17 Mar 2024 | Health, Music, Poetry, Reflections

Fresh Faced Imbeciles Laughing at Me

I arrived at the Steve Harley / Cockney Rebel Party several years after everyone else. My 1970s were dominated by Queen, Bowie, Bolan, Aerosmith and Mott the Hoople. I didn’t have the time at the time for somebody whose act at first glance seemed derivative.

Any biography of Harley will tell you about his health challenges and ironically it was my health issues that formally introduced me to him.

As I was walking in the early 1980s towards London’s Middlesex Hospital, for a scheduled appendix removal, I nipped into a record shop on Tottenham Court Road to find a cassette to play on my Walkman during my sojourn. I saw Harley’s Face-to-Face live album in a bargain bucket and snapped it up. 

Of course, I was familiar with his hits; Messers Soft and Raffles, Judy Teen and the one about smiling that he referred to as his pension, but the lengthy track list on the tape confirmed this was a musician with plenty of what they now call Deep Cuts.

That album brought me into the fold very quickly and fan favourites like Death Trip and Sebastian made me realise that Led Zep weren’t the only performers who could create dramatic 8-minute-long tempo-shifting songs. 

Harley’s music was very good and his lyrics; exceptional. He considered himself to be a minstrel, a roaming poet who, I hope would have reflected with pride, on how he managed to keep touring until just a few months before his passing. Steve Harley is the only performer whom I have seen more times than I can recall. He was as adept at holding a large audience in the Hammersmith Odeon as he was when performing his acoustic set in The Pizza Express in Holborn. 

On stage, he’d frequently talk with his audience and had the gift of making quips that each one of us thought was personal. Once, he was referring to his self-indulgence and said ‘But you don’t mind, you know me’. We, the fans really did think we knew him, so much so that I guffawed so loudly that he paused, looked towards me and acknowledged my laugh with ‘You see”! I was so proud to have been noticed and included in his banter.

After his successes of the 1970s, Harley appeared to the wider world to have faded. I get the impression, however, that he was lucky enough to control his destiny. He made new music well into the twenty-first century and maintained high quality musical, vocal and lyrical content throughout. 

Harley was a star who gave the impression of being content with his lot. He experienced super success and then climbed off the top of the ladder to occupy a long-term berth of high integrity. He didn’t crash and burn and he wasn’t spat out by the system.

From a fan’s point of view, he showed how you can embrace your position and maintain credibility.  

Harley was a proper artist, a great songsmith, and a charismatic performer whose soul and humour confirmed he was a man without artifice.  

I am sad that he passed and hope that as the obituaries drop and reviews begin, people begin to realise how his legacy is much more profound than that one song. 

I get the feeling we’re riding the waves.