RIP Steve Harley (1951-2024)

18th March 2024 · 2020s, 2024, Music, R.I.P.

Fifty years ago Steve Harley’s Cockney Rebel were the second band I ever saw. They were riding high in the charts with Judy Teen and I’d been a huge fan since I first heard this song a year earlier. I thought it was the strangest and most compelling piece of music I had ever heard.

One can only admire the splendid arrogance of Steve Harley to make his debut single an emotionally overwrought seven-minute epic featuring a 50-piece orchestra and choir, boasting a signature sound of “no guitars” but a prominent violin. And to top it all, it’s about a bloke called Sebastian.

Impossible to categorise, it does not so much tread a thin line between admirable ambition and pompous pretentiousness as flounce across it and throw everything in your face, including the kitchen sink.

In many ways it is everything I cannot abide: long and overblown with baroque embellishments, an orchestral arrangement, a chorale section and an absurdly mannered vocal style that overenunciates every word, with a rhotacism so ridiculously affected that, had this not come out a decade before The Life Of Brian, you’d be tempted to shout “Welease Woger!”

Harley was a journalist before he became a pop star. He had trained on the same NCTJ course as me, at Harlow Tech, and spent three years working on local papers before turning his wordsmithery into song lyrics and trying them out on the general public as a busker on the London Underground.

That’s where Sebastian began life. Unsurprisingly, his self-styled “gothic poetry” didn’t make him a penny on the streets of London: it’s not exactly singalong material in the vein of, well, Streets of London. Nor was it a surprise when this most uncommercial of songs failed to crack the charts.

A quarter of a century later I interviewed Harley, a man with a history of shedding band members like guitarists lose plectrums, and got a sense of why that tour I’d seen in 1974 ended with half his band leaving to join the support group, Be Bop Deluxe (of whom I was also a big fan). When I produced my much-played vinyl LP of The Psychomodo at the end for him to sign, he groaned and said: “I hate it when people do this.”

I asked why and he replied: “That’s all in the past. The music I’m making now is much better.” It wasn’t. A few years after that he appeared at an all-star Bowie tribute I was at and decided- unlike any other artist in the bill – to skip the Bowie songs and treat the audience to a couple of his own solo efforts.

Still, he was a unique talent and Cockney Rebel’s half a dozen hits lit up the Glam era with their originality.

RIP Steve Harley