‘Mr Soft’ was the title of Steve Harley’s 1974 hit single. Harley himself though is anything but soft.
“I don’t give sympathy because I don’t expect it. Nice guys don’t make it” is a famous quote from a 1977 interview.
Harley’s concert with Cockney Rebel at Bonn’s Harmonie showed that at 58 he is still very much in both Command and Demand.
I always wanted to ask Steve Harley two questions that have irritated me since 1975. Why confuse the record buying world by singing “Come up and see me, make me smile” and then release the song as “Make me smile (come up and see me)”? Just as pertinently, what on earth does the lyric “For only metal, what a bore” mean? Harley certainly has the ability to be different. Entering the Harmonie I see he’s been at it again. The sound desk, normally at the back of the room out of the way is slap bang at the side of the stage. together with a rack of half a dozen guitars it takes up room where ten spectators would have stood and forces the audience back towards the bar. Inside the taped off ‘room’, at a time when most bands are setting up their own gear, there’s a three man crew doing the job tonight for Steve Harley. All three are wearing T-shirts bearing the title of Steve’s Diary/Book “The impression of being relaxed” and all are seemingly true to their T-shirts despite the steadily swelling audience that threatens to burst through their security tape. A reminder that the man still has star allure I guess.
Clearly Harley puts up a good show. But does he put on a good show?
Well the truth is: Harley is not one for messing about. He knows he has some very classy songs under his belt and he sure as hell knows how to deliver them, like an exocet missile, straight to the hearts and feet of his audience.
It actually takes a few moments to realise that the show has started, as an ultra slow taped version of one of Harley’s biggest hits, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ wafts across the eager assembled audience heads. Sadly that’s the last time we hear the song, but the good news is that there are still lots of ‘Oldies but Goodies’ to come. Along with some fine ‘Newies but Goodies’ it must be said.
‘Newies’ is somewhat subjective where Harley is concerned as he readily admits tonight. “I could bring out a new album every couple of years” he pointed out. “But unlike many others, I don’t release crap”. Clearly SH doesn’t hide his light under a bushel and when he later recounts having his picture taken with Beethoven’s bust and suggests the caption “Which one is the genius” I wonder if maybe some of the German audience don’t get the joke, and then wonder if indeed there was one.
So whilst I leave the title ‘Genius’ open, Steve Harley is definitely pretty good at what he does, and to his great credit is not content to just relive past glories. There are also glorious songs that didn’t first see light of day on 33 rpm discs. Pick of the bunch is the laid back and lilting “Coast of Amalfi” that goes down smooth like fresh Tequila. Pick of the night though for me was ‘Lighthouse’ from 1992’s “Yes You Can” album. In itself a great, thoughtful, piece. But when Barry Wickens takes his violin solo the song shifts into a higher galaxy altogether – and one very close to musical heaven! The same can also be said of Harley’s earliest single ‘Sebastian’. There are apologies about throat problems limiting the songs but if that was the case with this one then I can barely imagine it sounding better. Always a strong orchestral track, it’s power live is breathtaking.
Cockney Rebel fans need not fear though, drummer Stuart Elliott wasn’t the only evidence of the old ‘Top of the Pops’ glory days. It’s true that ‘Tumbling Downs’ refrain of “Oh dear, look what they did to the Blues” was done to death after the 30th repeat but all’s forgiven after a stonking rendition of “Mr Soft” that fairly pounded out of Elliotts drumkit. What could there be left to play as an encore? Of course, ‘Come up and see me’ (or ‘Make me Smile’?!) was the only way the band could top what had gone before. There had been deeper and more intense songs earlier but hey, would this be Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel without their Glam-Pop masterpiece?
No disappointments on the musical front then. At 58 Steve Harley certainly puts many a young rocker to shame with his energy and commitment. I was disappointed that he didn’t come back after the show so I could finally get my questions answered. But maybe he did answer them along the way. Why change the order of the title? Why write about only metal being a bore? because he’s Steve Harley – and if he’s still a tick behind Beethoven on the fame front he really is still pretty damn good to hear.