By Sean EganBarley an hour goes by when Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel's 1975 single "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)" is not heard on British radio. A UK number one, its drawled Dylan-esque vocal, sweeping melody, stop-starts and glorious Spanish guitar break have made it an all-time classic in his native country. Though Harley is most famous for that number, he still has a loyal following, underlined by the recent release of a live unplugged CD recorded on his 2002 tour and Britain's Beat Goes On label's re-release of his 1976 album Timeless Flight.
The first line up of Cockney Rebel came together in the early '70's. "We were kids and we started the band as mates," recalls Harley. "I hand-picked them. I picked them as guys who could have a laugh, who were gonna buy their round in the pub. I wanted people who were social animals, who wanted to travel. We had a lot of fun." The albums The Human Menagerie (1973) and The Psychomodo (1974) were an extraordinary mixture of the two most prevalent musical forms of the time, progressive rock and UK glam rock. Says Harley, "They were a really good band. That early Cockney Rebel was quite unique." The debut album yielded the epic, tormented single "Sebastian." In the early Seventies Harley was widely despised by the music press for a self-aggrandising attitude that seemed completely inappropriate considering his lack of success but the critics of his home country were generally unaware that "Sebastian" was a smash on continental Europe. ""Sebastian" was a number one for twelve weeks in Holland, ten weeks in Belgium, top three in Germany, Austria, loads of other countries," says Harley. "'Sebastian' was enormous but not here." However, that line-up of the band never had a chance to build on its early success: in the summer of 1974, it was announced that Harley was no longer working with any of his ex-colleagues. Recalls Harley, "I got the kudos for sacking them and it didn't do me any harm but the truth is they walked out on me."
Harley seemed down and out but would bounce back with the greatest triumph of his career. Recruiting new musicians - including virtuoso guitarist Jim Cregan - and now billing the group as Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, he recorded the album The Best Years Of Our Lives. Though undoubtedly classy, in truth the album seemed in too many places to never amount to more than the sum of its Bowie-Mott The Hoople-Bob Dylan influences. The glorious exception was "Make Me Smile." Harley is perhaps the only person who wasn't surprised at the latter song's commercial accomplishments. "I figured it would all come to be honest, in its own way and in time." It is a record that Harley admits changed his life: "It does earn fortunes, I can't deny it. It's on movies and TV ads, a dozen countries at a time. I have a really good life, a really privileged life. I could never want for anything." However, Harley contends that the impact of "Make Me Smile" on his artistic approach was negligible. Asked if he felt the song gave him the power to make any kind of music he liked, he replies, "No, I always did that anyway. The first album had a sixty-piece orchestra on three tracks and a forty-piece choir. I was young and quite arrogant and I never really got told by EMI 'no.' They never really drew a line through the budget. They always allowed me that freedom."
Harley's latest album is currently only available over the net. (steveharley.com) Titled Acoustic And Pure, Live, it features Harley playing with Cregan for the first time since 1976, when Cregan left the second line-up of Cockney Rebel to join Rod Stewart's band. "We pre-sold it on the tour," Harley explains. Harley is hoping to organise a release on a conventional label this year. He at one point was thinking of the unthinkable and leaving "Make Me Smile" off the CD: "I was so fed up with it being absolutely everywhere on everything that's released by me." He eventually reconsidered.
There are benefits to Harley not being as prominent as once he was: "I like not being recognized. If someone [hears] my name, they'll go, 'Yeah, yeah, I know that name, I know him' but they don't recognize me in the street or in a shop or something and I like that very much."
Though grateful for the ceaselessly lucrative nature of "Make Me Smile", Harley feels that to some extent it gives the public an incorrect impression of him: "I've had a load of hit singles. I just wish I'd had one or two hit singles that were really deep and perhaps more musical, more melodic, than those that I did have as hit singles. People would respect me differently, I think. But life is what it is."
It's perhaps because of that record's success that Harley is not as ambitious as he was thirty years ago: "I've lost the hunger. There's no question. Songwriting is one of the few jobs even in the world of creative art that we do where you don't get better with age. It's also true perhaps with novelists: that their best work is often left behind in their twenties and up to their mid thirties, when you're truly inspired and think you can rule the world. In '97, I released Poetic Justice and I do five or six songs from that from that most nights on tour and I would say they might just be the best songs I've ever written and they touch people as though they're the best songs I've ever written and they go down as though they were big hits. [But] you don't get better at it. When you've got all the stuff you need - a good life and your family's grown up to a degree and you've got the creature comforts and you're spiritually at ease with yourself... When you're 51, you've seen a lot of life compared to 25 or 35 and of course it affects you. So it should. So it doesn't get easier and by that same token I don't think you get better at it."
Harley finds he is becoming more of a perfectionist as he gets older: "I play for two hours and thirty, forty minutes now. It's a marathon so I have to stay pretty healthy. I don't shake hands with strangers anymore when I'm touring 'cos they've usually got a cold or something. It's an athlete in training all the time you're on the road. I can be off the road for three or four weeks but every time I meet someone with a cold I'm thinking, 'Jesus Christ, I've got to sing in two week's time - I don't want to catch that now, 'cos a cold lasts for two weeks'. It's a hard life. It's a solitary occupation being a singer."
Despite his comments about the effects of success and age, Harley insists he is an artist who still has an edge. "People think I've become very conservative because I present a [BBC] Radio Two show and go to church but I'm as dangerous as anyone you'll ever meet," he insists. "I'm still very dangerous to be around and a lot of people can't take it."
Sean Egan's rock and roll novel Sick Of Being Me is just about to hit the streets. Published by Askill Publishing, it is the 280-page dissection of the life of Paul Hazelwood, a talented guitarist and songwriter who graduates from council estate wannabe to member of a band whose second album is voted one of the Albums Of The Year by Rolling Stone. He then makes the agonising realisation that a return to the dreary everyday from which he thought he had escaped is on the cards when his band progresses no further. Along the way he encounters love, loss and heroin.
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