Alex Harvey, The Last Of The Teenage Idols
The title of “Hardest Working Man In Show business” is usually allocated to U.S. stars such as James Brown or Bruce Springsteen, both of whom made a name for themselves through years of hard slog, gruelling work schedules, determination and a passionate self-belief that refused to burn out, no matter how many set-backs, trials and tribulations crossed their paths. British stars, however, have generally been less fortunate in obtaining this title.
Not quite sure why this is the case, or if it even matters; it may be because this phrase was coined by a U.S. journalist or promoter, or even an American singer.
If there’s one British singer, however, who truly deserves this coveted title, it’s got to be Alex Harvey. For those of you not in the know, Alex Harvey was the wild-eyed, charismatic front man of seventies rockers S.A.H.B., AKA The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who produced some of the most original, creative and shamefully overlooked music of the decade. Harvey was 37 years old when they released their debut album, and a year away from reaching forty when they scored their first top ten album!
If that doesn’t sound like a story worth telling then I honestly don’t know what is. Okay, here goes……
It’s fair to say that Alex Harvey came from the school of hard knocks. Born on February 5, 1935, Harvey was raised in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland. A notoriously violent area, Harvey knocked about with various street gangs in his youth before leaving school at the age of fifteen. After leaving the world of academia, he allegedly held down no less than 36 different jobs, including a stint as a lion tamer! He made his live debut playing trumpet at a wedding party in Glasgow in 1954, an occasion which helped him reach the decision he took to become a performer.
In 1956, he won a newspaper competition looking for Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele. He became a skiffle covers singer, playing a few local gigs and attracting a small following. When the skiffle craze died down he turned his attention to pop, and briefly fronted a covers band called The Kansas City Counts.
In 1959, he formed The Alex Harvey Soul Band. Countless gigging with this outfit gave Harvey some considerable regional success, with The Soul Band going on to back American stars such as Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane and John Lee Hooker. Like many other emerging British bands of the time, they gained a residency at The Hamburg Star Club, the coolest venue in the world at the time, and secured a deal with Polydor on the back of their gigs there.
They released a live album, Alex Harvey And His Soul Band, in 1964. As well as versions of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and “Got My Mojo Workin'”, which were both released as singles, the record also featured a rendition of Blues standard “Framed”, which S.A.H.B would resurrect a few years later. The Soul Band released one more album, 1965’s The Blues, before splitting.
After the split Alex briefly formed a band called The Blues Council with his brother, Les, before joining a psychedelic band called Giant Moth. In 1967 Alex found work playing in the backing band for the London production of world famous hippy musical Hair, and released an album with the rest of the band which featured three original compositions.
In 1969, he released a solo album called Roman Wall Blues. An interesting blues-flavoured concept album, the album failed to chart, and Harvey’s career was looking increasingly done for. Never one to give up, he returned to Glasgow in the early seventies, and joined a progressive rock band called Tear Gas.
He changed their name to The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. This is where the story begins…..
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were made up of Harvey on vocals, Zal Cleminson on guitar, Chris Glen on bass, and brothers Hugh and Ted Mckenna on keyboards and drums respectively. A comic book obsessive, Harvey instructed Cleminson to don a wig and adorn his face with clown make up, in a possible homage to Batman’s old adversary The Joker.
Looking every bit the Guitar God, Cleminson proved that his appearance was more than just a shallow publicity stunt by playing some of the most stinging, hypnotic guitar music of all time; a fantastic fusion of R&B, heavy rock and glam. Chris Glen’s fluid, rhythmic bass notes provided a wonderful complement as did Ted McKenna’s pounding drums and Hugh McKenna’s innovative keyboard noises.
At the centre of it all was Harvey himself. His voice, much like his appearance, was hard edged and streetwise. He sneered and snarled like no one else in the business, his inimitable Glaswegian brogue made him sound all the more menacing. It’s not surprising that John Lydon was a fan.
They released their first album, Framed, in 1972. Featuring powerful originals such as “Isobel Goudie”, “St.Anthony” and “Hammer Song”, which was later covered by Nick Cave, and sounding a bit like Alice Cooper’s evil Glaswegian half brother jamming with Muddy Waters after a particularly messy night on the whiskey, this was a remarkably self assured debut.
The follow up, 1973’s Next, was even better. This album featured “The Faith Healer”, a live favourite, and possibly the band’s definitive recording. The intro to this song needs to be heard to be believed. An ominous, repetitive, eerie synth throb; it is subsequently joined by percussion, and then a chiming, crunching riff courtesy of Cleminson kicks in. Then… well, you have to hear it really.
The use of repetition and apocalyptic droning would prove a big influence on New York art rock duo Suicide, whose song “Frankie Teardrop” appears to take a cue from this track musically. Other highlights included the Maximum R&B gone wrong stomp of “Swampsnake”, the epic mini-symphony of “Last Of The Teenage Idols”, which sounds like a precursor to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and the terrifying rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Next”, a performance of this at Reading in 1975 prompted the crowd to throw bottles onstage!
The next album, “The Impossible Dream”, became the band’s first top ten album. Harvey’s gift for story telling became apparent in this album; characters such as “Sergeant Fury” and “The Tomahawk Kid” were brought vividly to life, as was the two part murder mystery of “The Man In The Jar”. The album’s closer, “Anthem”, was notable as the first rock song to feature the use of bagpipes.
1975’s “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” was also a big seller, the title track being a rousing cover of the fascist anthem from the musical Cabaret. Live, according to legend Harvey would perform this song dressed as Hitler, and would lecture the audience about the dangers of fascism before performing it! The band were developing a reputation for being one of the best live acts out there, with Harvey and Cleminson’s theatrical flamboyance often stealing the show from big names whom they had been chosen to support.
An old college teacher of mine saw SAHB supporting The Who in Glasgow. He had never taken to the band previously; his perception of them changed once they had finished their set, with both he and his friends declaring them better than The Who! 1975’s Live is worth a listen, a well recorded document of the time, but for the full effect you need to check out some clips on YouTube, there are several!
1975 brought about the band’s first taste of pop stardom. A cover of Tom Jones’s “Delilah” earned them a number seven chart placing and an appearance of TOTP; however, this was no sell-out, kiddie pleasing pop recording, far from it. Unlike Jones, Harvey sounded like a murderer; his mock-pitying, unapologetic vocals were genuinely unsettling, as was the tip-toed dance routine played out by Cleminson and Glen on the televisual performances of this track.
The boys found themselves back in the charts the following year with the anthemic glam rock stunner “The Boston Tea Party”, which narrowly missed the top ten.
The album which it came from, SAHB Stories, also narrowly missed out on the top ten. It was a cracker too; the sleazy glam frolics of tracks such as “Dance To Your Daddy” and “Sultan’s Choice” nestled in nicely next to more serious numbers such as “Sirocco”, a breathtakingly atmospheric track penned by Hugh McKenna, and “Dogs Of War”, a skull crushingly heavy and worryingly prophetic sci-fi parable, growled by Harvey in a manner no one else could possibly be capable of!
The Penthouse Tapes came out the same year, an eccentric covers album which featured the top twenty rendition of the blues standard “Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues” and a bizarre version of The Osmond’s’ “Crazy Horses”!
Harvey left the band briefly in 1977, prompting the rest of the band to record an album called “fourplay” as SAHBWA (Without Alex), but Alex returned the following year for Rock Drill, the band’s final release. The album contained some of their strongest material; the first side was comprised of the “Rock Drill Suite”, which featured some stunning keyboard work courtesy of Tommy Eyre (McKenna had left the band.) The second side was highly eclectic, highlights including the head banging boogie woogie of “Who Murdered Sex?”, the creeping paranoia of “Nightmare City”, and the elegiac album closer “Mrs Blackhouse”, Harvey’s personal tribute to the BBC’s moral crusader Mary Whitehouse. There was even a reggae tune about the Loch Ness Monster in the shape of “Water Beastie”! It’s a shame the band split after releasing an album as strong as this; you can’t help wondering what might have been had they carried on recording together, but some things just don’t work out that way.
Never one to take early retirement, Alex recorded two solo albums, “The Mafia Stole My Guitar” and “The Loch Ness Monster”, the latter a spoken word album, before forming a new outfit called The Electric Cowboys. In 1982, whilst on tour with the band, Harvey suffered a massive heart attack. On his way to the hospital he suffered another, and was pronounced dead.
Only 47 years old, having done so much, but also with so much still to do. One of rock’s true originals had left the building, without gaining nearly as much success as he had wished for. The rest of the band recorded one more album under the SAHBWA moniker, before disappearing.
In 2004, they returned, armed with a new front man, Glaswegian Max Maxwell. Trying to fill Harvey’s shoes was always going to be an impossible task, but to give him his due Max did a pretty good job. They released a live album in 2006, entitles Zalvation, and featuring a cover image of Mister Cleminson in brand spanking new clown make up!
If you’re new to Harvey, I would recommend starting with Framed and Next, the first two albums, and working your way up from there. Be sure to check out some clips of the band in action on YouTube too, this adds to your understanding of what they were all about. One of the greatest rock bands of the 1970’s, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band created music that was every bit as daring, exciting and theatrical as many of their peers, they just never received the credit for it. Hopefully, this article will make you eager to learn just what it was all about.