Steve Harley obituary | Steve Harley

Steve Harley, the frontman of Cockney Rebel, who has died aged 73 of cancer, was much more than a one-hit wonder, but his sole UK chart-topper defined his career. This was (Come Up and See Me) Make Me Smile, which reached No 1 in February 1975. The following year it also became the group’s only appearance on the US charts when it reached No 96.

A seemingly cheerful piece, powered by a bouncing bassline and an infectious “ooh la-lala” hook sung by female backing singers, it was the perfect playground for Harley’s distinctive and eccentric vocal style. The lyrics were part sung and part declaimed, with vowels stretched and syllables twisted as if Harley were auditioning to play Richard III. The way he delivered the line “for only metal, what a bore” was a case in point.

Despite its title, the song was in fact an angry rant inspired by Harley’s ex-bandmates, declaring that they had “pulled the rebel to the floor” and “spoiled the game”. This was because after he had recorded two albums with the original group line-up, as Cockney Rebel, some of the band members wanted to write songs for the third album. This was not part of the singer’s Harley-centric plan, and he responded by forming a new band. For the avoidance of any doubt, it was called Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel.

Make Me Smile’s parent album, The Best Years of Our Lives, reached No 4 in the UK; it also spun off the Top 20 single Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean). Record Mirror declared the album “completely fulfilling, a monster unleashed”, and many reviewers remarked on similarities between Harley and David Bowie.

The anarchic American critic Lester Bangs observed waspishly that Harley not only sounded “near identical to David Bowie”, but “vacationed on Sparks and came home to Ian Hunter”. For his part, Harley was contemptuous of the press. “All the papers are worthless to me, ” he told Sounds. “They carry no weight, they carry no influence as far as I can see.”

He was back in the Top 20 with Timeless Flight (1976), and the album Love’s A Prima Donna followed the same year. This reached 28 on the album chart and generated the No 10 hit single Here Comes the Sun, a version of the George Harrison song, which somehow managed to sound like Queen. However, in 1977 Harley disbanded the group and signed a solo deal with EMI. This was not a resounding success, and after the albums Hobo With a Grin (1978) and The Candidate (1979) both flopped, Harley was dropped by the label.

He was born Stephen Nice in Deptford, south London, the second of the five children of Ronald Nice and his wife, Joyce (nee Forgham). She had been a singer with swing bands, while Ronald was a milkman who sometimes turned out for Brighton & Hove Albion FC.

In 1953, Harley contracted polio: “I was two and I copped a packet in the right leg. But that’s all. All I do is limp … and it does not affect my life.” But he spent much of his youth in and out of hospital, undergoing major surgeries in 1963 and 1966, and having to walk on crutches made him the butt of his schoolmates’ jokes. He took refuge in the writings of TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway and soaked up the works of Bob Dylan. He recalled the Rolling Stones paying a goodwill visit when he was a patient at Queen Mary’s hospital for children in Carshalton in 1964.

Harley (second left) and Cockney Rebel in Amsterdam, 1974. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

He attended Haberdashers Aske’s Hatcham grammar school in New Cross, but left without taking his A-levels. Having long felt an urge to become a journalist, he found a job as a trainee accountant at the Daily Express on Fleet Street and manoeuvred his way into a trainee reporter’s job, then became a reporter at various titles in the Essex County Newspapers group, before moving to the East London Advertiser.

Meanwhile he had been playing guitar since he was 10, and was now writing songs and performing at local folk venues. At 21 he decided to try his luck in the music business, surviving on the dole while honing his craft on the London folk circuit and busking on the underground. For a time he was a member of the folk band Odin.

In 1972 he formed Cockney Rebel. They were offered a deal by Mickie Most’s RAK Music Publishing, which prodded EMI into giving them a three-album deal. Their debut, The Human Menagerie (1973), was a no-show on the charts but earned some favourable reviews. A debut single from the album, Sebastian, was a hilariously overwrought theatrical epic that flopped in Britain but was a big hit in Belgium and the Netherlands.

This was rectified the following year when Judy Teen reached No 5 on the UK singles chart, while the second album, The Psychomodo, cracked the Top 10. So did the single Mr Soft, another eccentric creation built around an oompah beat with Russian-sounding bass voices groaning in the background. Throw in some klezmer violin and Harley’s mannered, melodramatic vocals and it was clear that this was not rock’n’roll as we knew it.

Harley in rehearsals for Marlowe at the King’s Head theatre, London. Photograph: PA

Then came the chart-topping annus mirabilis of 1975, but the bloom faded abruptly and the 1980s became what Harley called “the wilderness years”. He performed intermittently with Cockney Rebel and in 1983 released the solo single Ballerina (Prima Donna), written and produced by Mike Batt. It reached 51 in the UK. Harley also enjoyed some success by co-writing the songs Somebody Special and Gi’ Me Wings for Rod Stewart’s album Foolish Behaviour (1980), with both tracks gaining exposure in the US.

In 1982 Harley made his acting debut as the playwright Christopher Marlowe in the rock musical Marlowe, at the John Cranford Adams Playhouse in Hempstead, New York, and also at the King’s Head theatre in Islington, London. And in 1986, he and Sarah Brightman recorded the title song of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera and reached No 7 on the UK chart. Harley was then offered the lead role in the show’s West End production, but after working on it for five months he was unexpectedly replaced by Michael Crawford.

In 1989 he assembled a new version of Cockney Rebel, which toured the UK and Europe. It was the start of Harley’s rebirth as a touring artist, which would continue into the 2020s. They were regular festival guests, and played at Glastonbury three times. “Out there, on the road, that’s where I come alive,” he said. He often gave performances in aid of various charities, including the Bridge Project, Chailey Heritage School for children and young people with complex neurodisabilities, Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy and Guitars Against Landmines. He also released a regular string of live and compilation albums.

He built up a loyal following as presenter of Sounds of the Seventies on BBC Radio 2 from 1999 until 2008. He was passionate about horse racing and had owned horses since 1984. “I only wish I could have ridden a big, good steeplechaser over the Cheltenham course just once in my life,” he wrote on his website.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, whom he married in 1981, and their children, Kerr and Greta.

Steve Harley (Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice), musician, singer and songwriter, born 27 February 1951; died 17 March 2024

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