Cockney Rebel were a product of their time and place: London 1973 at the height of the glam rock scene. The previous year David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Roxy Music released their eponymous first album. Steve Harley was busking on the streets and in subway stations, dreaming about a band of his own and a record contract. Unlike the conventions of a glam rock, he wanted to form a band that played acoustic instruments. He was lucky to find great musicians to realize his vision. Violinist John Crocker who also played mandolin and guitar, Milton Reame-James on piano, Paul Jeffreys on bass and Stuart Elliott on drums. In the summer of 1973, after being signed to EMI records, they went into Abbey Road to record their first album with legendary engineer Jeoff Emerick. The first song they attempted was also their most ambitious, a 7-minute grandiosity backed by a full orchestra and a choir. For the orchestral arrangements they recruited Andrew Powell, and that arrangement is what makes Sebastian the standout song that it is.
Powell recalls how he came to work on Cockney Rebel’s album: “I was walking across Trafalgar Square one day when I heard someone call my name: it was Robert Kirby. He was already a successful arranger – largely because of his work with Nick Drake (I had played on a couple of sessions with him and Nick.) We chatted for a minute or two, then he said – ‘You must be able to do arrangements – you studied at Cambridge – I have taken on too many albums this month – would you like to do one of them?’ Thus started a career…”. A couple of months later Kirby called Powell and asked if he can take a job Kirby had no time to fit into his schedule: two songs by a new band called Cockney Rebel.
Sebastian was written by Steve Harley on guitar and performed during his busking days, and back then it sounded nothing like the final recorded version with Andrew Powell’s arrangement. It starts with a simple piano riff, anticipating Harley’s vocals. These vocals have a subtle effect applied to them, maybe a flanger. Strings join Harley, beautifully building up to the first “Somebody called me Sebastian” part, where the choir joins. Woodwinds join in the second part of the song and the strings start playing mini melodies between Harley’s lines. Now the drums come in and the choir intensifies with the second “Somebody called me Sebastian” line. If you have not guessed already, that line is the money note of the song, the few seconds every producer seeks in search of a hit. But it does not stop there. There is an instrumental cadenza five minutes into the song with the full orchestra and Harley vocalizing with it that takes the song to its conclusion. All in all a wonderful marriage of rock and the classics.
Powell went on to write great orchestral arrangements for other songs that would have been lesser without his contributions, such as Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, Kate Bush’s The Man with the Child in His Eyes and Alan Parsons Project’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
If you enjoyed reading this article and want to learn more about Andrew Powell’s work as arranger, seek no farther than the following article:
Always loved this song. I have the live version from Face to Face (1977), also very powerful. Very much enjoying your music blog. Really enjoyed the post on Calling Occupants (which is how I found your blog). Best regards from Canada. Cheers, Andy
Thank you for the kind words, Andy. Hope you keep enjoying the posts to come. There are articles here on Joni Mitchell and The Band if you feel in need of music from the land of the maple leaf.
i am so glad to read this. marvellous song. what a wonderful artist and poet steve harley is
my comment is not ‘anonymous’! i just don’t understand all the technology
Not only you are not anonymous, but a Sebastian too. Thanks for the comments.
Heard this song on Radio after so many year’s it brought back many emotions of the time.
I had to know more about it so I came to this page. Enjoyed it very much.Thanks Andi