STEVE Harley’s new solo album has been hard work.

“I’ve had five years of ripping my own ears off,” admits the Cockney Rebel leader.

“It really doesn’t get any easier. It’s an odd thing that with most jobs, the older you get, the easier it becomes and the slicker it is, but I wouldn’t say that’s the case with songwriting.

“A painter can go out with a blank canvas and say ‘I’ll paint that’, but for a musician it’s not like that. I have three pianos in the house but it’s not the tune that’s difficult, it’s the words that are a struggle – and like John Lennon said, ‘it’s not about filler words’.”

Tonight’s audience at the Grand Opera House, York will no doubt be drawn by the likes of mid-Seventies’ hits Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me), Judy Teen, Mr Soft and Mr Raffles (Man It Was Mean), but the tour publicity makes a point of stressing “Plus songs from the new studio album”.

The brooding Stranger Comes To Town, Harley’s first album since 2005’s The Quality Of Mercy, was recorded in a break from his usual working methods. “I’ve never worked before at a residential studio, but this time I’ve been at a Tudor farmhouse in north Norfolk with a couple of big ponds,” says Steve.

“It’s very similar to my house in Suffolk, except that I don’t have a studio and I don’t want one. I’m a technophobe and I’ve no interest in twisting knobs and gizmos – though everyone in my band, all five of them, have home studios.”

When Steve spoke to York Twenty4Seven, he was still making the record, working long hours – “12 hours a day, maybe more, 11 till midnight, for at least 28 days” – to create what he called “a proper record”.

The resulting Stranger Comes To Town is Harley’s state-of-the-nation report, “I’m not a Grumpy Old Man but…what’s happening to this country?” he asks…and you just know he will answer his own question.

“I don’t like the dumbing-down from the moment our Prime Minister said ‘Call me Tony’. I’ve been angry ever since. The other day, we had a red-top journalist interviewing the PM and the first thing he said was, ‘Call me Gordon’.

“Kids are growing up in a world where there’s no deference. What was wrong with ‘sir’ or ‘madam’? The trendy teachers and the Gordons and Tonys are just not helping us in the long run, and the mediocrity of those in power in this country is stunning.”

Warming to his theme, Steve describes Stranger Comes To Town as a “new-fashioned protest album”. “It’s not Blowin’ In The Wind or Masters Of War, but deep down, what are we coming to?” he asks. No further exposition is forthcoming this time.

Instead he moves on to analyse how his songs, such as the single Faith And Virtue, stand up against today’s pop acts. “I listen to Radio 2 and the lyrics I hear strike me as simplistic. The average song will be teenage angst or bubblegum, but I’m not competing with them. The best I can hope for is some airplay to sell some tickets,” he says.

The album title can be interpreted as the comment of a man who feels estranged from what is going on around him, although its roots lie in a casual comment. “I borrowed it. When I was up in Norfolk we went to a village pub to get the stress off with a pint of Guinness, and we heard these two people say ‘Stranger Comes To Town’,” he recalls.

“They asked, ‘What are you doing here, Steve?’, so I gave them a line from Eccles in The Goons: ‘Everyone has to be somewhere’.”

Alas in Steve’s case, being somewhere no longer includes presenting his weekly show on BBC Radio 2, Sounds Of The Seventies. “There’s not a lot I can say. They dropped it a year and a half ago. I loved doing the research. It wasn’t good money, but it was good profile,” he says.

The proposed closure of BBC 6Music riles him too. “I just know that losing it is an appallingly insensitive decision.

“There are so many other things they could have cut. If 6Music goes it would be like if they’d sacked John Peel and Bob Harris in the Seventies,” says Steve.

His sense of yearning for better times is writ large on a new record whose songs have clearly troubled him as he prepares to turn 60 next February.

“You never rest as a songwriter. You’re always looking for the muse to come and sit on your shoulder, and I can’t take the stress. Well, every five years, I can…though this might be the last one. I’ve so much to say on this album,” he says.

Welcome back, stranger.

• Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Grand Opera House, York, tonight, 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 847 2322 or Harley’s new album, Stranger Comes To Town, is available on Absolute/Universal.