The British band Cockney Rebel, founded by singer-songwriter Steve Harley, entered the rock scene in 1973 after signing with EMI. Their debut The Human Menagerie contained the single Sebastian with its classical keyboard arrangements. This single definitely generated interest in the band and it was a big international success. It paved the way for their second album The Psychomodo (1974), which was a great success either charting the top-ten in the UK along with the hit singles Judy Teen and Mr Soft. Recently these two albums were re-released in a 4CD anthology set. Beside these two albums this set includes all the singles and flip sides, recently discovered early alternative versions, mixes of tracks from both albums and various BBC concerts and sessions, including two tracks from The Old Grey Whistle Test. All these tracks were previously unreleased on CD.
On Cavaliers (An Anthology 1973-1974) Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel cover a range of musical genres from pop to progressive rock and even classical music. The first disc contains the entire debut album plus two singles and their flip sides. The Human Menagerie was recorded in June and July 1973 in the Air Studios in London and produced by Neil Harrison. All songs were written by Steve Harley. It was released by EMI Records in November 1973, but failed to chart in the UK and the USA. The line-up consisted of Steve Harley (vocals), Stuart Elliott (drums, percussion), Paul Jeffreys (bass), Milton Reame-James (keyboards) and Jean-Paul Crocker (electric violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar). Engineer was the well-known Geoff Emerick who had worked with The Beatles, while Andrew Powell (The Alan Parsons Project, amongst others) did all the string arrangements.
The album features no electric guitars. Although the band originally had several guitar players, Harley felt that the Cockney Rebel sound didn't need an electric guitar. They settled on the combination of Crocker's electric violin and the Fender Rhodes piano of keyboardist Reame-James sharing the lead. Their first single Sebastian was an immediate success in Europe, although it failed to score in the UK singles charts. The band attracted a growing following in London with their debut album on which Sebastian undoubtedly is the ultimate highlight. This song is mostly performed on the acoustic piano, but has a lot of bombastic passages thanks to the use of a classical orchestra and a choir.
Two other musical highlights on The Human Menagerie are the short piece Chameleon, which is a kind of intro to Death Trip. The classical arrangements elevate this piece to a high level. It beautifully moves towards an excellent climax where the choirs sound absolutely stunning! The bonus tracks are a DJ edit of Sebastian and Rock And Roll Parade, the flip side of this single, which is a happy pop tune like many other songs on their debut. The next single that was recorded as Cockney Rebel has been added as well. The non-album track Judy Teen and its flip side Spaced Out end the first disc. This is a rather good single with fine playing on the violin. Judy Teen became their first hit in the UK; the flip side is a rather pop-like song.
The second disc contains the entire second album The Psychomodo complemented with two singles. This time the album was produced by Steve Harley and Alan Parsons, who produced the famous album Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. He also worked with The Beatles. It was released by EMI Records on the 2nd of June 1974. The album failed to chart in the USA, but charted at number eight in the UK. The line-up was similar to their debut and once more Andrew Powell did all the string arrangements. You could say that The Human Menagerie was a journey into the decadence of mankind, while The Psychomodo is like a trip to the circus. On the latter album different musical elements of the circus can be heard throughout. Maybe this album has even more to offer than the band's debut. In my opinion the highlights are Ritz, Cavaliers and Tumbling Down. These pieces contain more prog rock influences compared to the other compositions. They also used more keyboards beside the usual piano parts. Especially Tumbling Down sounds very good thanks to the fine string arrangements. This disc contains rather strong bonus material as well like Such A Dream, the flip side of Mr Soft. Big Big Deal was the first solo single by Steve Harley released in 1974. It never appeared on an album. In 1975 Cockney Rebel scored a big hit in the UK with Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me). The song preceded the formation of a new line-up, because after a successful UK tour all musicians, with the exception of Stuart Elliott, quit.
The third disc features several early versions, stereo mixes and alternate mixes of songs that later appeared on the first two albums. It's nice to listen to different versions of a number of tracks, especially the more well-known numbers like Sebastian, Mr Soft and Judy Teen. This time no orchestral arrangements can be heard. These versions sound purer as if they were recorded in a rehearsal room. The final and fourth disc is actually the most interesting one, because it contains the live versions of the rather sterile songs. If you listen to Cockney Rebel during performances for a BBC concert, The Old Grey Whistle Test and a John Peel session you just feel the energy. The songs are more lively thanks to a strong playing band. Even the two songs with the classical arrangements sound perfect. You hardly miss the string sections on Sebastian and Death Trip.
After the first split, Cockney Rebel was in fact a Steve Harley solo project. In 1974, The Best Years Of Our Lives was released again produced by Alan Parsons. This album included the aforementioned track Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) which became a number one single in February 1975. It was the band's biggest hit that sold over one million copies globally. More albums followed, but they never got the success of this one. In 2010, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel began to tour again in England, Ireland and Northern Ireland following the release of Stranger Comes To Town, a new studio album.
Cavaliers (An Anthology 1973-1974) is a fine 4CD compilation comprising the early days of Cockney Rebel. I think this set will be enjoyed by many lovers of progressive rock music since songs as Sebastian and Death Trip are real beauties.
*** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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