Listen to this track by British glam-rock vehicle Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. It’s Harley’s biggest hit “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)”, a UK chart smash in February 1975, and equally well received in Europe and in Australia. It appears on the LP The Best Years of Our Lives, their best selling record.
For many, this song is a sonic time machine, taking the listener straight back to the last days of the British glam-rock heyday, and a hair’s breadth from the dawn of punk rock. Thanks to being so tied into the consciousness of a generation of listeners, it would be re-released a number of times over the years, enjoying resurgence after resurgence, in part thanks to its inclusion in movie soundtracks (The Full Monty, Velvet Goldmine, and others) and in British TV commercials, too.
Ironically, Harley’s most popular song came out of circumstances that were less about his enduring success as a songwriter, and more about his career coming to an end as he knew it.
The song’s lyrics which are laced with disappointment, resignation, and ambivalence serve to document a pretty troubled chapter in Harley’s career. It was written by Harley as a means of making a statement about the original lineup of the band who’d cut and run after a tour in the spring of 1974, leaving him and original drummer Stuart Elliot to search for a new version of the group.
After a period of working with session musicians and special guest players (Marc Bolan himself sang backup and played rhythm guitar on this song), the “band” was really just a means of expressing Harley’s solo work, with Elliot still working with him under their old moniker, albeit with Harley’s name out front. The disappointment to be found in the content of the lyrics would ironically lead to the songwriter’s biggest success.
Despite the drama behind the tune and what it meant to Steve Harley at the time of its creation, the song itself soon took on a life of its own. It would only grow in stature over the years, particularly in Britain.
In some ways, it is an unlikely smash single, not being a song that is in accordance with the standard formula of pop song. It takes a lot of risks. The chord changes are at odd intervals, and there are dramatic pauses that aren’t found in contemporary songs of the time. Harley’s languid vocal is pretty oddly cadenced. And the guitar solo is more flamenco than it is rock ‘n’ roll.
But at the same time, “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” reveals itself to be one of those songs that could have been written in any decade of the modern pop era. It is to be compared to no other tune because of those very idiosyncrasies mentioned, while also featuring irresistible pop elements too; a big chorus, ooh-la-la-la backing vocals, and an overall sense of effervescence that is impossible to deny. It’s a song about betrayal that sounds more like a celebration.
The whole song is a wonderful series of contradictions.
“Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” marks the times out of which it was made, those being the very end of a certain era in British pop music. It was a track that would prove to be a part of the musical connective tissue from one musical era to another, to be heard in XTC’s Andy Partridge and his early Harley-like vocal mannerisms, to Aztec Camera’s nylon-stringed Spanish guitar on “Oblivious” and “Walk Out To Winter”. It would in fact serve as a key point on the stylistic road map for post punk songwriting in general, also a tradition of idiosyncratic song structures and textures that are characterized by a tendency to undercut stylistic expectations held by rock audiences.
So, it’s of its time, sure. But, it proved to have lasting influence well beyond its initial chart entry, too.
Steve Harley is an active musician today. Investigate SteveHarley.com to come up and see him, as it were.
[Update, March 2015: Steve Harley will undertake a 40th anniversary tour in Britain of The Best Years Of Our Lives in November of this year. You can learn more about it and find out where to buy tickets here.]