Steve Harley is one of the UK’s most successful musicians, with thirteen albums under his belt and several hits including ‘Judy Teen’, ‘Mr Raffles’, ‘Sebastian’ and the highly coveted ‘Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile)’. He has played to packed venues since the 70s and in December will return with Cockney Rebel to Liverpool, a place that Harley has many memories of… He chats to Nicola Denton
You’ve played in Liverpool a number of times over the years, what is it that keeps bringing you back? Well when you’re touring you play all the major cities. One of the places we normally play is the Royal Philharmonic Hall. It’s one of the great concert halls in Europe and I adore being there. It’s a great city, I know it so well. I used to write songs in Sefton Park and played a gig to raise money for the Palm House. I still support it it’s an amazing place and I plan to come back and play it again, got to work on that.
You seem to have an affinity with Sefton Park Palm House, tell us about that. I discovered Sefton Park in the 70s. Peter Grant (Liverpool Echo journalist) took me over and showed me the Palm House when it was derelict and we did a photo session there and it touched me. It all just seemed familiar to me like it was something from my own past but it was not, I’m a Londoner. But it touched me spiritually as one of those places I was drawn to. Years later we played the benefit gig to re-open it after it had been restored which was a great privilege. There are other places in the world that I’m drawn to like when I go to Rome there’s the Villa Borghese, the land of that museum is a park so I’m drawn there spiritually too. There are a few places in the South of England too but Sefton Park with the Palm House is somewhere you can go to take great solace and find peace. You don’t get much peace in Liverpool (laughs).
I believe you took a tumble off the stage at the Empire Theatre in the 70s, is that true? (Laughs) It’s legendary isn’t it?! Yeah I fell off the stage in the middle of a song called ‘Death Trip’. I was unconscious for a while, as I fell into the orchestra pit I bounced off the iron bars that stretch between the stage wall and where the front stalls are. It’s was quite a drop and I woke up with two broken ribs. I remember coming two and the band was still playing, our bodyguard was leaning over me and a man in a uniform. He said “It’s alright. It’s St John” and I said “Thank goodness you’re not St Peter”. Before that we played what was an old boxing stadium called Liverpool Stadium and the people who couldn’t get in because it was sold out went around the back and started a fire. The whole place had to be evacuated in the middle of my show. So it all happens for me up there!
So I have to ask you about “that song” ‘Come Up and See Me’, one of your biggest hits. It’s been covered by many artists but, pardon the pun, does it still make you smile? Well yeah what can you say? It’s got a life of its own. You might think that it’s used a lot in movies and TV but we actually turn down a lot of requests because they’re not suitable. But it has got a life of its own now and I wish I had ten of them. I’ve had plenty of other hit singles and sold millions of records but it’s a classic so what can you do? It’s my baby. I was in the back of a taxi not long ago and it came on the radio. The driver was tapping away and singing and I’m thinking “He doesn’t know I’m in the back”, it was a lovely and bizarre feeling. It didn’t make me feel smug, just a satisfied smile cracked my face.
So quite proud as well? Yeah just in a modest professional way. Like I say it owes me nothing and it’s running away with itself. To finish concerts with it no matter what set up we play whether it’s the three man acoustic, the rock band in a club, the rock band in a big arena, the rock band at festivals all over the world to see 500 or 50,000 people clap and sing the song is an astonishing feeling. It’s great to know that whatever else I do on stage I know that one’s coming. I’ve stayed at hotels and walked into the lobby at midnight to go to my room and heard it playing at a wedding party and seen them all jumping and singing. I just stand there anonymously watching and no one’s looking at me, it’s a lovely feeling.
It’s been documented that it was about the break up of your original band line up, is that true? The lyric is partly based on that. Three of them came to me at the end of a very long UK tour in 1974 and confronted me with this that and the other and eventually walked out and left me in the lurch with nothing but a drummer. He’s still my friend and sometimes still my drummer. So yeah it became my pension. Actually I shouldn’t say that that sounds smug, I don’t mean
When you got the new line up together the sound for your next album ‘Best Years’ became more electric, ‘Mad Mad Moonlight’ being a prime example. Was that a conscious decision or just a natural progression? A bit of both. I auditioned guitarists for the first time ever after the first band split. Jim Cregan came into my life and, to be honest, he is one of God’s nicest people, funniest people and best guitar players. He and I are still very close friends, he left me to join Rod Stewart and still plays. So he was the guitarist and yeah I suppose I wanted to shake off the past even if it was subconscious at the time. But I can see now that yes I would have been shaking off the past for a fresh start and as you say the first track on that album is a completely raucous rock track ‘Mad Mad Moonlight’.
So what can we expect from your new live show? We’ve got some songs in that I haven’t performed on stage for donkey’s years, fans on the internet have been talking about them and urging me to do them. We went into rehearsals in the summer before we played four pretty big concerts and we learned quite a few. So there’s stuff from the past that will be new on stage to anyone who comes along. I’ve gone back to playing ‘Cavaliers’ and ‘Ritz’ and stuff I never did on stage in my life like ‘Muriel the Actor’ which I haven’t performed since 1973, but it’s in the set and it works.
Will there be any new tracks to look forward to? I’ll do four or five from the new album which is ‘Stranger Comes to Town’, not new to that but that’s new to me. Reporters were saying to me last year when it was released “It’s the first one for five years” and I was like “Yeah? What’s your point? What’s five years?” At my age what are you going to write about? When you release an album it’s brand new for two years because you’re touring with it, the world’s a big place. There’s countries we’re going to in the spring and summer that I haven’t been to for three or four years, so I’m taking that as a new album because it’s new songs to the audience. You’re promoting it for so long that we see it as a new product, we don’t call it ‘one and a half years before its old’ we call it the new album because it’s the latest.
Tell us about the two different sets you’re playing on this tour? We’re doing some three man acoustic shows first, which we do a lot. In a couple of weeks time we go to Norway to play four of those. It’s a different set list because there are songs I’ll only rehearse with the rock band because of the big guitars, big keyboards arrangements and everyone kicks pedals and things and we sound like a symphony orchestra. In the acoustic set I want it to be extremely organic meaning acoustic guitar, grand piano and acoustic violin which is electric but it’s a violin. So it’s as earthy and natural as music gets really. There’s songs I won’t play because without the big arrangements there’s not much point. Then there’s lots of stuff in the acoustic set that’s very delicate, if I did them with the rock band there would only be two or three of us on stage for seven or eight songs. Recently we were in the wings to play a rock band gig, a big show at Market Harborough and my violin player Barry Wickens said “Oh. Wrong instrument” and we were opening the set with a song where he plays rhythm guitar and he’s standing there with his violin! But it happens, we have to put on different hats all the time. Basically it’s madness but it’s just what we do, I like a bit of experimentation and adventure I don’t want a safe life I’m not like that.
So a true rock star then? (Laughs) With grown up children. It’s all very conservative now.
Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel will play Mojo, Back Berry Street on Thurs 15th December 2011.