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RIP Steve Harley: Cockney Rebel and Creator of 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)'

'In many ways he was the angry young man of 1974-5. But he was just stating his case. He was stating: I'm me, this is me now. Look at me.'

steve harley
Source: Paul Terry/WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Steve Harley: 'a brave and very interesting creative artist.'

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Steve Harley, the frontman of Cockney Rebel, has died at the age of 73. He had been receiving treatment for cancer, which as recently as Christmas 2023 he described as “tiresome and tiring”.

Harley was best known for the hit “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)”, which reached No. 1 in the U.K. charts in February 1975 and has since gone on to sell more than 1.5 million copies worldwide.

The news was broken on March 17 in a statement released by his family, in which they said: “We are devastated to announce that our wonderful husband and father has passed away peacefully at home, with his family by his side.

“The birdsong from his woodland that he loved so much was singing for him. His home has been filled with the sounds and laughter of his four grandchildren. Whoever you know him as, his heart exuded only core elements. Passion, kindness, generosity. And much more, in abundance.

“We know he will be desperately missed by people all over the world.”

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steve harley cockney rebel
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'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)' has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide.

In October 2023, Harley announced the cancellation of several shows that were due to take place in January 2024, and in December provided an update on his website.

“2023 has not exactly been an annus horribilis for me, as the first half was often magical, with some great nights on stage with [bandmates] Barry, Oli and David,” he wrote. “And the full rock band in Holland and Belgium, and Denmark… out there, on the road, that’s where I come alive.

“The second half, well… cancelling live dates is heartbreaking. I’m aware of the stress and financial strain it can place on you.

“But I’m fighting a nasty cancer. My oncologist is pleased with the treatment’s effects so far. It’s tiresome, and tiring. But the fight is on. And thankfully the cursed intruder is not affecting the voice. I sing and play most evenings.”

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cockney rebel
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Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, February 1975.

Harley was born in Deptford, south-east London in 1951 and after contracting polio as a child, spent almost four years in hospital – he would continue to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. After leaving school he worked as a journalist before turning to music, busking in underground stations and playing in folk clubs, before forming Cockney Rebel in 1972, recruiting violinist Jean-Paul Crocker, guitarist Nick Jones, bassist Paul Jeffreys and drummer Stuart Elliott.

Cockney Rebel’s debut album, 1973’s The Human Menagerie, failed to make an impact on the charts, but following the success of single “Judy Teen” in 1974, their second LP, Psychomodo, peaked at No. 8. But with the band increasingly unhappy with Harley’s role as sole songwriter, Cockney Rebel split soon after.

The following year, Harley channeled his frustrations with his former bandmates into “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” – released with a new line-up as Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.

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In an interview on the BBC’s One Show in 2010, he was disarmingly honest about the bitterness behind the song’s lyrics, describing it as "a finger-pointing piece of vengeful poetry.”

He continued: “It's getting off my chest how I felt about the guys splitting up a perfectly workable machine. I wrote it saying 'Look, you'll learn how well we're doing here, we're doing well, why are you doing this?'

“Three of them came to me in a little posse with several ultimatums. They wanted to write songs for the third album, and I said 'Well you know, I started the band, and I auditioned you, and I told you the deal at the time. We're not moving the goal posts here.' They knew this, and they came to me demanding that they could write songs too, and I just said 'Well go and do it then'.”

“Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” has since been covered more than 120 times, by artists as diverse as Robbie Williams, Erasure, Duran Duran and The Wedding Present.

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Following his death, tributes poured in across social media. Speaking to Q, veteran DJ and former Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris said:

“I was very fond of Steve. I thought he was a brave and very interesting creative artist. He had quite a tough time in the 70s, he had a limp that affected him, and I think before he became famous he'd been bullied for a certain time in his life. In many ways he was the angry young man of 1974-5. But he was just stating his case. He was stating: 'I'm me, this is me now. Look at me. I've overcome all my difficulties and I'm in front of tens of thousands of people and I've got number one records. Good for me.' That was basically what he was saying.

“We were supportive of Steve on The Whistle Test and I got to know him then and really, really liked him. Okay, he was very uncompromising, but I just thought he was great and that friendship that we had just kept going through all the years. When we did the 40th anniversary series for Whistle Tests on Radio 2, in 2011, Steve was one of the first people I got in touch with. It’s very sad and I respect what Steve stood for very, very much.”

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