Steve Harley gets Uncovered and reveals his favourite interpretations of Make Me Smile ahead of coming to New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth | Interview
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Since hitting number one in 1975, It’s become a song which – with varying degrees of success – is attempted by everyone from buskers to function bands and major acts like Duran Duran.
But now its creator Steve Harley has decided to turn his attention to some of his favourite songs – his latest album, Uncovered, sees the veteran singer-songwriter tackling nine works by others, plus revisiting two of his own.
The Guide asks Steve how he picked the songs he was going to cover – and commits an accidental faux pas by calling them ‘covers’.
‘I'm not a pompous person,’ says Steve, ‘but I'm really precious about this word. These are reinterpretations.
‘I’m just kidding, but covers are covers are covers – I've got 130 covers of Make Me Smile and most of them are covers – you think, why did you bother? But some are really original – they are reinterpretations.
‘So these nine songs which are not mine are my reinterpretations of what I think are great songs. The criteria is: do you wish you'd written it?’
Steve explains how they came out of his noodling around at home, born of playing simply for pleasure.
‘I play a lot of guitar at home, pretty much every night.
‘I've got an acoustic guitar set up on a stand in three different rooms on the ground floor of the house, so I'll often end the day thinking I'm going to watch Match of The Day, put some TV on, chill with the football highlights, or watch the horseracing that I've had a bet on.
‘I settle down and in the corner is this beautiful piece of carpentry with strings on it. They're so tactile acoustic guitars – I get mesmerised by it and I have to pick it up, so I play quite a lot.
‘These songs are among about 20-or-so that I've been playing forever. The youngest, most recently written of them all is The Longpigs’ Lost Myself from the mid-90s, but I've been playing that my way for yonks.
‘I know Crispin Hunt, who wrote it, and I've always told him what a wonderful song it is.’
One of those songs is The Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen a Face, written by Paul McCartney and featured on the Help! album.
‘They're all songs I play all the time, like the McCartney song,’ Steve sings, ‘”I've just seen a face, I can't forget the time or place, Where we just met, She's just the girl for me...”
‘It's a wonderful song. People think it's very lightweight, but it's a narrative and Paul's really good at those – you know Lady Madonna, Paperback Writer... a brilliant narrative writer.
‘It's a lovely song about serendipity – "Had it been another day, I might have looked the other way”. It's serendipity as he was falling in love with Jane Asher. It's a classic, classy little song.’
Other songs on the album include David Bowie’s Absolute Beginners, Hot Chocolate’s Emma and The Rolling Stones’ Out Of Time.
With a studio band featuring Barry Wickens on viola and acoustic guitar, Oli Hayhurst on double bass, Tom Hooper on percussion and the roots music legend, Martin Simpson on guitar, Steve was keen to make their new versions as live sounding as possible.
‘My engineer's an old ally, Matt Butler, we met in 1986 when he was engineering Phantom Of The Opera and I was duetting with Sarah (Brightman).’ Steve sang on the original version of the song for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, but was replaced by Michael Crawford for its stage debut.
‘We've been friends ever since and he's worked with me a lot, and dare I say it, he's a fan, so he encourages me.
‘He said to me on day one: “With all these amazing players and the best instruments you can get, what do you want?”
‘I said: “I want it to sound like I'm in the living room, like I'm in the car with them, and I want no knob twiddling, no EQ.”
‘And he said: “You don't want me to engineer, really, do you?”
‘So I said: “Well, no!”
‘It's all completely natural on that album, even the singing. Anything you think is reverb is just the room itself.
‘I've got the best players money can buy, and they are up there. We can all turn up with the best instruments which money can buy, which we did, and he's got a set of the microphones which he bought from Abbey Road, and we're at Rockfield,’ the famed residential studio in south Wales, ‘with the best recording equipment money can buy. Just mic us up!
‘I did guide vocals, but I sang all 11 songs in one day and a couple of hours. That's called practice – I had been singing them all for 20 years!’ he laughs, ‘I'd done my rehearsals.’
‘I think he did an amazing job.
‘I play it at home on a really good sound system, it's an immaculate recording – I'm very proud of it.’
The album was released back in February 2020, and Steve began touring the album playing ‘nine out of 60’ dates before ‘the door slammed.’
Now he’s back to finish that tour with his acoustic band – including a date at New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.
Barry Wickens and Oli Hayhurst from the studio band are joining him on the road, but Martin Simpson was unable to do it due to commitments elsewhere.
Joining the band on lead guitar is David Delarre.
‘Martin couldn't do it, but he recommended a couple of players. I auditioned them by Zoom and David Delarre who's with is, he's just gifted as well – he had to learn a lot of Martin's fancy tunings! So it's the three of them and me.’
When it comes to the setlist for these shows, Steve promises you’ll get to hear the hits as well as a few lesser-played gems from his back catalogue.
‘This band have learned just over 40 songs, we're doing five or six songs from Uncovered, and the rest are mine, of course.
‘The hits are in there – it's beautiful to hear these guys play an acoustic Judy Teen – it kind of lifts the roof off of the place.
‘Then a massive, massive Sebastian. David's playing the motif – ba ba dum, ba ba dum – a piano motif, and he's playing it on acoustic guitar, it's almost,’ Steve sighs, ‘Spanish, flamenco. It's great – it's exciting, giving a new spin on them.’
Obviously there's going to be a new spin on the old recordings because it's a four-piece acoustic band with no keyboards – it's all strings.
‘It's a buzz.
‘We play Mr Soft as a gypsy-jazz. Almost every beat is a different chord. There’s David and myself playing gypsy-jazz guitar, Barry playing violin like he’s Stéphane Grappelli – it swings, but it's still the same song. It's the same lyric and the mad story, it's a lot of fun.’
So, knowing his dislike of ‘covers’, which reinterpretations of Make Me Smile does Steve rate?
‘A few of them are really special – Vince Clarke, his duo, Erasure, he did an electronic version and that was rather exciting.
‘Duran Duran, they did it as a big slow, serious finger-pointer which I kind of liked.
‘Above them all is The Wedding Present,’ the indie legends recorded their version on their 3 Songs EP from 1990, ‘they gave it a thrash – I like that a lot.
‘I was at an awards ceremony - The Ivors - I was presenting one. Vince was getting a lifetime achievement award, and I was a at a table with some suits, some executives. They were from Vince's record company, and I said: “I'm going to go across after lunch, introduce myself and tell him my thoughts about it”.
‘These guys were saying, don't do that Steve, he's very shy, he doesn't mix.
‘But I went over to him and he jumped up and was thrilled to bits that I'd made the effort and wanted to talk about my song with him.
‘He was was so thrilled because he said: “It was so odd, I didn't know if you'd like it.”
‘I told him it's there to be interpreted.’
After the two year touring hiatus for Covid, Steve is determined to make up for lost time: ‘There's a lot of catching up to do. I'm really healthy, and I want to tick boxes – I'm not ready to stop this. I love travelling – so much happens out there.’
The Steve Harley Acoustic Band is at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth onThursday, June 9 at 7.30pm. Tickets £32. Go to newtheatreroyal.com.