Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ever the Rebel - interview with Steve Harley

Photo by Mike Callow

FORTY years after the release of their debut album, STEVE HARLEY and his band  are still going strong and playing live. CATRIONA REEVES discovers if the decades have mellowed the Cockney Rebel.

CATRIONA REEVES: It has been suggested that your second album, 1974’s The Psychomodo, is your masterpiece - would you agree?

STEVE HARLEY: I don’t like to think that I’ve painted my masterpiece yet - there’s always a new canvas! I still strive to create it, and I think it’s still within me. I wouldn’t consider any of my songs or albums to be perfect, I’m a born worrier apart from when I’m in the spotlight and playing.

I know that Psychomodo is cited as an influence on a lot of people. We played it in its entirety November with an orchestra and choir, alongside the whole of the first album, The Human Menagerie, and it felt pretty huge.

While I was performing those early songs, I started to wonder who that young me was, and where those songs came from. It doesn’t particularly impress me that I created them, but they’re from so long ago that it does feel like someone else wrote them. These are the words and emotions of an angry young man, which is fine, but you can’t carry on like that when you get older.

CR: So, you don’t feel that you still have the same anger within you these days?

SH: Angry old men are pub bores. Anyway, I’m settled down now, I’ve got lovely children, and I get to travel the world. I’m not “Sting” rich, but I have paintings on the wall and beautiful things around me. It’s hard to write an angry song when you’re fairly content with life.

We played at the Isle of Wight Festival last month, and I went out front after our set to watch the Boomtown Rats - Bob Geldof still performs as an angry teenager, all angst and aggression. I don’t want to be like that. It’s rather ill-fitting, and also looks quite exhausting. I’ve got kids of 30 and 27; I don’t want to be the oldest teen on the block. I can’t be bothered with all that attitude and looking like a rock star. It’s not becoming at my age. 

CR: It seems like the music press gave you a bit of a hard time in the ’70s. As a former journalist yourself, did that bother you?

SH: I didn’t mind all the jibing in the music press, it was just a bit of fun and it didn’t bother me. For all the criticism there was plenty of praise. I still feel the same - there are a couple of performers out there who seem to be universally adored, and that’s just sycophantic. 

There’s a lot of sycophants among reviewers - I just wish some of them were on my side! To be fair, there are a few reviewers who do like me. But most people who come along to see us know who we are and what we do, and aren’t influenced by a review. Of course I like to read good, kind words, but I’ve been going so long that I’m indestructible.

CR: There’s a story that the reason that your single Black Or White failed to chart in late 1975 was that EMI had put all its marketing budget behind Bohemian Rhapsody. Do you think there’s any truth in that?

SH: Black Or Wight and Bohemian Rhapsody were released very close to each other, but I’ve never heard that speculation! EMI were always very good to me, and I can’t see why they wouldn’t want a band signed to them to have a hit just because another is doing so well. I’m a fatalist, and if a song isn’t a hit, that’s just the way it is. We played Black Or White with the orchestra last year  - the first time I’ve ever performed it on stage - and it sounded wonderful. It certainly felt like a hit then.

CR: You’re playing the Rewind Festival in Henley next month - will you be playing your fist single, Sebastian? It’s rather good.

SH: We only get to do a very short set at Rewind - about half an hour, so we’ll just be doing the hits, getting off stage, and getting an early dinner. I would love to do Sebastian, as it’s enormous on stage, but it’s about eight minutes long, so don’t hold me to it! Make Me Smile, is about seven minutes, so if we did Sebastian as well, we’d only fit in about three songs!

Of course we’ll do Make Me Smile, as it was our number one hit - although it puts pressure on our guitarist to get the solo right note for note, because the audience sing along. There’s no room for interpretation on that one - deviate from the original, and you’re sacked!

We do a lot of outdoor shows in the summer - we’re doing two others that weekend. They may only be short sets, but I enjoy them, because it always feels like you start off playing to strangers and end up winning friends.

* Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel will be performing at the Rewind, The 80s Festival, at Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames, on Saturday, August 17. Visit for ticket information.

They will also be playing a full band show at The Anvil in Basingstoke on November 19. Visit for tickets.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on August 8, 2013

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