Interview: Steve Harley’s influence on Elbow

Steve Harley pic for comp
Steve Harley pic for comp
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Interview by Gig Scene Editor Graham Chalmers

Famed for one of the few hits of the 1970s to endure in the popular mind, there’s always been more to Steve Harley than Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me).

Back in a time when the charts were dominated by glam or prog, acoustic or bubblegum pop, music fans looking for something more esoteric without having to endure 20-minute Norse epics tended to turn to one of three figures in Britain – David Bowie, Roxy Music and Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.

Despite all those 70s hits such as Mr Soft, Judy Teen, Mr Raffles and more, Harley was always as much artist as pop star – and he still is.

Speaking to me with a slight frog in his throat from the rehearsal rooms where he’s been practising for the past three days, the 62-year-old Harley says he himself is surprised how the influence of those songs has grown.

I met Elbow at an awards ceremony and they told me that the first version of the band had been called Mr Soft.

“I realise now my music’s had more effect than I thought. No modesty intended.”

Thanks to his Glaswegian wife, London-born Steve is a great fan of the Highlands, well, except for the food, perhaps.

But he remains a culture vulture at heart, preferring to be at the theatre or cinema rather than on a beach or a mountain.

“I’ve got two pianos in our house and a guitar waiting on a stand in three different rooms.

Every time I leave the house I’ve got a notebook and pen in my pocket. I’m always over-hearing conversations and scribbling something.

The habit for making notes started early. Before he signed to EMI with Cockney Rebel aged 22, Steve had been a local reporter for three-and-a-half years in papers in Essex and London.

I suggest those experiences may at least partly explain his ‘take no prisoners’ approach to press interviews in the 70s.

“You get hardened, certainly, but the music reporters were quite chippy. They were mostly failed musicians themselves and, here I was, young and a success story.

Hardnosed about the business or not, classic albums such as The Human Menagerie and Psychomodo were having an impact well before the success of the globally popular Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) transformed everything.

Not that Steve is complaining.

That song has a life of its own. I was in Russia recently in a taxi cab in St Petersburg and the song came on the radio. My driver was singing along, banging the steering wheel as he went. He had no idea it was my track. ”

The song that’s sold milllions was recorded under the moniker Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel for The Best Years of Our Lives album in 1975 after the original band had split up acrimoniously.

The last time Steve swung Harrogate’s way, he easily filled the 500-seater Harrogate Theatre. And shortly he’s bringing Cockney Rebel to the 1,000-seater Royal Hall.

“I’m not sure what we will play. I’ve got a set list a mile long. I will say that I aim to play at least one song from every album. And Make Me Smile.”

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel play the Royal Hall, Harrogate on Wednesday, November 6.

For tickets, telephone the box office on 01423 502116 or book online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk

The full version of this interview can be seen in the Harrogate Advertiser - printed version.