King Sebastian of Portugal, 15541578

King of Portugal from 15571578, Sebastian (Portuguese Sebastião) was the grandson and successor to John III. Succeeding to the throne at the age of three, Sebastian reigned under the regency of first his grandmother (to 1562) and then of his uncle Henry (later king himself) until he came of age in 1568.

A weak and sickly child, Sebastian was educated from a young age by Jesuit monks, who imbued him with a fanatical religious fervor. By the time he came of age, Sebastian had come to think of himself as a latter-day crusader and desperately wanted to undertake a holy crusade against muslim infidels. To Sebastian's warped mind, an appeal for help from a pretender to the Moroccan throne in 1576 seemed the perfect opportunity.

Sebastian immediately began preparing for an expedition to Morocco, spending enormous sums to hire and outfit an army of foreign mercenaries. Finally ready in 1578, Sebastian and his army landed in Morocco, where he was promptly crushed at the Battle of Ksar el Kebir. Both Sebastian and the pretender, Muhammad, died in the fighting, which also claimed the life of the legitimate Moroccan king Abd al-Malik.

At the time however, after the chaos of the battle, nobody was sure if Sebastian was dead or not. A rumor emerged that he had been captured. A strange legend developed that one day Sebastian would return to Portugal, and the messiananic cult that grew around this legend, Sebastianism, produced several Sebastian pretenders and lasted into the 19th century!

Sebastian was succeeded by his uncle Henry, who turned out to be the last of the Aviz dynasty. The crown then devolved to Philip II of Spain, and Spanish control of Portugal began.

Radiate simply, the candle is burning so low for me
    Generate me limply, I 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 spied

London, 1973. The streets were full of Bowie and co. - glam rock was all the rage and the notions of what defined rock and roll had been thrown out the window. And one man who was particularly taken with the whole idea was Steve Harley - at that time a journalist. He'd had some piano and guitar lessons and been busking for a while but had decided that the time was now right to form his own band - but a band with a difference - it must have no electric guitars and combine as many styles of music as possible. Gathering up a group of four musicians, including a violinist, he created Cockney Rebel.

Once the band had been snapped up by EMI they set about recording their first song at the London Air Studios. That song was Sebastian. Being their very first enterprise it perhaps best shows-off and defines their original intentions. It's folk-rock, it's prog-rock, it's glam-rock - all twisted together into one spectacular piece of music. The main instrumentation in the song is acoustic guitar, electronic piano and violin and this is combined with Steve's solo lyrics and soaring voice. The song is slow, almost gothic in nature, with lavish orchestration and a slightly electronically encoded vocal that gives it a quiet, unsettling quality. It has a chorus that was just one line, a wonderful line, but a line that seemed to bare no relevance to anything else in the song or anything at all for that matter.

The song is beautiful.

It was released by the record company on the 31st of August 1973 with high expectations - hoping it would tap into the current fascination with theatricality and pretense, but also connect with the attitude of being whoever you really were and searching for the truth behind those appearances. The single was a flop in the UK and failed to chart at all, but in the rest of continental Europe it was a massive hit, even reaching No. 1 in some countries and becoming somewhat of a favourite among glam fans everywhere.

Somebody called me Sebastian
Somebody called me Sebastian

The song was just what Steve had wanted, something gentle that captured the spirit of the age, like Roxy Music but with more heart, like Brian Eno but without that hard edge all the while giving away a hint of Bowiesque style on the stage. While some saw the song as a soaring and epic piece of rock, others just saw it as overworked and overblown. However it was successful enough to bring about the release of their first album The Human Menagerie, on which Sebastian appeared. The song was also released on 45, with Rock and Roll Parade as its B-side. For their 1975 single Mr. Raffles, a live version of Sebastian recorded during an April concert at the Hammersmith Odeon was used as the B-side.

When the band first split up in 1974 Steve Harley completely rearranged the song, apparently being unhappy with the way he had to compromise it when the whole band had had a say. Again in the early 80's, after a very long absence from the music scene, a one off concert was announced and an entirely new version of the song was presented. Particularly at live concerts he seems to be very fond of presenting the song in many different ways and one is unlikely to hear it performed the same way twice.

            You're not gonna run, babe, we only just begun, babe, to compromise
        Slagged in a Bowery saloon, where love's a story to serialise
    Pale angel face; green eye-shadow, the glitter is outasite
No courtesan could begin to decipher your beam of light

Sometimes it's just him and his guitar with someone else on piano, and other times it becomes more of an epic spectacle than it ever was. For example, although the violin was a prominent instrument on the whole album and this song in particular, one of the versions was recorded with a full orchestra and comes in at over 7 minutes. Sometimes he almost speaks, rather than sings, the lyrics. There is a particularly moving 10 minute version recorded at a live concert where he dedicated the song to Paul Jeffreys who played bass guitar on the original recording and shortly thereafter died in an airplane crash.

I've always liked the word Sebastian. I like the way it sounds and the way it looks when written on a piece of paper - in this song is perhaps the most amazing utterance of the word I have ever heard. In all the versions it is filled with a sound of longing desperation, of something far-away - perhaps lost forever.

I would think that if you'd never heard the song before, your verdict about it may be greatly affected by which version it is that you hear. Some are much more rousing than others, and each seem to bring out different elements in the song. I would say that two of the best ones are the original recording from the 45 and the cover done by The Venus In Furs in the late 90's. The first album on which Sebastian appears is not currently available on CD, and the original album is a minor collectible due to its rarity so normally the only way to find the song is on one of the Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel compilation albums.

I first encountered the song when I discovered Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' 1998 movie all about glam rock. I was confronted with a beautiful boy with long flowing hair and a long flowing purple dress sitting on a stage, pouring his heart out into this song and being jeered by the audience.

Somebody call me Sebastian
Somebody call me Sebastian

That movie, and the context in which the song is presented, defines for me its meaning. I've heard people say it's a song that is bemoaning the corruption of a young girl by society, I've heard that it's about a girl who he sees and watches but cannot help, save nor understand, I've heard it described as a gay anthem. And perhaps it is something of all of these things as it portrays a sense of confusion and bewilderment, somewhat depressed and perhaps even slightly depressing (which is in stark contrast to most other Cockney Rebel songs).

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

There was me, sitting on my couch at home, coming to the realization that I wasn't really what one could call straight - girls were beautiful, I had fallen in love with one just a few months before. I wanted desperately to be a boy, to be beautiful and to be loved back. I thought I felt the way he did, sitting on that stage in his dress - trying to make it all better and be something else. Every line and note struck a chord within me and I heard the song speaking to me, it had me under its spell.

Work out a rhyme, toss me the time, lay me, you're mine
And we all know, oh yeah!

Over the next few months I grew to love that girl more, and I thought she may love me too. She was the first person I felt desperate to wake up and see each day, the first one to hold my hand in the dark, the first one I made love to. I searched everywhere for the song, I wanted to play it for her and then tell her how I loved her, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I had the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack but it wasn't on there, I visited the man at the flea market who sold old records - he'd never heard of it. And then, she was gone. She moved overseas, and we promised we'd still be together. Not two months later than I received a letter from her, something to tell me that it was all 'an experiment', to tell me that it wasn't love, it was just curiosity.

Dance on my heart, laugh, swoop and dart, la-di-di-da
Now we all know you, yeah!

It was then that I found the song and each time I listed to it, I cried. Every lyric echoed my thoughts and brought with it a new wave of sadness that I would never change, I could hope and plead but the one who I loved would always hold sway over me, even if they didn't love me back.

Over time I became less disillusioned and now that I do know true love the song has become something else. It still resonates within me, but rather than make me sad, it seems to become a part of me, sometimes it even makes me close my eyes and smile, while I think over old times. Like The Pixies' Where Is My Mind? it is a song so special that I try not to listen to it too often, I prefer to keep it in my head and let it simmer there and stir up images - and then it's a real treat when it surprises me by playing somewhere in real life.

Mangle my mind, love me sublime, do it in style
So we all know, oh yeah!

One of the worst questions to be asked is 'What is your favourite song?'. What a question?! Simply because anyone would be so hard pressed to pick just one, choosing one would only be at the expense of another. It all just depends. However, for me, if it were - for some unknown reason - a matter of life and death, I think I would choose Sebastian.

All words in bold are © Steve Harley - 1973
CST Approved


An open letter to Sebastian Horsley



up the dirty stairs again / dandy dreams, cocaine screams
paint the walls in junkie blood / dress the whores in opium green

sharks they circled and fog closed in / a spectrum of sequins in turpentine
amoral turpitude at the gate / as violent love spilled in the wine

a carnal herald in sober times (carpe noctum, ye crucified)
death before boredom, break the line (carpe noctum, ye crucified)

conceal the who who you are / a mask to be accepted
let no one know who you are / a man to be rejected

and what of love the strangulation / an invasive cancer, labyrinthine
decadent, delectable, deductible / drowned in dihydrocodeine 

sebastian, bastard, mother sends sympathies
regrets, egress, fetal alcohol apologies
night come to take her away away, son / night come to take her away
night come to take her away away, ah! / night come to take her away

“half-Byronic, half-moronic; part-shaman, part-showman; half-Nazi, half-Liberace” 


a carnal herald in sober times (carpe noctum, ye crucified)
death before boredom, break the line (carpe noctum, ye crucified)
carpe noctum, ye crucified, ah / carpe noctum, ye crucified
carpe noctum, ye crucified, ah / carpe noctum, ye crucified

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