Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel are best known to me as a great band name and a collection of quirky intermittent tunes in the 1970s’ soundtrack of my childhood, primarily the numbers Here Comes The Sun, Mr Soft, and (Come Up And See Me) Make Me Smile, all of which, of course, have to find their way on the gig play-list on this DVD recording of their appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2004. The band are still going strong, the Cockney Rebel organic and changing always the plan, Harley the only constant, the current line-up the most pleasing assemblage to its front man so we are led to understand.
The film opens softly at dawn, or dusk masquerading at dawn, to the sound of The Lighthouse, following the crowds to the Festival. There is no shortage of cameras at the event and the image and colour quality is good throughout. They launch into Here Comes The Sun, a great song and guilty pleasure; but the open air affects the sound, the instruments are in chase and Harley’s voice a bit coarse. We are informed by the fans on the supporting material that Harley’s voice has never been better, but as the show runs on, and Harley shouts more than he sings, I declare them, for the time being, delusional. It’s all a little Bontempi for me as the keyboard, a Korg in truth that belongs firmly in the 1970s, tinkles and chirrups away. Mr Soft is sung without that weird gulping, melting vocal of the original recording, lost to a raspier version of his voice. The honest strumming and the voice seem to lose out to the al fresco circumstances and you long for them to go indoors and bounce it off some walls instead. Judy Teen if further example of the loss of characteristic edge to his once unique voice as he shouts like a Billy Bragg. On Sling It they are still trying to be loud with instruments that defy it.
A Friend For Life is a mournfully unnecessary song, the voice crumpling farther. Surely the audience will be unforgiving on this one, but no they are rapturous, so it is possible I am completely missing something here. Then again, perhaps not, after all, The Proclaimers have a fanbase, don’t they… large numbers of people can be wrong! Riding The Waves is next and by this stage I want to know who else is on the bill. Then mid-song a fantastic bit of instrumental guitar promises much… then breaks its promise. I am now becoming aggrieved because I think the band are enjoying themselves too much when I am not at all. Harley presumptuously tries to get the audience to sing along, but they want to clap, which I put down to the realisation by the audience that their collective singing voice is dismal. Sebastian shows the band in fine form and sounding fantastic, though the violin needs reigning in a little. It is a pleasant tune that is prolonged without upset. (Come Up And See Me) Make Me Smile is, as ever, a great song but it should not be stretched out to the length of Freebird as Harley does here. Repeating those few words over and over again can seriously damage one’s interest in a number. It was never designed to run that long. And then it is over.
The songs that are tortured with improvised length could have been kept down and a couple of more tunes added. Harley apparently has a habit for the ad-hoc prolongation on his tunes in concert and his band members have to keep a close eye and ear on him to keep up. It is clearly a habit that can end wrongly. The Isle of Wight Festival was a return for them, they had been there in 1970 and Harley had jested that many of those in the 2004 audience were likely conceived at the original as he played. The numbers for the 2004 festival may have had Harley overly excited causing him to get carried away in this clumsy manner.
In the supporting material there is a performance of the rarely heard Death Trip at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. Unlike some of the Isle of Wight songs it is a number designed to be magically epic and so it is. Lyrics to impress to: “Now I’m in a death trip/ listening to the blood drip/ oozing from a cut lip/ never thought of dying this way.” Harley and the band sound great, the night, the blue lights, the walls, the professionalism, all suggest that this is what it is normally like at a Cockney Rebel concert. The song evokes later artistes from Le Mat and Hugo Largo to Marillion, all of whom likely took some influence, but more redolently it appears to jab a finger accusingly in the direction of Rupert Wainwright. Going to DVD with a concert because of the history and the footage is not necessarily the most rewarding gig you can sell to us. They should have ditched it and given us the cosier affair at Queen’s Hall in its entirety instead. It would have clearly been far more impressive.