AS Steve Harley sat behind the mixing desk in Air Studios in London, his youthful arrogance proved no defence for the intimidating scene unfolding before him. The year was 1973, the aspiring singer had formed Cockney Rebel, and EMI Records had given him a virtual blank cheque – after the band had played just five gigs – to turn a bunch of raw songs into a polished debut album.

At his shoulder was Geoff Emerick, engineer on a string of records for The Beatles including Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Through the studio glass, arranger Andrew Powell – who had learned his craft at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden – conducted a 50-piece orchestra and choir. While it was the task of EMI producer Neil Harrison to transform sprawling songs such as Sebastian and Death Trip into a tangible form that Radio 1 might vaguely be interested in playing.

It was a daunting prospect, but one thing Harley has never lacked is faith in his own abilities. “A lot of them were written about my rather louche lifestyle,” reveals Harley, 67.

“I was young and weekends were spent taking a lot of LSD. I certainly wouldn’t do that now. But it did help … it frees your inhibitions. You write as if you don’t have a care in the world. Also, being so young, I was just 22, you think you can change the world. You have that innate


“But those characters in the songs – Muriel The Actor, Sebastian and What Ruthy Said – they really did exist. They were all people I was living around. I just gave them different names.

“As I watched Andrew conduct this massive orchestra and choir, I had to myself pinch myself because these were songs I had busked in tube stations across London. When every other weekend hippie was playing Blowing In The Wind, I was doing Sebastian. The American tourists I relied on gave me a wide berth because I wasn’t singing anything they could understand, enjoy or relate to.”

He recalls of the recording session: “I was listening to the strings on my little three chord songs and I did truly wipe a tear. I remember it to this day. No question. I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve all that. I’d go home after the session and feel numb with shock.

“I didn’t drink alcohol in those days, so I couldn’t even have a stiff drink to calm me down.”

The next time Harley will play those songs will be a very special moment in his career. On May 19, the singer – with Cockney Rebel and a 50-piece orchestra and choir – will perform The Human Menagerie and his 1974 follow-up album, The Psychomodo, in their entirety for the final time. The venue is the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, and Harley, who claims not to be sentimental, is already gripped with emotion.

He’s toured the world with both ground breaking records. They paved the way for a string of hits including his classic 1974 No 1, Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me), Mr Raffles and Here Comes The Sun, written by George Harrison. But inevitably, all roads lead back to Glasgow, a city he has so many personal ties with. He’s been married to wife Dorothy – from Baillieston – for more than three decades. The couple have two children, Greta and Kerr.

At the peak of Cockney Rebel’s fame, Harley virtually took up residence in the now-legendary Glasgow Apollo. His collection of coveted Apollo statuettes – only presented to acts who sold out the venue – remain prized possessions.

But while he has previously performed The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo in Birmingham, Manchester, Gateshead and London, a Scottish date failed to materialise.

“For the last few years I’ve been aware of this void, this chasm,” says Harley. “I didn’t bring the show north of the border and it seemed wrong. In the Seventies, I was playing two or three sold out shows at a time in the Apollo. So Glasgow means the world to me. It’s always a big thrill to play in the city.”

Harley has always had a way with words. The lyrical quality of his albums are a result of his passion for literature.

He began his working life as a cub reporter on local newspapers in Essex and his native east London.

“One day I went to my mum and dad and said: ‘I’m giving up journalism’,” he recalls. “I was doing well at it. I’d been indentured. I had 120 words-per-minute shorthand. I was covering stories on the Kray twins. The Blind Beggar pub – where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell – was on my patch.

“I’d seen a bit of life by then. So to tell my folks I was giving it up to be a singer ... they were NOT happy. They struggled for ages to understand what I was up to.”

When The Human Menagerie hit record stores in November of 1973, it divided opinion. The NME dismissed it as a hype, while Cashbox magazine was more encouraging, describing it as “a devastating brand of rock”.

The LP had been preceded by debut single, Sebastian, which clocked in at an eye-watering duration of 6.59 minutes. An edit garnered some radio play in Europe, but in the UK it was ignored. EMI, desperate for a hit single, asked Harley to complete a new song, Judy Teen, not included on the album. It became a Top 5 smash the following summer.

Harley claims he still doesn’t know what Sebastian is about. It’s not a problem, however. “It’s true – I’ve no idea what the song means,” admits the singer. “I heard it recently on Radio 2 and my wife said: ‘What must people be thinking on hearing that?’

“It IS a bit of a weird one. In 1973, we edited the original down to 4.30 [minutes] and it was No 1 for weeks on end in Belgium and Holland. It’s bigger than Make Me Smile over there.”

Over the years, Sebastian has taken on a life of its own and is now regarded as one of the real jewels in his musical crown. He says: “I played two concerts – to 5000 people each night – in an amphitheatre in the shadow of the Parthenon in Athens. The Greek orchestra leader was a bit of a fan and wanted to discuss Sebastian with me. He had his theories about the song.

“I just said: ‘I can’t dispel your views … I won’t do that. But do you mind if I just listen and don’t talk?’

“It’s fascinating what people get from that song. “Ezra Pound once said to TS Elliot – ‘Bugger the biography … read the poetry’. And it’s the same with songwriting. You really get a bigger thrill from hearing other people talk about your efforts than talking about them yourself.”

The chart success of Judy Teen paved the way for follow-up album, The Psychomodo, released in June, 1974. It peaked at No 8 in the UK – aided largely by a second hit single, Mr Soft – and stayed in the Top 50 for 20 weeks.

Harley never looked back.

“It’s a well know truism in the music industry that your first album is easy to write because you’ve got 10 years to do it,” he says. “The follow up is always the problem because you’ve got less than a year … and you’re on the road flogging the first one.

“But it was so exciting making The Psychomodo. I had the arrogance of youth, where you almost claim it as your right … I didn’t want to be a flop.

“I didn’t go into the business to make money or be famous. It was not on our minds. For me, it was just a calling. You knew you had to write these songs just to get them off your chest.

“Everything happened to me in 1973 and 1974. I remember lots of it. It was a great time.”

He says finally: “I’m very proud of both albums, and rightly so. They have stood the test. It will be the last time I’ll perform them in the UK. So this show in Glasgow will be special for me.”

Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel will perform The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow on May 19.