The term ‘one hit wonder’ can sometimes be harshly banded about. Yes, a song can define an artist, or a song can outsell all others in an artist’s repertoire. But though Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) is instilled in the subconscious of everyone over the age of about 15, the career of Steve Harley is and has always been about much, much more.
His band, Cockney Rebel, was formed in 1972 in London yet split up soon after spawning two albums entitled The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo. With his current touring band, masquerading under the Cockney Rebel moniker, Harley recently recorded the two records again for his new ‘Birmingham’ live album, in a performance at our very own Symphony Hall. Make Me Smile didn’t make an appearance at the show, because it wasn’t needed.
Steve, now 62, says, “I don’t throw things like this around, I’ve lived too long – but the Symphony Hall show definitely went down in the annals of Harley history as one of the big nights!”
“We better deliver now”, he laughs on the albums recording, as he walks on stage at the start of The Human Menagerie. Two minutes into Hideaway, after a hyper complex intro and interweaving folk melodies have taken their hold; his honest, raw voice erupts into a guttural cry. The delivery is more prompt than a package from ASOS.
Instead, Steve reckons that “The audience delivered!”
“It was about five minutes before we could play a note. Three quarters of the room sold out in two hours. I’m awfully proud of that because I’m not exactly One Direction. This was not ABBA reforming. I know the levels I’m on, I get it.
‘‘Those first two albums were heavily orchestrated. Yes, we added more for the Symphony Hall show, but they still originally were. I was 22 years old, at Abbey Road with a full orchestra and a choir for songs like Sebastian. I’d busked with those songs for a year before Cockney Rebel signed to EMI, so to get all that was just... oh, it was magnificent for a young man.”
Aside from the aforementioned two albums, Harley does acknowledge the power of Make Me Smile, a song once used for advertising Carlsberg and one which was also featured in films such as The Full Monty and Velvet Goldmine.
“Make Me Smile is my pension”, he admits. “I wish I had ten of them! It’s got a life of its own. It’s been covered about 100 times. I’ve got about 30 of them in my house. I’ve got it in Finnish, which is very strange. Duran Duran made a good fist of it.’’
Interpretations can come in a number of ways and Mr Soft, from The Psychomodo, sounds like Pete Doherty’s entire back catalogue. Sound bites suggesting modern day influences crop up throughout his hit list, though Steve humbly can’t accept them.
“I kind of secretly hear and imagine the possibility that I might be an influence, and my wife will see it, but, I don’t want to go there and find out that they’ve never heard of me! I don’t need that kudos.
‘‘I’m a great fatalist. Elbow’s first group name was Mr Soft, and I’ve spoken quite a lot to Guy Garvey about it. It’s nice. But mostly you don’t want to think about it.”
In 1974, Steve told NME: “Maybe in six months’ time, some perceptive journalist will say, ‘Didn’t Steve Harley do this a year ago and didn’t we say it was rubbish?’”
Nearly 40 years on, the fickle world of music has rather cottoned on.
Now, he’s also touring with the aforementioned current band, but over the years he has seen many others fall by the wayside. The modern day Cockney Rebel has gone through many changes in line up, but the current batch of musicians have been with Steve for up to 15 years.
Steve says: “When we’re on tour we go out and explore, we look at the architecture, the history – I love it. I’m a social history nut. Two or three of us in the band are.
“I’ll play the classics, but there’ll be a lot of experimenting. Oh, and we’re playing The Robin 2 in Bilston. Mike Hamblett has turned that into one of the best venues in Britain. If you’re going to play to 700 people, standing, that’s the room. I was playing for him 20 years ago, at that hut, the first Robin venue. He always brings us a tray of Guinness after the show. It’s the little touches!”