International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting ē Steve Harley Interview

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Steve Harley Interview

Introduction by Jim Liddane
Steve Harley is most often praised for his innovative approach to music. His band, Cockney Rebel, managed to blend rock, folk, and glam rock elements, thus creating a unique sound, while "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)" will always remain a testament to his unique songwriting talent, and his ability to create memorable melodies.

Harley's songwriting is perhaps the highlight of his career. He has an uncanny knack for crafting poetic and thought-provoking lyrics that resonate with listeners. "Sebastian," "Judy Teen," and "Mr. Soft" are just a few examples of songs that showcase his unique lyrical prowess.

However, while Cockney Rebel had a string of hits in the 1970s (including the aforementioned "Make Me Smile"), the band struggled to maintain consistent commercial success over the years although this can be attributed to Harley's uncompromising artistic vision - which may not have always aligned with mainstream trends!

Over the years, Steve has explored various musical styles and genres, demonstrating his versatility as an artist. He has also experimented with acoustic, rock, and even orchestral arrangements in his music, showing a willingness to evolve and adapt.

While he may not have achieved the same level of commercial success as some of his contemporaries, he has earned huge critical acclaim for his work. His albums have always received positive reviews from music critics, and he has managed to maintain a respected presence in the music industry.

Steve Harley's legacy in the world of music is undeniable. His influence can be heard in the work of subsequent generations of musicians, and his songs continue, and will continue to be cherished by music lovers old and new.

Jim Birmingham interviewed Steve for the International Songwriters Association's publication "Songwriter Magazine".

Steve Harley was born Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice on February 27, 1951, in Deptford, London, England. He grew up in London - his father was a milkman and his mother a a semi-professional jazz singer, but at the age of three, he contracted polio and over the next twelve years, would spend more than 48 months in hospital.

When he was ten, while attending Edmund Waller Primary School in New Cross, London, he took up guitar. Later he studied at Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys' Grammar School, although he left before completing his A Levels.

Once out of school, he joined the Daily Express in their accounts department, before becoming a reporter with the Essex County Standard, and later the Braintree and Witham Times, the Maldon and Burnham Standard and finally the Colchester Evening Gazette.

In 1972, Steve Harley formed the band Cockney Rebel, by advertising for group members in the music press. The band, which included musicians Stuart Elliott, Jean-Paul Crocker, and Paul Jeffreys among others, released their debut album, "The Human Menagerie," in 1973 an album which received much critical acclaim.

However, Cockney Rebel's commercial breakthrough came with the release of "The Best Years Of Our Lives" in 1975, which featured the hit single "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)," one of Harley's most famous songs.

Did you realise early on that music was really important to you?
Not everyone feels the same you know! Rock music/pop music to many people is a passing phase. My generation turned on to the Beatles when I was 12 in 1963 and then they got to 27 with a mortgage and kids and they stopped buying records. Or else they bought stuff by artistes they bought when they were teenagers, and then just a couple of CDs a year. Music is just a passing phase except for those of us who are on the inside.

In those early days, who were the people you looked up to?
I was in hospital from February í63 to December and in that year, the Beatles exploded, the Stones exploded and Dylan imploded. Dylan did something no-one else could do, he didnít blow the place apart with an image and rock music, but what he did was prove to all of us that cared about words, not just lyrics. because in Dylanís case they were poems. That entirely turned my head and overwhelmed me. The Beatles were stunning in their pop song creations but Dylan was something else. Iíd been bought an acoustic guitar when I was ten and I would never have learned those chords if it hadnít been for Dylan. He took me to a place Iíd only ever been in the company of D H Lawrence and T S Elliot.

I know youíve got your own vocal style but there is definitely a Dylanesque influence do you think?
I wouldnít agree with you, but I suppose it depends on how far back you go.

I would say an in-tune version of Dylan?
Yeah, Iíd hate to sing like he does now, but I love him - heís a one off, an interesting character.

You lived in America for a while. What was the music scene out there like for you songwriting wise?
I lived in LA for a couple of years but didnít write a thing. I was in a beautiful house with a pool, and I had a lot of money so I just partied. The only work I did was to write some lyrics for a couple of songs for Rod Stewart whoís a mate. I tried and tried to work but I just wasnít hungry enough and came back home to make an album "The Candidate".

Have you done much work with other writers?
I havenít done much - Iím not the best person in the world to write with. There are several reasons but to be brutally honest. Iím difficult to work with. Iím not a committee man! I usually have fifteen ideas to everyone elseís one and people canít keep up with me.

But your songs are very much a part of you anyway, arenít they?
Yeah itís very personal. Iíve written a few with Jim Cregan whoís a mate and he understands me - he gives me a lot of space.

"Make Me Smile" was one of those tracks where everything just works, The arrangement is right the tune, the vocal sound, the whole package. When you were working on it did you think "This is special - this is going to do something?"
I remember the managing director of EMI at the time Bob Mercer, came down to Abbey Road, it was about 10pm, and we were in Studio Two, the Beatles studio. We were recording "The Best Years Of Our Lives" album. Alan Parsons was the engineer and we had just mixed the lead break on "Make Me Smile". So I said to Bob "listen to this" and he said "Number One". I joked "Is that a promise?". He just repeated "number one" so we knew it was special. Sure, itís all about what you were just saying "the whole package" but it all starts with the song. You canít make a great great single out of a crap song. Itís the magical "feel good factor" that has to be there. I get it with Radiohead, I get it with Oasis. Songwriting can be so many different things.

I heard your version of "Here Comes The Sun" recently and the DJ said he thought it was the definitive version of the song.
Thatís saying something! I heard the original by the Beatles the other day and I thought "Oh my God", even though George liked my version. I never met him but we had one close mutual friend and he told me he loved it because he "got it" - he understood what we were doing with it. Itís a beautiful song, a magnificent simple piece. What I saw in it was George sitting in his garden, writing this lilting sentimental poetry. I saw the apocalypse. Thatís why I went for the staccato, explosive three minutes and George saw that and got it.

And you made it your own which is the point of a cover anyway

Youíve had a lot of covers but mostly of "Make Me Smile".
Iíve had about 120 covers of "Make Me Smile" - maybe 25-30 here. They get sent to me from Sweden, Japan, all over the place, in loads of languages and you know nearly all of them are their versions of me doing it. The only one I ever really loved was by "The Wedding Present". They understood the lyric and got the finger poking. They got the point. I thought it was sensational.

Do you follow whatís happening with the charts at the moment?
I donít even know what day of the week Top Of The Pops is on anymore but I do try to see it at least once a month just because I am interested professionally. I donít listen to Radio One though - I canít stand the smut.

Are you writing regularly?
I play all the time and Iíve got a guitar on a stand in five different rooms for when the mood takes me. Iíve also got three pianos so there is music everywhere. I write all the time but I donít finish anything. I need the recording contract to get on and finish them!

Finally, what are you up to right now?
I did an acoustic tour recently which took in Germany and Holland and some festivals and a rock band tour in the autumn. It looks like there should be a new studio album ready for next November when we tour with the band.

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Jim Birmingham: All Rights Reserved


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