|Birth name||Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice|
27 February 1951 |
Deptford, London, England
|Genres||Glam rock, art rock, progressive rock, pop|
|Labels||EMI, Chrysalis, RAK, Gott Discs, Comeuppance, CTE|
|Associated acts||Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel|
Steve Harley (born Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice, 27 February 1951, Deptford, London, England) is an English singer and songwriter, best known for his work with the 1970s rock group Cockney Rebel, with whom he still occasionally tours.
Harley was born Deptford, south London, in 1951, as Stephen Nice, and was the second of five children in his family. As a child, Harley suffered from polio, spending four years in hospital between the age of 3 and 16. He underwent major surgery in both 1963 and 1966. After recovering from surgery at the age of 12, Harley was introduced to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, the prose of John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, and the music of Bob Dylan, which inspired him to a career of words and music. At the age of 10, he had received a Spanish, nylon-strung guitar from his parents one Christmas. Harley's mother was a jazz singer. Harley was a pupil of Edmund Waller Primary School in New Cross, London. He then attended Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys' Grammar School until he was 17. Having taken classical violin lessons from the age of 9 to 15, he played the instrument with the school orchestra. He left the school without completing his advanced level exams and later took an A-level in English in his mid-30s.
In 1968, at the age of 17, Harley began work as a trainee accountant with the Daily Express, which was his first full-time job. This was despite having only gained 24% in his mock O-Level maths exam. From here he progressed to become a reporter, and was initially interviewed by various newspaper editors. Harley finally signed to train with Essex County Newspapers. Over this duration of three years Harley worked at the Essex County Standard, the Braintree and Witham Times, the Maldon and Burnham Standard and the Colchester Evening Gazette. He then returned to London to work for the East London Advertiser. Among many of Harley's peers who went on to gain successful careers in national journalism were John Blake and Richard Madeley, the latter who took over the desk relinquished by Harley at the ELA in 1972.
Harley started out playing in bars and clubs in the early 1970s, mainly at folk venues on open-mike nights. He sang at Les Cousins, Bunjie's and The Troubadour on nights featuring John Martin, Ralph McTell, Martin Carthy and Julile Felix, who were all popular musicians within the London folk movement of the time. Harley also busked around London on the Underground and in Portobello Road. In 1971 he auditioned for the folk band Odin as rhythm guitarist and co-singer, which was where he met John Crocker, who would become the first Cockney Rebel violinist. The folk scene proved not to be Harley's preference, and in the midst of writing songs, he formed the band Cockney Rebel, as a vehicle for his own work, in late 1972. Through the band Harley first met drummer Stuart Elliott, who has continued to record and tour with Harley on occasion to date.
The band signed to EMI Records for a guaranteed three-album deal in 1972. During June and July 1973 the band recorded their debut album, The Human Menagerie, which was released in late 1973. Produced by Neil Harrison, the album included the single "Sebastian" which became a European hit, although, like the album, it failed to chart in the UK. After EMI expressed the wish for Harley to write a song with hit potential, "Judy Teen" was released in early 1974, and peaked at No. 5 in the UK. The band's second album, The Psychomodo, produced by Harley and Alan Parsons, was released in June 1974, and peaked at No. 8 in the UK. The single "Mr. Soft" also peaked at No. 8 in the UK. However, by this time the problems within the band had already reached a head, and all the musicians, with the exception of Elliott, quit at the end of a successful UK tour. The band members had demanded to write material for the group, despite the initial understanding that Harley was the sole songwriter. On 18 July the band received a 'Gold Award' for outstanding new act of 1974, and a week later they had split up.
Following the withdrawn solo single "Big Big Deal", Harley decided to continue the band on with drummer Stuart Elliot, renaming the group Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, with whom he had more success. The next album, The Best Years of Our Lives, was released in March 1975, and featured the number one and million selling single, "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)". This became Harley's only charting in America, peaking at No. 96 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Performing Rights Society later confirmed the song as one of the most played records in British broadcasting, and has been covered by more than 100 artists in seven languages. The follow-up single "Mr. Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)" was also a success, peaking at No. 13 in the UK. In 1975 Harley was approached by Patricia Paay, sister of Yvonne Keeley, (who was Harley's backing vocalist and girlfriend of the time), to assist in the recording and production of her first album. Beam of Light ended up being entirely produced by Harley, and on the album Paay covered "Sebastian", while Harley also penned the song "Understand" for her. This would soon appear on Cockney Rebel's Timeless Flight album. During the latter half of the year, the band went to the States as a supporting act of the Kinks to tour. As success in America was elusive, and a lot of people had never heard of the band, the compilation A Closer Look was released for the American market.
The next album Timeless Flight was released in 1976, and became a top 20 UK success, peaking at No. 18, however the two singles "Black or White" and "White, White Dove" were not successful and failed to chart. The band's final studio album Love's a Prima Donna followed later in the year, and spawned a successful cover version of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun". It reached No. 10 in the UK, and was to prove to be Harley's last UK Top 40 single, discounting later re-releases of "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)". The follow-up single "(I Believe) Love's a Prima Donna" didn't quite crack the Top 40, peaking at No. 41. Love's a Prima Donna peaked at No. 28 in the UK. Before after the announcement that the band were to split up, Cockney Rebel released the live album Face to Face: A Live Recording in 1977, which peaked at No. 40, and spawned an unsuccessful single "The Best Years of Our Lives (live)".
In 1977 Harley relocated to the United States. While he was recording and mixing for the Love's a Prima Donna album, partly in Los Angeles, he felt attracted to the city and so decided to buy a house in Beverly Hills. He stayed there for nearly a year to gain new experience and inspirations. However Harley later admitted that during his time in America he was never inspired to write one single song. He returned in July 1978 with the failed album Hobo with a Grin, which failed to chart. Using a range of session musicians and ex-Cockney Rebel members, the album was a mixture of old songs and a few others Harley wrote upon returning to England that year. The album spawned two singles "Roll the Dice" and "Someone's Coming", both of which were commercial failures. The track "Amerika the Brave" saw Marc Bolan's last studio performance, shortly before his fatal car accident. Harley's second solo album The Candidate was released in 1979, and was also a commercial failure, despite predictions. However it did feature the moderately successful single "Freedom's Prisoner", which peaked at No. 58. In the middle of the year Harley played a few songs as a guest-star at Kate Bush's benefit concert.
During the 1980s, which Harley later described as the "wilderness years", he took time out from the rock world as his two children were growing up. However he did release a number of non-album singles, and also performed the odd show on stage. During 1980 Harley performed a few concerts during a Christmas tour, following the release of a Cockney Rebel "Best of..." compilation. There were some rumours of a new upcoming album, but they did not materialise. In 1981 Harley and Rick Wakeman worked together, with Harley performing the vocals for the song "No Name" on Wakeman's 1981 album 1984. He also performed this song with Wakeman at the Hammersmith Odeon that same year.
In March 1982 Harley released the single "I Can't Even Touch You", under the band name. It was produced by Scottish musician Midge Ure of Ultravox fame. Released through Chrysalis Records, there was a general feeling amongst the label and fans alike that the song would become a hit, however it failed to make an appearance on the chart. The next single was "Ballerina (Prima Donna)" which was released in June 1983. The song was written and produced by Mike Batt. It became Harley's most successful single of the decade, peaking at No. 51 in the UK. Harley appeared at the Reading Festival a month later, to a favourable reception.
In 1985 Harley released the single "Irresistible", which peaked at No. 81 in the UK. Released by RAK Records, and produced by Mickie Most, Harley had originally penned the song with Rod Stewart in mind, however Stewart encouraged Harley to record it in the hope that it would put him back in the charts. Soon after Harley was set to star as the Phantom in the London premiere of The Phantom of the Opera. He recorded the promotional single of the title song, alongside Sarah Brightman, which went to No. 7 in the UK charts. However he was surprised when he ended up being replaced close to rehearsals by Michael Crawford. However that year Harley did star as the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe, in the musical-drama Marlowe, which ran off-Broadway and in London. Harley's performance was described by one leading critic as "a major and moving performance."
Harley then turned his attention to recording new material, and released the single "Heartbeat Like Thunder" in early 1986. The single was a commercial failure. By this point Harley signed to RAK for a three album deal, and in June 1986 a new, re-recorded version of "Irresistible" was released again as a single. It was not a commercial success, and soon after RAK went bust. The forthcoming album El Gran Senor was then shelved, and some of the material from it would later appear on the 1992 album Yes You Can. In 1988 Harley appeared on the charity single "Whatever You believe". This collaboration between Jon Anderson, Harley and Mike Batt was a charity TV tie-in single for the ITV Telethon. It did not chart. Neither did the re-issue of "Mr Soft" that same year, following its use in a successful TV advert for Trebor Softmints.
In 1989 Harley reformed a new line-up of Cockney Rebel, and went on tour. The tour, promoted as a comeback tour named "All is Forgiven", was a success, although the single "When I'm with You" was a failure when released to promote it. Around this same time Harley had been recording some new material with ex-Cockney Rebel members Jim Cregan, Duncan Mackay and Stuart Elliott. Some of the material from El Gran Senor started appearing in further live shows and tours through the early 1990s, after new musical ideas led Harley to rehearse them in 1991. In October 1991, Harley was invited to play Night of the Proms and after another big European tour, fans kept asking for a new album, and Harley was pressed by the audience to release an album with the songs that he had performed live since the 1980s. At first, Harley was not happy about recording the old material and it took nearly two years to convince him. However he finally released Yes You Can in 1992 within Europe, an album with some old songs, filled with some new ones. In effort to promote the album, Harley completed a new tour – the "Yes You Can" tour – with some new musicians. In Europe a remixed version of "Irresistible" was released from the album, but neither the album or single was a commercial success. When the album was given a UK release in 1993, the promotional single "Star for a Week (Dino)" was released.
In 1995 the live compilation Live at the BBC was released. The following year, with tours continuing, Harley released the album Poetic Justice, which was a critical success. Around 1997 Harley began performing acoustic sets alongside the usual rock band shows. The success of some casual shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that year led to Harley and Nick Pynn playing over a hundred dates in 1998, performing under the explanatory tour-title "Stripped to the Bare Bones". This tour included 54 concerts across the UK alone, and around 90 songs were rehearsed for use on the tour. The live acoustic album Stripped to the Bare Bones was released in 1999. In 1999 Harley began presenting a BBC Radio programme The Sounds of the Seventies, of which the last programme aired on 27 March 2008. In 1999 Harley started his own label "Comeuppance", and the following year he re-issued his first two solo albums, along with Poetic Justice.
Around this period "Make Me Smile" had been included in the 1997 film The Full Monty, and Harley's songs "Sebastian", "Tumbling Down", and "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)" were included in the Todd Haynes 1998 rock musical Velvet Goldmine. The soundtrack album included "Make Me Smile", but omitted "Sebastian", yet included a cover version of "Tumbling Down" with vocals by Jonathan Rhys Myers. In 1998 the compilation More Than Somewhat – The Very Best of Steve Harley was released, and reached No. 82 in the UK. Another compilation, The Cream of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, followed in 1999, which would later reach No. 21 on the UK Budget Albums Chart in 2006. In 2001 the non-album single "A Friend for Life" was released, and peaked at No. 125 in the UK. During 2002, the acoustic live album Acoustic and Pure: Live was released, and this was followed with the live album Anytime! in 2004. In 2002 Harley was awarded a Gold Badge of Merit by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters.
A new studio album The Quality of Mercy was released under the Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel name in 2005, and was described as Harley's most personal album yet. It included "A Friend for Life", and featured the single "The Last Goodbye", which peaked at No. 186 in the UK. The album itself saw favourable critical reception, and peaked at No. 40 in Norway. In 2006, EMI released a CD box set compilation album spanning Harley's Cockney Rebel and solo work, titled The Cockney Rebel - A Steve Harley Anthology. In 2007 Harley starred in a Samuel Beckett play, Rough for Theatre 1 & 11, at The Arts Theatre in London. Harley released his first book in 2008, titled The Impression of Being Relaxed. The book, published by Halstar, is a collection of diary entries Harley had published on his website between 2000 and 2008. In 2009 he received a Special Award from Childline Rocks for his work for charity, at the Classic Rock magazine Award ceremony at London's Park Lane Hotel. His work raising money for the Mines Advisory group and several schools for Disabled Children were cited in the speech delivered by blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. Harley has been an Ambassador for the Mines Advisory Group for several years and has lead two treks, one around Cambodia and another across Death Valley, to help raise funds towards landmine clearance.
In February 2010, Harley, a self-confessed technophobe, attributed poor literacy rates and the moral corrosion of British society to modern technology. Later that year he released the album Stranger Comes to Town, which peaked at No. 187 in the UK. Harley revealed the album was a protest album, concerning the current climate and state of the country. Like The Quality of Mercy, the album saw more favourable reception. In April 2012 Harley embarked on his first promotional tour of Australia. Teaming up with Australian guitarist Joe Matera, Harley made a number of appearances on radio and TV, performing live acoustic sessions. This included the Melbourne radio station Gold FM 104.3, and Noise 11 TV.
In October 2012, the remastered four-disc box-set anthology compilation album Cavaliers: An Anthology 1973-1974 was released, chronicling the recording career of the original Cockney Rebel line-up. In November 2012, Harley and his band, with the orchestra and chamber choir, made up about 50 performers together, performed the first two Cockney Rebel albums, The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo, in their entirety – with some of the songs entirely new to the stage. This led to the release of the live album, and DVD, Birmingham in late 2013. It peaked at No. 36 on the UK Independent Albums Chart. In 2014 a series of further dates were announced for Harley to perform the same show, along with another UK tour in late 2014. A new album has been hinted as a work in progress. Over the last decade, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel have played Glastonbury Festival three times, the Isle of Wight festival and many of Europe's major rock festivals.
Harley lives in North Essex with his wife, Dorothy, whom he married in February 1981. They have two children, Kerr and Greta. Since 1984, Harley has been involved in racehorse ownership, with racing becoming his main pastime.
- The Human Menagerie (1973) (as Cockney Rebel)
- The Psychomodo (1974) (as Cockney Rebel)
- The Best Years of Our Lives (1975) (as Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel)
- Timeless Flight (1976) (as Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel)
- Love's a Prima Donna (1976) (as Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel)
- Hobo with a Grin (1978)
- The Candidate (1979)
- Yes You Can (1992)
- Poetic Justice (1996)
- The Quality of Mercy (2005) (as Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel)
- Stranger Comes to Town (2010)
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