Steve Harley – Uncovered
Release Date: 21st February 2020
Formats: CD, LP, DL
There’s some Steve Harley footage on YouTube of German TV’s Musik Laden from February 1976, at a similar time to Cockney Rebel’s album Timeless Flight. Transmission begins with Mad, Mad Moonlight, somewhat appropriate by the look of twenty-five-year-old Steve Harley. There is wide-eyed and amped lunacy. Everything, including his flares, feels like it’s wired to the mains.
February 2020, a small matter of 44 years on, brings Uncovered, eleven reworked songs – two of his own and an eclectic selection of nine other tracks. There’s plenty of evidence of what the late Mr David Bowie would have referred to as “Ch-, ch-, ch-, ch-, changes,” both in the songs and inevitably in the man himself.
Many of the songs are evocative of the music Harley has made in recent times with James Lascelles and Barry Wickens performing as the acoustic trio. Several songs evoke the folk heritage of the places in London where he began his performing career in 1971. Seven of the eleven songs covered pre-date Harley’s own career.
We all draw those mental Venn diagrams of ‘artists that another artist sound like’, mainly because all music influences all other music, not because artists are inherently generic. (Some are. A bit. Steve Harley certainly isn’t). Listen to a lot of his early albums and you’re certainly drawing circles for Bowie and Bob Dylan, so it’s no surprise to hear one song of Bowie’s and two of Dylan’s on Uncovered.
Bowie’s Absolute Beginners and Dylan’s When I Paint My Masterpiece are the second and final track respectively, but exemplify the threads of love and of human frailty that run through the album. Indeed, Bowie’s phrase, “I absolutely love you” follows neatly on from the simpler refrain of “I love you” on album opener, Compared With You (Your Eyes Don’t Seem To Age). 1976’s track from Love’s A Prima Donna receives an extra verse in fond tribute to Mrs Harley.
Just in case we’re expecting track three to get even more mushy, tracks three to five take us off into the vicissitudes of love. Harley gives Robert Burns an outing, making our heart strings more taut for plucking with 1790s break-up wrencher, Ae Fond Kiss. Harley then conveys a lot of what Mickie Most called the ‘depth and darkness’ of the original recording of Hot Chocolate’s Emma. Originally by Cat Stevens from 1971, How Can I Tell You is full of modest self-doubt and sincere appreciation for its addressee – vulnerable masculinity at its best.
Elsewhere, Harley takes on The Beatles’ first fully acoustic track, I’ve Just Seen A Face, allowing it the hoedown violin The Beatles never could. He dabbles in fringe Britpop, taking the work of Crispin Hunt and Richard Hawley on The Longpigs’ Lost Myself, including a proper test of vocal range and control. Near the end of the album, he gives Chris Farlowe’s Out Of Time some gruff country stylings.
Arguably, the best is Dylanesque and saved for last. The duet with Eddi Reader on Star of Belle Isle on the penultimate track combines the soft and growling with the sharp-edged and crystalline (guess which is which). Then there’s the album closer, When I Paint My Masterpiece, with its country-rock bounce and its exultant backing vocals. “Ancient footprints are everywhere,” it tells us early on.
Ancient footprints are all over this album – the prints of the original artists, songwriters and producers. You can still detect some presence of that wide-eyed 1976 rebel, but what you hear most on this album is a 2020 Steve Harley who, for any number of reasons, treads more carefully. As much as Musik Laden was a triumph of vigour, joy and just a hint of dandified strutting, Uncovered presents slow, autumnal, melancholic beauty.
Watch Steve playing The Beatles I’ve Just Seen A Face here: