Steve Harley still pushing boundaries at Norwich gig

Steve Harley

Steve Harley - Credit: Archant

Almost four decades on from his biggest hit Steve Harley is still pushing boundaries. MARK NICHOLLS speaks to the Cockney Rebel ahead of his appearance in Norwich.

Looking back to those sunny summers of the mid-1970s, Steve Harley was a performer who offered something different.

Emerging in the days of commercial soul, the death throes of prog rock and the banality of the pre-punk era, albums such as Human Menagerie and Psychomodo attracted attention because of their unorthodox boldness.

Of course, the massive 1975 hit Make Me Smile (Come up and See Me) projected Harley straight into the mainstream after the earlier eeriness of songs such as Mr Soft, Judy Teen and Mr Raffles (Man It Was Mean).

He had added a new dimension to the singles and album charts in a contribution that remains immense. It should come as no surprise that according to the Performing Rights Society, Make Me Smile is one of the most played records in British broadcasting; it was the song that defined that summer of 75.

A few years earlier, Harley was a young journalist and in one of those odd coincidences, the man who fell into the job he vacated on a weekly London newspaper as he pursued rock stardom was daytime TV celebrity Richard Madeley.

But his interest in music had been aroused when he was given his first guitar – a nylon-strung Spanish acoustic – as a Christmas gift from his parents when he was 10.

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The boldness of his earlier recordings, the unorthodoxy, and determination to do what he feels creatively right, is still a defining trait. Even today as a performer, he mischievously keeps his band on their toes and is not averse to switching the set running order, dropping or bringing in songs unexpectedly.

'Sometimes even the band does not know what we are going to play next,' he explains. 'Having been in the business for such a long time, you sense which way the audience is going and you know they may not want to hear some songs but will love others. You get to know the vibe of the room.'

He will be at Epic Studios in Norwich on November 24, and the appearance with the six-piece Cockney Rebel, has attracted widespread interest because it is being filmed.

The performance will be of two sets lasting well over two hours and delivered by a singer-songwriter who revels in giving his audience what they want by reaching into his back catalogue of 13 albums, hit singles and classic tracks such as Sebastian.

But that always throws up a dilemma for him too. 'It is something that I actually feel a little guilty about in a strange sort of way,' he admitted. 'We always do two sets with a short interval and are often on stage for two-and-a-half hours or more, which means there is no time for a support act. And that is my dilemma; I love touring, performing and giving the audience a good show but I so often feel guilty that I'm not helping new bands as much as I should.

'I got my break when I went out on tour in America with The Kinks and across Britain with Nazareth when I was getting started in the 1970s and I can't help think there must be hundreds of bands out there that want to get on the bill of a show like this. But with material from 13 original albums to get through, it is difficult time wise. It is a tough one for me and I am torn but I do love playing my songs to the audience in a long show.'

Harley, who was born in Deptford, London, in 1951, has been a regular visitor to Norfolk in recent years, appearing at the UEA with an acoustic set recently and also paying what he described as a memorable visit to the North Norfolk coast to see the exhibition of Catherine the Great's art collection at Houghton Hall.

The current tour, which ends in Norwich, coincides with the release of a live double album. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Birmingham 2013 - Live features a performance of The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo albums in their entirety, in sequence, with a 56-piece orchestra and choir, plus nine-piece band.

'It is something I wanted to do, though it is always a risk and every expensive. It cost me £50,000 just to walk on stage but it is something that the fans had also been pressing me to do,' he said.

'The first two albums were heavily orchestrated and featured a choir, so it was a natural thing to do, it was just whether I had the courage but it worked and there were 2000 people there to hear it. And being out on stage with 56 people behind you is wonderful.

'I am actually lucky to have such different opportunities and line-up options; from just appearing with two other musicians when I was last in Norwich with an acoustic set, being on stage with Cockney Rebel later this month in a six-piece or performing with an orchestra and choir.'

After his success of the 1970s, which also saw albums such as The Best Years of Our Lives and Timeless Flight, Harley took time out from music in the 1980s as his two children were growing up but he also gained acclaim starring as 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe in the musical-drama Marlowe and as Samuel Beckett in the play Rough for Theatre.

In between touring, Harley makes time for his lifelong passion of horse racing and keeps shares in horses from time to time but always returns to his first love – performing his songs live, whether that be with Cockney Rebel, an acoustic trio or a full orchestra.

In Norwich, it seems the original boldness of Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel will be to the fore.

t Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel play at Epic, Magdalen Street, Norwich, on November 24, £22.50 adv/£25 door, 01603 727727,

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