Sebastian, by Cockney Rebel

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 typical glam rock band, 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 arrangement 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.

Radiate simply, the candle is burning, so low for me

Generate me limply, can’t seem to place your name, cherie

To rearrange all these thoughts in a moment is suicide

Come to a strange place, we’ll talk over old times we never smile

 

Somebody called me Sebastian

Somebody called me Sebastian

Work out a rhyme, toss me the time, lay me, you’re mine

And we all know, oh yeah!

 

Your Persian eyes sparkle; your lips, ruby blue, never speak a sound

And you, oh so gay, with Parisian demands, you can run-around

And your view of society screws up my mind like you’ll never know

Lead me away, come inside, see my mind in kaleidoscope

 

Somebody called me Sebastian

Somebody called me Sebastian

Mangle my mind, love me sublime, do it in style,

So we all know, oh yeah!

 

You’re not gonna run, babe, we only just begun, babe, to compromise

Slagged in a Bowery saloon, love’s a story we’ll serialize

Pale angel face; green eye-shadow, the glitter is outasight

No courtesan could begin to decipher your beam of light

 

Somebody called me Sebastian

Somebody called me Sebastian

Dance on my heart, laugh, swoop and dart, la-di-di-da,

Now we all know you, yeah!

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