Rebel with applause
PUBLISHED: 12:43 10 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:14 20 February 2013
Cockney Rebel Steve Harley shot to fame in the 1970s. He tells Pat Parker why family life on the edge of Essex makes him smile and explains the meaning of that song
STEVE Harley, of Cockney Rebel fame, is sitting in the George Hotel in Colchester, eating a steak sandwich.
He's arrived for our interview with his Scottish wife, Dorothy - the beautiful, softly-spoken former air stewardess he fell instantly in love with nearly 30 years ago. When Dorothy leaves us to go shopping, he says, almost reverentially: 'We've just had our 27th wedding anniversary. That's a long time in rock and roll. And it's all because of Dorothy. She's special.'
Steve's fateful meeting with Dorothy (he's a great believer in destiny), came after he'd spent the last years of the 1970s indulging in drink, drugs and excess. She helped ground him. Steve swapped a life of hedonism for quiet domesticity. Since 1988, Steve and his family have lived in a former Georgian coaching inn on the Essex/Suffolk border. A devout Christian (albeit with a penchant for horseracing), he still sometimes reads the lesson in his local church, and is an active supporter of charity - a reformed character, if ever there was one.
He frequently visits Colchester, where he worked as a cub reporter on the Essex County Standard and the Evening Gazette. His two grown-up children, Kerr and Greta, went to school there. He enjoys browsing in the town's library, galleries, and bookshops, although he hasn't set foot in a supermarket for 30 years.
He's fairly self-conscious in public, and tells me how uncomfortable he felt when recognised on his way to the George. 'I was chatting to Dorothy about architecture, and these two women in their late 40s stopped in their tracks. And I was so conscious that they were staring at me.'
He protects his privacy fiercely. Even band members aren't invited to his house. 'I don't let musicians who work for me come to my home. Why should I? If you allow people to get too close to you and your family life, then if you fall out with them, they'll take that away with them, and I can't have that.'
Out of control
Similarly, he has a horror of fans posting photos of him on the internet. 'The internet is wild, it's out of control. Punters come to shows, and they don't understand why people like me say, "Put that camera or that mobile phone away. Stop filming me". Why should they be allowed to take that away and put it on the internet for the world to see? You buy a ticket - it doesn't give you the right to make a movie.'
He abhors cheque-book journalism, and refuses to be wooed by glossy, Hello!-type magazines. 'I learnt a long time ago that if you court publicity, Fleet Street will eat you up and spit you out again. It's a wild beast which will come back and bite you. I only want recognition when that spotlight hits me on stage. I want it on my own terms.'
Steve was born Stephen Nice in Deptford, south London, in 1951, the second of five children. His dad was a milkman and keen footballer (he had the chance to play for Notts County, but Steve's mother refused to leave London). His mum, once a semi-professional jazz singer, lost a long battle against cancer last year at Easter.
When he was two, Steve contracted polio in the 1953 epidemic. Stephen pulled through, but the muscle in his right leg was damaged, leaving him with a limp. Up until the age of 16, he underwent long spells in hospital. His English teacher - still a close friend - used to bring him books. Music also made a huge impact - The Beatles, but more profoundly, Bob Dylan. 'The Beatles changed the world, but Dylan changed The Beatles. You cannot underestimate Dylan.'
He started writing poetry when he was 11 or 12, and also learnt to play guitar and write songs. Realising he was unlikely to make a living writing poetry, he left school before taking his A Levels and applied to be a journalist. After working on various Essex papers, he moved to the grittier East London Advertiser, but a new editor took exception to his increasingly bohemian appearance. 'Richard Madeley got my job.'
Steve, along with drummer Stuart Elliott, formed the first Cockney Rebel after advertising in the Melody Maker for musicians. The name was the title of a largely autobiographical poem he'd written in hospital as a child. 'It was an embarrassingly useless poem - but I thought it was a good title.'
The band quickly signed with EMI, and recorded their unusual and theatrical first album, The Human Menagerie. One track, Sebastian, became their first single - a haunting, melodramatic, seven-minute tour-de-force, filled with enigmatic imagery, which flopped in the UK, but was a big hit in Europe.
It was followed in 1974 by two UK hits, Judy Teen and Mr Soft. But, despite success, all was not well in the Cockney Rebel camp.
Accounts of the split vary, but according to Steve, other band members came to him wanting to write songs for the third album. He refused. So they walked. Only the drummer stayed.
He admits to being arrogant, but not to being in the wrong. His monster 1975 hit, Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), with its opening lines, 'You've done it all, you've broken every code. And brought the Rebel to the floor...' was a bitter riposte to what he saw as their betrayal. And its huge success (No. 1 in 28 countries), was, he feels, a kind of payback for Cockney Rebel's rebellion.
But after Make Me Smile, his success began to falter. Steve, often in the company of his late friend Marc Bolan, spent vast amounts of money on cocaine and cognac in the late 1970s. 'I don't remember it all. I lost a lot of brain cells. There was a lot of drinking, limousines, extravagance. I had a ball. I only slowed down when I met my wife. I was mad. It was mad.'
It was on a flight from Glasgow to Newcastle that he set eyes on Dorothy. 'Someone sent her down the plane to get my autograph. I said Steve Harley was my friend sitting next to me, and she believed it. It appealed to me that she didn't know me. I had been with a lot of women by then who knew who I was.'
He left the plane kicking himself for not having spoken to her. But luckily, he bumped into a couple of mechanics about to work on the plane, and asked them to pass a note to the stewardess. He heard nothing, but after a couple of weeks, managed to track her down.
The two have been together ever since, and family life so absorbed him in the 1980s that he largely gave up performing. 'I was bloody tired. The 1970s had been crazy. I'd done such a lot. And in the 1980s, the longer I left it, the harder it was for me to be bothered about starting up again.'
But then in the 1990s, a promoter offered him a tour of Germany. He's been performing ever since, and has also tried acting (most recently Beckett in the West End).
Steve tours regularly, appearing at major festivals around the world, including Glastonbury, and played in Russia last year with the Rolling Stones. He has a tour lined up for this spring, and, at the age of 57, has no plans to give up performing.
'I'm truly a wandering minstrel. I couldn't stop touring. It's what I do. I just want to write songs. If I can move people with those songs, it means the world to me. That's all I do it for.'
Come up and see him
For more information on Steve's spring/summer tour, visit www.steveharley.com