Keiron Phelan on…
Cockney Rebel’s The Psychomodo (EMI, 1974)
There was always something gloriously ‘wrong’ about (the first incarnation of) Cockney Rebel. Like a misbegotten romance between a kohl-eyed hippie chick and a suedehead, Rebel existed in a world of musical contradictions and unlikelihood. Their flint eyed, silver haired, bowler hat and Clockwork Orange eye make-up disporting leader, Steve Harley, possessed the air of a man who knew both the whereabouts of the nearest opium dens and the meeting places of the local boot boys. In 1974 musical ‘tribes’ did not intermingle. Harley mixed it up while giving the impression that he didn’t give a shit about any of them. Rebel were variously accounted (or dismissed) as cult band, glam-pop or pretentious con-artists, depending on your point of view. They shared the fate of The New York Dolls in that people who liked ‘serious music’ didn’t like them which, to me, put them permanently on the side of the angels. Personally, I fell in love with the band, at age 12, the first time I heard Harley holler his declamatory “Sh’made us ‘appy!” chorus in their May ’74 hit single, “Judy Teen”. Didn’t understand a single other word that he sang. Didn’t seem to matter.
A hugely driven and assertive individual (the use of the royal ‘us’ in “Judy Teen” was typical), Harley was probably not quite as talented a writer as he thought he was. Yet in the magnificent moment that was The Psychomodo (Rebel’s second album, released June 1974) he triumphantly pushed his ambitions to full fruition, fashioning a truly singular work. It’s one of those rare albums (Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust would be other examples) that succeed in creating its own fully realised, hermetically sealed, world. In the case of The Psychomodo, a largely dystopian one that, nevertheless, has a deal of room for both grand romance and general delectation.
Entering with a gale of detuning brass and rapid fade up of high velocity rhythm section, it’s an album that seems to be well underway before you’re even ready for it. The two minute short ‘call to arms’ that is “Sweet Dreams” introduces Harley’s agenda. A kaleidoscope of imagery detailing the confusions of rapid success, personal uncertainty and ruined romances ends with the pay-off line, “It’s so easy, this is really no test!” Indeed, this contradictory near masochistic lyrical attitude permeates the entire album. Harley’s position is that of a fighter, permanently on the ropes, who’s still ready to swing the punch that wins the contest.
With no pause for breath drums bludgeon us into “The Psychomodo” itself as Harley worries and howls his way through a paranoiac catalogue of future-time scenarios. It’s at this juncture that two points become apparent. Firstly: no electric guitar. At this cultural remove it’s hard to convey quite how shocking (and just plain wrong) that would have seemed to the contemporary audience. If you wanted your music to be taken seriously you had electric guitars and lots of them. Yet The Psychomodo is very much a designed album (some serious EMI money lay behind it), just very strangely designed. Harley himself, never one to share the limelight, probably thought that some wailing string-bender would simply get in his way. But this is one of the principle reasons for the abiding modernity of the record. The hugely inventive violin and electric piano work that embellish the songs (alongside angular drumming and lavish production values) leave enviable amounts of space within which Harley can lyrically emote and agonise. Bringing us neatly to point two.
When considering the nature of Harley’s voice, Marmite doesn’t come close. The 70s were a decade which found singers greatly enamoured of personal vocal tics but, even so, the Rebel frontman’s vocal style is mannered to the nth degree. Take Ray Davies’s ‘singing persona’ from “Lola”, magnify the lyrical incomprehension level by a factor of three, imagine that said persona had been inspired to vocalise out of pure Machiavellian arrogance and filter it through a Dylanesque indifference to actually hitting correct notes. That just about gets you there. Whether you liked being there was another question.
There are no musical weak points to speak of on The Psychomodo but the many highlights include the decadent, luxuriant and decidedly acid-fried August-holiday of a song that is “Ritz”, the serpentine coils and pseudo-macho posturing of “Cavaliers” (featuring Harley at his most half-skewed Dylanesque) and the anthemic, elegiac, almost messianic poise of closer, “Tumbling Down”, its words pitched perfectly between sincerity and parody. Yet the central ethos of the album is nowhere better encapsulated than in the insinuatingly creepy but bizarrely seductive world of “Mr. Soft”. Equal parts English music hall, Brecht-Weill cabaret and ska, the lyric appears to offer both contemplative advice and brusque encouragement to a drug addled, small town transvestite while an accompaniment of fuzz toned electric piano and scrape and slide violin sits atop a hook built upon (what can only be described as) squelchy bass.
Harley (a man always with one hand on the ‘destroy’ button and the other on ‘self-destruct’) was never to be as good as this again, although his most commercial years were still in front of him. I’d like to say that the musical rules that Cockney Rebel were so intent on ignoring have passed into history. But, mostly, they haven’t. They’ve simply been added to; yet more ways and reasons for endless musical equivalence and line-toeing. Worth celebrating then – the maverick impulse and consummate bravado of The Pyschomodo.
Notes On The Artist:
After initially finding his musical feet in the scholarly ’70s singer-songwriter-influenced acoustic ensemble Demoiselle in the first half of the 1990s, the London-dwelling Keiron Phelan has since followed a highly productive path for his non-rock multi-instrumentalist skills, close collaborative connectivity and compositional imagination.
Hooking up with equally talented and ambidextrous school friend David Sheppard in the mid-‘90s led to the establishment of two intrepid parallel instrumental-led projects; State River Widening (together with ‘third man’ Jon Steele) and Phelan Sheppard. State River Widening delivered three highly inspired albums of electro-acoustic post-folk journeying for Rocket Girl and Vertical Form between 1999 and 2004. The still-theoretically-ongoing Phelan Sheppard duo has released two full-length releases to date (in the shape of 2002’s O, Litter Stars early EPs compendium on Rocket Girl and 2006’s Harps Old Master LP on Leaf), supplementing SRW’s alchemy with deeper experimental inclinations for dub, ambient jazz, minimalism, exotica and electronica.
In addition to his considerable canon co-authored with Sheppard, Phelan has also shared his gifts with other likeminded creatives. This has manifested itself with choice guest spots on recordings from Angèle-David Guillou’s Klima project, Piano Magic’s Glen Johnson, Darren Hayman, Orla Wren, Pete Astor, Silver Servants and Allo, Darlin’.
Latterly, Phelan has also forged another close musical partnership, this time with Isnaj Dui’s Katie English, as the grammar-pedant taunting littlebow, for two richly inventive long-players exploring the flute as a lead instrument – namely 2011’s elegiac The Edge Blown Aerophone and 2013’s eclectic Pi Magpie – for the Second Language label.
As a composer, Phelan’s most imminent fresh offering is a second and somewhat unexpected eponymous set from Smile Down Upon Us. The album (due for UK vinyl release via WIAIWYA and through Japan’s Yacca label on CD, from Record Store Day onwards) reunites Phelan with Japanese artist moomLooo (sic) to provide a sequel to 2008’s also self-titled debut (co-released by Static Caravan and Yacca). Featuring supporting role contributions from the likes of David Sheppard, Katie English and Soup Studio’s Simon Trought, the long-player takes the twosome’s internet-enabled sonic conjoining into even more intriguing and expansive territories. With Phelan properly returning to the vocal booth for the first time in 15 or so years to share singing duties with moomLooo, the collection sprinkles its bewitchingly-skewed art-folk songs with laptop-electronics, found-soundscapes, ska-pop, pan-global pastoralism and watery ambience, coloured by shades of both Amiina’s Kurr and Can’s magpie-like Unlimited Edition. Like much of Keiron Phelan’s rich and enviable body of work before it, the new Smile Down Upon Us record manages to simultaneously soak-up and re-channel diverse globalist influences whilst creating a beautiful bubble that seems dreamily detached from the rest of the musical world.
Sticking with his profilic work pattern Keiron Phelan is currently working on both a third littlebow LP and the construction of his first ever solo album.