Rod Liddle Rod Liddle

The greatness of Steve Harley

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You may have noticed by now that the airtime devoted to dead popstars bears scant relation to their actual importance in the genre, or indeed their popularity. So, for example, the death of the smackhead rapper Coolio was headline news on the BBC and the subject of a fawning feature on the PM programme, despite the fact that he had only one really big hit in the UK – ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ – the bones of which were written by Stevie Wonder.

The tragedy of Harley, a charming and hugely talented man, is that he is remembered for one song

Meanwhile, Rick Parfitt was the co-writer of a large proportion of Status Quo’s more than 60 top 30 hits – the greatest number of any band of any era – but his passing was scarcely mentioned. The reason, I think, is that the middle-class arts-grad crowd in our media are ashamed of Status Quo and would feel embarrassed eulogising him. Lou Reed – who was important, I would concede, but scarcely popular, given that he enjoyed only two UK top ten hits in his lifetime – was lauded for ever and a day, mainly because the BBC journos remember with awe and envy having met cool people at university who had a copy of Loaded.

And so it goes. It is sad that Bob Marley died in 1981 and at such a young age, but believe me, if he had died this week instead, his demise would require at least a month of retrospectives, the recall of parliament, his effigy installed on the spare plinth in Trafalgar Square and the immediate payment of reparations to Jamaica. I have no animus against Marley and have bought several of his albums, but politically motivated revisionism has made him perhaps the most overrated songwriter in history. I always preferred the slyly sinister Keith Hudson, not to mention Jimmy Cliff, if it is reggae we’re talking.

The sheer profusion of rock and roll deaths right now – the consequence of, uh, old age – also affects the airtime afforded the recently deceased, of course. They are coming thick and fast, as might be expected. Cultish figures I adored – Tom Verlaine, Rab Noakes, Sean Tyla – pass without so much as a mention, and even the real greats – Gordon Lightfoot, Bert Jansch – get at the most a cursory mention at the end of the news bulletins.

Last week two musicians for whom I had a very high regard died. Eric Carmen is famous mostly for his somewhat self-pitying and melodramatic reworking of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (or ‘Rocky 2’ as it sometimes known) in the hit ‘All By Myself’. I revered him, however, for the cascading drums, crunchy guitars and soaring melodies of his band the Raspberries, though they had scant impact in the UK (which, post-Beatles, never really took to power pop).

And then there’s Steve Harley. He got a short obit which, naturally, featured one of his less interesting – but very popular – songs ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, his only number one. The tragedy of Harley, a charming and hugely talented man, is that he is remembered for this one song and was treated with suspicion by the music press in the 1970s for his associations with both glam rock and prog rock, as well as his supposedly right-of-centre political leanings. And yet without Harley, I would suggest, there could have been no Britpop two decades later, and if we are to have a bit of revisionism in our appreciation of dead rock stars, then Harley is a good place to start.

His band Cockney Rebel also annoyed the music press, because Harley was often antagonistic towards the journos (he had been one) and on stage was possessed of an undoubtedly affected demeanour, somewhat at odds with his working-class sarf Lunnun upbringing. This latter was partly an attempt to disguise the effects of polio, which had left him in hospital for four years and with a severe limp for the rest of his life, as well as a nod to glam rock. He was consigned to being a chancer and a showman, and right-wing to boot, because he had no time for the post-1968 affection for communism prevalent in his milieu.

What really set him apart, though, was a musical imagination quite at odds with the time. His breakthrough single ‘Judy Teen’ dispensed with guitars and instead relied upon pizzicato violin for the principal accompaniment. Even before that, he had signalled that here was something very different indeed: his four-minute debut single ‘Sebastian’ combined a classically inspired melody with lyrics suggesting an acid trip that had perhaps gone a little wrong.

There was always a swagger and a revelling in decadence with Harley – his single ‘Mr Raffles’ matched a glorious melody to a tale of serial murder – and the press was uncertain about how to take this sort of stuff. There was a cleverness and humour at work which was fairly out of place in the mid-1970s and so Harley was not taken terribly seriously, any more than were his similarly intelligent rivals, 10cc.

Not everything was peachy – Harley was responsible for one of the worst cover versions I have ever heard: his remake of George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’. But the brilliance of his own songwriting surely should have been beyond dispute. Those two decades later, both Oasis and Elbow acknowledged a debt to Cockney Rebel. (Elbow had once been called Mr Soft after an early Cockney Rebel single and Oasis referenced the same song on their debut single, ‘Shakermaker’.) But you can hear Harley, too, in the melodicism and cynicism of Blur and Pulp and even more so, the Auteurs. ‘Brechtian’ is what one commentator called his songs, which may be pushing it a bit, I suppose.

I saw Harley performing last year, one of the last gigs before his death. It was a rather wonderful evening. When you get to my age, your heroes begin kicking the bucket with a terrifying frequency and are too quickly forgotten. I hope we remember the talent of Steve Harley.


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