Obituaries: Steve Harley, ​rock musician who struck gold with Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)

​Steve Harley, musician. Born: 27 February, 1951 in Deptford, London. Died: 17 March, 2024 in Suffolk, aged 73

If you’ve haven’t heard Steve Harley’s signature hit Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) in the last few minutes, just hang about – such is its airplay ubiquity that it is sure to crop up on some golden oldies radio station any moment now. With its laidback swagger, stylised delivery and somewhat opaque lyrics, this enduring UK charttopper represented the cooler end of glam rock when it was first released in January 1975 – not as arty as Roxy, not as rocking as Mott but, ooh la la la, somewhere just right in the middle.

“I realise half the world and its grandmother think I wrote just that song,” quipped Harley, the frontman of Cockney Rebel, who has died aged 73 after “fighting a nasty cancer”.

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With more than 1.5 million sales and royalties from approximately 120 different cover versions and use in film soundtracks and adverts, he could afford to be sanguine. Harley’s career was slightly refreshed with each recharting of the song, most recently in 2015 when the Top Gear presenters urged viewers to download the track on hearing that Harley had received a speeding fine, and he was able to sustain a steady touring career right up until his cancer diagnosis last year.

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel perform on stage in London in 1975 (Picture: Michael Putland/Getty Images)Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel perform on stage in London in 1975 (Picture: Michael Putland/Getty Images)
Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel perform on stage in London in 1975 (Picture: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Apart from making us smile, Harley also applied his melodramatic tendencies to a sporadic theatre career and sang with Sarah Brightman on the hit rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.

He wrote a number of songs for Rod Stewart, who has said he is “absolutely devastated” at the passing of his old compadre, and also guested with Cockney Rebel producer Alan Parsons, sang onstage with Kate Bush during her 1979 Tour of Life shows and provided backing vocals for T Rex. Marc Bolan returned the favour to make his last studio appearance on Harley’s debut solo album Hobo with a Grin.

Born Steven Malcolm Ronald Nice, Harley was the second of five children to father Ronnie, a semi-professional footballer for Brighton & Hove Albion, and mother Joyce, who sang in swing bands.

Like his fellow suburban Londoner Ian Dury, he contracted polio during childhood, underwent two major surgeries and was in and out of hospital between the ages of two and 16. Bullied by his classmates for his limp, he took refuge in words and music, learning the violin from the age of nine and guitar from the age of ten. Inspired by the works of TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Bob Dylan among others, he began writing his own poetry in hospital while harbouring journalistic ambitions.

He took his O-levels from a hospital bed but left school without completing his A-levels to become a trainee accountant with the Daily Express. He moved on to become a reporter, working at various Essex papers and then for the East London Advertiser.

Eventually disillusioned with the minutiae of local reporting, he contrived his own sacking by refusing to wear a tie and growing his hair – and was later replaced by a young Richard Madeley.

Harley was already embedded in the busking, open mic and folk scenes of London, rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Martyn and Ralph McTell along the way. But he chose a more rock’n’roll direction, forming Cockney Rebel with violinist Jean-Paul Crocker who he had met on the folk circuit – no lead guitarists need apply – and they were offered a contract by record producer Mickie Most.

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Cockney Rebel achieved success across Europe (but not in the UK) with debut single Sebastian, an audacious flourish of a work, recorded with a 40-piece orchestra, emitting shades of Alex Harvey. Debut album The Human Menagerie was released in late 1973 to acclaim but disappointing sales.

Harley had better luck with second single Judy Teen, a glam power pop number with musical theatre sway and pizzicato mandolin, which became their first homegrown Top Ten hit in March 1974.

Second album The Psychomodo also yielded another curveball hit, the quasi-Teutonic Mr Soft, but Cockney Rebel Mk.1 was not to last. Harley released his first solo single in November 1974 and regrouped as Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, taking aim at his former bandmates with their first offering, Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me). In addition to topping the domestic charts, the track made a dent in the Billboard Hot 100.

The band had Top 40, even Top 10 hits again but Make Me Smile was far and away their biggest success, re-issued on no less than five occasions. Similarly, although Harley disbanded the group in 1977 to go solo, there were periodic reunions for gigs and tours.

He took time out of an underwhelming solo career in the Eighties – his self-confessed “wilderness years” – to raise a family with wife Dorothy, who he married in 1981, and buy racehorses, one of which he called Cockney Rebel.

But he did also score his first acting role as playwright Christopher Marlowe in rock opera Marlowe and was recommended for the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera – in the end, Harley had the hit single but the stage role went to Michael Crawford.

By the Nineties, he was back on the road, a consistent touring attraction with his band, and was still gigging as recently as last year.

In later years, he raised awareness and funds for Childline and the Mines Advisory Group and was awarded the Gold Badge of Merit by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters.

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His final album, Uncovered, released in 2020, featured versions of Bowie, Beatles and Dylan songs – and Robert Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss.

He is survived by his wife Dorothy, children Kerr and Greta and four grandchildren.


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