Interview by Graham Chalmers
Famed for one of the few hits of the 1970s to endure in the popular mind, there’s always been more to Steve Harley than Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me).
At a time when the charts were dominated by glam or prog, acoustic or bubblegum pop, music fans looking for something a little more esoteric without having to endure 20 minute Norse epics tended to turn to one of three figures in Britain – David Bowie, Roxy Music and Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel.
Despite all those 70s hits such as Mr Soft, Judy Teen, Mr Raffles and more, Harley was always as much artist as pop star – and he still is.
Speaking to me with a slight frog in his throat from the rehearsal room where he’s been practising for the past three days, the 62-year-old Harley says he himself is surprised how the influence of those songs has grown.
“I bumped into Peter Hook of New Order once and he told me to my face how much Cockney Rebel had meant to him when he was starting off. It’s very gratifying but I don’t like to be brash.
“I met Elbow at an awards ceremony and they told me that the first version of the band had been called Mr Soft.
“I realise now my music’s had more effect than I thought. No modesty intended.”
Thanks to his wife, Steve is a great fan of the Highlands, well, except for the food, perhaps.
But he remains a culture vulture at heart, preferring to be at the theatre or cinema rather than on a beach or a mountain.
“I’ve got two pianos in our house and a guitar waiting on a stand in three different rooms.
“Every time I leave the house I’ve got a notebook and pen in my pocket. I’m always over-hearing conversations and scribbling something.
“Ideas are easy but compiling them into a song is a different matter.”
The habit for making notes started early. Before he signed to EMI with Cockney Rebel aged 22, Stevehad been a local reporter for three-and-a-half years in papers round Colchester and London.
“My last year in journalism was at the East London Advertiser. I was covering Mile End and Whitechapel when they weren’t the same places they are today.
“I was writing stories just after the era of The Krays. The Blind Beggar pub was just down the road.”
I suggest those experiences may at least partly explain his ‘take no prisoners’ approach to press interviews in the 70s when he had a reputation for blunt speaking.
“You got hardened, certainly, but the music reporters themselves were quite chippy. They were mostly failed musicians themselves and, here I was, young and a success story.
“There was also a great rivalry between the two great papers of the day – the Melody Maker and the NME. The Melody Maker liked me straightaway so the NME would bait me deliberately. It was a combustible mix.”
Hardnosed about the business or not, classic albums such as The Human Menagerie and Psychomodo were having an impact well before the success of the now globally popular Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) transformed everything.
Not that Steve is complaining.
“That song has a life of its own. I was in Russia recently in a taxi cab in St Petersburg and the song came on the radio.
“My driver was singing along, banging the steering wheel as he went. He had no idea it was my song. It’s wonderful.”
The song that’s sold milllions was recorded under the moniker Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel for The Best Years of Our Lives album in 1975 after the original band split up.
Only drummer Stuart Elliott survived the upheaval. Even here wasn’t there when Harley revived the Cockney Rebel name for the release of critically-praised album Quality of Mercy in 2005.
“Cockney Rebel is a movable feast to me. There’s no chance of that first line-up reforming. The band was called that before I found the line-up.
“I still speak to Stuart regularly, I was talking to him only two days ago. But the original bass player died over Lockerbie in the bombing and the fiddle player went off to the IT world. Good luck to him and everyone else.”
To me, Harley sounds perfectly reasonable, though others might find his attitude a little unsentimental.
I then make the minor mistake of raising the issue of Phantom of the Opera.
I’d been surprised to learn that Steve originally won the lead role for the first West End production back in the 1980s before a certain Michael Crawford made it his own.
It’s turns out that Steve remembers it clearly.
“I audtitioned for, and got the role. I’d already had a top five hit with one of the main songs from the musical with Sarah Brightman long before the stage version.
“Michael Crawford wasn’t even a singer. He was a choir boy.”
But the dust has settled on that and, indeed, on the trials and tribulations of those heady years of the 70s and 80 when Harley still had to worry about his place in the music industry, his place in music history.
No more, however. The last time he swung round Harrogate’s way, he easily filled the 500-seater Harrogate Theatre.
And shortly he’s bringing his band to the 1,000-seater Royal Hall.
“I’m not sure what we will play. I’ve got a set list a mile long. I will say that I aim to play at least one song from every album. And Make Me Smile.”
Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel play the Royal Hall, Harrogate on Wednesday, November 6.
For tickets, telephone the box office on 01423 502116 or book online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk