366. ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

Cool intro alert! I do like to keep track of our intros, and the ascending bass riff on this one launches it straight into the… let’s see… the Top 5 of the ‘cool intros to chart-topping singles’ list.

Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 16th February – 2nd March 1975

I’ve known this song for years, and the one thing that stands out in my mind, even though I haven’t listened to it in a while, is Steve Harley’s voice. The sneer he puts into words like smiiiillle, and tryyyyyy, as well as his strong accent, seems very punk to my ears. It’s proto-Paul Weller, or Billy Bragg.

You’ve done it all, You’ve broken every code, Pulled the rebel to the floor… And well might he sneer. The lyrics at first sound cryptic, but when you learn that Harley wrote them as a sarcastic comeback to the band he had just split from they become crystal. You spoiled the game, No matter what you say, For only metal, What a bore… The delivery on the ‘metal’ line is genuinely one of the best vocal moments in any #1 single we’ve met, and I’ve always loved the cocky pauses between the chorus and the verses.

Come up and see me, Make me smile… Or do what you want, Running wild… As Harley tells it, the other members of Cockney Rebel left him in the lurch. So he reformed the band, with his name front and centre, and scored a huge chart-topping single. Not a bad bit of revenge. But, it doesn’t sound like a nasty song. On the whole, it’s breezy and uplifting, although apparently earlier demos were slower, and darker.

‘Make Me Smile’ is a hard record to place. It’s eclectic – aside from the acoustic chords and the bass, there’s also a gospel choir for the backing vocals, and a Spanish guitar for the solo. Wiki lists Cockney Rebel as ‘glam’ but, while they certainly looked glam – lots of flamboyant silk suits on display in promo pics – their sound is a little more experimental. They had hit the Top 10 twice in 1974, with ‘Judy Teen’ and ‘Mr Soft’, before the split, but it’s clear why this record went all the way to the top. It’s incredibly catchy and much more commercial. Simple!

It was also a ‘long car journeys as a child’ staple for me (I wonder how many songs that is now?) I can’t say it was always my favourite – I definitely would have skipped it for ABBA or Wizzard, had I been sitting in the front – but I can appreciate it now for what it is. It’s a grown up song, after all, and one that’s ingrained itself in British culture. Apparently there have been 120 cover versions, from acts including Duran Duran, Erasure and Suzi Quatro, which isn’t bad for a record born out of frustration and anger. The power, as one D. Vader might put it, of the dark side

16 thoughts on “366. ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

  1. Love this one, it aged so well it was a hit again in the 90’s. The sudden stops were the gimmick that grabbed, and Steve was very much in the Bryan Ferry-school of vocals – take a listen to Virginia Plain or the awesome Street Life from Roxy Music. Judy teen was a terrific record, but he never really got another monster after this one apart from his Phantom Of The Opera stuff, but has remained quirky and interesting 🙂

  2. badfinger20 (Max)

    I don’t know if I ever heard this one before…Yes I love the intro but his “I don’t care” attitude way of singing it is cool. The gospel influence takes it up a notch also.

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  4. I’ve never heard this before but, it reminds of something else…that I can’t put my finger on just, yet. I like it, a lot…except for the gum-chewing singer.

    I can’t help but wonder if America and Ian Gomm used them as an influence.

  5. I still can’t make the connection but, I’ve discovered that I really like Wedding Present’s version and Erasure’s version. Duran Duran’s turn was a surprise. I’m a big fan of them but, don’t remember them singing it.

    1. Good research. I knew it had been covered countless times, but haven’t heard many of them. The video for the Erasure version is something else…

      Steve Harley does seem quite cocky with his gum-chewing, but I see it as a middle-finger to the band that had just walked out on him.

  6. Talk about ‘don’t get mad, get even’. I think it’s one of those rather personal songs that is difficult for any other artist to cover as they – be they Erasure, Duran Duran, Suzi Quatro or whoever – just can’t bring the right amount of passion, even venom to the lyrics that make it more than ‘oh, just another version of a classic hit’. Also it’s interesting that Steve once admitted he didn’t at first think it was really commercial single material – yet it shot to No. 1 in two weeks, remains one of the most-loved 70s oldies of all, still much loved by radio programmers to this day, and his most successful record ever by miles.

    1. It is an unusual hit, but I think what made it stand out in the 70s has kept it relevant in the decades since. It still sounds very modern, and much loved. Much loved by one Jeremy Clarkson in particular (though that might not be the highest endorsement…)

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