Sounds Write: Steve Harley - still recording and performing
By Anthony Loman
It's now over thirty years since Steve Harley and his band Cockney Rebel first burst onto the music scene with their adventurous and avant-garde brand of pop/rock.
Albums such as 'The Human Menagerie' and 'The Psychomodo' were a refreshing and mature alternative to much of the music that dominated the airwaves and charts at the time and along with Bowie and Roxy Music, Steve Harley was one of the few acts of that era prepared to experiment with song structures and sound and was always striving to push back the musical boundaries.
Unlike many of his 1970s contemporaries who have either disappeared off the music map completely or settled for a career as simply a nostalgia act, Steve Harley is still very much on the circuit and is still making fine albums, his latest being 'The Quality Of Mercy' (the title comes from The Merchant Of Venice), due for official release on 3rd October but available at his live shows before that date.
Like one of his biggest music heroes, Bob Dylan, Steve Harley also seems to be permanently engaged on a never- ending tour of his own. Harley is just about to embark on yet another twenty plus date UK tour that will see him perform at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on 25th September and at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool on 1st November and anyone who has witnessed one of Harley's concerts will testify that he is a performer who just continues to get better and better with each passing year.
Speaking on the eve of his tour, Steve Harley confirmed that he has lost none of his zest and desire for getting out there and performing and he continues to try and perfect his craft; "I love it more than ever, I perform between 80 100 gigs ever year, I cannot imagine ever stopping it, it's what I do, I stand with a guitar and play songs to people who appreciate them. Every time the spotlight hits me I just want to get better at singing, playing guitar and writing songs. It's my raison d'etre." And Harley sees no reason why age should come into the equation at all since he says, "this is not something you have to retire from when you're fifty of sixty, you don't have to be young to sing and play, it's a crazy idea that you retire from it, it's not some laborious job that you can't wait to get your pension from."
Back in 1975, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel released a single, 'Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)' that was pop music as its most glorious best and the record topped the singles charts for several weeks. 'Make Me Smile' has lost none of its appeal over the years and sounds as fresh now as the day it was first released. The song has since been re-issued several times in 1992, 1995 and once again this year and 'Make Me Smile' has featured on numerous compilation albums, film soundtracks and television adverts. "That record has certainly been good to me" say Harley, "It's my pension as they call it. I hear it played everywhere in the world and I am very lucky. I could be sitting in a taxi anywhere and it will suddenly come on the radio. I often see the taxi driver singing along to it and it does make me smile that he doesn't know it was the man in the back of his cab who wrote and performed it."
But Steve Harley is so much more than that song. His shows are filled with many of the other quality compositions on which his reputation was built such as 'Mr.Soft', 'Judy Teen', the epic 'Sebastian' and 'The Best Years Of Our Lives' to name but a few. Yet, a Steve Harley concert is never just a greatest hits package, that would be far too easy an option for an artist who continues to push himself creatively and endeavours to make each new recording his best work yet. "Sure, I always play the old hits, I have to, but on my forthcoming tour I will also play twenty to twenty-five minutes worth of songs off the new album; it gives the show a good, healthy balance", says Harley.
Concerts in Manchester over the years hold many fine memories for Harley, particularly one at the old International venue in 1989 when he was just starting touring again after several years break but, there is one incident in the city that leaves him embarrassed and somewhat ashamed when he reflects back on it. "We played the Free Trade Hall in 1975, they gave us the big band room and we got rather excited and someone started a food fight and it went all over the walls. We were just young, mad and tired. The management though were so angry they would not clean it up and they called the M.E.N. When we were checking out of the Piccadilly hotel the next afternoon, we saw that the front page of the M.E.N had a picture of the dressing room with the food all over it. I felt so disgraced and I've never said sorry to them officially."
Alongside his hectic touring and recording schedule, these days Steve Harley also has a flourishing career as a radio presenter on BBC Radio 2, hosting the very popular weekly show 'The Sounds Of The Seventies'. The show comprises classic tracks and rarities from the era as well as anecdotes from Harley and he writes and researches all the shows himself. Despite all his committments that would leave many younger artists tired just at the thought of it, Steve Harley still says that, "I don't feel I am prolific by any means, I don't even feel as though I work that hard, I have a really good life, an easy life really though I must admit that writing does get more difficult as you get older."