Audio: lossless (ape 784k)
Now then, starting from here, you don't really need these records unless Mr Steve Harley, regardless of the actual music he and his croonies make, strikes you as an intelligent, astute, sagacious and utterly penetrative bonmot of a person. (You can have your thesaurus back now.) Oh, he actually does strike me as one, which is why in the end I ended up liking this record about as much as Psychomodo even if the sonic differentiation is drastic. But one man's genius is another man's Jerry Springer, so think for yourself cuz I won't be there with you. (Cool fuzz tone, abrupt stop).
After Psychomodo, Steve Harley abruptly dumped the original Cockney Rebel, cruelly ending the two-year-long dream of the great democratic musical revolution. Out of the original members, only drummer Stuart Elliott has survived the transition, and out of all the new members, the only name I recognize is new guitarist Jim Cregan (former Family member for a very brief time, and later a pedestrian associate for Rod Stewart in his rote early Eighties period). And this is now "Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel" - meaning that music as such takes a step back and Harley's personal decadent/satiric fantasies take a step forward. Well, at least he's honest about it.
At first, the difference will seem unbearable. Gone are the ultra-cool violin riffs and the lengthy complex instrumental passages and, in fact, a huge part of the musical audacity and diversity of old. The first few times I heard this, it was all generic four-four beats and lots and lots and lots of boring lyrics to me. Then, fortunately, the feeling passed and I saw the album for what it was: Harley's half-sung, half-spoken, half-meaningful, half-absurdist oh-so-70s confession. An album full of terrific lyrical imagery and theatrical passion - and, actually, not that devoid of melodies. Well, I guess it's about as melodic as your average Springsteen album, actually, your average singer-songwriter album from the mid-Seventies, and in those cases when the singer-songwriter gets by on behalf of his personal charisma, it's about the best you can expect from that period. And you wanted the best, you got it.
There actually was one UK hit here, and that's 'Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)', an excellent mid-tempo pop-rocker with a glammy multi-vocal chorus and great use of the stop-and-start structure (as well as Beatlesque ooh-la-la-las all over the place). It's at the same time typical and atypical of the album. Typical, because it features the same type of enigmatic lyrics - on the surface, it's something like a misogynistic putdown, but what do you do with lines like 'How can you ignore my faith in everything/When I know what Faith is and what it's worth'? Atypical, because it's shorter, catchier and more concise than anything else on here, certainly chart-oriented at heart, but smart enough so as not to linger in the charts for too long.
My favourite tracks are the two side-closers, though. 'Panorama' is fast and lively, with a funny guitar tone, upbeat brass lines punctuating the melody and a totally kick-ass chorus ('I felt forty-five I was barely alive, I saw a Human Tribe and I was terrified'). Who cares if you can't really decipher the goofy lyrics? That's Steve Harley for you, Bobby Zimmerman's trusted disciple. And it's glam, baby, glam pop in all of its glory, highlighted by his female backuppers and saxophones and a giddy atmosphere of know-nothing-care-for-nothing. And then there's the title track, even more Dylan-like because it's slower and, as far as the overall impression goes, more introspective. For all of its five and a half minutes, you are openly caressed by Harley's cockneyified vocals, vocals which nevertheless seem to mock the very idea of a nostalgic confessional song. 'You think it's tragic when that moment arrives - oh but it's magic, it's the best years of our lives', he sings, and it would all be very well if you could actually understand what particular moment he's singing about. But whatever it is, it must mean a lot to the man. Or pretends to mean a lot.
The sense of the proceedings never gets any clearer, it only gets worse. Tracks like 'Back To The Farm' are openly paranoid, and it's a blessing - you don't actually have to wreck your brain over any hidden messages in that one. But indeed, Steve Harley is one of the best "impersonators of paranoia" of the epoch, and his ravings on that track are first rate, not to mention a well-crafted synthesizer solo from Duncan Mackay at the end. 'Mr Raffles' shuffles along lazily, yet with oodles and oodles of stylishness (and I particularly like that creeping little bit of Spanish guitar that enters right after the 'what a time we had down in Barcelona' line, ever noticed that?). '49th Parallel' experiments with funk, not particularly successfully, but ain't no crushing fiasco either. And 'Mad Mad Moonlight' desperately tries to pump in some rock'n'roll energy, but instead only manages to start the album off on a particularly puzzling note.
Playing this backto back with Psychomodo would actually help you to understand why they're rated equally - Psychomodo is much more daring and experimental, yet it seems like on this 1975 album Steve is much more firmly standing on his own two feet, so to speak. The songs are long, but never really overlong, and every one of them has a point, even if most of the points are undecipherable. Here is a man who has intentionally toned down his ambitions and started making records that may not be as original in quality, but are far more adequate in content. And, of course, as usual, the lyrics and the moods which accompany them may all be a huge put-on, but I find no problem in accepting them as a conscious put-on. And, after all, it's not the literal interpretation that matters, but the overall message - that of a crazy, crazy, crazy social life, life as a madhouse rife with possibilities and combinations. Actually, just look over the lyrics sheet with one brief glance. It's all about parties, madness, and murder. Well, how can one exist without the other? That's 1975 for you. Heck, that's humanity for you.