Classic Rock


Classic Rock’s Dave Ling looks back at the life and music of the Cockney Rebel.


Steve Harley, the lead singer and songwriter for Cockney Rebel, has died of cancer. The 73-year-old, one of the more colourful rock stars of the 70s and beyond, passed away at his home in Suffolk one month after pausing his latest run of live shows in order to be treated for the condition. A post on Harley’s website at the time read: “Due to ongoing treatment for cancer, Steve cannot commit to any concerts in 2024. Steve is hoping next year will be altogether different. He appreciate­s all your kind words and good wishes. Team SH.”

In a statement, Harley’s daughter Greta said: “We are devastated to announce that our wonderful Husband and Father has passed away peacefully at home, with his family by his side. The birdsong from his woodland that he loved so much was singing for him. His home has been filled with the sounds and laughter of his four grandchild­ren.

“Stephen. Steve. Dad. Grandad. Steve Harley. Whoever you know him as, his heart exuded only core elements. Passion, kindness, generosity. And much more, in abundance.”

It concluded: “We know he will be desperatel­y missed by people all over the world, and we ask that you respectful­ly allow us privacy to grieve.”

The second of five children, Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice was born in Deptford, South London. A fascinatin­g, self-confident and wily character, he predicted success in his very first interview, hatching carefully calculated plans to stardom. The youngster had plenty of time in which to plot; between the ages of two and a half and 16, after contractin­g the highly contagious infection polio, he was hospitalis­ed multiple times.

“I had a couple of long stretches, plus there were loads of threeand one-month periods,” he told Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton in 2004. “In those days if you needed physiother­apy they kept you in for months. [In total] I spent four years of my life in Queen Mary’s Hospital For Children in Carshalton Beeches, Surrey.”

It was during those long periods spent largely alone, getting stuck into the music of Bob Dylan and a pile of books by DH Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, that Harley developed a fictional character who he named ‘Little Steve’. Back in 2004, Harley admitted that despite the intervenin­g decades, Little Steve would make sporadic return visits to his consciousn­ess. “Increasing­ly I find myself thinking about Little Steve, and how he was affected by those years of… solitary confinemen­t, almost,” Harley said.

He received an acoustic guitar from his parents when he was

10, and also took violin lessons from age nine to 15 and played in the school orchestra.

Leaving school at 17 without taking his A Levels, he became a trainee accountant in the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Express newspaper. Opting for a career in journalism, he trained with Essex County Newspapers in Colchester, then moved to the East London Advertiser, from which he was dismissed for various issues including growing his hair long and refusing to wear a tie.

After he entered the music world in 1971, singing for free in folk clubs on what would now be called open-mic nights (back then it was called floor-spotting). It was in the folk-rock group Odin that Harley met future Cockney Rebel violinist Jean-Paul Croker. Indeed, the first line-up of Cockney Rebel did not include an electric guitarist. Harley later told Classic Rock: “To this day I have problems with electric guitar players, because they all want to be the singer. They’re frustrated frontmen. The egos get in the way, which really bores me.”

Harley was no shrinking violet himself, however, and in response to early comparison­s to David Bowie, a fellow South Londoner who had also started in the folk world, he bridled: “We’re doing the same live circuit that Bowie did in seventy-two, but we’re doing it much better.”

Harley took a dislike to certain music journalist­s, especially those at New Musical Express who dismissed his band as ‘Cocky Rabble’. At the Reading Festival years afterwards, he grabbed writer Charles Shaar Murray and “pinned him to the wall”. The pair eventually buried the hatchet.

Although often cited as a glam-rock band, Cockney Rebel saw beyond the confines of the genre, often incorporat­ing progressiv­e rock and art-rock into their sound. Having been discovered by pop hitmaker Mickie Most, who signed them for publishing, they became a part of the EMI Records roster. Their 1973 debut album The Human Menagerie included

“Our hopes were to play some gigs, make a few records and maybe get shagged a bit.” Steve Harley on Cockney Rebel

a single, Sebastian, that took off on the continent, but the album failed to chart in Britain.

Encouraged by EMI to deliver a hit, Harley retooled an existing song, Judy Teen, which rocketed into the UK top five. The band’s second album, The Pyschomodo, co-produced by Harley and Alan Parsons, reached No.8. But behind the scenes internal pressures were growing, and Harley was forced to put together an entirely different line-up for the next album, The Best Years Of Our Lives.

Harley channelled his frustratio­n in a song that would define his career. Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)

topped the UK chart, and transforme­d the newlook band, which now included a guitarist, former Family man Jim Cregan, into a household name. Only drummer Stuart Elliott remained from the old line-up, the rest having departed in what Harley termed a “mutiny” over who would write the songs.

“That one was a bit of a finger pointer,” he once said to Classic Rock of his signature song, which began with the line: ‘You’ve done it all, you’ve broken every code.’

“When those three guys [Jean-Paul Crocker, keyboard player Milton ReameJames and bassist Paul Jeffreys] walked out on me two weeks before I was going to be second beneath the headliner at the Reading Festival, we were on the verge of something very big. What they did was crazy.”

All the same, topping the singles chart in his homeland was a highlight of both his career and his life.

“On the last night of an American tour, at the Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles, my manager called to say we’d leapt from number nine to number one,” Harley reminisced. “We got the red-eye [overnight flight] home to do Top Of The Pops, and after a quick kip at the Kensington Hilton we went to Wood Lane [in London] where the programme was recorded… and I got nd the words wrong [laughs]. I was jet-lagged and I scrambled them up. But afterwards my life was never the same – nor should it have been.”

Although Cregan left to join Rod Stewart, the ‘new’ Cockney Rebel consolidat­ed, and continued to release albums and singles. But the arrival of punk rock took the wind out of their sails, and Cockney Rebel split in 1977.

Harley released his debut solo album, Hobo

With A Grin, the following year. He also appeared as a special guest on Kate Bush’s 1979 Tour Of Life at one of the Hammersmit­h Odeon shows, and sang on I Robot by the Alan Parsons Project and Rick Wakeman’s album 1984. His great pal Rod Stewart covered three of Harley’s songs, including A Friend For Life.

Harley told Geoff Barton that upping sticks and moving to California, where he did little but “get up late, drink champagne, have brunch and stay up late again, doing drugs” was a big mistake. “It was the start of a serious decline in my popularity and my creativity.”

Eventually, much to his astonishme­nt and distress, his finances dried up. “I asked my accountant to transfer some funds, and he told me the pot was empty,” he rued.

He became a part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage production The Phantom Of The Opera for nine months, but Harley remembers the 80s as a “lost decade”.

It was his showbusine­ss industry friend Steve Mather who suggested a return to the road. Although Harley at first retorted: “I don’t think I’ve got an audience” and found more reasons to pass than to agree, he chewed over the proposal and eventually agreed. It was a decision he never regretted, and he once again became a staple of the touring circuit, performing with an electric band as well as in an acoustic format.

He also continued to make albums, although economical­ly compared to Cockney Rebel’s 70s heyday. In some ways this was a throwback to the slings and arrows he had been subjected to in those times.

“In some ways I’m sort of better off not releasing a record than having it slagged off,” he admitted. “I’ve a total

“Those five decades were absolutely packed with adventure. I’ve lived a fantastic life.” Steve Harley

fear of rejection, and I don’t know why that is. I guess it goes all the way back to Little Steve in that hospital.”

As the years passed, Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) became ever more ubiquitous, appearing in several films including The Full Monty, Saving Grace and Blackball.

“My wife Dorothy and I were in a taxi in Rome, and although the song wasn’t a huge hit in Italy, it came on the radio,” Harley told Classic Rock in 2015. “The driver was thumping away at the steering wheel, and as we got out I thought: ‘If only I could tell you [that was my song],’ but it would have been pointless.”

Make Me Smile was also licensed for numerous advertisin­g campaigns. It was a source of massive amusement for Harley when in 2018 it was used in a two-year campaign for erectile dysfunctio­n treatment Viagra. “That was great, as a whole new generation Googled to see who sang the song,” he said, quipping: “I did suggest they might want to use another of my hits, Mr Soft, instead.”

With work-life balance restored, Harley’s final years were pretty much idyllic. “My wife Dorothy and I are very lucky to live in a big house surrounded by two acres of woodland,” he told Classic Rock in 2022. “I can walk for an hour without leaving my own property.”

Returning to the road following the pandemic, he observed a change in his personalit­y. “I’ve opened up,” he said in the same interview. “I’m not anal about things any more. I let [the audience] closer. I offer them more; I’m telling them more. The fear of the pandemic has helped me to relax. I’m not a religious man, but it’s about a communion – coming together, sharing.”

Despite that mellowing, his dislike of cynical, ‘jobbing’ music journalist­s never faded. In fact in some cases it became worse. He told Geoff Barton that a negative critique of his 1992 album Yes You Can still stuck in his craw.

“Q magazine gave it to this bozo to review and he stuck the knife in. For a review that he probably got paid something pathetic like twenty-five quid for, he wrote that I’m ‘still apparently quite popular in some far-flung corners of the planet’. How dare he diminish me like that? He’s a shit.”

With eyebrows narrowing, the ‘old’ Steve Harley returned: “He will be in a room with me some day, and he will have to answer to me.” Harley continued to tour until the very end, telling fans that while his fight with cancer was both “tiresome and tiring”, being on the road was “where I come alive”. He added: “Thankfully the cursed intruder is not affecting the voice. I sing and play most evenings.”

Two years ago, before he became ill and with Cockney Rebel notching their half-century in the business, Harley told Classic Rock that he could never have imagined the band reaching such a milestone.

“Of course not. We were just young lads,” he said, smiling. “Our hopes were to play some gigs, make a few records and maybe get shagged a bit. It was as simple as that. But those five decades were absolutely packed with adventure. I’ve lived a fantastic life.”

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 ?? ?? Teen dreamers: Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel in 1974.
Teen dreamers: Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel in 1974.
 ?? ?? Harley with Cockney Rebel in Amsterdam in 1975.
Harley with Cockney Rebel in Amsterdam in 1975.
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 ?? ?? Still making ’em smile: Harley at the Giants Of Rock festival in Minehead in 2016.
Still making ’em smile: Harley at the Giants Of Rock festival in Minehead in 2016.
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