“Judy Teen, the queen of the scene, she’s rag doll amore
Verbal slang, American twang, you dare not ignore”
With my main love in music being the lyrics I find that different singers with their individual styles and intonation affect me in different ways. When I hear Freddie Mercury his voice comes across as an instrument in its own right, with Lemmy I get a sore throat if I listen too much, Nick Cave’s lyrics help paint a masterpiece and Ian Dury can always raise a smile with his use of words (yes even with the intro to Plaistow Patricia).
And what about Steve Harley? I love his diction, his use of words, the way he forms them and the clarity of his singing. I’ve always assumed that this all came from his background in journalism but if I think about it logically that can’t be the case otherwise we’d have the nightmare of people like Richard Littlejohn and Will Self performing on TOTP (however I would pay good money to see the two of them attempt a duet).
When I was growing up in the Glam Rock 70s I used listen to his songs trying to pull apart the lyrics and work out exactly what he meant – thirty years on I think I understand the first verse of “Come Up and See Me”, but then again I could be mistaken.
Steve Harley was born Steve Nice in Deptford in 1951 and had a childhood of intermittent hospitalisation. When he was 2 he caught polio and by the time he was 16 he had spent a total of four years in hospital and undergone major surgery twice in his early teens. With a lot of his education being received in a hospital bed it seems appropriate that his later choice of career would focus on words and music – more cerebral activities that physically demanding ones.
While music was a part of Steve’s upbringing (his mother had been a jazz singer) it wasn’t until he was 12 that he truly discovered his love of words and music. Lying in a hospital bed and listening to the radio he heard Bob Dylan for the first time and knew what he wanted to do. This was subsequently reinforced when the Rolling Stones visited his hospital that Christmas (1964) as part of a PR drive.
Steve took up the guitar and violin but on leaving school he moved towards journalism. Joining the accounts department at the Daily Express at the age of 17 he used this as his springboard and eventually became a journalist and had stints at a number of local papers before ending up at the East London Times.
While he had always wanted to be a journalist Steve had soon found that the reality didn’t meet his expectations. Looking for the way forward he took some guitar and piano lessons giving himself enough confidence to begin busking and singing for free at folk clubs. The response he received, and the need to express himself more fully than that possible on the folk scene, led Steve to form Cockney Rebel as a vehicle for his work. For a period this ran alongside his journalism but when the group were signed for a three album deal by EMI in 1972 something had to give and Steve left the East London Times.
Steve’s route from the printed to the performed word had given Cockney Rebel something that very few other groups had – their own publicist who could handle the media without becoming a victim of it. It was this, coupled with the group’s obvious abilities that helped to build up Cockney Rebel into group that was going somewhere. All they needed now was a hit.
There first album “Cockney Rebel” aka “The Human Menagerie” was released in 1973. The cover photo immediately announces the feel of the album, it has an air of decadence, and while it has subsequently become something of a classic at the time it had no real commercial impact. For the record buying public Steve’s ability to marry pop sensibility with a certain complexity was too much to take on an initial release. Even so the album did deliver the group its first taste of chart success, across Europe however not in the UK, with “Sebastian”.
Cockney Rebel had there first taste of UK chart success in May 1974 with “Judy Teen”. With both the group and single’s approach complimenting the Glam Rock ‘movement’ it hit number 5 in the charts. In July the group were hailed as the outstanding act of 1974 and this was followed up by “Mr. Soft” hitting number 8 in August. With Cockney Rebel making the big time and breaking the charts they became a success – unfortunately success does not always result in happiness. While the group had been formed as a vehicle for Steve it had actually operated as a form of collective, now however Steve was in the limelight and the other members of the group were very much in his shadow. By the time “Mr. Soft” hit the charts the original Cockney Rebel were no more.
Forming a new Cockney Rebel, Steve was now billed as “Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel” and he responded by writing the song that people who’ve never heard his name can probably sing. Making number 1 within two weeks of its release, becoming an instant classic and selling over a million copies the song was, of course, “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)”. Reputedly written about the break-up of the original Cockney Rebel, the song works so well in that it allows the listener to make their own interpretation of the words. To develop this success Steve’s earlier song was, “Mr. Raffles”, reworked into a radio friendly length and made it to number 13 in June 1975.
Taking time of from releasing singles, and on the back of US chart success for “Make Me Smile”, Steve and the group toured the US supporting the Kinks at the beginning of 1976. Following this Steve took time to develop and merge different styles of music resulting in the “Love’s A Prima Donna” album of 1976. While this contained his other well remembered hit, a cover of George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun” (used as the intro by the BBCs “Holiday” program for a number of series), the follow up single “Love’s A Prima Donna” didn’t touch the charts.
From a chart perspective Steve disappeared at this point but he never left the music scene. He’s kept recording and performing through the years and can be regularly heard presenting “Sounds of the Seventies” on Radio 2. He’s had a lifetime of pursuing the dream career he first realised at the age of 12 and how many of us can claim to have done that? If I’d had Steve’s tenacity maybe I would have become the stunt man I always wanted to be.