MUDKISS FANZINE

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"STEVE HARLEY MAKES ME SMILE" BY LORRAINE

One of the privileges to come from the concept of Mudkiss was always going to be the opportunity to talk to those who had profoundly influenced or affected us musically. Like most kids in the early 70s’ I listened to The Bay City Rollers, The Osmonds, Sweet, The Jackson 5 and so on. It was just what you did, it was there, like spangles. However, there was another ‘there’ in my brothers ‘banned from access’ bedroom.

Photo: Andreas Fucke (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Pink Pop Classic, Aug 2007)

Banned from access to a little sister was always going to be irresistibly inviting, especially on days off sick from school. Amongst The Who, Pink Floyd, Be-Bop Deluxe, The Beatles and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, to name a few, I discovered Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, ‘The Human Menagerie’ and ‘The Psychomodo’. Despite punk being on the march in 1976, captivated by Mr. Rotten and crew, I still was elated to receive my own copy of ‘Love’s a Prima Donna’ for Christmas. The dichotomy of sometimes dark and macabre lyrics set to upbeat melodies, alongside grandiose operatic layers of drama and a voice that purred, Steve Harley certainly has a major role in the soundtrack to my life. I was indeed elated, along with being incredibly nervous, at the prospect of actually speaking to Steve over the phone. At a babbling race of knots I told him how I had been informing virtually everyone I had met that I would be speaking to him, listening to their own perspective. One friend summed him up first and foremost as “a wordsmith”. I wondered if he would agree.

Steve - Laughs, “Yeah, it’s about right I should think, but actually playing live is my biggest love, actually singing the words as it were, playing.”

Lorraine - For me, personally, you were the first artist to strike a chord of any meaning.

Steve - That’s nice to know, How old are you may I ask?

Lorraine - 45 now

Steve - I was 58 last week. Ah God (he laughs). So you were quite young when you were listening to me.

I explain the scenario with my elder brother

Steve - I didn’t have one of those, but that’s the way to do it. My children, especially my son who is now 26, when he was about 12 I started to hear from his bedroom, I’d hear things like, it would be what was happening then, like Oasis and Blur, but he would switch around with all my hundreds of CDs. He’d be playing Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan. It’s interesting; they have very wide, catholic tastes now.

Lorraine - Your songs, I think the thing that draws people in is the rich imagery presented by the lyrics. It’s like a painting to be interpreted by each individual, we all see something different. How does the whole song writing process begin with you, do you sit with the guitar and mess about or start with a mood or words?

Steve - I think, I don’t know if it’s common ground, I usually work alone, write alone, I ‘m best. Usually I have five ideas to everyone else’s one when they try to work with me and it gets a bit tiresome, but yeah, I have about four or five guitars at any one time set up around the house in different rooms, so everywhere I go, every room you walk in really, there’s a guitar on a stand, acoustic guitars and two pianos so you play all the time really. When I am at home I would be playing a lot and you just think “hang on, that sounded quite attractive, that chord progression” or I might be at the piano mucking about. I’m not much of a pianist, I would never get into a band. I play it well enough to write songs but that’s about it. It starts from that really, you realise something is happening, bit of a melody there or a good chord progression and you think you can work on it and get something beneficial from it, you know, something decent, but it gets harder as you get older, the writing, you can either keep doing it and turn out a load of twaddle, which I don’t want to do, or you just wait and wait and wait for the muse to come and sit on your shoulder again.

Photo: Steve Harley by Manfred Esser

Lorraine - I know that you love nature and that it’s obviously a big inspiration to you.

Steve - How do you know that? Have you been reading my diaries?

Lorraine - Yes, I have been reading them *smiles*

Steve - Yes, I’m always in the woods or birdwatching. I’ve had a great morning at my house this morning, just fantastic. The first time I’ve seen a reed bunting. Actually I’ve just come back from the Highlands and up there on top of the mountains, up in the snow, we saw snow buntings which you would never see down here of-course. They were amazing. Yeah, yellow hammers on the lawn this morning. I’ve got a friend who is a serious birdwatcher and we agree that a lot of people don’t get it and we get really excited. I get really excited. When you see one for the first time it’s such a thrill, I can’t explain it. Little things please little minds.

Steve laughs as I carry on to say how I get the impression that he is looking for the ultimate high from nature and wonder what place has come the closest or moved him the most.

Steve - Oh everything! I travel a lot, even when I am not on tour I still travel.  It’s very inspiring when you see mountain after mountain after mountain and glaciers and hydro electric power, water gushing down the rock. It’s quite a sight. I never tire of thinking how lucky I am, never get blasé about it. The whole world is amazing. We’ve just been to the Highlands recently, as I said and Jesus, four, five hundred million years some of those rock formations up there. I’m inspired by it all. I love the sun and the sea but I’m thrilled to bits in the woods around my house. I don’t write a lot, I wrote more words these days, I write more diary and stories and stuff than songs and I’ve got to get out of this habit.

Lorraine - You’ve now got a book published of your online diaries, ‘The Impression of Being Relaxed’, considering your love of writing I was surprised that this was your first published book?

Steve - Well it’s not even a book is it, it’s a collection. I tell you what, I don’t think I could ever write a novel. I read a lot but how they sustain characters is beyond my comprehension.

Lorraine - I think you’re very open and honest in your diaries, do you ever have to remind yourself that it will be viewed by the public and have to pull back?

Steve - Sometimes when I send it to my webmaster, as I zap it out, I think “Oh Christ, what have I done, what have I said?!” and then you think “well hang on, it’s not a blog that other people would do, it’s not tittle tattle”. I try to make it as literary as I can and make it readable and that’s why I don’t do it very often. Sometimes you hear people saying “Why doesn’t he do more diary entries”. If you did it every day it wouldn’t be worth having. I try to make it interesting by talking about what I’ve seen and what I’ve done. We go to the theatre quite a lot, serious plays, musicals. I was at the opera last week and I like to write about that too, to turn people onto things.

Lorraine - I understand that you like going to the theatre but are not so keen on starring in theatre?

Steve - Well, I was actually in the West End last year, in a Beckett. I played in the Arts Theatre in the West End. I was in a two hander, a Samuel Beckett two hander (Rough for Theatre 1&11). He wrote ‘Waiting for Godot’, it was very similar to ‘Godot’, very similar characters. I enjoyed that because it was only a very short run, a limited run. But no, the idea of working in the theatre, you’re talking about six days a week in the same dressing room, it’s just not my style. I’m still basically your wandering minstrel. I’m an inveterate traveller. I actually like airports. I don’t like airports per se, but I like the idea that I’m at an airport because it means I am going somewhere. I’m always moving, even when we’re not touring, and we’re not touring much as the moment as I’ve told my agent I want to make an album. I’ve always got a ticket in my drawer or in my desk or in my hand luggage bag. I’ve got a ticket here at the moment to go to Barcelona. I just need to know I am going somewhere, something to look forward to other than just jumping in a car and motoring about. There’s so much to see. I see a lot of the world because of playing concerts but you only see where you have an audience, whereas I’ve got a list of boxes to tick and that would include the Hoover Dam, Colorado, it would include flying low over the Grand Canyon which I haven’t done. The Panama Canal, I’ve got to go through the Panama Canal. I would have been bottom of the class at any science and yet my respect for engineers is unlimited. When they did the ‘Greatest Britains’ on the TV, I was with Mr. Faraday the whole way through. Shakespeare was voted the best, the most important number one and obviously I am a great supporter of Shakespeare but Faraday’s my man. I respect engineers to the endth degree. Scientifically I am a complete bozo. I’m good at maths, it comes from betting. If you bet like I do you know your maths, quick mental arithmetic. Anyway, there’s all these places that I want to see, I’ve got to see! There’s a big old world out there.

Photo: Andreas Fucke (Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Pink Pop Classic, Aug 2007)

Lorraine - I was going to ask if there would be another album soon, but you have answered that one.

Steve - I have to! I feel terrible, I feel like a fraud sometimes. Last week I was in Belfast and I played a sort of ‘audience with’ affair with a concert. It’s a kind of songwriters convention, a festival and the following day I’d agreed in advance and I regretted it for ages, I was regretting it, but I had agreed to do a workshop. Now, I’ve never done such a thing. I didn’t know what it was. I had my fiddle player, Barry Wickens with me and a roadie. Well we went into this room the morning in the hotel and there’s fifty people there and it’s incredibly intimate. I never meet fans as it were, here they were right bang in my face, like in my house almost. It was a very odd feeling but I just sat and said “come on then, what’s a workshop, tell me what you want?”. They wanted to know how I write songs, like you were asking and how songs develop and all this stuff. I was making it up as I went along really.

Lorraine - But it worked.

Steve - It worked, it worked. I had a thoroughly brilliant time for an hour. I was so pleased. We got in the transport to go back to the airport then and I was just saying to Barry “God, I’m so glad we did that”. I was so pleased, it seemed to mean so much to people, you know, little things. That’s what always amazes me about how much people want, how little they want and how much it means to them. I do auctions or charity concerts and at charity concerts I’ll do an auction, you know, and we raised twelve or thirteen thousand pounds a few months ago for the Neurological Hospital in London. We did a free concert for them and onstage I started this auction, even the shirt off my back, literally took it off, some woman wanted it for twenty quid, just kept doing this mad action and I auctioned a guitar, this guitar had been around the world with me, a limited edition Takamine and some-one paid two and a half thousand pounds for this guitar, plus it was a couple of free tickets to any concert that we do, but the thing that sold it for this guy mostly I think, we offered, or I offered, which I’d never, never normally do, the right for this person to come in and see and hear a soundcheck. It just meant the world to this guy. Two people fought over this right up to two and a half thousand quid. It was incredible. They just want to be somewhere that they shouldn’t be. What on earth they’re going to get from it I have no idea, but I enjoy seeing people get excited about basically to us is so little and it means so much to them.

Lorraine - I know you have worked with a lot of charities and have described yourself as a ‘sucker for a good cause’, is there one you are involved with or that is particularly close to your heart at the moment?

Steve - Well I’m an ambassador for the Mines Advisory Group, the landmine clearance agency. I’ve led two treks for them, one in Cambodia and one in Death Valley. I do that, so that means a lot to me. Interestingly I’ve got a lot, maybe...I don’t know, twenty to twenty five gold and silver discs and we don’t use them, we don’t do anything with them. I’ve given seven, eight, ten of them away over the years, to publicists, to people I really respect who have helped my career. But I’ve got loads of them in my house, sort of behind wardrobes and under spare beds and stuff. I was, what’s the word?, ‘rejigging’, updating my will recently and it’s a really odd will, it’s got lots of special gifts, particular gifts in it, it’s quite complicated. I’ve left a note that says that they have to auction all of my gold and silver discs except for one for my wife and each of my kids and all the rest of them can be auctioned and that money goes to the Musicians Union Benefit to help other lesser successful, lesser well off professional musicians. So, little things like that, that’s charity in it’s way, but you can’t support them all, you can’t! I like giving a bit back and sharing it, you know.

Lorraine - I have to mention your love of horseracing and you have been involved in racehorse ownership for many years, do you own a racehorse at the moment?

Steve - I’ve got two in training. I’ve got one that is a hurdler and one that’s a thoroughbred flat horse, he’s in Newmarket and the other one’s in Lambourn. Cheltenham next week, very big event, four days, the greatest racing of the year.

Lorraine - Do you ride yourself, not on the racecourse?

Steve Laughs, no, I don’t. I’m actually quite nervous around horses. I prefer to own them, racehorses. No, that’s a big old head and when he throws it about.

We chat a little about horses and Essex before I ask Steve if he will be playing any UK dates this year.

Steve - I’m waiting for confirmation, I think we’re playing the Isle of Wight festival. I’m just waiting for confirmation on that. That’s pretty certain, but got to write songs and go into that studio and you just have to take time off from playing. Things come up at the last minute. My agent could contact me today or tomorrow and say “Hey, we can do a week in Germany in November”. You just never know where you’re going to be.

Lorraine - Are you happy with it that way?

Steve - Yeah, it’s fine by me. It’s easier when agents and promoters have a new album from an artist. There'll be publicity and advertising, some hook to hang it on, you know, so I am going to do that anyway. It will probably be on sale a year from now, about March time, then we’ll do a big tour. I shall miss it badly. I’m missing it already to be honest. The guys in the band, the guys that I use mostly, they play pubs and clubs and stuff with other people and I can’t do that. When I’m not onstage, on tour, then I’m not playing and I do miss it very badly.

Lorraine - Who do you listen to you, who moves you these days?

Steve - Oh loads. The last two Tuesdays I’ve been on the jury picking the best song of the year for the Ivor Novello Awards in May. I’ve done it before, but I was chairman this year. Terrific jury, we had lovely people, Badly Drawn Boy, Damon Gough, we had a right bunch of good people, Mike Rutherford from Genisis, Glenn Tilbrook, Beth Orton. We had ninety three tracks, singles, in the first week. It was a bit of a good year last year, a really good year. Unfortunately, the best record of the year wasn’t included because the ‘Ivors’ are all British songwriters. Two or three of the best songs that were on Radio 2 last year were written by Americans, especially The Killers, I thought that was the best record of the year, ‘Human’.  Listening to at the moment? The Van Morisson ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’, we got that from Amazon the other day, Radio 4 when I’m driving.

Photo: Tone Bratland Aakra

Lorraine - What about your Radio 2 show, Sounds of the Seventies, will that be back?

Steve - Yeah, I’m hoping we’ll bring that back, it’s resting.

Lorraine - What happened there?

Steve laughs: I don’t know. I think they ran out of money, they gave it all to Jonathan Ross and there was nothing left for anyone else. That’s about what happened to be honest. I enjoyed doing it, it bought out the old journalist in me.

 I have to ask Steve how he viewed the change bought about by Punk Rock in the mid 70s, the glam and fantasy soon replaced by record companies scrambling to sign any garage band with a message of social realism.

Steve - It was a difficult time for me because I don’t rage against the establishment, I never did. I find it very pointless and energy sapping. I’m much more rational than that. I’d already become established, I’d sold lots of records and had lots of hits and took a back seat to it all. I don’t really remember it now, except it was an attitude. I’ve always loved music, and lyrics obviously. Punk was something that was a movement that had to be created by some-one and the kids of that time had to go through that period in life and I understand that much. But I would never have jumped on the bandwagon. I never felt any part of it at all. My friends were much more establishment than that, intellectual, as it were. You can’t help who you are or where you come from, you know. I don’t know what to tell you. It came and went didn’t it. The Clash were about the only ones who really made a mark, the rest of it is pretty forgettable isn’t it.

Finally I have to confess that he was my first crush and that his poster from Jackie adorned my wall.

Steve laughs, I do meet women who tell me that, “I had you on my bedroom wall”. I usually say, “No, surely I’d remember”. Lorraine Kelly did that, she interviewed me on the radio, she actually said that to me live on air, “Ah, it’s such a thrill to be meeting you Steve, I have to be honest, I once had you on my bedroom wall”. I leaned into the mic, one and a half million people listening and said “No Lorraine, surely I’d remember”. She blushed. I made it worse for her, I leaned into the mic and said “She’s blushing, she’s gone awfully red everybody”. It got worse and worse.

Laughing I thanked Steve for taking the time to talk to me for Mudkiss

Steve - It’s been a joy talking to you Lorraine.

Photo: Tone Bratland Aakra

I am smiling now as I finish typing. What can I say, other than that I have always had discerning taste, right from a young age!

Steve Harley's website: www.steveharley.com

Colour photos by Andreas Fucke, 52511 Geilenkirchen/Germanyor (find him at Hobby-Photograph/Flickr.com)and Tone Bratland Aakra

Black & White photo by Manfred Esser

Interview by Lorraine 06.03.09