I’ve got guitars older than some of the band says Ipswich Regent bound Steve Harley
It’s been 40 years since Steve Harley’s iconic The Best Years Of Our Lives was released. He talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage
You’re kidding”, laughs the ex-journalist when I ask which side of the phone he prefers being on.
“I’m afraid that’s all long, long, long in the past but yeah it’s still a bit odd,” says Harley who spent three years working for Essex County Newspapers, including stints at the Essex County Standard, the Braintree and Witham Times, the Maldon and Burnham Standard and the Colchester Evening Gazette before moving back to London to work for the East London Advertiser.
“We played Brentwood (recently) and I was talking to the Gazette... I’ve got a byline in the very first issue because when it opened in 1969 it didn’t have a staff, it used all of us in Culver Square at the Standard. It lifted all our stories.
“I was on the Braintree and Witham times, the ‘brainless and witless’ and man we actually went to parish councils (in those days). I’ve been on my parish council in my village for the last ten years,” says Harley, who lives near Clare in Suffolk.
“I’m sitting there some weeks thinking this is boring and I used to sit and cover this rubbish you know? Trying to get two paragraphs out of it for Thursday’s paper. I loved my three or four years of that life. People are interesting, they’ve got stories to tell.”
Talking of stories, this year marks the 40th anniversary of his and Cockney Rebel’s The Best Years Of Our Lives album, containing hits Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) and Mr Raffles (Man It Was Mean). To mark the milestone, he’s playing the entire album, plus some fan favourites, across the country - including the Ipswich Regent on November 18.
“Forty years, Jesus, God almighty,” laughs Harley.
Recorded over several months at London’s Abbey Road Studios, he knew they had something special. The then managing director of record label EMI agreed.
“We worked until midnight, 1am, but at about 10 that night, he popped in and said ‘what have you got to play me’? Alan Parsons, my engineer and co-producer, and I said ‘we’ve just put the guitar on this track that we think you might consider as a single’. We played him the first mix of Make Me Smile and he just said ‘number one’. He went away and, sure enough, a few weeks after it was released it was.”
That was when songs used to climb the charts, when big record companies would move mountains to get them on the radio or in the shops selling, sighs Harley.
“Now where you go in on day one is where you peak. It’s different. I’ve got a single out (Ordinary People) that we’re really pleased with and it might well get some good airplay but I’m only pressing 150 copies to give to local radio. The national radio, everywhere else, you send them a memory stick or MP3.
“We’ve played it at four festivals this year and it’s proving popular so my hopes are quite high - although I’m pretty long in the tooth, I’m not young and hip so it’s pretty hard to get on the A or B list of Radio 2 which is what I need. It’s tough.”
He doesn’t feel more pressure to succeed now than he did back then. Continuing to write every day and night he’s still really ambitious.
“I’ve a new single out, a big tour that will probably sell out; so no, I’m not complacent but I have my place. I’ve got my audience and I don’t want to lose them, it’s even increasing somewhat with airplay. People say ‘I wondered what happened to him, I used to like old Steve Harley. I see he’s playing the Ipswich Regent, I think we should go’. They’re people who wouldn’t see an advert for it, they only know about it if I’m on Steve Wright which I hope I will be.”
It may be 40 years old, but Make Me Smile is rarely off the radio. Harley admits when he hears it, it still sounds good; adding you’d never know it was made in the 1970s. He takes issue when I say a great song is timeless.
“Forgive me, may I just say what I think you mean is a great record. Make Me Smile is a song, I can sit at the piano or on an acoustic guitar and play it to you. A lot of records you can’t do that. You couldn’t do that with the Prodigy, God bless ‘em. A great song still doesn’t mean it’s going to sell unless you make a really good record; sorry to be pedantic but there’s a difference between the two.
“Yeah it’s a good record, it was brilliantly engineered and you hear it on the radio now and you’d think it was modern. I don’t think anything’s improved, I’ve just come out of the studio and they’ve got nothing going on there that we weren’t doing in the 1970s except it’s done on a computer with a mouse.”
Talking of the 1970s, the tour sees Harley reunited with original Best Years band members Jim Cregan on guitar, Stuart Elliott on drums and Duncan Mackay on keyboards for the first time since 1976.
“It’s amazing... Duncan’s lived in Cape Town for 25 years and hasn’t played in that time. He owns a studio and he records people. He’s so excited to come back to England, a week of rehearsals, pretty big shows, he’s overwhelmed with excitement.”
Harley’s admits he’s not looking forward to rehearsals. He’s not good with repetition, preferring to move quickly. If he’s held up by somebody not getting it he gets bored. The tour itself however...
“It’s wonderful. These guys are such great people. I’ve got to take a little credit for putting a band together of really nice human beings,” he laughs. “They’re really all very funny, very witty people. I like that, it’s a nice atmosphere. We can take the Mick out of each other 24/7, it’s water off a duck’s back.
“The camaraderie, the thrill of hearing each other play... For the first time in many years I probably am looking forward to going into rehearsals,” he laughs.
Also joining him will be long-standing Cockney Rebel member Barry Wickens on violin and guitar and Austrian twins Lisa and Mona Wagner on second lead guitar and percussion.
“They’re 20. We’ve all got kids older than them,” he laughs. “I’ve got guitars older than them but that keeps us young. And the bass player’s only 40, youngster...”
Missing from the line-up will be the late George Ford, with Felixstowe’s Marty Prior in his place.
“We’ll miss him, Stuart thinks we should get a cardboard cut-out of him... Lovely, lovely George, he was a sweetheart, but no we soldier on.”
The Best Years portion of the show runs for an hour or so and will include a few B-sides. The rest will be fans’ favourite picks, the result of an online poll.
“I’m not One Direction, (I don’t have) the kind of fans who go on the internet and get involved, they’re older. A few hundred submitted their favourite three tracks. My webmaster has come up with one to ten; although when I first mooted this earlier, Stuart said ‘but you’ll play what you want to play anyway won’t you’,” Harley laughs. “I don’t know whether he knows me or whether he’s just got more cynical but yeah, the first set’s very big and emotional.”
He was surprised by some of the choices, with fans leaning towards his later romantic, sentimental songs rather than his earlier surreal, eccentric stuff. The number one choice was Nothing is Sacred from the 1976 album Timeless Flight.
“It features blistering guitar playing from Jim. He keeps saying he wants to improvise and I’m saying ‘no learn it, learn it man. They’re coming, they’re paying their money to hear you play those licks. Those chops’. It was genius at the time. ‘You can’t improve on that Jim’, I said. He improvised through six or seven minutes with me singing, it’s so clever and of course it was one take on the night. They know Creegan’s in the band, they want to see it. It’s such a thrill people want all this.”
Touring, says Harley, is different these days.
“I say to them, guys go to bed,” he laughs. “I used to stay up all night, go to nightclubs where everyone was smoking and I’d drink brandy. The next day I’m supposed to sing a show - why would I do that? Being young you’re more resilient, at my age man I have to rest. I’ve got to do it again tomorrow and I want every show to be the best it can be... I owe it to myself, never mind an audience.
“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I thought I was acting like an idiot... The party is on stage, the playing.”