Singer Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, whose hits included Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) and Mr Soft, is coming to town on November 2. Eileen Leahy caught up with the musical legend to find out all about his new acoustic tour – and why Rod Stewart will always be a friend for life…
Are you familiar with Tunbridge Wells?
Oh gosh yeah, I must have played here at least 20 times over the past 45 years. I had the great pleasure last November of being at the Assembly Hall playing with my big rock band – there were ten of us on stage doing Cockney Rebel numbers.
Before playing, we had a quiet afternoon off so we decided to go down to The Pantiles. Now in our band are two young female twin sisters who are Austrian, and we took them there for a stroll and they’d never seen anything like it!
But I have to say that I remembered being down there sometime in the 1990s and drinking the spa waters from an iron cup for, like, ten pence and being disappointed this time around not to have been able to do that as it was off! I said to them: ‘Come and taste the water’ and they couldn’t! I like a bit of adventure on tour.
Is that one of the plus sides of touring, then?
It’s all pluses really, there are no downsides for me. We travel well, we stay in comfortable, decent places, and on these acoustic tours I’m just playing with two other musicians: James Lascelles on piano and Barry Wickens on guitar and violin. They are both virtuoso musicians, but more than that they love a bit of culture, which is right up my alley.
You’re on tour quite a lot – is there anywhere else you enjoy?
I’ve seen Britain from Inverness to Penzance, and from Dover to Newcastle. I’ve been to every little pocket over 40 years and it’s an amazing country.
We were recently in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. There were weirs and rushing brooks, it was just beautiful.
Touring in the UK is a bit of a good experience all round…
From where you are in Kent and Sussex you move away from the hopfields and just that little bit further west you’re on the Dorset coast. Each place is different.
Then 60 miles north of there you’re in the Cotswolds. It’s just so amazing as a country.
When does your tour start?
We start on November 1 in Wavendon, near Milton Keynes, and Tunbridge Wells is our second date.
All summer we played outdoors at festivals, but this tour is a far more intimate affair. Throughout the summer months we averaged an audience of between five and six thousand people a time with ten of us on stage, and then there’s only three of us with much smaller audiences. We rock out a little bit because that’s the nature of some of the songs, but James and Barry are such a joy to play with.
What can audiences expect from thIS more intimate series of gigs?
We go out with a set list but there’s a lot of improvisation. They watch my back a lot as I’ll start playing a song on the guitar and they’ll think ‘well that’s not on the set list’ or ‘it’s ten songs down the line’ – but that’s how I am with those sorts of audiences, it just gets a bit more relaxed. When there’s only three of you, you can afford to duck and dive, mess about. Eight people don’t know what you’re doing – here it’s only two!
Could you say which style of gig you prefer or is that impossible?
No, it’s all music to me. The year before last we did a series of shows which finished at the Royal Albert Hall with a 50-piece orchestra, and I was in the wings one night and I said to my guitar tech: ‘What format are we in tonight?’ And he thought I was for real. I replied ‘I’m joking!’ but it’s because we have played so many different styles of concert over the past few years.
Do you still play a lot of your classic hits, such as Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)?
Yes, I’m not one of those singer-songwriters who is churlish or gets grumpy about having to play old hits. I’m proud of most of them, I wish there were many more of them, actually, but there’s enough and it’s an interesting way of learning about your own songs when you’ve got this acoustic format with three voices. I do restructure them ever so slightly, but not so much for an audience to think ‘what was that?’ Then there’s the big album tracks, a few new songs I’ve done.
Rod Stewart has one of my tracks on his new album.
Did you write that for him or did he discover it in your canon of work?
Good question. I wrote it about nine years ago. It’s called A Friend For Life and I gave it to Rod as my mate and said to him: ‘This is right up your street, you’ll love this and do such a good job of it’, and he kept it for seven or eight years, saying: ‘Oh I don’t know, I can’t quite understand it’, and in fairness it is quite a complicated lyric.
Then last Christmas he emailed and said ‘I’ve done it at last’ and his management sent me a copy of him singing the song, and it just made me cry because he’s got such a great voice. I’ll be doing my version of it on tour so people will have to put up with me singing it!
Do you have to look after your voice?
Oh dear, yes you do! I go to sleep at night saying ‘Dear God, please give me a voice when I wake up.’
I don’t go out after a concert any more. I’ll go back to my hotel room and have a sandwich and a glass of wine or two.
The idea of shouting to be heard over music, it’s such a stress on the vocal chords. It’s an instrument after all, and you get quite precious about it, but that’s too bad. I’ve got 35 minutes of warm-ups I do backstage every day. It’s learning how to sing up from the diaphragm and not shout. I’m pretty lucky though as
Steve Harley plays at the Assembly Hall on November 2 at 7.30pm for tickets see www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk