Steve Harley, chats with Kevin Cooper about headlining the Avalon Stage at Glastonbury, being secretly in love with KT Tunstall, a new studio album and his forthcoming appearance at The Flashpoint Festival.

Steve Harley is a member of the English glam rock band Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. Their music covers a range of styles from pop to progressive rock. Over the years they have had five albums in the UK Albums Chart and twelve singles in the UK Singles Chart.

Steve Harley grew up in London’s New Cross area and attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College. His musical career began in the late 60s when he was busking and performing his own songs, some of which were later recorded by him and the band. After an initial stint as a music journalist, the original Cockney Rebel was formed when Harley hooked up with his former folk music partner, Crocker in 1972.

In 2016, the newly re-established Chrysalis Records announced that it had acquired the Cockney Rebel catalogue. Harley was one of the artists who appeared on the label’s first release, a charity single of The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want credited to Friends of Jo Cox in tribute to Jo Cox, a Labour Party MP who had been assassinated earlier that year.

Whilst finalising his schedule for the Festival season he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Steve, how are you today?

I’m very well Kevin thanks for asking, and how are you?

I’m doing very well and let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries at all, it’s fine.

And apart from unresponsive telephones how is life treating you? (Laughter)

(Laughter) Life at the moment is pretty good thank you. As long as I have concerts booked and in the diary I’m fine. My kids are good, everyone is healthy and I have got a diary full of dates to play. That’s about the long and short of it really (laughter).

You and I first met many years ago now, and you would never remember it if you were guessing all day (laughter).

Really, tell me more as you have me intrigued now (laughter).

It was back in 1981 at The Who And Friends Roar In Concert at Wembley Stadium. You were there with Kiki Dee and Duncan Mackay your keyboard player at the time.

Really, was I playing? (laughter).

Not on this occasion unfortunately. It was Nils Lofgren, AC/DC, The Stranglers and The Who all for the princely sum of £8.

Bloody hell, is that all it cost (laughter). You don’t see many shows like that anymore which is a real shame. I used to go to quite a few good shows in those days but I don’t really go much anymore. I tend to live a much more cocooned existence nowadays; I won’t say sheltered (laughter). We have got grown up children together with a grandchild now, and I have several really close friends that I have known now for over fifty years. That is an amazing thing to have, really close friends, so I don’t tend to get out and about much anymore. Having said that I do still travel a lot and you can always find me at airports (laughter). I have just got back from Norway and I have always got tickets to somewhere or another but alas not for rock shows very much.

Well I suppose that we should really talk about the Flashpoint Festival at Rockingham Hall hadn’t we?

(Laughter) yes indeed we really should.

You will be opening proceedings on Sunday 16th July are you looking forward to that?

Yes I am I really am. Plus I am really impressed with the bill that I will be playing on. When I come off after playing our set there are some good acts to follow, OMD and ABC for example and I know that they will be playing all of their hits as well. I personally love playing to a festival audience and I like to reach to the back. I have done lots of them and I really do enjoy them.

What can we expect?

Well it’s a festival and they have kindly given us an hour. As I said we have just got back from Norway where we played for nearly three hours so for us it’s not that difficult to make up an hour’s set list. I tend to do what I think what a festival audience wants. There is a terrible arrogance about playing new music to people who don’t necessarily want to see you. I have seen a couple of the biggest names in the world; I’m not going to name names, but one of them was at Glastonbury, and two have come a real cropper when they have gone onstage in front of fifty thousand people, played a whole bunch of new songs and they simply died out there.

What you have got to remember as a performer is that if you are playing to ten thousand people then four thousand of them probably don’t care at all about you. They are not there to see you, they are there for the weekend or the day, for the festival, for the bill and so what they do know about me is all of the hit singles. So I will play them. I will play all of the hits plus Sebastian, a really huge Sebastian (laughter). I will always have that up my sleeve; no one has got Sebastian. Whenever we play that it is like having an orchestra up there. There will be seven of us playing and it will get so enormous. I heard Ken Bruce playing it on Radio 2 the other day and I thought ‘crikey that’s an odd one’ (laughter). But I do love to play it and I suppose that there will be some romance in there too.

On the subject of festivals I hear that you will be headlining the Avalon Stage at Glastonbury this year.

Yes we are; this will be our fourth Glastonbury and I really am hoping that it will be fantastic. It’s an odd thing with Glastonbury and all of the big weekend festivals, where you think who is going to come and see you at 9.30pm when Radiohead are on the Pyramid Stage (laughter). Well the answer is ten thousand people who are there, and like I was just saying, don’t give a tuppeny damn about Radiohead. It’s all down to taste and you simply cannot legislate for peoples taste, it is so eclectic. We will be playing to ten thousand people in those large marquees at Glastonbury because they don’t want to see the headline act on that day. Please don’t get me wrong as I don’t mean any disrespect by that, it’s just the way that us human beings are (laughter).

Does it offended you being referred to as a ‘Retro Band’ now that you are firmly established on the Rewind, Flashback and Flashpoint tours?

Good god no, I don’t mind that, no not at all. It is perfectly fine and the Flashpoint Festival really does have an impressive bill certainly on the Saturday and Sunday. And on the Sunday, please don’t tell her, but I am secretly in love with KT Tunstall (laughter). Musically of course, only musically. KT and I have met a few times; we recently sang together on a charity record and we have watched each other perform at various festivals and let me tell you, there is most definitely nothing retro about her, she is very modern. I intend to play a song of mine that was released last year called Ordinary People which received quite a lot of airplay, so that will be something new for the audience to listen to.

Are there any thoughts on a new studio album?

Yes there are, but to be honest with you making a new album is a bit like pulling your own teeth as you get older (laughter). It really is tough. Some people of my heritage will put a new album out every few years but it’s not really their greatest work. I am very scared of putting out rubbish, well I won’t. I didn’t think that I had been very creative for the past few years but recently I got an upgrade on my iPhone and I went to see a nice young fellow at PC World and I said to him “help” (laughter). All that I wanted to do was to be able to go to my voice recordings and download them to my new phone. And of course this young man in PC World who looked about twelve years old did it in seconds (laughter).

I then took a look at my voice recordings and there was the start of seventy-five new songs. So I looked and thought that I had the beginnings of seventy-five new songs here. Admittedly some of it is no good but some of it has got to be worth keeping. I am writing lyrics all the time; I write lyrics in the theatre, the cinema, on aeroplanes, literally everywhere. I have always got a notebook and pen in my pocket. So I booked a studio and said “let’s go for it”. So what I will say is that I have started and we will see how it goes. At the moment we are working on new songs a couple of days at a time.

And the good thing is that you are not under any pressure to get a new album out there are you?

(Laughter) what I think that you are trying to say is that there are not that many people who are holding their breath for a new Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel album aren’t you Kevin?

(Laughter) no, absolutely not at all. What I meant was that you can take your time and make sure that the album is exactly how you want it to be.

(Laughter) Exactly, I know exactly what you mean. In the past we used to put an album out every year. An album every year, imagine that. Mind you back in the 70s you could, you could make an album that only lasted 37 minutes over the two sides whereas now they want an hour. On average they want fifty minutes plus to satisfy CD’s and downloads which is okay but you have to write far more songs than you used too to comprise a collection called an album.

Are you pleased to see the resurgence of vinyl?

Not really no. To be honest I never understood the love of vinyl at all. Talking of Glastonbury I was once interviewed live backstage after my set by the late John Peel for Radio 1 and I knew him quite well. The subject got around to vinyl; we spoke about analogue, atmosphere and stuff and I said to John “why do you love vinyl so much, we spend a hell of a lot of money and god knows how many hours to make those albums and when we make them in that studio, when we play it back to you in that room it is pristine. That’s what we want we don’t want crackles and pops. So why put a needle or a stylus on it, damage it and then say that it’s got atmosphere” (laughter). John being John just smiled and shrugged his shoulders (laughter).

Vinyl does nothing for me I much prefer the digital world as it works quickly. And to be honest I have got to say that my ears are not too bad; I have produced eleven albums, I have been singing for forty-five years, so my ears are pretty good and I have got to say if you can hear the difference between vinyl and CD and be able to tell me which is which if you A and B them, you are talking in your dreams. I can’t tell the difference, to me it is minimal. However, I would say good luck to the vinyl folks, absolutely good luck to them. Its fine by me but I don’t personally even own a turntable. I had a really good one back in the 70s and 80s but once the CD came along I got rid of it. My album collection of about two thousand albums are in bubble wrap in one of the barns on the property (laughter).

I have recently been speaking to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds and I have to ask you, what was it like for you when you recently joined them onstage at the Hackney Empire?

It was fantastic, they are just the nicest guys and there was of course a lot of reciprocal back slapping going on as we are very good friends of each other (laughter). Jim is just one of the top people that you could ever wish to meet.

He informed me that you are intending joining them at some stage of their forthcoming acoustic tour of the UK. Please, please tell me that it will be here in Nottingham (laughter).

Well I am truly sorry to break this to you but alas no, I will not be dropping in at the Nottingham show. I am intending on joining them for their show up there in Glasgow. I will be up there in Scotland on family business and it coincides with their gig at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall so that is where I will be joining them, sorry. I will be joining them on stage and we will be singing Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) and it will be wonderful. They have a huge acoustic band and it is very musical, I love it. I am also hoping for a second song this time around and not just the one but I will have to wait and see (laughter).

It is very hard work to walk out onto the stage and play just the one song as a guest and then walk off because you have got the adrenalin pumping as though you have played for two hours. You walk off and you simply do not know what to do with yourself. You find yourself standing in the wings thinking oh Jesus what happened there, did I do it, did I get the words right (laughter). I find it to be very difficult to concentrate for that short period of time. You put the same amount of energy into that one song as you would put into a full set.

What was the first record that you bought?

That’s easy it was Only Sixteen by Craig Douglas back in 1969.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

It was an Atlantic / Stax package tour at the Lewisham Granada which went on to be the Lewisham Odeon in South East London. I saw Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Lee Dorsey, it was fantastic with eight or nine acts and artists on the bill. Steve Cropper was in the house band. I finally met Steve around ten years ago now and he is a huge idol of mine. We were playing an indoor festival with The Blues Brothers Band and Steve was there. My manager knew just how big a fan I am of Steve’s and so he went and knocked on his door and said ‘Steve Harley would like to say hello, is that okay’ and instead of simply saying ‘yes send him along’ he got up, came along the passage to my dressing room.

He came into my dressing room which I thought was so sweet of him. I asked him if we could talk music for five minutes and he asked me what I wanted to hear. I asked him about (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay and he said “oh that, Otis just started whistling…” and I said “no, you wrote it” (laughter). He wrote so much great stuff and he travelled the world with The Blues Brothers Band for a total of nine months and he only took one guitar. He carried a Paul Reed Smith in a case everywhere he went. The man is just amazing.

It’s funny you mentioning Steve just having the one guitar. I recently photographed Joe Bonamassa and if he has a twenty song set list then he will changed his guitar twenty times. I just don’t understand that do you?

With a lot of guitarists it’s an affectation that some of them have. I don’t get it. We opened for The Rolling Stones over in Warsaw a few years ago and backstage it is simply a guitar shop, and both Keith (Richards) and Ronnie (Wood) do change their guitars an awful lot. It makes sense to me if you have got tunings to worry about but as I say to me it is a bit of an affectation. They love the guitar, you have to see that Joe will love the guitar in a generic term. To hold a guitar is very sensual, they are beautiful things and I have got loads of them myself but I can see it but there is a slight affectation going on when you are wanting nine or ten guitars for a two hour set.

The audience start to ask themselves ‘is it necessary’. I’m here to tell them that it’s not, but…. (laughter) Joe Bonamassa can do what he likes (laughter). He presented me with a MOJO award once and also made a very good speech about me but I am sure to this very day that he had absolutely no idea as to who I was (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

I often drive while playing Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Requiem and let me tell you that would make anyone weep. It had me crying while I was on my way to Manchester for a photo session recently (laughter). I honestly think that this would bring tears to a stone.

Steve on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been a pleasure. You take care and I will see you at The Flashpoint Festival in July.

It’s been a real pleasure Kevin, nice talking to you again. Come and say hi because you know where I will be (laughter). You take care and bye for now.