Tag Archives: Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

July 17th 1975

“Didn’t go to college – returned LPs to Virgin & got 6.89 credit” / “Disco – Got off with Lorna. Dedicated make me smile to Lorna + got virginia plain dedicated to me”

Virgin Records was the new major dealer in Southampton to satisfy my vinyl needs.

I wrote briefly before about how Richard Branson’s retail chain got its leg up to the High Streets of Britain (and later, the world), but its founding deserves further reportage.

Virgin Records & Tapes’ first opened in London’s Notting Hill Gate, run by Branson and his first business partner Nik Powell. Their first official store however was at the Tottenham Court Road end of London’s busy Oxford Street, initially above (I believe) a shoe shop. A while later they took over the ground floor. Here, and unlike most other record stores in 1971, the vibe was decidedly ‘laid back’, customers often crashing on the floor listening to albums and smoking substances both legal and illegal.

The first Virgin Records store in Notting Hill Gate

Branson decided to grow the chain after Post Office strikes threatened to take away his (primary) livelihood gained via the mail order business. He opened other stores in and handful towns and cities across the country. Few of them were in prime locations, Branson preferring to drive traffic to the stores rather than enjoy natural public footfall.

The response from the record buying public was pretty instant, the stores offering a breath of fresh air to people who had grown tired of the more staid HMV shops, places like Woolworths and the lack of choice in many independents. Virgin also specialised in imports, both cut-price (known as ‘cut-outs’) from America and titles which were not officially available in the UK.

Branson was also quick to take advantage of the removal of government-controlled ‘retail price maintenance’ which had kept the price of records and tapes artificially high since the sixties, discounting popular titles to create turnover whilst making most of his money from the stores’ depth of catalogue titles. It would be a record business model which many others – chains and independents alike – would emulate in succesive decades.

The Southampton Virgin store opened in what was a very much “off the beaten track” location at 16 Bargate Street, at one end of the town’s pedestrian precinct and hidden round an almost blind corner from that precinct. To make matters ‘worse’, it was situated across two floors linked by a very inhospitable and closed-in staircase.  The ground floor was given over exclusively to albums, whilst the much smaller upstairs was the singles/tapes/posters/accessories department. It was very narrow, the space between the racks little more than 7 or 8 feet. Indeed, the two floors combined probably totalled no more than maybe 1000 sq feet, a far cry from Branson’s later retail ventures.

I fell in love with its choice of albums almost immediately, attracted too by the fact that my old friend/adversary Neville (remember him?) had nabbed a part-time cashier’s job there and was able to pass on his generous staff discount of 20%. It was like red rag to a bull and I quickly went on a vinyl buying frenzy.

This store would eventually form an integral part of my post-college career – more on that later – and once again Neville would be involved in a way that was positive for me but unfortunate for him.

Today in 1975 it seems as if I had returned some unwanted – maybe faulty? – albums and received a credit note. (Virgin was once notorious for not wanting to give cash refunds to anyone, Branson’s policy was that once the money was in the business, it should somehow stay there)

I thought I would have a good picture or two of how the Southampton Virgin store looked in 1975, but research of my photo albums drew a blank… well, other than one of me stood outside it a few years later which I’d prefer to save for a future post.

Thanks to the ever-reliable Google “street view” application I can present a current-day pic of where the Virgin store was located. It looks very salbrious these days, despite being mere yards from two of Southampton’s main tourist attractions – the old walls and the West Quay shopping centre. The presence of all those steel shutters – the shop windows hidden behind them – certainly make the locale seem less than appealing.

In other news, it seems I got “lucky” at tonight’s disco, getting off with Lorna, with whom I subsequently enjoyed a short term fling. We were sorely mismatched and split up after just a few weeks. Her parents owned a fish & chip shop but I swear that wasn’t the main attraction.

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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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Album: Cockney Rebel – The Human Menagerie

As I have said before Cockney Rebel played just FIVE gigs before being signed up by EMI Records

If their playlist consisted of songs from the subsequent debut album, “The Human Menagerie”, you begin to understand why. Every one of them is from the pen of a VERY confident 23-year-old. Steve Harley seemed to be a songwriter ‘old before his time’ if these songs – and those that popped up on his other 1970’s output – are to be believed.

His EMI recording career kicks off with “Hideaway“, which, with more of a whimper than a bang, leads in with a simple acoustic guitar lick, swiftly accompanied by a violin. Light drums appear and soon Harley is singing “let them come a running, take all your money and hideaway, let them come a running, take all your money and flee“, a strange, defensive lyric given the circumstance.

What Ruthy Said” feels FAR more like an album opener, driven by manic drums and distorted organ, and more reminiscent of Roxy Music’s debut album than I’m sure Harley would have preferred.

Loretta’s Tale” has always been one of my favourite Cockney Rebel songs. Musically it’s very simple but lyrically – and the way Harley uses those lyrics as another ‘instrument’ – has always impressed me…
Watch Loretta taste the wine,
kick the actor from behind,
sprawl across the sofa, then
speak of foreign towns again,
like the loner, seek Marlene,
ask the waitress: “Where you been?”
She says: “Don’t give me no lies,
I’ve been inside your head at least three times…”

This song is also the first of studio engineer Roy Thomas Baker’s impressive quasi-orchestral arrangements for Rebel, something Harley call on again and again in future work. (Yes, the same Roy Thomas Baker who would later be responsible for producing “Bohemian Rhapsody”, much of Queen’s other output and albums by artists as diverse as The Cars, Ozzy Osbourne, Devo and a band who my wife HATES so much I can only type their name using asterisks; Jo*rn*y)

Crazy Raver” is an over-the-top bar-room rock’n’roll song, but it is the first on the album where you suddenly realise Harley does not use a lead guitar. He uses pal Jean-Paul Crocker’s electric violin as the primary instrument. I think it was this element which made Cockney Rebel stand out from the crowd back in the day, at least for me it did. Just like Roxy Music’s refusal to be ‘ordinary’, Harley felt a little more ‘exotic’

I think every artist has one KILLER moment in them, one which elevates them from the mundane to the mandatory. Steve Harley’s grand opus is the awesome “Sebastian“, a song which absolutely everyone should add to their music collection.

It’s rambling, contrived and audacious in equal measure, 7-minutes of orchestral pop that sounds as fresh to me today as it did 36 years ago when I first heard it. At every Steve Harley concert I went to, it provided that “lighters in the air” moment, sending aural shivers down everybody’s spine. Love it, love it, LOVE it!

Just in case you didn’t ‘get it’ with that last YouTube link, here’s another version by Steve taken from a gig in 1989…


(Yes, Steve does have that male pattern baldness thing going on doesn’t he?)

“Sebastian” was released as the first single from Cockney Rebel. Despite it’s quite convoluted nature, it found success on mainland Europe but strangely went nowhere on the UK charts.

Having built Side 1 of “Human Menagerie” on the basis of 4 good songs topped with a streak of abject genius, Harley repeats the process on Side 2…

Mirror Freak” kicks off the second side, that ‘lead violin’ again providing the base for Harley’s clever lyrics. Lyrics that I often find myself randomly singing – for no reason – over three decades later…
… so you perform like it’s your very last show,
you turn her on but she’s never gonna know
Then you can shuffle your hips
or Ma-Ma-Mae West your lips
but you’re the same old thing we’ve always known

Likewise the lyrics to “My Only Vice (is the Fantastic Prices I Charge for Being Eaten Alive)” where Steve offers up the wonderful couplet of “Simply Lorraine sings for a while, in a three-octave harmonica style” before telling a tale about a “lady from a background of pearls, who’s tormenting and bending my world” over Croker’s gypsy violin. I always wanted to date someone called Lorraine – I don’t think I ever did? – so I could introduce her to people as “simply Lorraine”… yes, that IS a bit sad isn’t it?

Muriel the Actor” is a little carnival ride of a song, the killer line “slip on a t-shirt, me gotta look so cool” another lyrical earworm that has sat with me for ages. It’s another Rebel song where it feels like Harley uses not just his voice but also the lyrical content as another instrument. (Ian Dury later had the same talent IMHO)

Chameleon” is no more than a mere 1-minute filler before the main event…

Death Trip” is the album closer and it’s almost up there with “Sebastian” in terms of it’s sustainability over the years. It’s like a self-contained 10-minute rock opera and manages to feel very “British”, that theme around the 4-minute mark reminiscent of Britten or Walton to me, likewise the orchestral flourishes that occur around the end.

Lyrically it’s a little suspect (probably the only thing that lets it down), that final stanza
we’ll grow sweet Ipomoea
to make us feel much freer
then take a pinch of Schemeland
and turn it into Dreamland

especially dodgy. I don’t like to take anything away from it though because sonically it’s immense, brooding and quite masterful in its composition.

Admittedly I have not been asked very often which is my favourite Cockney Rebel album, but on the few occasions I have I have answered something along these lines….

“The Psychomodo” was the first album of Cockney Rebel’s I bought and wore to death so it will always carry special resonance for me… however, over the years “The Human Menagerie” has proved its worth time and time – and time – again. I suppose what I am saying is that I wish both albums had been released together as a double because I really can’t choose between the pair as my ‘favourite’. I do know that, a few songs aside, he never really bettered the material on his debut and the follow-up…

Talking of the follow-up, “The Pschomodo” is getting its full EFA70sTRO respect very soon…. stay, as they say, tuned…

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March 19th / 20th 1975

• “Off College. Cold – from Rebel concert”
• “off college”

When I got glandular fever I broke up with Vivienne.

Does this mean I now have to spilt up with Cockney Rebel?

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Cockney Rebel 1975 Tour Programme (XI)

Back Cover…

Oh my…. now THIS I was not expecting…

Shall we take a better look at it?…

I think it’s a pun. A cocked pistol held by a man who may, or may not, be a rebel?

Oh, and a woman’s bare arse.

I guess Harley had to pay the bills somehow so why not an ad from Levi’s?

With a woman’s bare arse.

Normal EFA70sTRO diary service will resume tomorrow… I hope you’ve all enjoyed the detour (programme)?

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Cockney Rebel 1975 Tour Programme (X)

Page 14

A piece of fluff about Sailor…

Page 15

… and an ad from their record company, Epic

More tomorrow…

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Cockney Rebel 1975 Tour Programme (IX)

Page 13

Ooooh…. mooooooody!

More tomorrow…

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