|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. During the summer of 1953, Harley contracted polio, causing him to spend 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 at 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.
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. Harley became disillusioned when the editor insisted on reporting on a shoplifter who had absentmindedly walked out with a tin of soup and a tin of baked beans. Taking advice from his union representative, he stopped wearing a tie, grew his hair and was duly sacked. 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 Martyn, Ralph McTell, Martin Carthy and Julie 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 (professionally known, at the time, as Jean-Paul Crocker). 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.
Cockney Rebel 1972–77
The original Cockney Rebel consisted of Harley, Crocker, Elliott, bassist Paul Jeffreys and guitarist Nick Jones. Jones was replaced by Pete Newnham, however Harley felt the band did not need an electric guitar and they settled on the combination of Crocker's electric violin and the Fender Rhodes piano of keyboardist Milton Reame-James, who soon joined the group. The line up of Harley, Crocker, Elliott, Jeffreys and Reame-James made up the Cockney Rebel line-up who were 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 with drummer Stuart Elliott, adding accomplished guitarist Jim Cregan, keyboard player Duncan Mackay and bass guitarist George Ford, renaming the group Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. 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. In August-September 1976, Mackay recorded his second solo album Score, which was released in 1977. Harley contributed by writing the lyrics to four of the tracks, and providing lead vocals on "Time is No Healer".
When the announcement was made that Cockney Rebel were to split up, the band released the live album Face to Face: A Live Recording in July 1977, which peaked at No. 40, and spawned an unsuccessful single "The Best Years of Our Lives (live)". During the same period, Harley also provided leads vocals on the song "The Voice", from The Alan Parsons Project's I Robot album, released in June 1977.
Beginnings of solo career 1977–79
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 music business 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 including 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. He also co-wrote "Somebody Special" from Rod Stewart's 1980 album Foolish Behaviour. The song was released as the album's third single in 1981, reaching #71 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Also in 1981 Harley and Rick Wakeman worked together, with Harley performing the vocals on the song "No Name" for Wakeman's 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 was one of Harley's most successful singles of the decade, peaking at No. 51 in the UK. Harley appeared at the Reading Festival a month later, to a favourable reception.
In December 1984, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel played a one-off concert at the Camden Palace in London. The band's last show until 1989, the concert was released on VHS in 1985, titled Live from London. By this time, Harley had signed to RAK for a five album deal. In 1985, Harley released the single "Irresistible", which peaked at No. 81 in the UK. Released as his debut for 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, Mike Batt recommended Harley sing the title track of the upcoming The Phantom of the Opera musical. Agreeing to audition, Harley was given the job by Andrew Lloyd Webber and soon recorded the promotional single with Sarah Brightman, which went to No. 7 in the UK charts in January 1986. A music video was created with Harley as the Phantom in the effort to promote the upcoming musical. A prime candidate for the role, Harley was soon selected to play the Phantom in the musical, following his successful audition. He spent five months working on the role, including rehearsal with producer Hal Prince. Despite this, Harley was never publicly announced as the Phantom, and was surprised when he ended up being replaced by Michael Crawford. Later 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."
In April 1986, Harley had released the single "Heartbeat Like Thunder", though it was a commercial failure. 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 late 1986, Harley undertook an English 'A' level course, to which he devoted three hours of study each day. He passed in June 1987 with a 'B' grade. 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 Cockney Rebel, and went on tour, performing for the first time since 1984. The tour, promoted as a comeback tour named "All is Forgiven", was a success. The single "When I'm with You" was released to promote it, and a VHS using concert footage from the tour was released by Odyssey under the title The Come Back, All is Forgiven Tour: Live. Around this same time Harley had been recording some new material with ex-Cockney Rebel members Jim Cregan, Duncan Mackay and Stuart Elliott. In late 1989, Harley had been scheduled to play the title role in a feature film based on the true story of John 'Babbacombe' Lee, an Englishman famous for surviving three attempts to hang him for murder. However, the film never raised the necessary funding and the project was cancelled.
In 1990, Harley contributed to the various artists album Poetry in Motion by providing lead vocals on the track "Harrow on the Hill". The album consisted of fourteen tracks featuring the words of Sir John Betjeman and music by Mike Read. Some of the material from El Gran Senor started appearing in Harley's 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 a new studio album, Poetic Justice, which was a critical success. In 1997, he participated in the Granada Men & Motors TV music quiz show Elvis Has Just Left the Building, which was hosted by Mike Sweeney, with Noddy Holder and Clint Boon as team captains. Around this time, Harley began performing acoustic sets alongside the usual rock band shows. The success of some casual shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1997 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 dates across the UK, with around 90 songs being rehearsed for 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, with the first series that year featuring eight editions. Also 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.
The second series of Harley's The Sounds of the Seventies show had twelve editions across 2000. Following high listening figures for the first two series, Harley accepted the BBC's offer to present the show all-year round. To accommodate his touring schedule, Harley began the new deal by pre-recording three shows at a time. The show continued for the next eight years, with the last programme airing on 27 March 2008. The show reached an audience of over 400,000 weekly.
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. In 2004, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel played at the Isle of Wight Festival, and their entire performance was released as a DVD in 2005, titled Live at the Isle of Wight Festival.
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 May 2007, Harley performed live for pro-fox hunting organisation the Countryside Alliance in a concert at Highclere Castle, also featuring Bryan Ferry, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton and Kenney Jones. He also 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 led 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 received a favourable reception. Two singles were released from the album; "Faith & Virtue" and "For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn". 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 SBS TV show RocKwiz and 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.
On 5 September 2015, Harley's first new song of five years, "Ordinary People", was made available as a pre-order single on iTunes. It was released on 25 September 2015. During November 2015, Harley and the surviving members of the original second line-up of Cockney Rebel embarked on a 16-date UK tour, backed by the Mona-Lisa Twins, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Best Years of Our Lives album.
In 2015, Harley pledged to help raise funds for a new memorial to his former friend, Mick Ronson. In April 2016, Harley played for free at the Hull City Hall to help kick start the appeal.
In November 2016, Harley was one of a number of musicians who teamed up with British Members of Parliament and the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus to record a charity version of the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get You Want" in memory of Labour MP Jo Cox. The song was released by Chrysalis Records in December 2016, with all proceedings going to the Jo Cox Foundation. It reached #136 on the UK Singles Chart, #24 on the UK Singles Sales Chart and #9 on the Top 30 Indie Singles Chart.
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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