As a teenager he’d been involved in newspaper journalism, but by 1970 Deptford lad Steve Harley was taking a guitar around London folk clubs, going from a “weekend mod” phase to being a “weekend hippie”.
The troubadour side mixed with the emerging glam and art-rock scenes, and Harley found fame with the wonderfully arch and flamboyant Cockney Rebel. Currently on the road with his Acoustic Band, he tells Classic Rock about some of the sparks that lit his imagination.
The first song I remember hearing
Before Radio 1 existed we had The Light Programme on the airwaves. My mother was a jazz singer, and on Sundays there’d be big band music and she’d sing along in the kitchen. For pop it would have been from my older cousins who were buying Buddy Holly and Elvis. I was very big on Buddy, even up to this day.
The first song I performed live
My first live performances were as a floor-spotter, which they call open-mic now, in folk clubs – you’d put your hand up in the audience to be spotted and get up and play. I was on the dole for a year playing in [clubs such as] Bunjies, Les Cousins, The Troubadour. The first song I ever performed was in 1970 and called Laid In The Shade. It was absolute rubbish, but the tune worked. I went back to it in 1974 and added new lyrics. That became Make Me Smile.
The guitar hero
Frank Zappa. He was a one-off – unique as a composer, as a wit, and then as a guitar player. He played jazz, basically, and he hardly ever bent a note, it was all just brilliant technique. Play Stink-Foot from Apostrophe (’); he rips off this solo out of nowhere that is just beyond historic.
I took more pleasure than I can tell you in acquiring the services of Eddi Reader. On my latest album [Uncovered], Eddi can break your heart. That’s the voice that most women would want. She duets with me on an old Newfoundland folk song, Star Of Belle Isle, and that was pretty special. She came and played with my band, a string quartet and gospel singers in Glasgow last year. When she walked on I didn’t even introduce them. I walked off and she did a couple of numbers to start, and that was a big moment.
It’s Dylan, but I’d be hard-pressed to put him above Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens. These people are astonishing. I must put Bob at the top because he’s the one I keep fighting to interpret, to understand the mystery. The others are more straightforward.
The worst record I made
In the eighties I made several tracks that were going to be on an album called El Grand Senor, and I allowed a couple of keyboard players to go rampant – in those days it was all multi-synthesisers, polyphonic. Three tracks ended up on an album called Yes You Can. I heard one or two lately, because fans have been asking for us to include these titles live, so I’m listening to them at home and thinking: “God, that’s a bloody racket.”
The greatest album of all time
It’s Dylan, but I’m torn between Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. They’re both just ridiculously brilliant pieces of work. But if I was on a desert island it would be Blonde On Blonde, because I could spend my life working out the meanings and the allegories inside Visions Of Johanna, which mesmerises me, frankly.
The most underrated band ever
Longpigs. Crispin [Hunt, vocals] was a highly talented young man who now heads [royalties collection agency] PRS. Richard Hawley was the lead guitarist; he can write a song or two! I saw them on Top Of The Pops playing Lost Myself, and I recognised something much deeper than this pseudo neo-punk thing they were doing. On their two albums every song cuts the mustard. I thought I was seeing a stadium band in-the-making, then they were gone.
The cult hero
The Cult For someone who’s not mainstream famous but is massively talented, I would say Martin Simpson. He’s written some fantastic songs and is lyrically brilliant. It’s got that Yorkshireman’s eye for detail when they get straight to the point. He played on the last album.
My Saturday night/party song
Reach each Out (I’ll Be There) by the Four Tops. I was a huge Tamla fan as a teenager, and for me and my pals in south London, Motown was our dance music. This is also for my first love and lover, Glenda White from Wickford. Reach Out was our song.
My guilty pleasure
I travel mostly in silence. But when I am in the mood to listen to something – like last week, when I drove five hundred miles for a photo shoot – I play Beethoven, the greatest of them all. There’s a top line of talent that makes me swoon: Virginia Woolf, Steinbeck, Hemingway, TS Eliot. Beethoven is at the top of the highest echelons.
The song that makes me cry
A Case Of You by Joni Mitchell. ‘I could drink a case of you, still I’d be on my feet.’ It’s a beautiful observation and image. It breaks my heart with passion.
The song I want played at my funeral
I’ll do a Bowie and I won’t have one [a funeral]! But if I do it’s back to Zappa, and Peaches En Regalia from Hot Rats. It’s a fabulous melody and production, and quite uplifting. I don’t want misery.
Steve Harley’s Acoustic Band tour runs until June 30. For dates and tickets, check the Steve Harley website.