Sensational Alex Harvey Band

TrackAlbum
FramedFramed
Isobel GoudieBritish Tour '76
The Faith HealerNext
NextNext
Last Train (Anthem)Hot City
VamboHot City
Dogs Of WarSAHB Stories
Amos MosesBritish Tour '76
The DolphinsRock Drill
No Complaints DepartmentRock Drill pre-release

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Contributor: Keith Shackleton

Never mind James Brown; Alex Harvey was the hardest working man in show business. He’d crammed enough work for two or three successful musical careers into his life even before he became famous. He started out playing skiffle and trad jazz in the mid 50s, winning a competition to find ‘Scotland’s Tommy Steele’. Moving on to blues and rock and roll well into the 60s as leader of the Big Soul Band, he toured Europe through the first wave of British pop and the Beatles’ explosion, and backed big stars who’d made the trip across the Atlantic and who needed a pick-up band. ‘The Last of the Teenage Idols’ subsequently found it harder to establish a solo career, but he found a niche in the pit band for the stage musical Hair and stuck at it for half a dozen years or so, until he met the members of a loud Scottish rock band called Tear Gas.

He’d served his time, you might say, and that extraordinary scope and breadth of musical experience, in both Harvey and Tear Gas, meant that the newly-minted Sensational Alex Harvey Band brought something different to the stage. Right now I can’t recall a band that pulled together so many diverse influences so successfully. Queen, you might say, and you’d be pretty much right, but hold that thought, I’ll be back with it in a minute. Glam rock flash, progressive widdly diddly, music hall, Dixieland, the spoken word, comic book capers, dance-to-my-daddy folk-rock japery, crunchy classic rock guitaring, concept album weirdness.. SAHB squeezed it all together and out came something wonderful. It was their greatest strength, but maybe it meant they couldn’t ever reach the level of acceptance that would have made them huge stars. The problem with multi-discipline mavericks is that you can’t stick a badge on them, they resolutely refuse to be pigeonholed, and of course artistically that’s tremendously positive. But if you’re a rock fan and you listen to Sergeant Fury … I mean, what the hell is that? A tinkly-pianoed jazzy dance band number, is what it is, and in the hands of a Freddie Mercury … well, if you are the aforementioned rock fan, you just go, “Ah well, that’s Freddie, that’s how he is.” Whereas Alex Harvey? He’s a tough Glasgow hard-nut, and no mistake, and all that campery … is it to your liking, if your record collection is full of early Quo and Sabbath and you’ve just listened to Long Hair Music and you actually are a long hair? No, it may not be, sir and madam. Not quite.

All that stuff Harvey soaked up; John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Parker, the early country stars, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Lonnie Donegan, classic Hollywood films, pulp fiction, the beat groups that made it big … he glommed it all together and he did it brilliantly. He could play a part, or narrate a story, more convincingly than any rock band leader before or since by reducing “the distance between himself and the song to nothing. He became the song, was utterly present in the song, and by doing so, pulled the listener right in there with him” (les mots justes from Harvey’s good friend Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 13th February 1982). Fans loved him for his honesty and passion, and maybe trusted him more because he was already in his thirties. He’d been there, seen it, done it and loved telling the tale, and they believed it.

And there’s a vital difference with Freddie Mercury … sure, you love Freddie, you stand agape at his amazing performance, but believe him? No: part of Fred’s schtick is caricature and absurdity: you know that, he knows that, grabbing the cameraman’s arse at Live Aid and winking at Wembley and the world. Freddie in a crown and ermine trimmed cloak? Good old Freddie.

But Alex Harvey is Vambo, he is the private dick in The Man In The Jar, he gets inside the old war horse Tom Jones’ Delilah and projects all that jealousy and squalor, he communicates. Does he ever.

He turns the Leiber and Stoller number Framed (a nifty 1954 jump blues by doo-woppers The Robins) into an intense psychodrama. Ironically, this is a song where you really don’t believe what his totally believable character is saying. Framed? You? No way, you’re a crook! It’s a spiky twelve bar blues on SAHB’s first album, but a live set-piece of great power. Earlier performances have Harvey mutate into Marlon Brando pleading his innocence – oh, please – via an ingenious piece of business with a stocking mask. See it here, at a Norwegian rock festival. You can’t take your eyes off him. He draws in several thousand faintly stoned Scandinavians, some of whom don’t quite know what to think about the lunacy unleashed. Intimacy with the audience, at a massive outdoor gig? I’ve been to Holmenkollen and it’s a huge space. It takes a real showman to pull that off.

In later gigs Harvey astonishingly changed the character to Adolf Hitler. Wait. Think about that. Hitler: “I was framed”. What a part to play, and what a stab at the heart of dumb-grunt right wingers.

Isobel Goudie was a Scottish woman tried for witchcraft in 1662 and executed, her unusually detailed confession, renouncing Christianity and consorting with the Devil, is twisted into a sexually charged tale by Alex and the band. His “lady of the night does not do the things she should”, blood and other bodily fluids abound, cold emissions from scaly members. The British Tour ’76 version of the song maximises the drama.

The title song of the second album is once again a cover. Next is a Jaques Brel song called Au Suivant, the story of a young man and his nightmarish experience of induction into the French Army. It is made for Harvey. He steps right into the song and becomes that soldier, a bravura performance, and the strings scrape away as he screams and itches and howls.

The Faith Healer begins, as did many an SAHB gig, with a buzzing synth pattern (cf. Baba O’Riley/Won’t Get Fooled Again). The song pretty rapidly developed into a live tour de force, Harvey as ringmaster, that odd combination snarl/grin plastered on his face, gradually bringing in Zal Cleminson, Chris Glen and the McKennas one by one and turning up the heat. What a way to open.

Next up (ahem) was The Impossible Dream album, re-recorded after Shel Talmy had had a crack at producing the songs. Early on it was titled Can’t Get Enough, and the recordings eventually surfaced as Hot City. It’s more ragged, a little noisier than Impossible Dream and maybe a bit more honest.

Anthem (originally titled Last Train) is a song of escape, but a goodbye to what? A leave-taking from what? A failed relationship? A life? An untouchable set-closer for sure, with female vocal backing set against those marching snares and bagpipers. The Hot City version is more immediate, hits home just a little harder, as does Vambo, ode to the spraycan-wielding, brick-wall-demolishing hero of the Glasgow tenements, the most memorable Alex Harvey persona.

SAHB Stories at its best is a distillation of the band’s strengths: the vicious Dogs Of War and one of those covers that re-invents the original, Jerry Reed’s Amos Moses (The Gorbals meets Louisiana without a whiff of pretension) are my selections, though for that extra added edge, the live British Tour ’76 version of Amos Moses has a terrific chugging organic flow, so that’s the one that makes the cut here. Boston Tea Party almost, almost, made it.

The band’s powers were waning on Rock Drill, excess and ill health fatally wounding SAHB, who were also deeply affected by the death of manager Bill Fehilly in a plane crash. But there is really fine playing and a completely committed performance on The Dolphins – Alex simply rages. It’s a track that Zal Cleminson rates amongst the finest SAHB ever did, and it sounds like a last stand to me, against the dying of the light, and it sounds really good too.

My last track was intended for Rock Drill but pulled at almost the last minute. No Complaints Department cuts to the quick, as deep as you like, but for Harvey, post-recording, the wound was too severe. It’s autobiographical, there’s no alter-ego here, this is the soul of a man bared on record, too personal in hindsight and so excluded from all but acetates, white labels and obscurities. Alex sings about his friend Bill Fehilly, and his brother Les, the guitarist with Stone The Crows, electrocuted on stage. He documents psychological problems and violent tendencies amongst his own friends, declaims the political state of the country and ultimately lays it on the line: “What can you do but take it? There’s no one to complain to, no one’s going to help you.” It’s said he broke down in tears when it was completed. It’s raw and it’s real.

SAHB disbanded shortly afterwards. Alex Harvey found a new young band, and made more music while battling with his old label, but died from a heart attack in Zeebrugge in February 1982, waiting for the ferry to take him and the band home. He would have been 47 years old the following day. There’s a lot of talk these days about living life to the full, but Alex Harvey really did, and we’re lucky, because he gave so much of himself to us.

 

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band forum

Chris Glen official website with SAHB links

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band biography (iTunes)

You can read more of Keith’s musings on music here – and we do have room for a pre-SAHB Alex Harvey toppermost on the site if anyone would like to oblige…

TopperPost #248

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 9, 2014

    Great list – and I know very little about Alex Harvey apart from those ads that used to appear in the NME in the late 1970s for the SAHB Without Alex…

    And ‘progressive widdly diddly’ is a great phrase, even if I only think I know what it means…,

  2. Kram Namloc
    Apr 15, 2014

    SAHB were great! Saw them open for Jethro Tull twice. Unforgettable! Alex was scary live! Powerful performers all!
    Vambo rools!

  3. Colin Duncan
    Feb 20, 2015

    Enjoyed the writing, Keith. Alex Harvey was a difficult act to define, but this is a noble attempt. Loved the phrase leading up to ‘SAHB squeezed it altogether’. Lucky enough to have seen him live, which was what he really was all about. Great clip from Norway. My Toppermost list would need ‘Delilah’,’Sergeant Fury’ and ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’. Thanks for the post.

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