Sebastian (song)

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Cockney Rebel Sebastian 1973 Belgian Single Cover.jpeg
Single by Cockney Rebel
from the album The Human Menagerie
B-side"Rock and Roll Parade"
Released31 August 1973
GenreGlam rock[1]
Length3:54 (7" version)
6:59 (album version)
LabelEMI Records
Songwriter(s)Steve Harley
Producer(s)Neil Harrison
Cockney Rebel singles chronology
"Judy Teen"
Alternative Cover
German cover of "Sebastian"
German cover of "Sebastian"

"Sebastian" is a song by the British rock band Cockney Rebel, fronted by Steve Harley. It was released as the band's debut single in 1973 from their album The Human Menagerie. The song was written by Harley and produced by Neil Harrison.[2]


Described by Harley as a "Gothic love song", "Sebastian" features a 50-plus piece orchestra and choir alongside the band, with orchestral arrangements by Andrew Powell.[3][4] In June-July 1973, Cockney Rebel recorded their debut album The Human Menagerie, including the song, at Air Studios, London, after having signed a deal with EMI Records.

"Sebastian" was first performed by Harley during his days of busking in the early 1970s, before Cockney Rebel were formed in late 1972. Having trained as a journalist for three years, Harley embarked on his musical career through "floor-spotting" within London folk clubs in 1971-72.[5] In 1972, Harley began busking in London, in subways and walkways under and in such places as Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Leicester Square and Covent Garden.[6] Speaking to the Daily Express in 2007, he recalled: "I started busking in the early 70's, which gave me a platform to experiment on the public with my songs. I had one called "Sebastian", which was six minutes of gothic poetry! I got absolutely no money."[7]

"Sebastian" was released as the band's debut single in August 1973, preceding the album, which followed in November. The song failed to achieve commercial success in the UK and did not enter the UK Top 50. However, in continental Europe, the song became a big hit, including reaching the top spot on the Belgian Ultratop 50 Wallonia chart.[8] In a 2014 interview with the Sunday Express, Harley spoke of the song's European success: ""Sebastian" was a number one in most of Europe in 1974. It happened so quickly. I didn't pay many dues to be honest. That's what the New Musical Express held against me at the time."[9]

The failure of "Sebastian" in the UK led EMI to feel that Harley had yet to record a potential hit single. In response he went away and re-worked one of his unrecorded songs called "Judy Teen", which became a UK Top 5 hit for the band in June 1974.[10] However, prior to the release of the single, EMI decided to hold the song back at the beginning of 1974 and re-issue "Sebastian" on 25 January (originally due to be 11 January), as the third time being released as a UK single. This was in hope of it becoming a chart hit, however it still did not make a chart appearance.[11][12]

Since its release, "Sebastian" has gained reputation over the following years as one of Harley's greatest songs, and has consistently been included in the Harley and the band's live concerts. While much debate has been made over its meaning, in 2008, Harley spoke about the song and its lyrics in a short documentary for the Netherlands programme Top 2000:

"It's poetry. It means what you want it to mean. "Sebastian" is the conduit, the tubes through which I took myself on that journey to write the story. I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't have been far away from tripping when I wrote "Sebastian". LSD, certainly, created so many incidents in your life, so many images, so much madness and mayhem, as well as great tranquility if you were lucky. I can't define its meaning. It's like most poetry, it's a lovely word."[13]

In 2004, Harley recalled:

""Sebastian" is possibly a sort of Gothic love song, possibly not: I'm not really sure to be honest. But I do know that it has just three chords and a couple of riffs and that I had been busking it in the London subways and on Portobello Road for many months before EMI offered the lads and me, the first Cockney Rebel, a recording contact. Andrew Powell's enormous and wild arrangement for the classical bods and the choir turned the song into something different, of course."[14]

In 1983, Harley would re-record the song with Mike Batt as producer. This version was released on the 12" vinyl edition of the single "Ballerina (Prima Donna)", which stalled just outside the UK Top 50. In the UK, the 12" vinyl actually swapped both tracks around so that "Sebastian" was the A-Side and "Ballerina" became the B-Side.[15]


"Sebastian" was released by EMI Records on 7" vinyl in the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Japan, Australia and Mexico.[16] For its release as a single, the seven minute song was shortened down to just under four minutes. Harley was never entirely happy about having the song cut down, but understood it was more likely to receive radio-play as an edit.

The B-Side, "Rock and Roll Parade", was written by Harley and produced by Harrison. It was exclusive to the single, but later appeared on the 2004 CD re-issue of The Human Menagerie as one of two bonus tracks, and also on the 2012 EMI box-set compilation Cavaliers: An Anthology 1973-1974.[17][18] The Mexican version of the single was the only edition to feature a different B-Side; the album track "Death Trip".[19] Aside from its release in the UK and Australia, all editions of the single were released with different picture sleeves, featuring a photograph of Cockney Rebel. Many of the sleeves used the same photograph as seen on the cover of The Human Menagerie.[20]

Additionally, EMI released the song as a promotional single in America, which featured the A-Side on both sides of the vinyl; one in mono and one in stereo.[21] In Italy, Columbia Records released a double A-Side 7" vinyl single, featuring "Sebastian" on one side and T. Rex's "Truck On (Tyke)" on the other.[22]

Since its release as a single, and on The Human Menagerie, "Sebastian" has appeared on the majority, if not all, of Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel compilations, while also featuring on a number of various artists compilations over the years.[23][24] On Cavaliers: An Anthology 1973–1974, a previously unreleased early version of "Sebastian" was added to disc three, while the "DJ Edit" of the song was placed on disc one.[25]


Since its release, "Sebastian" has been a regular inclusion in Harley and the band's live concerts, remaining a popular number. As a result, live versions of the song have also been recorded and released. On 22 January 1974, the band performed it for a BBC 'Live in Concert' session, which was later released on the 1995 compilation Live at the BBC,[26] as well Cavaliers: An Anthology 1973–1974.[27] On 3 June 1974, the band played at the Pinkpop Festival in the Netherlands, which featured this song and was filmed.[28] On 14 April 1975, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel performed the song as part of their set at the Hammersmith Odeon, London. The concert was filmed and released as a film titled Between the Lines.[29] The same version of the song appeared as the B-Side to the band's 1975 hit single "Mr. Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)".[30] In 1991, the version appeared as a bonus track on the first CD release of The Best Years of Our Lives album.[31] In February 1976, the band performed a live set, including the song, at the "Beat Club" studio in Germany, which was filmed.[32] A live version also appeared on the band's 1977 live album Face to Face.[33]

The song was performed at Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel's 1984 concert at the Camden Palace, London, which was filmed for TV and released on the VHS Live from London in 1985.[34][35][36] In 1989, the band's Brighton concert included the song and was released on the VHS The Come Back, All is Forgiven Tour: Live.[37] In October 1991, Harley was invited to play Night of the Proms, where he performed "Sebastian" and "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)". It was filmed and also later released on the Night Of The Proms - Volume 6 CD.[38] Further live versions also appeared on Harley's live albums Stripped to the Bare Bones (1999) and Anytime! (A Live Set) (2004),[39][40][41] as well as the 2005 DVD Live at the Isle of Wight Festival.[42]

In January 2011, Harley performed the song live with Cockney Rebel members Barry Wickens and James Lascelles, and the "Herreavdelingen" radio show's orchestra at the NRK Marienlyst in Oslo, Norway.[43] In November 2012, the band performed the song live at the Birmingham Symphony Hall. On the night, Harley and the band, supported by an orchestra and chamber choir, performed the first two Cockney Rebel albums in their entirety, including "Sebastian". It was released on CD and DVD in 2013 as Birmingham (Live with Orchestra & Choir).[44]

Critical reception[edit]

Upon release, New Musical Express described the song as a "wonderful record", adding: "It's a classically influenced ballad with the upper lead vocals placed, delicately, in the middle of the finest string and bass arrangement I've heard since the Titanic sank. The lyrics are a little contrived... but just you wait for the grand choral work."[45] Melody Maker noted: "The Rebel are a very interesting band indeed, and this is an adventurous and unusual performance."[46] Record Mirror commented on the song's "concert-classical type of string sounds", "strained voice", "beautiful mood", "excellent lyrics" and "first-class production".[47] Daily Mirror described the song as "an eerie slice of vicious moodiness with heavy orchestral backing and choir". They added: "Watch out for them, they're going to be big."[48]

In a 2004 review of The Human Menagerie, Geoff Barton of Classic Rock commented how The Human Menagerie "builds insidiously until the arrival of the fifth track, the immense and immortal "Sebastian"".[49] Carol Clerk of Classic Rock said in a review of the 2006 release The Cockney Rebel – A Steve Harley Anthology that "Sebastian" was a "brave first single with its choral and orchestral dramas".[50] Chris Roberts of Uncut stated: "Fan favourite "Sebastian" was a quite wonderful seven-minute epic with the unabashed self-importance of early Genesis."[51]

In a retrospective review of The Human Menagerie, Dave Thompson of AllMusic felt that both the labyrinthine "Sebastian" and loquacious "Death Trip" "possess confidence, arrogance, and a doomed, decadent madness which astounds".[52] Donald A. Guarisco of AllMusic, in a review of the 1975 compilation A Closer Look, highlighted "Sebastian" as one of the compilation's "most impressive epics". He described the song as a "slowly building ballad that adds layers of orchestration and choral vocals as it lays out a gothic tale of a romantic obsession that gives way to insanity".[53]

In 2005, Peter Hook of New Order chose six of his top tracks for The Metro, which included "Sebastian". He revealed: "It's the first song that made me realise that there's more to music than pop. It wasn't throwaway. It builds up and down over nine minutes. Like "Bohemian Rhapsody", there's loads of different bits that go through it. The beauty of it is that you can listen to it over and over again and not get fed up with it."[54]

Track listing[edit]

7" Single
  1. "Sebastian" - 4:03
  2. "Rock and Roll Parade" - 5:03
7" Single (Mexican release)
  1. "Sebastian" - 4:03
  2. "Death Trip" - 9:54
7" Single (US promo release)
  1. "Sebastian (Mono)" - 3:36
  2. "Sebastian (Stereo)" - 3:36
7" Single (Italian Jukebox release)
  1. Cockney Rebel - "Sebastian" - 3:50
  2. T-Rex - "Truck On (Tyke)" - 3:06

Cover versions[edit]

  • In 1975, Dutch singer Patricia Paay recorded a version of "Sebastian" for her album Beam of Light, which was titled after a line in the song. Harley produced the entire album and also gave her the song "Understand" for the same album (later recorded by Harley for the 1976 Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel album Timeless Flight). Paay is the sister of Yvonne Keeley, who was Harley's backing vocalist and girlfriend of the time.[55][56]
  • In 1987, British band Far Corporation recorded a version of the song, which was released by Arista as a single in August that year. Harley approved of the version and agreed to make an appearance in the song's music video. The video, which was directed by Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher, was shot at Ireland.[57][58] On 29 August, the band appeared on the German TV show Na Siehste! to promote the single, which featured Harley making an appearance as the keyboardist.[59]


Cockney Rebel
Additional personnel


Chart (1973) Peak
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[60] 2
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Wallonia)[61] 1
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[62] 2
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[63] 2
West Germany (Official German Charts)[64] 30


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External links[edit]