Express accountant who became a pop star – and made us all smile…


    Steve Harley

    Steve Harley photographed at home this week. (Image: John McLellan)

    Selling over 1.5 million copies, Make Me Smile is one of the most widely played records in British broadcasting with at least 120 versions of it sung by other artists. After being at No 1 for two weeks, “The worst thing anyone has ever said to me,” says Harley, “is that I was knocked off the number one spot by Telly Savalas [with If].” 

    “It’s my pension,” he says. “My wife and I were in Montenegro and it came on this taxi driver’s radio and he started singing it all in English, beating the steering wheel, saying it was the best record ever made.” When he got out to pay him, his wife urged Steve to tell the driver who he was but he refrained. “I didn’t want him to blank me!”   

    The song was recorded in Abbey Road studios. “We knew some magic was happening. The managing director of EMI popped in that night and said ‘Number One.’” 

    Still performing now, Steve Harley, 70, reminds us that he used to work for the Daily Express in Fleet Street before becoming a star. He left school at 17 and got his first job in their accounts department, but his heart was elsewhere. 

    “I used to leave at 5pm on the third floor accounts and go down to the second, which was a massive, open plan news room and they’d all be banging away on their Remington typewriters with slogans slung across their desks saying ‘Keep it brief’. It was magic. I was in awe.”  

    Steve Harley playing live at recent festival

    Steve Harley playing live at recent festival. (Image: Martin Bone)

    Steve Harley playing live

    Steve Harley playing live at recent festival. (Image: Rob Hadley)

    It took him nine months to get a successful interview as a junior reporter with Essex County Newspapers in Colchester, where he was trained in journalism for three years, working on many local papers and improving his writing skills. 

    Much of the pleasure of his songs comes from their rich use of language and some of that may also have come from a childhood dominated by ill health.  

    Born in Deptford, London, in 1951, Harley was the son of milkman while his mother was a part-time jazz singer. Steve’s father was a semi-professional footballer and noticed that his son was clumsy during a kick-about. When he began sweating at night, he was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with polio. 

    Spending the next decade in and out of hospital, he was often in excruciating pain as surgeons put pins in his good leg to even up his limbs, using crutches until he was 16. 

    “When I was studying for my O-levels in a hospital bed, Antony Harding the head of my English department would send me extracurricular books to read, he sent me Hemingway and DH Lawrence poetry and novels. Hemingway was my love because he wrote like a journalist.” 

    His other great passion was music. “I was a big rock fan. I was at every festival, both in ’69 and ’70, with my mates from south London. But when I started writing songs I wanted them to be more literary and theatrical than blues based. I wanted to dress it up a bit.” 

    Steve Harley on stage in 1972 in glam rock attire

    Steve Harley on stage in 1972 in glam rock attire, prior to his signing with EMI. (Image: )

    Steve Harley with Cockney Rebel in 1975

    Steve Harley with Cockney Rebel in 1975. (Image: )

    Learning his musicianship by busking in tube stations, he filled in for David Bowie at the Beckenham Arts Lab at The Three Tuns pub.

    Controversial movies at the time shaped his striking stage appearance of face make-up and bowler hat. “Cabaret and A Clockwork Orange were big influences in terms of style.” 

    It was in early 1972 that Harley pulled together a band called Cockney Rebel, named after a teenage autobiographical poem he wrote while in hospital, and they performed their first gig in July at the Roundhouse supporting the Jeff Beck Group.

    A notable addition to the line-up was Jean-Paul Crocker who played electric violin on many of their early hits, in distinct counterpoint to the guitar heavy rock of the time.  

    After a summer of concerts, they were eventually signed up by EMI who released their first album, The Human Menagerie, in 1973 which included the classic track Sebastian, which demanded a 50-piece orchestra. Next came their first hit Judy Teen which reached No 5 in the pop charts.  

    It was the height of glam rock with rival performers including David Bowie, Roxy Music and Marc Bolan, who became a friend.

    “He was something else. Marc was always on, as they say in show business. He was bonkers. I liked him a lot.”  

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    Deploying his journalistic training, he knew how to feed juicy stories to the music press.

    Dubbing himself “Muhammad ‘Arley”, he enjoyed baiting them. “I hope that when Bowie hears Cockney Rebel it’ll knock him sideways,” he told reporters at the time. “I’ll chase him until I either fall flat on my face or make him run.” 

    Adopting a flamboyant character on stage, he had one of his roadies dress in top hat and tails to serve him drinks on a silver salver.

    “As a young man and single and in the charts, life was a lot of fun.” 

    Cockney Rebel’s second album, The Psychomodo, was a top ten hit, including the epic Tumbling Down as well as the second successful single Mr Soft, but tensions over money during touring saw the original band split and Harley went on to record his next album, The Best Years of Our Lives, with a new line-up.

    It spawned his biggest ever hit, Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), with lyrics partly inspired by the acrimonious break-up, finally gave Harley his first number one spot in February 1975.  

    Steve Harley in 1976.

    Steve Harley in 1976. (Image: )

    Steve Harley on stage in 1976.

    Steve Harley on stage in 1976. (Image: )

    By the late 1970s, Cockney Rebel’s star began to fade with their cover version of George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun being their last top-ten hit.

    Despite touring with The Kinks in the US in 1975, their success never quite made it across the Atlantic, though they remained a favourite in Europe.  

    Fifty years on and Steve Harley is not exactly excited by much of pop music today.  

    “There’s no guitar heroes since Johnny Marr. There isn’t a rock band out there anymore that matters.” He mentors young musicians but feels they “don’t have the confidence we had. My wife plays the radio all day and I can’t help but shrug and say ‘Will it be played in 10 years’ time? It’s more disposable’.”  

    Playing up to a hundred concerts a year, he was less than impressed by Adele’s last-minute cancellation of her Las Vegas shows.  

    “Christ, don’t get me on that. What a trouper…” 

    When his first band deserted him just before a Reading festival, he just got on with it.

    “I was brought up my dad because of my leg and crutches just to get up and get on. No self-pity. It wasn’t allowed in my family.” 

    Steve Harley playing live at recent festival.

    Steve Harley playing live at recent festival. (Image: Martin Bone)

    In 1977, the second Cockney Rebel was disbanded and Harley embarked on a solo career. He co-wrote songs for Rod Stewart and sang the title track of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera with Sarah Brightman to reach No 7 in the UK charts.

    Rehearsing for the star role of the Phantom, he was disappointed to be replaced by Michael Crawford.

    With a new band in the 1990s, Harley re-established himself as a much-loved live performer with a strong following in the UK and across Europe. 

    “It’s been fifty years and I can’t wait to get back on the tour bus, it’s just so exciting, the vibe you get, it’s in your blood, it’s what you do.”   

    He set up his own label Comeuppance to re-issue earlier material and in 2002, in recognition of his tremendous song-writing skills, he received a Gold Badge of Merit from The British Academy of Composers and Songwriters.

    He has raised money for charities helping disabled children and victims of landmines around the world.  

    Covid-19 lockdowns played havoc with Steve Harley’s live schedule but since summer 2021 he’s been back on the road with several concerts scheduled later this year as part of his celebratory 50 Years A Rebel tour. 

    Harley currently lives on the Suffolk-Essex border with his wife, Dorothy, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary last year, and they have two children.

    Owning race horses since 1984, he is keen on the sport.

    “I’ve got 50 percent of three thoroughbreds for flat racing. It’s like treading £50 notes in the turf, but for me it’s my therapy, a release from other stresses in life.” 

    Definitely something to keep him smiling… 

    Upcoming live concert details at

    Published at Fri, 28 Jan 2022 00:01:00 +0000

    Express accountant who became a pop star – and made us all smile…


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