You can get complacent when a venue announces ‘doors 7.30pm’, not least when your designated driver has to beat Saturday night football traffic before we can get anywhere near.
We were locked in by circumstances to a just before eight arrival, but my fellow traveller, City fan Richard, had a slow pass around Old Trafford on his way over as United fans streamed out and returned to the Home Counties. But we weren’t too stressed. Surely we’d only miss a song or so from a local support.
Oh dear. Schoolgirl error. As we arrived at The Platform, 70 miles North-West of mine, Steve Harley and long-time bandmates James Lascelles and Barry Wickens were already underway, the main man talking to the audience as we were ushered quietly in to find a couple of the last seats as he launched into 1976’s reflective ‘(Love) Compared With You’.
We were among royalty, and I don’t just mean because pianist/keyboard/melodica king James is a distant cousin of Her Maj. While Richard’s way ahead of me on the Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel gig count, this was my debut, all those years after ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’ and ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’ first struck a chord with your seven-year-old scribe watching Top of the Pops.
As it was, Steve hardly spoke between songs from our late entrance until a break, but the songs did the talking as he went into ‘That’s My Life in Your Hands’, one of at least three choices from mid-‘90s album Poetic Justice, then ‘Red Is a Mean, Mean Colour’, the masterful lead track from 1976’s Timeless Flight, and ’Judy Teen’, 45 years to the month after it hit the UK top-five.
From there we got the measure of Steve’s bandmates with a little noodling piano and violin on The Psychomodo’s rousing ‘Sling It!’, a track that surely set The Waterboys on their way, while 1996’s ‘Loveless’ also impressed (I’d love to have heard Ian Dury and the Blockheads tackle that), and the atmospheric ‘The Lighthouse’ took us to another level, Steve impassioned on acoustic guitar, accompanied by melodica and violin. I was lost for a while in the detail until a discussion between two blokes in front as to what their foursome wanted from the bar had me chunnering, the moment gone. For future reference, please just shut the fuck up.
There was no doubting the talent of all three musicians, but that would be meaningless without a fine song beneath it, and here was proof that Steve’s crafted many a fine song since his chart heyday. Yet nostalgia was important here too, and I was transported back to mid-‘70s hot summers with the afore-mentioned ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’, the band inspired, the song supreme.
What we missed earlier I can’t say for sure, but there was mention of a Bob Dylan cover, so I’m guessing that was 1996’s ‘Love Means Zero – No Limit’. Don’t quote me on that though.
Having given up in the queue for a half-time beverage on my previous Platform visit, this time I was determined to stick it out, a Blonde Witch helping quench the thirst for the second half. And it appeared that Steve’s palate was refreshed too, increasingly chatty for part two of the proceedings.
He started with a tribute to Scott Walker, a brief mention of how his last hit with the Walker Brothers involved just him … well, him and a few sessions players name-dropping Steve also worked with down the years. But it wasn’t ‘No Regrets’ aired, but a respectful run through ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, the wall of sound absent but our visitor doing Scott justice all the same.
An evocative ‘Stranger Comes To Town’ was next, then 1996’s ‘Strange Communications’, prompting a tongue-in cheek reminder that his composing didn’t actually end in 1975. There followed a mention of the cover shot on 2010’s Stranger Comes to Town album, Steve taking his place alongside Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installations at down-the-coast Crosby, telling us his unaware photographer that day had yet to come forward and request a royalty.
Once he got going, there was no stopping him. As he put it, ‘After 40 years I want to share this shit with you’, talking at length about the many covers of his biggest hit – 130-odd apparently – and name-checking The Wedding Present’s ‘finger-poking punk version’ and Duran Duran’s spin on the theme among his favourites. Meanwhile, James patiently awaited his cue, his intro continuing for an eternity, Steve telling us his keyboard player runs on Duracells.
Erasure’s electro-pop version also got a thumbs-up, with talk of Steve cornering fellow shy lad and kindred spirit Vince Clarke at an awards ceremony, the pair’s hugs more important to Steve than any inane celeb banter. And when he did get going, it turned out the reason for all that about covers was due to old friend Rod Stewart’s take on The Quality of Mercy’s ‘A Friend For Life’, mischievously referencing the ‘ker-ching’ of Rod’s LP shifting three million copies.
We got a glimpse of Steve’s home life with 2005’s ’Journey’s End (A Father’s Promise)’, talking about that difficult day his lad went off to uni, and it was already clear by then that he wouldn’t still be in the live game if it was just about straight renditions of his songs, Barry and James’ artistry leading to fresh, revisions, Steve admitting, ‘We never know where that’s going’.
Next was ‘Sebastian’, recorded in 1973 but already long since honed on the busking circuit by then. It’s a song I always equate with T-Rex’s ‘Cosmic Dancer’ two years earlier, its other-worldliness apparent. On this occasion, James’ keys gave it a Doors feel, delivering Ray Manzarek style. And that suited the song nicely.
At times you had to remind yourself there were just three of them on stage, ‘The Coast of Amalfi’, another 2005 selection, also painting a vivid picture. And while – confession time – I never truly warmed to ‘Mr Soft’, it worked on the night, Barry’s gypsy fiddling putting me in mind of Slade B-side treasure ‘Kill ’Em At The Hot Club tonight’, the spirit of Grappelli and Reinhardt in the room. And Steve followed that with a tale about a drugs company offering a huge deal for his best-known song to promote Viagra, wondering why they hadn’t instead opted for ‘Mr Soft’.
Then came my personal highlight, this ‘70s kid lost in time and space as Steve embarked upon ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, the second of three selections from the 1975 long player of the same name, complete with heart-searing violin. Richard felt there was too much noodling, and had a point, suggesting we’d have then had time for missing numbers like ‘Tumbling Down’. But I felt it worked, sold on the vibe, Steve reminiscing about the good old days, falling off stage at the Liverpool Empire.
And where from there? Well, I mentioned The Wedding Present, one of the few bands who refuse the tired concept of the encore. And in this case, Steve, his stick supporting him and clearly ready to flop, patiently took the applause with his bandmates long enough to know the crowd wanted more, sticking around to deliver ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, the caustic bite of the original lyric long since lost but the magic remaining. And that’s something you can level at Steve too, celebrating a rich song catalogue with true creativity and passion all these years on.
For this website’s recent feature/interview with Steve Harley, head here. Meanwhile, Steve Harley’s acoustic trio tour continues. For the full itinerary and all the latest from Steve, head to http://www.steveharley.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.