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Friars Interviews

steve harley
Cockney Rebel

friars appearances 05/01/74  25/05/74  06/06/74  24/08/74  20/12/80  12/12/81

 

Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel broke through in a massive way in 1974 and Friars caught them as they went on the up and up. This was one of the acts that Friars thought was going to be interesting and so it proved as the Aylesbury audience took them to their hearts and Steve Harley will tell you, as you will see, how much David Stopps and Friars Aylesbury meant to his success. A while back, even before this website was thought of, Steve wrote on his website in his online blog/diary how dismayed he was that the Civic Centre was due to close and how important Friars was to him.

Steve is still very much in the public eye today and still playing decent sized venues. He also was the voice of BBC Radio 2's Sounds of The Seventies. Steve very kindly took some time out to talk to us in April 2009.

Steve Harley - photo by Mike Callow.

Friars Aylesbury Website: Hi Steve, thanks for talking to the Friars Aylesbury website. I think it's safe to say that Aylesbury was very important to you?

Yes.

...and that you are very much a Friars legend! I know from your website and your online diaries/blogs, a great read, you wrote about Friars and the Civic Centre closing down.

It was unbelievable when I heard

It's had a stay of execution.

Go on, what's the latest?

The latest is that it may not be knocked down till 2010.

I don't know who built it, in architectural terms its still a very modern building.

Yes it is.

Why it would be redundant so soon after being built (opened 1975)...it's as if someone's got a blank cheque somewhere. I can't explain it, it seems so inexplicable.

The credit crunch has probably saved it.

So they can't afford to build a new one?

The thing is they're half way building the new one..

Oh get away!

The original plan was completely insane which was to close the Civic in summer last year and leave Aylesbury for 18 months without a theatre as they would have closed it whilst still building the other one. Which makes no sense. But the developers didn't go in and the Civic will stay open till the new one is ready.

I remember the Borough Assembly Hall, and I liked the amphitheatre feel (of the Civic Centre).

Sadly I never experienced the Borough Assembly Hall.

Ah, the black and white one! We loved it there, it had a special place in our touring itineraries.

Yes, in 1974 you made four headlining appearances. It was the second one in May where it all went absolutely mad where people outside (without tickets) were trying to get in...

We scheduled one a week or so later didn't we?

Yes. It must have been an incredible time?

Yes, it was wonderful. Dave Stopps was a wonderful promoter. He had an eye for what was going on and his finger was bang on the pulse all right.

Dave has a special place in my career. He's such a modest guy. I'm not sure if he knows in what esteem is he held.

Back to the early days, you started out playing the folk clubs..

Yes, that was what was available to an embryonic singer songwriter coming out of the coffee houses and that from New York (which) developed into the kind of scene like The Troubadour and places like that. There were some really brilliant players back then and brilliant organisers like Martin Carthy and several others who ran the folk clubs. I used to play as a floor spotter. You sat in the audience and during the interval you put your hand up and you had your cheap old Echo guitar with you.

A bit like an open mike spot?

Yes, that's what they call it now but then it was called floor spotting as you were spotted from the floor. The floor spotters mostly sang traditional folk, but I was singing stuff from what would be The Human Menagerie album!

I never went down particularly well but that didn't matter. What did matter was I was a brash young man who be couldn't hurt. What mattered was that I learning to sing and control an audience, so the start of what would be a career. I didn't expect to go down brilliantly because I wasn't singing what they wanted to hear. It was purely a selfish motive!

From there was where the seeds of Cockney Rebel were sown?

I met John (Jean Paul) Crocker in the folk clubs. I used to play and frequent Beckenham Arts Lab which was being run by Bowie and his wife Angie. Bowie went off to be a pop star and played the Mecca ballrooms and they needed someone to fill his residency at the Lab which was basically a room at the back of a pub. That's where I earned my first money apart from busking. I played my first gig as headline act and got 15. A lot as we were on the dole at the time, busking and learning our trade.

Then you got the remaining guys and became the first incarnation of Cockney Rebel...

It sort of came together piecemeal. John and I placed a three line ad in Melody Maker...'soft rock band requires drummer'. Stuart Elliott called us and we visited him in Pimlico and we all sat on his bed (John, Stuart and me) and played guitar and fiddle and he said he wanted to play with us so he got the job. We hadn't heard him drum!

An interesting audition!

Yes, you started bands as mates, you wanted to play with people you liked being with, as mates. It changes as it develops as you get older and more established and (these days) everyone's a hired gun. While I want to be around people I like and who are pleasant to me they must accept that there is demarcation, that there is a boss, a chairman of the board. At soundcheck, backstage etc, you need to like each other. I don't want to play with people I'm not fond of, but on the other hand, they don't have to become best friends. The original Cockney Rebel were friends, but we were kids larking about.

...and you grew up...

Yes, once you start having your own children, you take things a little more seriously! It's different now, but you still audition thinking 'do I like this guy' - that hasn't changed much.

When you made the Human Menagerie, it was such an original album. There was no electric guitar, it was very different..

For a rock band it was a bit odd wasn't it?

How were you marketing yourselves and who did you see yourselves influenced by?

I can't really remember, when we signed to EMI to make three albums. The head of A&R who signed us, when we met him,  he said he's never heard anything like us and asked what influences we had. I remember very arrogantly and cockily saying we didn't have any as we were completely original! (laughs). We were young and we were that way. I went through the whole of the sixties as a teenager and adored rock music and went to all the festivals. I was influenced by everything and nothing to be truthful. I still felt like my own main man. I wasn't joining a sound or genre, maybe creating one, possibly pretentious, but you have to think that way when you are starting out. I'd be playing The Flying Burrito Brothers one minute, Dylan the next, Hunky Dory was a seminal album we all had and I grew up with Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, people who could put words together.

As I said, The Human Menagerie was a little different, a little bit of orchestra...

A little bit? There was a 40 piece orchestra on there!

I mean in the sense of not every song. Death Trip was.

Yes....and Sebastian

Sebastian is a tour de force but Death Trip is a great track. The Psychomodo is unique again in its own way. What was the record company saying? Did they want another Human Menagerie or to take it forward?

They never said much to me at all! EMI kind of let me go my own way. The Human Menagerie was produced by an EMI in house producer (Neil Harrison). For the second one, I said Neil (Harrison)'s great but I've got lots of ideas. They said I was too young to not have a producer so we came up with the idea of an engineer developing in to a producer so they came up with Alan Parsons who was amazing.

A good pedigree!

Yes, but they had to let me have my own free reign most of the time because if they hemmed me in too much, I'd have exploded! I've always had adventurous ideas and wanted to experiment with everything around with what was a musical instrument.

So a restrictive producer wouldn't have worked well for you at all?

No it wouldn't have. They recognized that at EMI thankfully.

In 1974, Cockney Rebel changed (personnel) for reasons that aren't important for this interview...

We did that very long tour....

That last show (at Friars) in August 1974 was with the new band.

Just before Reading. Certainly a new one off set up (for that time) if not a new band (as such)

Then Make Me Smile took you into a new league! I've asked this of other people before...when you've got a track that turns out the way it did and it still gets played in 2009, 35 years after it came out, it must be weird in one way, having written one of the most classic tracks of our generation?

You don't think like that when you're writing it or recording it. We may have been attempting to produce a great radio record to try to get a hit single. I was trying to do that with all of The Best Years Of Our Lives. Panorama could have been a hit single. Mr. Raffles was. I remember when we recorded that, I thought 'that's a good hook' etc. I thought it was an album full of singles. In hindsight Make Me Smile stands out. At the time, Alan Parsons, and the head of EMI and I had a chat and we pulled up a rough mix of Make Me Smile which had just had Jim Cregan's solo added to it and he just said   'hit!'. He had to be a good judge and it had to be a record that Radio 1 wanted to play and they could throw EMI's weight behind it.

By 'hit', he said it would be a number one. I said, 'I'll hold you to that'

It came out and I'm still hearing it now!

As a minor aside, you may know that Jim Cregan had played Friars a few times before - in Blossom Toes and BB Blunder. He goes back quite a way!

Spoke to him last week!

After that period, you carried on playing Friars which was great...

When you were touring you played where you can when you did the UK. I've played the Civic Hall post Friars a few times.

You played in 1976 on 'Timeless Flight' and again in 1980/1981. It's great that your Friars history covered the two main venues.

The thinking really was that once Dave Stopps got hold of an act, the critics from NME etc would come to Aylesbury from London as it was a short train ride away. The fans in the Aylesbury area were a good monitor of what was going on...

Phil Pickett (from Sailor) said the very same thing to me.

Yes, if the Aylesbury audience went ape over you, chances are it wasn't just a local vibe, it would go national. It happened to an impressive long list.

There are a number of acts where Aylesbury played a significant part in their careers...Genesis, Sailor, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, yourself..

Absolutely.

Moving to more recent times. You're still touring and recording which is a remarkable achievement. There would be so many of your contemporaries from that original era who have fallen off..

I guess so. I think you're either destined to do this for life...there are people who have played for me who aren't comfortable in this world but are very gifted musicians. I was destined to do this, it's what I do. As long as there is an audience.

We're doing a week in Germany in October, but I don't want to do too much touring (this year) as I am writing new songs. So I'm making a break from that to write and record. There are people round me who have played with me for years and done hundreds of shows. Some of younger, a couple of older. Stuart Elliott's in the band, we all have children, many of them now grown up. My crew are brilliant and love doing it. It (the travelling) can be tiresome etc, but we get to a new city and there's galleries we can explore, boats etc, we can explore as a tourist.

Last year we did St Petersburg supporting the Rolling Stones. Where else would we rather be?!

Being a successful musician allows you opportunities to do things you ordinarily may not be able to do..

Yes, we played the Arctic Circle, brilliant at 3 in the morning, things you wouldn't see as an ordinary tourist. But apart from that, you've got a spotlight and an audience and you play music. I allow musicians a lot of freedom although we do rehearse very tightly and then get as tight as a duck's backside and then I let them loose...! They know the parameters of the worst that can happen and the best that can happen. We rehearse all right but no two gigs are the same. But we are so well rehearsed that I can afford to improvise or ad lib on stage.

There might be people who will come to say two or three nights at the Stables (in Milton Keynes) as they might say that the previous night was different to tonight's show.

Going back to being a showman in the Human Menagerie/Psychomodo period, you were portrayed as having a provocative image?

Was it?!

From what I have seen in the press, that seemed to be the case.

What happened was that I was a trained and qualified journalist. But I was being interviewed in 1973/1974 by guys from the music press who weren't qualified journalists at all. In fact they were failed musicians! I'd been successful in the career they failed in and secondly I was a bona fide journalist and they weren't which I think wound them up a little bit. It did crop up on occasion and I may have jibed a little. Back then though, there were some brilliant writers who had a great turn of phrase, great prose. It's very easy to be funny when you're slagging someone off. The art is writing readable or brilliant prose whilst praising the artist. Most of them couldn't do that, they found the art of mockery far far simpler.

That's a weak form of journalism though isn't it?

That's what it was like then. I don't know today as I never see of the (music press). I don't feel part of that world any more. They (back then) promoted me as this arrogant cocky big mouth. I'm not that, I never was that. I've always had a sense of humility.

That's my point though, the press made you out to be this person

The guys round me were always laughing though.

You laughed it off though and didn't take it too seriously then?

We just wanted to make records and have fun. We didn't even get paid then. Royalties? Where did they go? Tour income, two sold out nights at Aylesbury, we didn't see the money. There were people who took all that, didn't hand it out, didn't keep the books straight..you never knew what was going on.

Seems endemic of the time...so many acts, many successful from that period....I mean you've just confirmed everyone's worst suspicions...you were stitched up left right and centre?

I wouldn't say we were stitched up..

To be fair, that was my expression.

We wasted lots of it. At the end of tour, you'd say where's my (share) and the tour manager would say it's been spent on limousines etc. I'd be thinking why the bloody hell didn't you stop us, we were kids having fun. Call yourself a manager?! Why didn't you manage? Charlatans!

Fair point.

Those management types (at the time) couldn't run a bath and they managed bands because they were young and innocent usually and didn't know how to say no. It was the way of the world. I don't know if it's changed today. Today the biggest rock stars all have their fingers on the purse strings.

Quite rightly.

You don't trust anyone!

It's your money.

Yes, it's my kids' money. Any tour manager who says to me 'trust me', I say 'with respect, I can't' But the really clever ones wouldn't say that to an artist like me in the first place. The people around me have been around as long as I have and have survived.

Because they've done their job properly

Yes and they (the others) wouldn't be that patronising (to say trust me) and would not get the job anyway.

You've been in this too long to not know how it works...

When I go on tour, there's the travelling, mental stress of never (wanting to) catching a cold, warming the voice for 45 minutes, sure the average working man has a harder life than me, but a lot of hard work goes in before you go on to that stage.

It's your voice you're protecting...

Yes, some days I won't speak, it's nothing to do with rudeness. I've got to go out there and sing for 2-2.5 hours. You have to look after all of that especially as you get older. But I get a lot back from a great performance. You can't put that satisfaction into words and makes it all worthwhile. So much emotion. But at the end of the week, I want to see the bottom line and know where the money is going. I've got 15-20 people on the road and I am paying 19 of them. So you want to know what's left is being looked after. So there are people a lot closer who look after that for me.

Steve Harley, thank you very much.

Steve Harley's official website

This interview and its content are 2009 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

 
 
 

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