Two groups of sessions recorded 18 years apart certainly make for a disconcerting listen. Live at the BBC begins, as one would wish, with a straightforward examination of the original Cockney Rebel legacy -- a live performance built around the band's Human Menagerie debut album and a studio session highlighting the sophomore Psychomodo. Then vocalist Steve Harley presses the fast-forward button and suddenly it's 1992, and he's on another of those interminable comebacks, mixing old classics with new half-hopers and, though you can kind of see the connection, it's still hard to believe that the verbosity, vision, and doom-laden prophecy of the olden days could ever have become so self-satisfied. In 1974, Harley sung with the desperation of a man clinging by his fingertips to the last shreds of decency and sanity, while crazed violins curdled his blood and fairground melodies haunted his daydreams. By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way strums. In 1992, he didn't. Simple (and sad) as that. So don't play the later stuff. The early performances alone are worth the price of admission and then some. Rearranged with brutal simplicity, the Psychomodo material is vastly different than the album versions: a little slower and moodier, but also madder -- a battle for supremacy between voice and tortured strings, with Harley's lyrics reborn with harsh new meaning. Even "Mr. Soft," so familiar as the band's latest hit when the session was broadcast, is treated with chilling disregard for its popularity. Its hooks are dragged obscenely out of shape; its friendly quirkiness replaced by skulking insanity -- Harley even overhauls the little yips and ooh-la-las that punctuated the verses. Mr. Soft is suddenly very hard indeed.
The live material, cut earlier in the year, captures Cockney Rebel in even more uncompromising form. The highlight, of course, is "Sebastian," a song reduced by the passing years to nothing more than crowd-pleasing cliché, but returned here to its rightful place at the head of Harley's table -- a roost of rank darkness, sordid disgrace, and oozing damp stains on the walls, with the softly flickering candlelight just bright enough to let you know you don't want to see what is shifting in the gloom. Cockney Rebel's breakthrough hit single was still some months away when this performance was recorded, and nothing on display suggests that anything remotely resembling the Top 20 could ever cloud the band's horizon. Nor do they appear to want it to -- not when they conclude their first-ever national radio show with an unabridged tramp through "Death Trip," Human Menagerie's epic closure and possibly the first putative pop song ever to ask its audience, "Have you ever thought of dying slowly?" Even without the orchestration that takes the album version to such Wagnerian heights, it is a powerful, affecting, and utterly terrifying performance, and when -- as the song approaches its climax and the band is building louder and faster -- Harley demands, "Let's go out with a bang," you wouldn't be shocked if the whole world exploded. That's what it sounds like they're aiming for. In fact, the biggest disturbance is the crash of your chair falling over, as you race to switch the CD off before the last five tracks begin. But that's a small price to pay for all that came before.