve Harley has always had that appeal. An artist who is nothing less than a hero to his fans. An obscure hero, that not many know of. The best kind some would say.

There is a very cosy feeling in the venue, almost like a big family reunion. It seems many of the people know each other some way or the other, some have followed the entire tour; 36 gigs in 40 days all around Britain and a few gigs over in Denmark.

Suddenly a bell rings to tell us it's time to find our seats. The auditorium is your typical theatre hall. Bare walls, somewhat uncomfortable seating. Long black curtains, a chair, a microphone stand and a couple of guitars are the stage’s only decoration. This is Steve's fourth acoustic tour. The crowd waits, chatting away, some still laughing loudly but then the lights dim and Steve enters the stage, neatly dressed in a black suit and red shirt. He picks up the guitar and, without a word, he starts playing. The whole crowd holds its breath. You hardly notice the solo guitarist, Robbie Gladwell, where he sits a few meters behind Steve and answers on a semi-acoustic guitar. Delicate little melodies, as if it was a race, against Steve's suggestive rhythm guitar. The audience holds their breath throughout the whole gig. In awe, all of them. Even the men direct from the football game are silent and just listen, for a change. It's almost hard to imagine that this is the same loud crowd as in the bar earlier on.

Steve mixes and digs into his repertoire of over 100 recorded songs. Sometimes he stops playing and goes in to long monologue's, humorous but with a serious undertone, a message perhaps; about life in general and music in particular. Many times throughout the two and a half hour long show the crowd sings along, Steve smiles and sometimes stop singing to let us do the work. But he has rearranged the most well known songs, which makes singing along hard. He rephrases and holds out on the "wrong" rhymes. We hold ourbreaths. One or two tears fall due to the intensity of the performance and the beauty of the songs.

Then it's over. Suddenly. Steve bows. "Anytime," he calls out, and with that promise he walks of the stage.

June 2000

Steve has recently arrived back home after the tour. Presumably a bit tired but not completely exhausted. "I loved every minute of it,” he says. " I could not be happier than when I’m playing and singing, in my own light, as it were. I am not a natural show-off; nothing showbizzy about me, but if people care about my tunes and my words and want to come and join me for a couple of hours then I couldn't be happier. It makes me feel Wanted. Required. Respected. Cared for, for Christ's sake and that feels good. Doesn't it? And I love to sing. And to play. And every night is different from the last and from the next. No two are ever the same. Inverness to London, Cornwall to Copenhagen: we are not just talking geography here! People change. Local areas have their own personalities and musicians like us have to adjust to suit. It's sometimes a little difficult, but it's also all part of the fun."

Steve's career started back in the early seventies when he quit his job as a reporter, to stand in the limelight himself instead. He formed the band Cockney Rebel and got caught up in the then exploding glam rock circus, with all that that meant in terms of extravagant stage outfits and glittering makeup. On the cover of the debut album "The Human Menagerie" from 1973 Steve parades silver dyed hair and eyebrows, with nail polish, and pink satin trimmed jacket & velvet trousers.

The album in itself is a very elaborate and grandiose affair where influences from the heroes of glam rock meet Steve's more folky song writing. "Bob Dylan meets Roxy Music" critics have stated to try to explain an album entirely in its own genre. The album is monumentally produced with a huge choir and ostentatious orchestral arrangements.

The rest of Steve's albums from the seventies are all more or less classics worthy of the title of masterpieces, everything from his biggest commercial success "The Best Years of Our Lives" from 1975 to the more introverted and experimental "Psychomodo" (1974) and "Love's a Prima Donna" (1976). And on to the more singer/songwriter influenced "Timeless Flight" (1976) to the soul and American influenced "Hobo with a Grin" from 1978. Every fan has his own favourite hue on the musical palette of Steve Harley.

But Steve wouldn't call himself a glam rock star although he soon moved in its inner circles with his good friend Marc Bolan of T-Rex. "I was never much of a part of all that. More theatrical for one album, I suppose. But it ended there." He says and I get the feeling he doesn’t want to be connected with tacky glam rock bandwagon jumpers such as Gary Glitter or Mud. But still it’s the connection with the glam scene of the seventies that has made the interest in Steve awake again in later years. Through the film "Velvet Goldmine" from 1998, a celebration of glam rock in general and, of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust years, in particular, Steve reached out to a whole new generation of fans. In the film three of Steve's biggest hits; "Sebastian", "Tumbling Down" and "Make Me Smile" can be heard. But although the film awakens a commercial interest in a whole new generation Steve doesn't think much of it. "When my friends and I first saw Velvet Goldmine, we thought, "straight to video." i.e.: not much of a film, really. My opinion was not improved after seeing it a second time, I'm afraid. I was only caught up at all when the Bowie character "recorded his video" for his "new single” Tumbling Down. I thought there was magic about the shoot. But in all it isn't the best portrayal of a hedonistic time, simply because it was made by an American who really never was part of it all."

The restless soul of an artist

A great deal of Steve's music is about finding a place in life and about belonging. In the late seventies he moved to live in Beverly Hills to see if he could love the USA, as some of his friends, but he soon returned. "Jim Cregan loves it. Another of my good mates, Robin LeMesurier loves it. Rod loves it. So many of them love it. I don't. It's sunny mostly. And there are other aspects to it, which I find hilarious. And it would not be good for me to live in a place where I mocked others constantly. It is a difficult place to be if you are a cynic. I am not an Anglophile. I don't really feel I belong anywhere. I travel a great deal. See many places. Since New Year, I have been in Athens, Oslo, Rome, Milan, London, Los Angeles and all over the UK. In just a few months." " My family take up much social time, of course. I do all I can to enjoy our time together. My son is 17 and my daughter 14. Splendid people. I learn a great deal of psychology and humility from their company and example."

In the eighties Steve almost ceased to record and tour. His contract with EMI expired after the album The Candidate from 1979 and an extension was not negotiated. Steve puts it like this: "Interest in me faded within the board room of EMI records. One man could not see the books balancing and did not appreciate the artist in me and sour relationship ended. So, then, did my commercial success. Life is like that. People are fickle. Record company executives are minor businessmen in the most part and terrified of losing their (overpaid) jobs. Who can blame them, eh? Besides I had babies with Dorothy. Was tired. The seventies lasted a long time. Man. But I have now huge commercial success, compared with perhaps 99% of all human beings who write songs or play the guitar or sing and dance etc., etc. You see, it's all relative. I have a wonderful, full life and a life-style I would not really want to swap with anybody."

In 1988 Steve made his comeback and that the pause became so long had nothing to do with plans for retirement. "No decisions need to be taken to start playing again. I love to sing. And to play. There is nothing else I do except enjoy life. When I heard Bob Dylan in 1963, singing The Times They Are A-Changing, I knew music was the thing. Words and music. He managed to put poetry to a rock-type voice, even though he was himself folky. Then The Beatles came along and then Motown and I was hooked. Journalism came first. It was a career. But music was always there. The guitar from the age of about ten years. Mother was a semi-professional jazz singer. Father's grandfather was a church organist. Somehow it all fitted. School gave me Dunne and Keats and Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare. And there was no choice from then on. So in the eighties I was always waiting for the right man to come along and get me at it. Steve Mather, fine gentleman and now barrister, was a London agent. He met someone who knows me and we were introduced. He asked me if I would like to tour Germany and the UK. I said, Yes, it's about time and we took off.

I feel as though I haven't really stopped touring since 1988. It's a wonderful thing, to receive a call from your agent with more requests for performances. So, the decision to start again seems to have been taken for me. Know what I mean? And also the love of performing, developed very slowly between the subways of 1972, and the stages of the mid-seventies. But really, I only found my niche, this Live music, singing and playing for love (and money!) during the past few years. Since I stated to play acoustic concerts I have grown my great love of playing with the rock band. Funny ole world, innit"

In 1992 Steve made his comeback on record as well. And since then he has released two more albums, one being a live album. A quite a slower tempo than the high working tempo he held in the seventies."Lyrics are very difficult today. The more settled you become in your personal life, the harder it is to write something interesting for others to enjoy."

The theme for Steve's next single, that doesn't have a release date yet, but will be called "Friend for Life", a song that has quickly become a live favourite among fans on the last tour, its just that most of us one day come to a place in life when we have what we need to live well and all that matters, is that you have someone to share it with.

" I like the thought that I can now say, quite plainly, that life is good and that, in the end, I shall want a friend. No material goods. Just food and a friend. Or two or three. And a book of poetry and Shakespeare and a bottle of wine and...Suddenly it seems that materialism is inescapable. But escape it we shall! Only people matter. A little sunshine on my back for strolling in and a bottle of good Chardonnay, with people to share it and a stick of bread and olive oil and olives and tomatoes and no rain or snow because it makes strolling so much more difficult...then I am happy. Desolation Row and Not Dark Yet and a little Debussy. The influences are everywhere. People are the influence and they are all around. I watch. Study. Ex-reporter, remember. It never goes away. I was taught curiosity by some very good news editors.

And I am still curious."