Graded on a Curve:
Steve Harley
& Cockney Rebel,
The Psychomodo

My all-time favorite rude dismissal of second generation (and second tier) English Glam rocker Steve Harley comes from the New Musical Express’ Roy Carr, who wrote, “By the way Steve, when you’re finished with it, David Bowie would like his voice back and Bryan Ferry his vibrato. You can keep the clothes.”

Mean, I know. And not really fair, either; I suspect Carr’s onus was directed as much towards Harley the human being as it was towards Harley the singer. A childhood bout with polio left Harley with a limp, and like Shakespeare’s lame Richard III that limp left him a kind of egomaniacal villain. Harley shared Richard III’s pride and ruthless drive to become King, but unlike the cunning Richard, Harley lacked the guile and cunning to cloak his vainglorious ambitions. To put it bluntly, he invariably came off in interviews as a megalomaniacal twat. And he was a twat to his long-suffering band members as well.

That said, on 1974’s The Psychomodo, Harley’s second (and final) outing with the original members of Cockney Rebel, Harley delivers the glam goods. The man’s hardly a known quality in the States, and more’s the pity, because The Psychomodo is nothing less than a lost glam masterpiece.

The Psychomodo is a surpassingly strange LP. This is primarily due to the fact that Cockney Rebel was a band without a guitarist. Instead, the band’s sound was chiefly dictated by a pair of hyphenates–Jean-Paul Crocker on electric violin and Milton Reames-James on keyboards. Harley’s animus towards the electric guitar is almost hilariously fussy; he didn’t want them around because they made “rude noises.” Perhaps he was confusing them with whoopee cushions.

As for Harley, he’s a real ham with a Dylan fixation, and big on the dramatic flourishes–he rather reminds me of a more histrionic by far younger brother of Ian Hunter, or a Bob Geldof imitator gone stone fey. But he’s more verbose than Hunter, more verbose than Bowie even–the man’s a veritable fount of mad imagery. To quote the title of the album’s most fetching cut, on The Psychomodo the words truly come “Tumbling Down.”

Toss in the big orchestral and brass arrangements of Anthony Powell, and what you have is an album that’s long, and I mean really, really long, on the musical theatre. Campy and florid, Harley out-Bowies Bowie by completely bypassing the blues rock tradition–forget the Mississippi Delta, this is Cabaret music.

I know others read the line a different way, but I choose to believe Harley’s looking in the mirror when sings, in “Tumbling Down,” “Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues, blues, blues.” And if Glam dress up aesthetic stood as a sartorial rejection of the unwashed hippie blues rock “look,” Harley took this rejection to absurd lengths–he actually bragged to an interviewer he had “the cleanest roadies in the business.” Made ‘em take showers and everything!

There’s an element of Pierrot to The Psychomodo, and a hint of the circus too–the very silly ”Mr. Soft” sounds like a combination of Hunky Dory and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. On “Ritz,” one of the band’s two standout long cuts, he name drops both the French impressionist and noted painter of clowns Georges Roualt and Pablo Fanque, the noted English equestrian performer and circus proprietor. Indeed, in the early days Harley flirted with the idea of having the band go on stage dressed as clowns; fortunately the idea was discarded, and the world was spared a major horror.

The Psychomodo’s shorter cuts are excellent, but not the stuff of legends. “Singular Band” reminds me a bit of Bowie’s “Kooks,” albeit infused with a Caribbean lilt, lots of drums and space, and some jazzy keyboard touches; the “singular band” in the title is Harley’s natch, but the song ends on a troubled and questioning note–”Who will want us, who will want us now we’re turning into a singular band?”

The deceptively ebullient “Sweet Dreams” is another meditation on the perils of fame–”I can’t hope to keep the pace I have made,” sings a worried Harley, before adding “Maybe I’ll settle in the country and fade.” Yeah right. And Adolf Hitler liked to tell people that when WWII was successfully concluded he intended to return to Linz, Austria to run a museum.

Elsewhere Cockney Rebel goes the uptempo rock and roll route on the Dylan-meets-T. Rex title cut, which is chiefly remarkable for its lack of electric guitar–this might be what everybody sounded like had the guitar had never been invented. They also do their fussy version of kicking out the jams on the mad romp “Sling It!,” which is distinguished by Crocker’s furious electric violin and Rease-James’ atonal keyboard work. It makes me think of a Glam Kansas, it does.

The album’s two long tracks are the best. “Ritz” is a gorgeous, droning thing, dark and lugubrious and tinged with a Middle Eastern patina thanks to Jean-Paul Crocker’s electric violin. Harley comes off like a ghost haunting a five-star hotel–he’s that dapper shade you catch a phantom glimpse of in the mirror behind the bar, but there’s no one across from it. I’m not quite sure what he’s going on about, but he’s clearly disturbed: “This is hardly paradise,” he sings, “We’re still in search of petty scorn.”

And “Cavaliers” is even better–I can only describe it as a euphoric bummer. If “Ritz” is ghost haunted, “Cavaliers” sounds a note of paranoia and doom. ”I’m horrified to step outside/It’s so easy to make a suicide come true,” he sings at one point; “Love to have God next to me/With his hands around my throat in harmony” at another. It’s all very overwrought, for sure, but once again it works thanks to its musical setting. Cockney Rebel condescends to add a guitar to the mix, and as the song slowly and droningly unwinds the tension builds and builds, broken only by a chorus that ends with the tauntingly Dylanesque query, “Oh, how does it feel now that you’ve testified?”

My personal fave on The Psychomodo is the sad and pretty piano ballad “Tumbling Down,” which sounds to me like a song D. Bowie inexplicably omitted to include on Hunky Dory. Harley’s vocals are winsome and elegiac, the orchestral backing is lovely but not overbearing, and if your heart doesn’t miss a beat when Harley gets around to repeating (and finally screaming) “Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues, blues, blues!” you’ve got a steadier ticker than I do. And only Harley could pull off a line like “Hail to the monkey, we’re having a funky reunion” without me crying bullshit.

Harley’s dictatorial tendencies and hubris put an early end to Cockney Rebel; the boys in the band finally rebelled over shitty pay, Harley’s unwillingness to share songwriting credits, and other outrages. And self-deluded and self-important fool that he was, Harley brushed off their desertion, dead sure he’d be better off without them. To his credit he did go on to record the smash hit “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me),” his most fondly remembered tune, on his own. But further success eluded him, and something tells me he’s spending his final days eking out a living on the Scandinavian Glam festivals circuit, with the likes of Suzi Quatro, Mud, and the Sweet. It all came tumbling down indeed.

It’s tempting to say Harley’s less a chapter in the Great Book of Glam than a cautionary footnote, but that would be a lie. If you’re a Glam addict like I am The Psychomodo is a must-own, don’t leave your home without it, run don’t walk to hear a Glam bam thank you ma’am classic.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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