Steve Harley, Cockney Rebel frontman who had a huge hit with Make Me Smile – obituary

Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl, June 1975
Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl, June 1975 - Michael Putland/Getty Images
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Steve Harley, the singer-songwriter, who has died of cancer aged 73, was the frontman of the 1970s’ glam-rock band Cockney Rebel; despite being neither a Cockney nor much of a rebel he had several hits including the supremely danceable Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), which reached No 1 in the UK charts in 1975, featured on the soundtrack of The Full Monty (1997) and remains perennially popular.

Harley formed Cockney Rebel in 1973 and after only five club dates they were signed to a three-album deal by EMI. Their first album, The Human Menagerie, included the orchestral single Sebastian, which spent several weeks at No 1 in the Netherlands and Belgium though only became a cult hit in Britain much later.

Judy Teen, a kind of surrealistic Mexican two-step plucked on an electric mandolin with a beefy backing, reached No 4 in May 1974; Mr Soft, which was later used in television advertisements for Trebor softmints, made No 8; and the rather creepy Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean) peaked at No 13, its title a reference to EW Hornung’s fictional thief AJ Raffles. Other hits included (I Believe) Love’s a Prima Donna and a cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun.

Steve Harley (second from left) and Cockney Rebel, January 1974
Steve Harley (second from left) and Cockney Rebel, January 1974 - Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

But Harley was not prepared to share the limelight. Cockney Rebel split in July 1974 at the end of a torrid tour to promote their second album, The Psychomodo, which catapulted Harley to stardom but resulted at one point in a near-mutiny on stage. Fellow band members felt they were being treated arrogantly by Harley as mere sidemen rather than as equals. Harley told Record Mirror magazine that he would be back with “the greatest rock’n’roll band ever heard”.

To his many fans he did just that with a new line-up, adding his name to the billing as Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. The first single under the new name was Make Me Smile. Harley later told an interviewer that the lyrics (“You’ve done it all/ You’ve broken every code/ And pulled the rebel to the floor/ You spoiled the game/ No matter what you say...”), were “a finger-pointing piece of vengeful poetry. It’s getting off my chest how I felt about the guys splitting up a perfectly workable machine.”

Make Me Smile featured on the album, The Best Years of Our Lives and has since been covered by more than 120 bands including Duran Duran. It reached No 4 in the album charts, the title song proving an enduring hit with audiences who sang along not only to the choruses but also the verses.

Harley, who enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the press, was untroubled by self-doubt. “I don’t care if you think of me as a big-headed bastard,” he said of losing his original bandmates. “Because I believe I could go out and have four cardboard cutouts and a tape machine and I’d still get the same reception, the same reaction.”

He was born Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice in Deptford, southeast London, on February 27 1951, the second of five children. His father, Ronald, was a milkman and part-time footballer with Brighton & Hove Albion; his mother, Joyce (née Forgham), had been a semi-professional singer with wartime swing bands in Brighton.

At the age of two he contracted polio that left him with a lifelong limp. By 16 he had spent four years in hospital where he discovered the poetry of TS Eliot and DH Lawrence, the prose of Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, and the music of Bob Dylan. Shortly before Christmas 1964 he was a patient at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children, Carshalton, when the Rolling Stones visited.

Steve Harley, studio portrait, February 1976
Steve Harley, studio portrait, February 1976 - Michael Putland/Getty Images

Harley, who dropped the name Nice because he realised that he wasn’t, took violin lessons from the age of nine; a year later his parents gave him a guitar for Christmas. He left Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Grammar School at 17 without completing his A levels, though in his thirties he passed one in English.

Despite having achieved only 24 per cent in his mock O-level maths exam he joined the Daily Express as an accountant, “paying expenses to journalists whose bylines I’d long admired”. His hope was that it would lead to a career in journalism and he was an apprentice on several titles in Essex before joining the East London Advertiser.

Eventually he tired of covering mundane shoplifting stories and in 1972 contrived to get himself sacked by growing his hair long and not wearing a tie. His desk was taken by the future daytime TV presenter Richard Madeley.

“I went straight on the dole but started busking, singing songs I’d been writing since I was about 18,” he told the Daily Express. By the time he formed the first iteration of Cockney Rebel, the name coming from a poem he had written in hospital, he had already composed two albums.

Harley was passionate about horses, an interest that started when he followed his fellow journalists into Joe Coral’s betting shop in Fleet Street. “It was there that losing money for a living entered my blood,” he explained, adding from first-hand experience: “It’s a lot cheaper than drugs.” In the early 1980s he joined a racing syndicate. One horse, Cockney Rebel, won him “tens of thousands” at Newmarket.

While taking time off from music to concentrate on his young family he developed a side line in acting, appearing as the 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe in the musical-drama Marlowe at the King’s Head Theatre, north London, and in Long Island, New York.

On another occasion he was invited to appear in a one-man play about the composer Franz Schubert, but it fell apart because the director Madhav Sharma thought he could play classical piano flawlessly and Harley thought he would be able to mime.

Steve Harley at home in Essex in 2022
Harley at home in Essex in 2022 - JOHN McLELLAN

Harley went on to sing a duet with Sarah Brightman for a then-unstaged Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom of the Opera, that put him back into the Top Ten in 1986. He was offered the lead role in the West End production, but was mysteriously replaced by Michael Crawford after three months of rehearsals.

In later years he was a DJ on Radio 2, returned to the West End in Samuel Beckett’s Rough for the Theatre I and II, played Glastonbury and Isle of Wight festivals with subsequent iterations of Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, and was ambassador for a landmines charity. He also found God, but insisted that he was not “one of those evangelical, happy-clappy types”.

In 1981 Steve Harley married Dorothy Crombie, an air hostess whom he met on a flight to Newcastle. She survives him with their son and their daughter.

Steve Harley, born February 27 1951, died March 17 2024

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