Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel are an English rock band from the early 1970s. Their music covers a range of styles from pop to progressive rock. Over the years they have had five albums in the UK Albums Chart and twelve singles in the UK Singles Chart.
Steve Harley grew up in London’s New Cross area and attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College. His musical career began in the late 1960s when he was busking (with John Crocker aka Jean-Paul Crocker) and performing his own songs, some of which were later recorded by him and the band. After an initial stint as a music journalist, the original Cockney Rebel was formed when Harley hooked up with his former folk musicpartner, Crocker in 1972. They auditioned drummer Stuart Elliott, bassist Paul Jeffreys, and keyboardist Milton Reame-James. They were signed to EMI after playing five gigs. Their first single, “Sebastian”, was an immediate success in Europe, although it failed to score in the UK Singles Chart. Their debut album, The Human Menagerie, was released in 1973. Although not a commercial success they did attract a growing following in London.
Harley managed to irritate a significant segment of the music press with his self-aggrandisement, even as their music was getting rave reviews and gaining a wide audience. It was becoming clear that Harley regarded the band as little more than accompaniment to his own agenda, and already there were signs that things would not last, despite having a big hit with their second single, “Judy Teen”. In May 1974, the British music magazine, NME reported that Cockney Rebel were to undertake their first British tour, with the highlight of the itinerary being a gig at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre on 23 June. There then followed the album The Psychomodo. A session for BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel, subsequently released on the Live at the BBC album, offered up further evidence of the band’s inventiveness. A second single from the album, “Mr. Soft”, was also a hit. 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. Of his erstwhile bandmates, Crocker returned to his acoustic and bluegrass roots to quietly hone his songwriting skills, recording and occasionally performing (with younger brother David) in The Crocker Brothers; whilst Jeffreys and Reame-James were briefly members of Be-Bop Deluxe, before forming their own band, Chartreuse, in 1976.
Harley’s next appearance on BBC Television’s Top of the Pops was supported by session musicians drafted in for the show. Only Elliot survived from the original line-up, with Curved Air’s Francis Monkman, and B. A. Robertson completing the impromptu band. Autumn 1974 brought the release of the group’s next single, “Big Big Deal”, presumably a taster for their proposed third album. No sooner was the record released, however, than it was withdrawn.
From then on, the band was a band in name only, being more or less a Harley solo project. In 1974, a further album, The Best Years of Our Lives was released, produced by The Beatles’ recording engineer, Alan Parsons. This included the track “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” which would go on to be a UK number one single in February 1975, and the band’s biggest selling hit. It sold over one million copies globally. Amongst the backing vocalists on the act’s only #1 was the future chart-topper, Tina Charles. Changing the band name from Cockney Rebel to Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel for the #1 hit, the degeneration was rapid. In a television interview recorded in 2002, Harley described how the lyrics are vindictively directed at the former band members, whom he felt had abandoned him – a fact not obvious in the apparently happy chorus.
One more single from the album, “Mr. Raffles (Man It Was Mean)” made the Top 20, but then Cockney Rebel disbanded. After 1975, Harley struggled to match that success and faded from fame, although he provided vocals on The Alan Parsons Project song, “The Voice” on 1977’s I Robot. Harley also had a surprise Top 10 in the summer of 1976 with a cover version of “Here Comes the Sun”. He made a minor comeback in 1979 as a solo artist in the UK Singles Chart with “Freedom’s Prisoner”. After a brief appearance in the 1980s with a song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, Harley began touring again with his old Cockney Rebel songs in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Cockney Rebel’s original bassist, Paul Jeffreys, was one of those who died on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. He was with his bride on their honeymoon. In April 1990, Harley and several ex-Cockney Rebel members reformed as Raffles United, and played four consecutive nights in a pub in Sudbury, London.
Harley has released several solo albums since – Yes You Can in 1992, Poetic Justice in 1996, and most recently, The Quality of Mercy in 2005, the first since the 1970s to be released with the Cockney Rebel name. He has dubbed his current touring band ‘Cockney Rebel Mark III’ – although the band contains only two original members in Harley and Elliott.
Two of the bigger hits appeared in UK television advertisements in the 1990s: “Make Me Smile” for Carlsberg Lager in 1995, prompting the track’s return to the UK Top 40; and “Mr Soft” for Trebor Softmints between 1987 and 1994. “Make Me Smile” was used again in a 2005 advertisement for Marks & Spencer. It was also used on the soundtrack of the 1997 film, The Full Monty and the 1998 glam rock film Velvet Goldmine, in the latter’s case being used in the end credits.
From 1999 to 2008, Harley presented a show on BBC Radio 2 called Sounds of the 70s.
In 2006, EMI released a CD box set compilation album spanning Harley’s Cockney Rebel and solo work.
On 25 July 2007 they performed in Warsaw, Poland and on 28 July 2007 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in both cases opening The Rolling Stones’ concerts.
In 2007, the song Make Me Smile was used by the Norwegian national lottery Norsk Tipping in a popular TV commercial in Norway.
Original keyboardist, Reame-James, has since joined with James Staddon, Phil Beer and Robbie Johnson to create ‘Banana Rebel’, who have released a CDTop Banana, available from their website.
In 2010, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel begin touring again setting concert dates for England, Ireland, and Northern Ireland.