Tag Archives: ELP

Album: Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel – The Best Years of our Lives

 

Whilst “The Psychomodo” may have been the album to break Cockney Rebel, “The Best Years of our Lives” was the one which catapulted Steve Harley into the pop pantheon, mainly for the inclusion of the massive hit single “Make me Smile (Come up and See Me) ” which, to say the least, has definitely stood the test of time in the interim 35 years. It’s that ‘one song’ syndrome I have talked about before where an artist lives off its income for the rest of his life. (Also see: Noddy Holder, Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, etc etc) 

It’s admittedly a catchy little number… 

that guitar almost as ‘earwormy’ as the lyrics themselves, but it’s FAR from the best track on its parent album. 

That’s reserved – unreservedly – for the title track, which sits as comfortably with me as an ancient pair of slippers… 

European maids, hard to ignore
You, me and the boys, barred from the shore
 

Fresh-faced imbeciles, laughing at me
I’ve been laughing myself, is that so hard to see?
Do I have to spell each letter out, honestly!
If there’s no room for laughter there’s no room for me
 

Try looking at you, rather than me
No truth is in here, it’s all fantasy
 

Since the last time we met I’ve been through
About seven hundred changes and that’s just a few
And the changes all tend to be something to do
But you’ve got to believe that they’re all done for you
 

Chorus: you’ll think it’s tragic when that moment arrives
Ah, but it’s magic, it’s the best years of our lives
 

Lost now for the words to tell you the truth
Please banter with me the banter of youth
 

If I knew how to say it, I’d say it for you
If I knew how to whisper, I’d whisper for you
If I knew how to waltz, I’d get up and dance for you
If I thought I could run, I’d come running to you
 

I’ve discovered now how to be fair
This I could teach you if only I dare
 

The only conclusion I’ve reached in my life
Is that if I should die I should die-by the knife
Since it’s only a matter of courage all right,
Die a man or a martyr, the two would be nice, so nice
 

Chorus: you’ll think it’s tragic when that moment arrives
Ah, but it’s magic, it’s the best years of our lives
(© Steve Harley 1975)
 

That line “if there’s no room for laughter, there’s no room for me” has been something of a personal creed of mine since  I first heard it, likewise the ‘take life as you find it’ sentiment of the whole song. 

If I’m being honest the other cuts on this album (note, now monikered as “Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel”, Steve’s ego coming to the fore) aren’t as good as those two might suggest. 

The Mad Mad Moonlight” has its moment – Steve’s exuberant “send her up to those fluffy white clouds” has always appealed – but it’s a throwaway song, Steve’s decision to employ a lead guitar (instead of, as previous, a violin) hurting it somewhat (at least in my opinion) 

Mr Raffles (Man it Was Mean) ” suffers from awful rhyming couplets, “there were a thousand maneaters being exchanged for pesetas” indicative all by itself of what we’re have to suffer. 

It Wasn’t Me” is a ‘poor me’ song that has some nice keyboard sounds but is undermined by a phased vocal and – jarringly – Steve somehow rhyming “Gideon” with “Pigeon” 

Panorama” is cute enough – boogie-woogie piano underscoring some brass and fancy guitar work – but it feels throwaway. 

Proof that smoking doesn't make everyone look cool. Some just look like "a bit of a twat"

The ‘hit single’ kicks in to improve things dramatically before “Back to the Farm” descends into further self-pitying on Steve’s part, proving itself to be a paranoic rant about everything and nothing… wherein he seems to even express disgust for one of his early hits “Judy Teen” stating “nothing no more, comes from Judy” which has always felt like biting the hand that feels for me. Some ELP-esque burblings on a synthesizer only makes things worse. 

49th Parallel” was the precursor to how his music would take him in future albums. Stop/start rhythms accompanied by little than a ‘bunch of words’ or lazy rhetoric 

Thanks heavens then for the aforementioned title track to close the album down, a perfect representation of Harley’s songwriting as there’s ever been. 

Proof then that Harley’s best work is pretty much encapsulated by his first two albums before the ego took over the reigns and started to steer everything in the wrong direction. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved this album when I was an impressionable 17-year-old teenager, and continued to worship at the altar of Steve Harley for several years afterwards, but over time I have come to realise that he sacrificed his talent when he cast aside his original ‘Cockney Rebel” concept and replaced it with an ordinary band, playing ordinary instruments in an ordinary manner. 

“The Best Years of Our Lives” reached Number 4 on the UK album chart and proved to be the biggest selling album of Harley’s career. “Make Me Smile (Come Up & See Me)” means that Steve still looks forward to seeing his postman on every legal quarter day, that residual cheque doubtless proving ‘useful’?! 

However… from 1989… 

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February 18th 1975

“Viv came round in evening + listened to some records. Was at work all day”

Yes really.

We spent the evening sat on my bed listening to records.

I probably wanted to ‘mess about’ a bit but was reserved due to a) nerves and/or b) the possibility that either of my parents could barge into the room at any time.

I wonder if, whenever she heard “…Ziggy Stardust…” (likely) or “Brain Salad Surgery” (unlikely) later in her life, Viv’s mind goes back to this uneventful night in 1975?

Hearing this reminds me… there was this speccy twat I dated for a while – always talking about music – never even tried to make a move on me… what an idiot

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December 27th 1973

“Bort Brain Salad Surgery – not very good but alright”

Wha??

Doubtless buoyed by “christmas money” I went out and bought Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s new opus – released a mere month earlier – only to get it home and immediately deem it “not very good, but alright

Do I sense dissatisfaction setting in with progressive rock gods Keith, Greg & Carl? (I use their first names here to deliberately suggest certain levels of abundant familiarity). “Not very good, but alright“? Wow, talk about fence-sitting.

Let’s take a look at the evidence shall we?….

There’s no doubting “Brain Salad Surgery” was ELP’s most ambitious and flamboyant project to date.

H.R.Giger in 2008 - is it just me, or is he starting to morph into one of his own paintings?

It started with the unsettling album cover, an admittedly fantastic piece of airbrushed work by surreal artist H.R.Giger. It is said that Giger was so flattered Keith Emerson had asked him to design a cover for the band, he painted the piece in just two days – in actual 12″ x 12″ size – including all the incredible detail as well as coming up with the now-distinctive ELP logo.

There was much talk in 1973 of phallic imagery at play with the cover, which, to be honest I never saw then, nor do I see now. Instead all I see is some kind of artistic pre-cursor to a massive selection of sci-fi movies where a human being is taken over by robots, or at least some kind of mechanical device. (Indeed, Giger’s notion was that of a “mechanical woman”)

With excess being the mandatory name of the game for most Prog acts in the 70’s, the sleeve was not a straightforward one. It expensively and expansively folded out, over and over, to present the buyer with a selection of images, the most frightening of which were actually those of the band themselves. Greg Lake apparently trying to pass himself off as some kind of pre-pubescent Donny Osmond.

“Brain Salad Surgery” remains one of my favourite album covers of all time. Not because of all the die-cut nonsense – which, as I found out to my horror, was easy to rip or tear – but for H.R. Giger’s stunning artwork. Indeed, it took me on a multi-decade journey of appreciation for Giger’s output, including (but far from limited to) the set and creature design he did for the “Alien” movie franchise.

As for the music itself, I’ve since come to realise how my initial reticence came about. This album contains both some of ELP’s finest moments… and some of their very worst.

It opens with some of their very worst. Never a good idea.

Track 1 is an adaptation of William Blake ‘s timeless hymn “Jerusalem“. (So bad there’s not even a recording of it to link to on You Tube!) In their infinite lack of wisdom, Manticore Records decided to release this track as the single, only to find it banned by the BBC, who rightly argued it was in ‘poor taste’. I could wax lyrically about just how bad this adaptation is, but probably not without copious levels of family-unfriendly swearing.

Side 1 Track 2 “Toccata” makes up for the weak opener. It is an almost-psychedelic take on Argentinian composer Ginastera ‘s 1st Piano Concerto, with Emerson’s sound effects and Palmer’s electronic drums to the fore throughout. It would prove to be a live favourite, essentially because it automatically lends itself so well to visual excesses on stage.

Still You Turn Me On” is one of Greg Lake’s trademark sugary-sweet love ballads. However, I’ll admit to having a soft spot for this one, despite the distraction of lyrics such as
Every day a little sadder
A little madder
Someone get me a ladder

Benny the Bouncer”  is another throwaway piece of nonsense that the band habitually littered their albums with. (Think “Jeremy Bender” on Tarkus or “Hoedown” on Trilogy). Once again, no link to an original recording of the song, but there IS this marching band version from 1983! (My wife will like this clip having been in the flag corps for such events)

The rest of the album is filled up with one grand ELP ‘epic’. Or, rather, isn’t. “Karn Evil 9” is a ‘suite’ of three ‘impressions’, the first impression split into two parts, resulting in…. yep, four tracks.. um, all of which appear to have very little to do with one another.

Despite this – and despite the band drafting in maddeningly-dodgy lyricist Pete Sinfield (he of the PFM & King Crimson connection) – this thirty-minute musical montage contains (in my humble opinion) 26 minutes of some of the band’s finest work.

Karn Evil 9 – 1st Impression, Part I” closes side 1 of the album., but it’s “Karn Evil 9 – 1st Impression, Part II” at the start of Side 2 which most people will recognise. Why?…

The opening lyric, “Welcome Back my Friends to the Show that never Ends….” has become an iconic statement ever since, even reaching the hallowed portals of the White House! (OK, OK…. so Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett character actually muttered it in an episode of  TV’s The West Wing).  Plus, the ensuing music – perhaps, if you will, the ‘riff’ – has been used over and over again in TV shows, documentaries, commercials and more.

Karn Evil 9 – 2nd Impression is a meandering go-nowhere instrumental featuring drums, bass and piano with Emerson briefly interpolating an old number by influential jazz musician Sonny Rollins. For me it is the thorn in Karn Evil 9‘s side

Karn Evil 9 – 3rd Impression” finds the band returning to a war theme, something they had done so well on Tarkus a few years previous. With a somewhat hokey “man vs machine” concept (to tie in with the cover art) this cut is over-the-top ELP at their most extravagantly bombastic. The battle runs for over 9 minutes with Emerson’s electronics, Lake’s loud vocals and Palmer’s computerised drums all fighting one another for centre stage, the latter even finding time to include a 70’s/Prog-rock staple; the extended drum solo.

As with most other ‘concept’ albums/pieces I mostly managed to ignore the storyline running rampant through “Karn Evil 9”, preferring to just concentrate on grooving along with the rhythms and soundscapes on offer.

There’s no doubting that this album was the last ELP studio album I had/have any real fondness for. Even in retrospect I can see why my review was mixed. 50% of this album is great, the rest is utter pants.

I suspect too that my musical tastes were already subtly diversifying and – let’s face it boys and girls – there’s only so much ELP one person can take isn’t there? There were, however, still a couple more ELP releases to come that I wouldn’t shun. One was an earwormy single, the other an utterly ludicrous triple live album… both of which, I am sure, will be highlighted in future EFA70sTRO posts.

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August 10th 1973

“Went up Dicks, back into E.Leigh & got hair done. Sent off radio quiz. After work went got Nigs h.phones for him”

I was thinking about headphones the other day.

Whilst I now spend a proportion of each day (at the gym) wearing the earbuds from my iPod, back in the early seventies I only rarely wore headphones.

About the only time I wore them was if I traveled in the car with my Mum & Dad – plugged into my little cassette recorder (and then not always, as I often preferred just sticking one ear over the speaker!) – or those rare occasions where I didn’t want to annoy them by playing ELP in my bedroom.

To be fair it was quite a rare occurence for me to play my music too loud – even if I I can remember my Mum complaining a few times – but if I did, it tended to be when my folks were out for the night visiting friends.

Later in the 70’s I wore headphones more regularly – for instance, when I DJ’d a show on Southampton University’s Radio Glen – but they have never sat entirely comfortable on me. They always felt too claustrophobic and made my ears sweat like a fountain… never pleasant.

I can’t be sure what I mean when I say went and got Nig’s h-phones for him, but if I had to guess it would be that I tripped to Comet or Currys – or somewhere – to either pick up a pair he’d ordered, or had maybe put in for repair. He listened to music on headphones a LOT more than me as I can remember his parents always had to go up to his bedroom to tell him I was on the phone wanting to talk to him.

Mine just shouted up the stairs when roles were reversed.

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August 3rd 1973

“Roger came for me at 10 – said Ward wanted me to work all day – did so. Swapped my Scalextric for Bernard’s organ”

I will now pause whilst the more juvenile amongst you make up your own jokes…………

Done?

Good….. 😉

Right, so having been denied an earlier opportunity to become a Scalextrix racing Car driver of some considerable note, it appears evident that my fascination for this toy had decreased considerably since early 1972.

So much so that I decided to trade it for our newer neighbour’s electric piano….. OK, OK… ‘organ’ (*tee hee*)

Bernard had a young kid – Jonathan I think his name was – making my Scalextric a good fit. I doubtless had dreams of becoming the next Jon Lord or Keith Emerson, so this organ was a good fit too.

Bernard’s *ahem* organ – as it will doubtless continue to be referred to – was something of a toy instrument really. When you turned it on, a huge fan sound ensued – a noise only quelled when you pushed down a key as the wind rushed across (presumably) some kind of reed. You could only play one key at a time.

I can neither confirm nor deny poking a few kitchen knives in between the keys as per Keith Emerson’s stage act, however I bet I mastered Smoke on the Water in double quick time

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May 16th 1973

“Recorded Trilogy and Emerson, Lake & Palmer for Bruce in Evng”

No it didn’t.

As I am currently (i.e. 2009) discovering in the fantastic book “Appetite for Self-Destruction (The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age)” by Steve Knopper, major record label executives have inflicted FAR more damage to the business than all the kids in the 70’s ever did.

A hugely recommended – and eye-opening – read.

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January 28th 1973

“Dave came up in the morning and borrowed Pictures and lent me Roxy Music”

I was almost dreading the debut mention of Roxy Music in this blog.

Why? Because it is extremely difficult to explain the impact that the band – and their style – had on this particular teenager. It’s also difficult to explain to an audience now wholly familiar with their sound just HOW radically different they appeared to be in 1973.

Vocalist Bryan Ferry – originally a ceramics teacher from Newcastle – formed Roxy Music in November 1970. This was a few months after he had failed to secure the spot as King Crimson‘s new lead singer following the departure of Greg Lake. (Yes, that Greg Lake) However, Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfield liked Ferry so much they helped the vocalist’s young band obtain a management contract with EG Records.

Ferry started the band with bassist Graham Simpson, then recruited saxophonist Andy MacKay and drummer Paul Thompson via wanted ads placed in Melody Maker. MacKay brought along his university chum Brian Eno to act (initially) as a technical advisor. Phil Manzanera joined the band just as they started recording their debut album, replacing former ex-Nice guitarist David O’List.

Ferry initially monikered the band “Roxy”, an homage to the name given to old-fashioned cinemas and dance halls across the UK. He then found out there was already a similarly-named American band, so added “Music” to differentiate the two.

The band’s debut album was recorded – along with their quirky hit single “Virginia Plain” (not included on the original LP release, but subsequently added to LP & CD re-issues) – in March 1972 and unleashed on the public a few months later.

I feel somewhat ashamed in retrospect that it apparently took me until January 1973 to first acknowledge it!

The sleeve alone stood out as completely different to everything else I was listening to at the time. Whilst groups like ELP, Deep Purple or the Edgar Broughton Band featured terrible representations of the band members, Roxy Music turned things on their head by having an extremely glamourous model – Kari-Ann Muller – lounging across the gatefold.

If that wasn’t enough to draw this impressionable teenager in, then the musical contents certainly did.

The opener, “Re-Make/Re-Model“, starts with the sounds of a cocktail party in progress before launching full-tilt into what, on the surface, appears to be a traditional rock & roll song from the 50’s, complete with solos from each of the band members. Subsequent listens unveil a whole separate texture to the song, with Eno’s futuristic synthesizer sounds and MacKay & Manzanera’s instruments creating an almost cacophonous roar. There’s more than just a cursory nod to The Beatles “Day Tripper” in the riffing, but the most off-the-wall element is the vocal chorus of “CPL 593H“, allegedly the number plate of Ferry’s car at the time!

Ladytron” is one of Ferry’s (what-would-become) trademark ‘seduction’ songs, and kicks off with an eerie duet between MacKay’s oboe skills and Eno’s synthesiser blips and gloops before eventually descending into another band battle of sounds and noises.

If There Is Something” is quintessential early-Roxy. It forges a sound that the band would duplicate over and over again;- Ferry’s vibrato – but utterly nonchalant – vocal styling at the forefront with repeated band melodies behind him. MacKay’s oboe playing is nothing short of magnificent, his mid-song solo bringing the tune its melancholy.

It would be easy to think that “2HB“, which closes side 1, is Ferry’s personal tribute to pencils. It is actually a song dedicated to actor Humphrey Bogart, specifically his role as Rick in Casablanca. In keeping with the movie, this song has a detached moody atmosphere, entirely driven by Ferry’s electric piano and MacKay’s erie Eno-enhanced sax.

Side 2’s opener is “The Bob (Medley)” , a bitty & somewhat unstructured affair – and probably my least favourite track on the whole album. Punctured by the sound of warfare (Bob is an acronym for “Battle of Britain”) the song is split into sections that veer dramatically from each other. It’s almost as if the band are showing off just a little too much, or trying a little too hard with this track, although it has be stated that without Thompson’s thumpy drums or Manzanera’s fretwork it would amount to very little indeed.

Things get properly back on course with “Chance Meeting“, one of Ferry’s more traditional love songs. It is peppered with Manzanera’s guitar – having first been fed through Eno’s box of electronic tricks – and underlined by Ferry’s own gentle piano playing.

I personally feel that “Would You Believe” is one of Roxy’s unsung little masterpieces, so ‘unsung’ that there’s no footage available at all on YouTube. The boogie-woogie piano, drum, guitar and sax section that intersperse the contrary starkness is pure rock and roll, and offers more than a mere hint to some of Ferry’s influences,

Sea Breezes” is, pure and simple, a Roxy Music ‘classic’ – assuming such a thing even exists. It is one of my – admittedly many – ‘shower songs’, wherein I persecute the walls of our bathroom with my singing. It starts off pretty traditionally, Ferry’s gentle voice overlaying some fine guitar, synth and sax work. Suddenly the silence is punctured by a drum break and we find ourselves in new territory altogether, amps turned up to ’11’ and the band members noisily battling each other. Then, as quickly as the noise starts, it all mellows out again and Ferry once again professes his love for the song’s protagonist. Delightful stuff.

Bitters End” ties the album up, a 50’s doo-wop pastiche containing a strange choral refrain of “bizarre” almost summing up the entire album’s sound. Its also the song that seems to ‘go’ with the band’s image seen on the inside LP sleeve.

I think those images ‘drew’ me to the album as much as the music itself. There’s Manzanera in ‘fly’ sunglasses a decade or two before U2’s Bono discovered them, MacKay personifying “rock’n’roll”, and Ferry & Eno in leopard/tiger skin leather jackets, the latter looking particularly ‘other-worldy’ (and, bless him, displaying early signs of hair loss)

The second Roxy Music album “For Your Pleasure” was the album that REALLY sealed my personal – and lifelong – fascination for the band, but this very assured debut introduced me to their quirky stylings and unique sound in a major way.

It also goes to underline the fact – repeated again for those that have forgotten it – that I was willing to listen to – and appreciate – just about anything that came my way. Whilst many of my school chums may have been fixated only by Heavy Rock or Pop Music my own listening rounded up both of those and a whole lot more besides.

I often wonder if bands such as Roxy Music would stand even half a chance in the current music ‘business’. I would like to think that with someone as always forward-thinking and technically-savvy as Brian Eno in its ranks the band would find a way of getting their music across to the masses but I’m not convinced there would be a 100% guarantee of success.

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