Rebel with a cause: hitmaker Harley still keeps his tight focus

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Forty years on from his first success with Cockney Rebel, Steve Harley retains the focus that has given him, he says, a wonderful career and a great life.

Whether it’s appearing with a 50-piece orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years ago, taking a seven or eight piece full band to York just before Christmas or bringing an intimate trio setting to his songs, which will be the case when he plays Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Monday, October 13, he still relishes it.

He has a formidable but carefully chosen back catalogue to choose from - an artist who can boast both artistically acclaimed albums like The Psychomodo - Cockney Rebel’s breakthrough - and smash hit songs, including Judy Teen, Mr Soft, Mr Raffles (Man It Was Mean), a lovely cover of George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun and, of course, a massive number one with Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me), from the 1975 album The Best Years Of Our Lives.

“We’ll be here with an acoustic trio. We’ve been doing a lot of it all over Europe and it’s really exciting. The audience knows it’s not a folk club act - it’s acoustic but it rocks out and we improvise a lot. These intimate gigs are the most exciting,” he says.

Harley is out on the road a lot, gigs ranging from playing to 10,000 at festivals to the 200 or so at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. He hasn’t played there before but as an informed musician is aware of its good reputation for excellent sound and comfortable surroundings.

He is no stranger to Calderdale, having played in Halifax a couple of times, including a solo acoustic set at the Piece Hall in 1989’s rain-sodden CARE Concert (for the rainforests and elephants) where his version of Here Comes The Sun briefly seemed to make the rain clouds part.

“I remember playing the Piece Hall. It’s an incredible setting. I love to go travelling and like social history. I went back after that concert to have another look at it,” he said.

Harley trained as a newspaper reporter, and there has always been more to his work than many of the acts who were also big in the charts in 1974. He and Cockney Rebel debuted with the majestic single Sebastian, whereas many of his contemporaries in the top ten four decades ago are purely defined by their time. It gives his music a flexibility that lends itself to full band, small group or indeed 50-piece orchestra setting.

“I’m quite lucky and am so happy now that I wasn’t writing and getting hits with real bubblegum. You couldn’t go out and do this with Suzi Quatro or Bay City Rollers songs. I have 13 or 14 albums to pick from and I’m proud of that catalogue. It’s given me enormous freedom to perform it in all these different formats,” he said.

The quality control is very important to him - Steve does not believe in churning out reams of new material just for the sake of it. When new material does appear, it has to be good, hence a relatively small number of albums from a musician with a 40-year career.

“It doesn’t get easier to write songs you’re proud of. I have got 40 plus years in the business and acquired a lovely lifestyle, with everything I could need, so it’s hard to write songs that are sincere,” he says, admitting that he nevertheless writes all the time because it is in his blood - but the results are carefully edited, the quality control severe, perhaps those old journalistic techniques still rearing their heads.

Tickets for Steve Harley - All Seated, Acoustic and Intimate - Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Monday, October 13 (doors open 7.30pm), are £27 (£25 for members). See www.thetradesclub.com for more details, or call 01422 845265.