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Steve Harley

+ {Cockney Rebel}

For a few years in the mid-70s, the self-opinionated singer-songwriter STEVE HARLEY was the bees knees among the post-glam brigade – and then came punk rock. Feasting on the legacy left by avant-glamsters BOWIE, ROXY MUSIC and MOTT THE HOOPLE, his initial combo COCKNEY REBEL had – after one false start – seized upon the discerning British youth who worshipped his every manoeuvre after `Judy Teen’, `Mr. Soft’ and seductive `Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’, hit pay-dirt. His decision to credit the latter chart-topper with the all-new STEVE HARLEY & COCKNEY REBEL moniker was probably the way to get ahead in the pop business, but ultimately, after hits depreciated and tailed-off, so too did his revolving-door-addled sidekicks.
Born Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice, 27th February 1951 in New Cross, London, his formative years were blighted by polio, while his post-primary school education was stifled when he had to spend most of it in hospital. Having received a guitar at the age of around 11, and mightily influenced by the work of BOB DYLAN and folk music in general, Steve left school without the necessary A-grades but still managed to garner a place as a trainee accountant at the Daily Express. From small acorns… as they say, he eased his way along the corridor to become a reporter, working in turn for tabloids covering Essex and East London. Armed with a few of his own songs and several by his idols, HARLEY plied his trade at open-mic nights at bars and folk clubs, while also busking on the underground. His first break came in ‘71, when, after a chance meeting with John “Jean-Paul” Crocker at an Odin (folk band) audition, he decided to form a rock-pop band.
As the catchy COCKNEY REBEL, roots music was far from the minds of Steve (also acoustic guitar) and Croker (violin/mandolin/guitar). Enlisting like-minded players from a music paper ad, bassist Paul Avron Jeffreys, drummer Stuart Elliott and lead guitarist Nick Jones, performed their inaugural gig on 23rd July 1972 supporting The JEFF BECK GROUP at The Roundhouse. When Jones and his replacement Pete Newnham were surplus to requirements when the interestingly-named keyboard geezer Milton Reame-James came on board, the aspiring COCKNEY REBEL found themselves on the books of E.M.I.
Surprisingly, although plaudits and reviews were propitious to the quintet’s first single, `Sebastian’, the Brit flop still hit charts across Europe. Extended to all its 7-minute glory on the group’s promising debut set, THE HUMAN MENAGERIE (1973) {*6}, the track itself couldn’t propel the album into the weekly best-seller lists. Skating perilously between glam and string-band roots (`What Ruthy Said’ and `Crazy Raver’ were perfect examples), Steve wasn’t exactly the complete article on this occasion. It might’ve been so different had the original LP had room for the band’s next single, the spring ’74-loaded Top 5 smash, `Judy Teen’.
Steve’s affected enunciation backed by his combo’s quirky pop creations amounted to a distant 70s cousin of prime KINKS, although the frontman lacked the proficient songwriting prowess of their enigmatic frontman. Also not featured on the ‘Rebel’s follow-up album, the Top 10 THE PSYCHOMODO (1974) {*8}, consolation was there in the equally effete and efficacious `Mr. Soft’. Loaded with other dirges like `Tumbling Down’, that might well’ve been edited enough to bring about another hit (well maybe not `Ritz’ and `Cavaliers’), the quirky album was awash with great tunes by way of `Singular Band’ and `Psychomodo’.
Despite these advances, Steve’s war of words with the music press continued to escalate, eventually prompting the singer to disband the outfit and re-invent his whole approach after a solo-billed 45, `Big Big Deal’, unceremoniously flopped.
Retaining only Elliott from this first incarnation, the frontman roped in a revised line-up for STEVE HARLEY & COCKNEY REBEL, with guitarist Jim Cregan (ex-FAMILY), keyboardist Duncan Mackay and bassist George Ford. Almost immediately, the crew were atop the charts for two weeks in February ’75 with the gorgeous `Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’. Yet despite its lush melody and harmonies, the song was actually a sarcastic rebuff to his sworn critical enemies in the media. The accompanying album, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1975) {*7}, reached Top 5 status, and became the most successful set of HARLEY’s career; the RAY DAVIES/IAN HUNTER-esque lyrical flourishes were still in evidence, just wrapped in more conventional tunes such as `Mr. Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’ (a second hit), `Mad, Mad Moonlight’ and the title track.
Without a hit to its name when `Black Or White’ and `White, White Dove’ misfired, the Top 20 TIMELESS FLIGHT (1976) {*4} received the thumbs-down from a baying queue of rock journos. Learning something from his dramatic fall from grace, his journey to and from the Abbey Road studios in London for its follow-up, gave him at least one solid brainwave with the release into the Top 10 of the GEORGE HARRISON-authored, `Here Comes The Sun’. Although not as immediate, the searching `(I Believe) Love’s A Prima Donna’ was a moving high spot from the engaging LOVE’S A PRIMA DONNA (1976) {*6}, an album that stirred into the melting pot, a bit of prog, folk, reggae and doo-wop. The fact that Steve was still loved by ‘Rebel punks was still in evidence when his concert double-set, FACE TO FACE – A LIVE RECORDING (1977) {*4}, dented the Top 40 – but man, this was mean.
HARLEY’s first full, bona fide solo attempt was with the session-friendly HOBO WITH A GRIN (1978) {*3}; its lack of any hit singles and a cover of Motown mover, `I Wish It Would Rain’, showed that the man – not yet in his 30s – was no longer in vogue.
Thinking America would be a better place to attempt a comeback, the singer couldn’t find any takers when E.M.I. dropped him after the all-improved set, THE CANDIDATE (1979) {*6}. Unfairly lambasted by some parts of the British media, there were definitely “Psychomodo” moments for the returning Rebel, and with minor hit `Freedom’s Prisoner’, plus `Audience With The Man’ and `Young Hearts (The Candidate)’, maybe the new wave movement could’ve adopted another lost soul.
Despite several spartan stabs at getting back in on the scene (as a solo artist and as credited with Cockney Rebel), the 80s only unveiled rock’n’roll heartache for the once-glam singer. Mid-decade, HARLEY came to prominence once more when he duetted with Sarah Brightman on a Top 10 excerpt from “Phantom Of The Opera”, although he was as surprised as many in the know when thespian Michael Crawford (known for TV’s Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em) was chosen for the lead role in the stage version of the musical.
A series of singles for Mickie Most’s R.A.K. imprint couldn’t quite get Steve back into pop contention. As well as a collaborative effort with JON ANDERSON and MIKE BATT (`Whatever You Believe’) in ‘88, HARLEY decided that after a stint in ’89 with a re-formed Cockney Rebel (LIVE IN THE UK {*5} was belatedly issued in ’93), that his solo career should be put back on track with YES YOU CAN (1992) {*4}. Whether this was initiated on the back of the tragic Lockerbie Disaster death on 21st December 1988 of former ‘Rebel, Paul Jeffreys, Steve’s never said, but a “life’s-too-short-syndrome” might well’ve been a modicum of impetus.
Embarking on a fresh solo career, Steve clawed back the years and some of his long-lost fanbase for 1996’s POETIC JUSTICE {*6}. Reviving `Riding The Waves (For Virginia Woolf)’, one of the better cuts from the dismal “Hobo” set, and covering classics from time-and-memoriam by way of the JIMMY RUFFIN hit, `What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted?’, DYLAN’s `Love Minus Zero – No Limit’ and VAN MORRISON’s `Crazy Love’, there was one further classy song in his own `Two Damn’d Lies’.
Relying on something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, HARLEY reconvened with the live set, STRIPPED TO THE BARE BONES (1998) {*4}, recorded a year earlier. In a similar formula, the “Cockney Rebel unplugged” ANYTIME! (A LIVE SET) (2005) {*6} juggled songs from yester-year – including a 10-minute `Sebastian’ – with newest pieces, `A Friend For Life’. It was clear that the man was not ready for retirement. Retaining his first settled line-up in years, STEVE HARLEY & COCKNEY REBEL (i.e. Robbie Gladwell: guitars/vocals, Barry Wickens: acoustic guitar/violin/vocals, James Lascelles: keyboards, Lincoln Anderson: bass, and Adam Houghton: drums), delivered their first studio album in nearly 30 years with 2005’s modern-day classic, THE QUALITY OF MERCY {*7}. Taking the line from another “old master”, Shakespeare, the un-downloadable/CD-only set was peppered with great songs, including `The Last Goodbye’ (a recent minor hit), `The Last Feast’ and the aforementioned `A Friend For Life’.
Although showcasing the same Cockney Rebel line-up as his previous set (adding Stuart Elliott for good measure), it was a solo credited STEVE HARLEY that re-emerged with STRANGER COMES TO TOWN (2010) {*6}. Worth the admission price alone for his cover of DANIEL JOHNSTON’s `True Love Will Find You In The End’, and stand-tall songs `Take The Men & Horses Away’, `Faith & Virtue’ and `Blinded With Tears’ (the latter penned with Jim Cregan), critics from all stations salivated over the man’s new-found aura.
Just to prove that the Cockney Rebel re-formation was no fluke or coincidence, and with SPANDAU BALLET’s Steve Norman adding a bit of sax, the live BIRMINGHAM (2013) {*6} was indeed a double helping of both “The Human Menagerie” and “The Psychomodo”, complete with orchestra & choir. Was it really forty years since the original recordings?
To some degree, HARLEY had been conspicuous by his absence thereafter; at least on record. Only the download solo single, `Ordinary People’, in 2015, had given his patient fanbase something to mull over. This made Steve’s long-awaited return ever more stirring. In February 2020, the 69-year-old revealed a penchant for other people’s songs; only opener `Compared With You (Your Eyes Don’t Seem To Age)’ and `Only You’, were his own. The unplugged UNCOVERED {*7} – accompanied by folk guitarist MARTIN SIMPSON and violinist Barry Wickens – received rave reviews in some quarters of the music industry. An alluring attempt at BOWIE’s `Absolute Beginners’ was indeed a brave one, whilst eclectic re-treads of HOT CHOCOLATE’s `Emma’ and LONGPIGS’ `Lost Myself’, guaranteed some out-of-the-box thinking. Simply put, songs by DYLAN (`When I Paint My Masterpiece’), The ROLLING STONES (`Out Of Time’), The BEATLES (`I’ve Just Seen A Face’) and CAT STEVENS (`How Can I Tell You’) were pitted against trad-folk tracks `Ae Fond Kiss’ and the EDDI READER-enhanced `Star Of Belle Isle’.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2014-Apr2020

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