Wednesday 19th December 2018 – a Belgian bistro, rebellious Cockneys, and a minor miracle in Bexhill

To Bexhill-on-Sea for a concert by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel at the De La Warr Pavilion. For pre-concert sustenance Mrs. M.A.E. and I repaired to Bistro 45, an old favourite of ours. Something of a rarity in these parts, it is a Belgian Restaurant. Specialities include, of course, mussels (done at least 45 different ways), waffles, crepes (savoury and sweet), frites, and Belgian beer. The mussels were very popular though I can’t comment on them since I took a vow of abstinence from the little bi-valves after they and I had a “full and frank discussion” in Jersey in the mid-1980s. Excellent steaks and fish dishes are also offered. We particularly enjoyed some prawns deep fried in coconut – a refreshing change from the ubiquitous breadcrumbs. My main course was another Belgian favourite, a tender and rich carbonade flamande (beef casseroled in beer) which I accompanied with a nicely smooth and hoppy Vedett IPA from their extensive beer list. We finished by sharing crepes suzette.

Though our meal wasn’t as heavy as it sounds we needed lively entertainment to follow, and we weren’t disappointed. Unlike in the case of The Pretty Things who I was lucky enough to catch in their last solo British concert (see post for Friday 26th October 2019) I had seen Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel before, at the Crystal Palace Garden Party VIII at the Crystal Palace concert bowl on Saturday 7th June 1975. Having said that your man doesn’t have much memory of their performance. I went with a group of friends from University, and we were mainly there to see the short-lived Jack Bruce Band featuring Mick Taylor on guitar and Carla Bley (keyboards). Your man had somewhat esoteric tastes even then. Steeleye Span, Billy Cobham, and John Cale were also on the bill (though there now appears to be some doubt as to whether Cale actually played). Harley and the Rebel topped the bill having recently had a massive hit with Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me). As to why I remember little their set appears to have been delayed when, on a hot day, people had dived into the lake where there was a submerged pontoon on which Harley had planned to do a “walking on water” impression. I suspect we may have also had to leave early to catch the train back to Oxford, but I digress………… (again)

Harley started, perhaps surprisingly, with the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, a cover version hit for the Rebel in 1976. However it succeeded in getting the gig off to an upbeat start, from whence the mood fluctuated through the evening. To illustrate this the next song was Psychomodo: “I been so disillusioned, I’m on suicide street” with an extended improvised abstract ending on guitar. Among the light hearted moments, apparently it had been suggested that this was to be a Christmas show. We don’t do carols, quipped Harley. He did comment on his own red jacket which looked a bit seasonal. “Made to measure” he said, “Not made to fit”. Next Harley sang a song he released in 2015 called People, Ordinary People in which the title line formed a short chorus which Harley wanted the audience to sing. Apparently the group’s guitarist Barry Wickens, who lives in Brighton had said “if you ever get them to sing that in Bexhill it’ll be a miracle”. Well miracles do happen.

Other high spots in the first half included some very personal tracks from the seminal 2005 album The Quality of Mercy. The touching A Friend for Life (“ I’ll need a soulmate to hold me and a friend for life, and I’m hoping it may be you”) – later recorded by Rod Stewart, and Journey’s End (A Father’s Promise) (“I’ll be there for you when you fear it’s a never ending road”) were both given sensitive performances , as was a song for his mother who died in her mid-70s, and “The Coast of Amalfi” a sort of Italian travelogue, memorable despite having no chorus. The first half finished with the upbeat, calypso like but actually dark tones of Mr. Raffles (Man it was Mean).” We’re having a party” he sang, and we were.

After the interval a quiet reflective vocal, guitar and keyboard set including a memorable version of A Stranger comes to Town”. Then the full band gave us The Last Time I saw you, and Save Me. There was a powerful song about his polio featuring the line “why did I become a victim of fate?”, significant in that he had by his own admission been in denial about it previously. Then we were into a big finish with of course Sebastian and Rebels biggest hit and, as a sort of encore, Make me Smile (Come up and See Me) – recently chosen by John Rentoul in the Independent as one of the top ten best songs with brackets in the title (use Google if you want to find out the others). I say “sort of” following a recent hip injury he, quite rightly, said “why should I hobble off and back on”. In concert full of what Harley called banter, he mentioned that the song had recently been used in an advertisement for Viagra. He wondered “if they wouldn’t have preferred to use Mr. Soft.”*

An outstanding gig by an excellent band led by a great and (I think) much underrated songwriter. (*****) I was wrong to leave early to catch that train in 1975. I’m sure that essay could have waited.

*A Cockney Rebel hit in 1974.

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