An interview with the late Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel

We are sad to have lost the singer Steve Harley over the weekend, a popular local ‘icon’ known across the globe for his music. Journalist Richard Bryson interviewed the Cockney Rebel star several year's ago for an edition of the David Burr property magazine, Rooftops. Here we reprint that interview in full.

Posted: March 18, 2024

Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel

Says Richard: “He was a lovely man, generous with his time, thoughtful, kind and with a dry wit. As a former journalist himself he gave me plenty of great stories from his career in the pop world and beyond.”. Here we reprint that interview in full.

As befitting a rock star inspired by T S Eliot, fascinated by birdlife and a campaigner for landmine clearance in Cambodia, Steve Harley likes to confound, and he does so from the start of this interview. 

“Do you know who my four greatest friends are?” he says. I expect the names of faithful musicians or roadies drawn from nearly 50 years in music – but no. “Two of them are journalists and two are professional gamblers – and I trust them all.” Conversely he thinks his own industry has its fair share of bullshitters, though he singles out Rod Stewart, Midge Ure and Steve Norman as genuine people and good mates.

More about Harley’s interest in betting, and a certain hugely popular seventies pop song later, but what of his early career?

He was born in Deptford, south London, in 1951, as Stephen Nice, and was the second of five children in his family. During the summer of 1954, Harley contracted polio, causing him to spend four years in hospital between the age of three and 16. He underwent major surgery in both 1963 and 1966.

Perhaps it was his battles with the disease, followed by some years in journalism, that gave him a grounding in real life and bolstered his self-confidence. He remembers applying for jobs across the country before getting work on The Essex County Standard Group of newspapers in Colchester and Braintree.

Later he became a reporter on the East London Advertiser. Among his contemporaries were the national newspaper journalist John Blake and the TV presenter Richard Madeley.

“It was a very newsy patch and we had some times there – I made lifelong friends. But we didn’t really like a new editor who came in and was quite patronising to our readers.”

“One day he wanted me to file some more court copy to fill a gap in the paper and suggested I do something on a shoplifter. She had just absentmindedly taken a can of beans and I said to him something along the lines of ‘you don’t want to run the story and ruin her life and her reputation in the neighbourhood.’ So I didn’t write the story.”

“I was advised by a member of the National Union of Journalists not to quit but to get fired so I grew my hair and stopped wearing a tie. After a while the editor called me in and said: ‘Steve I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you go.’”

It was hardly a setback as Harley had set his sights on a musical career. Playing in bars and clubs allowed him to establish himself and set up the glam-rock band Cockney Rebel. Hits such as Sebastian, Judy Teen, Mr Soft and Make Me Smile ( Come Up and See Me)  made the band chart favourites in the mid 70s and got them on the BBC’s Top of the Pops.

“That was all a bit soul-less, you turned up during the day to do your recording and you didn’t really mix with the other groups.”

“Last Christmas my children told me to watch one of those old TOTP recordings because I was going to be on. We tuned in but the programme passed without Cockney Rebel – it seemed we were introduced by Jimmy Savile so the song and that sequence had been edited out.”

After success and living a hedonistic lifestyle in the seventies Harley says he needed a break in the 80s. “I didn’t like the music scene in that decade,” he says.

He moved to the United States but didn’t stay for long. New ventures came in the form of The Phantom of the Opera musical and Harley is candid about his involvement. First there was the video to go with the single, directed by Ken Russell – “an egomaniac who never stopped to hear what you thought, or wanted to know about the people he was working with.”

Harley thought much more of the stage show’s director Hal Prince despite being tested by him at an audition. “I had to perform in front of  an audience of people closely involved with the show and my co-star Sarah Brightman was also there, sitting at the back of the theatre. After I had sung they all got to their feet applauding but Prince came over to me and started jabbing his finger into my chest asking me what the hell I was playing at. It was a foul-mouthed tirade and I walked out saying ‘don’t you dare speak to me like that.’

“I was shaking and not really sure where I was going. But Prince caught up with me outside and said he was just testing me, seeing if I had what it takes to play the role of the Phantom. Not long after they gave the part to Michael Crawford – he had finished Barnum and I guess he called them up from a beach somewhere and said he was available.”

Harley doesn’t seem wistful at such chapters in his life, more glad of the experience. Did he ever want to be an actor?

“Well I starred in the Samuel Beckett play, Rough For Theatre Parts 1 & II, at The Arts Theatre in London. But no, it wasn’t really a world I wanted to get into.”

He still enjoys touring but can’t understand musicians who shut themselves away in hotels and prefer to be on their phones or tablets rather than discover the town or city they are visiting. “Some of us like to book in then go out and visit a museum or gallery before our shows.”

He met his wife  Dorothy while on tour and flying from Glasgow to London. She was a stewardess, he was playing the tired and slightly bored rock star.  “It was love at first sight – or almost first sight. She came up to our group and said someone on the plane wanted my autograph. Initially another one of the band signed but then I looked up and realised I should tell her who I was and that we were just playing a game.”

They married in 1981 and have a son and daughter, Kerr and Greta. Home is not far from Clare and they love the countryside and its wildlife. Harley tells me they spend a fortune each year on bird seed. During our conversation in the beer garden of Long Melford’s Swan Inn, he is distracted by the plight of an injured baby blackbird. He puts down some milk in a saucer hoping it might take some but the bird hops away. “ I’m afraid that one’s not going to survive.”

Harley’s base on the Suffolk/Essex border means he is not far from Cockfield where his family, the Nices and the Fayers, have roots.

“I met Bill Wyman, who has a house in the area, and he said I must read an old book about the village. Apparently it was out of print and I didn’t think anything more about it then a few day’s later he found and posted me a copy. That says something about the guy. Nice man.”

Horse racing has become a hobby for Harley and he likes going to Newmarket. He once owned a horse with the late Mel Smith and he likes a bet or two, though he says he has friends who really study the form. “You could call them gamblers but they don’t really ‘gamble’ they look closely at the form and exchange rates day and night. They are professionals – I’m an amateur.”

And last but by no means least what about the song most people associate with Harley? Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) reached number one in the UK charts during 1974 and spent nine weeks in the top 50. It had sold around 1.5 million copies worldwide as of February last year and more than 120 cover versions of the song have been recorded by artists as diverse as Duran Duran, Erasure and The Wedding Present.

Harley wrote it about the break up of the first version of Cockney Rebel, weaving some typically forthright lyrics into a song decorated by a flamenco guitar solo and punctuated by one of the most catchy choruses in pop.

“Of course, we still play it – audiences want to hear your old hits as well as any new material. While I’m up there playing I sometimes think to myself ‘okay you may not know about some of our songs but you are sure going to know this one,’ and the opening bars always do the trick.” 

“I’ve been known to get my camera out and video festival audiences doing the singalong . . . it never fails to move me.”

Posted: March 18, 2024   •   Posted in: Local Interest

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