Disability Music Publication

Steve Harley RIP, polio and pop

… For the likes of Ian Dury, Steve Harley, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, their common experiences were two-fold: childhood polio in the late 1940s or early 1950s—disease and medicalisation—and then growing up as teenagers and young people through the sonic boom of the counterculture. The ’40s and ’50s shaped (misshaped) them; the ’60s shaped them again. A cultural cluster like this polio-pop one is also explicable by foregrounding the solitariness and introspection of much treatment of the disease—separated from peers and family, polio children would draw on the artistic compensation of the isolate.

The 1970s English pop singer Harley spent three-and-a-half childhood years in hospital, after contracting it in 1953: ‘I wasn’t hit badly [by polio], but it changed my life…. For a long time my life was in a bedside cabinet and it was a notebook and pen, all words, words, words…. I am solitary as a result’. His long-term impairment consisted of atrophied right leg muscles, related limping gait, and chronic uncertainty of balance.

Although I argue [in my book Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability] that his music and his voice all bear traces of the experience of disability, it was only in 2005, thirty years after his hits, that he actually sang explicitly of his own childhood polio experience, in a slow heavy rock song called ‘The last feast’, which he described as ‘a primal scream …. remember[ing] pain beyond description after the [corrective] surgery’. In fact the direct lyrical reference is largely confined to the chorus, in which the childhood memory of polio-induced paralysis is compared and contrasted with his current desired state of religious grace:

Sweet angels, open my eyes / I been dreaming I’ve been paralysed / Sweet angels, open my eyes / I been dreaming I’m in paradise.

Intriguingly, like Dury, the other English polio survivor and pop singer of the 1970s, Harley, was also a faux East Ender in vocal delivery and image. After all, his band was called Cockney Rebel—the implication being that he was both those things, a cockney (born in the east end of London) and a rebel. Harley was a highly successful frontman, singer and lyricist who, I argue, did voice through sound and word a different kind of identity. Could cultural ‘coarseness’ (Dury’s term) be a compensatory catch, a way of linguistically toughening out for these performing polios? It’s one of the male routes open to the talking or singing crip.

Harley’s and especially Dury’s asper—or, more accurately, asperated—voice and delivery signify a persona, and a strategy. In Extraordinary Bodies Rosemarie Garland Thomson has reminded us that

to be granted fully human status by normates, disabled people must learn to manage relationships from the beginning. In other words, disabled people must use charm, intimidation, ardour, deference, humour or entertainment to relieve nondisabled people of their discomfort. Those of us with disabilities are supplicants and minstrels.

If we follow the Dury template strictly, we must acknowledge that those of us with disabilities are wind-up and fuck-off merchants, too, the kinds of performers who may ‘use excess and destabilisation in order to move beyond the difference-denying polite frameworks of asinine sameness’ (Petra Kuppers).

Steve Harley’s repertoire included a vocal delivery and lyrics and musical arrangements that drew on tics, pauses, an occasional stutter, masses of mispronounciations, nursery nonsenses. (These are elements of what I call his mal canto.) He limped on to stage to the accompaniment of pop music that could be strikingly rhythmically unusual, driven by a percussive centre that was more than slightly off-beat. Hit songs like ‘Judy Teen’ and ‘Mr Soft’, each a top ten single in the British charts in 1974, were peopled by eccentric characters, and voiced with stutters and echoes, but their rhythms are notable too, for the punctuated or broken stops and silences, and most of all their alla zoppa stepfulness.

At his commercial peak in the mid-1970s, after glam and before punk rock, Harley presented an image of pomp and disturbance with albums like The Psychomodo and The Human Menagerie, playing the poppy madman and decadent, singing songs of suicide and ‘mild schizophrenia’, as he put it. Although he told me in 2005 that he did not consciously explore any personal sense of disability during the songs of the peak Cockney Rebel years, it is possible to trace some such recurring interest, even from the modest freakery of the album titles alone.

1974’s The Psychomodo presents a fictive figure of combined cognitive and physical impairment, a conflation of the psychotic Quasimodo, who is mad and hunchbacked. Judging by the front cover which shows a bare-shouldered, wide-eyed Harley with a tear rolling down his cheek, fans were invited to identify the body of Harley himself with the doubly disabled Psychomodo character. In the chorus of the album’s title song the lyric sheet gives, in damaged grammar: ‘Oh! We was so hung up and wasted/ Oh! We was so physically devastated’.

That both Harley and Dury should seek to re-voice themselves as Cockney is partly a reflection of the attitudinality of rock during these years to be authentic, situated, street-wise, urban, British rather than transatlantic, of course. But this cultural rebranding also clearly connects disability with a class position (working class), an uncomplicated confirmation of the view that to be disabled is to have a social placing which is lower rather than upper.