Steve Harley

& Cockney Rebel

PSYCHOMODO Review by Dave Thompson

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If The Human Menagerie, Cockney Rebel's debut album, was a journey into the bowels of decadent cabaret, The Psychomodo, their second, is like a trip to the circus. Except the clowns were more sickly perverted than clowns normally are, and the fun house was filled with rattlesnakes and spiders. Such twists on innocent childhood imagery have transfixed authors from Ray Bradbury to Stephen King, but Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel were the first band to set that same dread to music, and the only ones to make it work. The Psychomodo was also the band's breakthrough album. The Human Menagerie drew wild reviews and curious sales, but it existed as a cult album even after "Judy Teen" swung out of nowhere to give the band a hit single in spring 1974. Then "Mr Soft" rode his bloodied big top themes into town and Rebelmania erupted. The Psychomodo, still possessing one of the most elegantly threatening jackets of any album ever, had no alternative but to clean up. Harley's themes remained essentially the same as last time out -- fey, fractured alienation; studied, splintered melancholia, and shattered shards of imagery which mean more in the mind than they ever could on paper. Both the swirling "Ritz" and the ponderous "Cavaliers" are little more than litanies of one-liners, pregnant with disconnected symbolism ("blow-job blues and boogaloos"... "morgue-like lips and waitress tips"), but they are mesmerizing nevertheless. Reversing the nature of The Human Menagerie, the crucial songs here are not those extended epics. Rather, it is the paranoid vignette of "Sweet Dreams," surely written in the numbing first light of that precipitous fame; the panicked brainstorm of the title track; and the stuttering, chopping, hysterical nightmare of "Beautiful Dream" (absent from the original LP, but restored as a CD bonus track) which stake out the album's parameters. The hopelessly romantic "Bed in the Corner" opens another door entirely -- relatively straightforward, astoundingly melodic, it was (though nobody realized it at the time) the closest thing in sight to the music Harley would be making later in the decade. Here, however, it swerves in another direction entirely, the dawn of a closing triptych -- completed by "Sling It" and "Tumbling Down" -- which encompasses ten of the most heartstoppingly breathless, and emotionally draining minutes in '70s rock. Indeed, though the latter's final refrain was reduced to pitifully parodic singalong the moment it got out on-stage, on record it retains both its potency and its purpose. "Oh dear!" Harley intones, "look what they've done to the blues." The fact is, he did it all himself -- and people have been trying to undo it ever since.

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