Thursday 8 December 2011

Life’s A Cabaret

"I set out to be a winner. I don't want to lose. I spent four years in a hospital but I never expected favours from anyone. I don't give sympathy because I don't expect it. Nice guys don't make it."

- Steve Harley

In many ways the 1970’s, with their energy crises and industrial and social unrest, were an exclusive preview of what I call The Crap Future - the slow, grinding, irreversible economic decline that we are currently in the early stages of. What marks the Seventies as different was that, absent a 30-year bombardment of Neoliberal growth-propaganda and 24-7 media dis-infotainment, there was a greater willingness to entertain the notion that Western culture was living through its End Times. One way this acceptance was expressed was through that most decadent of art forms, the cabaret, which exuded a kind of cadaverous frivolity, a need to eat, drink and be merry, in the face of decline.

Two bands in particular embraced the cabaret form, both based around charismatic front men who clearly saw the wreckage that surrounded them, and yet whose responses were significantly different. Cockney Rebel were fronted by the cynical, shark-like Steve Harley. Harley had contracted polio as a child, which had necessitated years of hospital treatment, and his slow, isolated recovery had helped to instill a steely, individualist streak in his character. Always an enthusiastic Tory, his proto-Thatcherite take on his bohemian surroundings, "The Human Menagerie", was pitiless and irredeemable - a world populated by the addicted, the weak, and those that prey on them. The band’s most famous hit, "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)", is typical Harley, a poison-pen letter to his former band mates dressed up in an irresistibly catchy melody. It was this cold individualism that correctly identified Cockney Rebel as forerunners of punk, but Harley’s Game Theory attitude to the music business proved to be no more a successful strategy than any other; as the decade progressed his career entered the same ignominious decline as the majority of his peers.

Alex Harvey’s vision was often as bleak and hopeless as Harley’s, but with one important exception - Harvey did want redemption, both for himself and the world around him. Coming from a tough Glaswegian background that allegedly included a stint as a lion tamer, like many Seventies glam rock stars he had orbited around the fringes of the Sixties music scene until he hit on a flamboyant, theatrical style that was perfectly suited to the introduction of colour television at the turn of the decade (the day the world turned day-glo). Equally at home covering Jacques Brel and Tom Jones, and finding the absurdity and profundity in both, Harvey the Faith Healer was like a musical R.D. Laing, responding to the violent, traumatic death throes of a dying system with the shamanistic fervour of the Last Believer. The energetic excess of his stage shows was too much for Harvey himself, and he prematurely retired from the music business in 1976, before returning a couple of years later only to die of a heart attack in 1982, too early to see the false rebirth of a world that would think the anxieties that informed both his and Steve Harley’s work banished forever.


David K Wayne said...

Who shrunk Dick & Elvis?

Phil Knight said...

That would be a great name for a Farrelly Brothers film.

David K Wayne said...


Soup Recipes said...

Grateful for sharinng this