It's been fifty years since he formed The Alex Harvey Soul band, forty since he recorded 'Hair Rave Up' as part of the pit band who played every night for the London stage production of the musical Hair, just over thirty since he parted company with the band that finally gave him his commercial breakthrough, and with not one but two new albums due out (well as new as you can get given the man himself has not been with us since 1982) - including a whole new album (see final paragraph) and a great double disc collection Live At The BBC which finally dusts down the bands historic Old Grey Whistle Test performances (alongside a live set and other tantalising nuggets) - Andy Basire devotes this months Class Act to the late, great Alex Harvey.
Born, 1935 in Glasgow, a big fan of Dixieland jazz and skiffle music – once winning a competition looking to find Scotland's answer to Tommy Steele, something he touches on during the track ‘Last Of The Teenage Idols’ on Next - Alex Harvey was in fact one of those truly original artists that happens along rarely in each generation, someone so driven by his own muse and dedicated to following his own path as to be, artistically, totally out on his own. Careering through several underachieving late ‘60s early ‘70s outfits (anyone recall Rock Workshop?) Harvey finally persuaded Tear Gas members Zal Cleminson, Chris Glen, and cousins Ted and Hugh McKenna, to join him as The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (or SAHB).
Ostensibly a rock outfit, and often erroneously linked to the glam rock movement, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were actually hugely theatrical, both visually, with a white-faced clown for a guitarist and Harvey himself regularly communing with the audience and dropping into character for songs, and musically - for example listen to the way he attacks the lyrics in ‘Framed’ elongating the title almost beyond coherence and playing with the construction of words long before Mark E Smith began mangling our mother tongue. Releasing a studio album every year between 1972 and 1975 (Framed, Next, The Impossible Dream and Tomorrow Belongs To Me, plus a live outing which included the bands biggest hit, and still the best version of ‘Delilah’) the band also toured endlessly, confronting conservative rock audiences with tracks like the lunatic Tango of Jacques Brel's ‘Au Suivant’ (re fashioned as the title track to Next), or the bagpipe driven anthem, erm, '' the out and out vaudeville of ‘There's No Lights On The Christmas Tree, Mother, They're Burning Big Louie Tonight’, or indeed on their wildly emotive take on the Nazi hijacked German folk-song 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me' from the stage show Cabaret indeed such was the animosity that these confrontations occasionally provoked Harvey periodically kept order by leaping into the audience and clattering particularly vociferous hecklers.
By 1977 SAHB had run it’s course, Harvey struggling with drink problems and depression bought about by having lost both his brother Leslie – electrocuted onstage whilst playing for Stone The Crows in 1972 – and manager and friend Bill Fehilly (’76) in short order. The parting was amicable enough to ensure that on the album Fourplay, credited to SAHB (without Alex), Harvey was pictured on the back tied up and gagged and would return briefly for the very patchy Rock Drill (’78) before finally leaving for good. His solo work fared less well, like the spoken word 'Alex Harvey Presents: The Loch Ness Monster' in ’77 (actually recorded before Harvey left the band), and neither the patchy 'The Mafia Stole My Guitar' (’79) or the downright poor 'Soldier On The Wall' (82) fared particularly well, however arguments about whether this was simply a hiatus or whether Harvey's muse had completely deserted him remain moot as on 4 February 1982 while waiting to take a ferry with his new band the Electric Cowboys in Zeebrugge, Belgium, Harvey suffered a massive heart attack and whilst en-route to the hospital suffered a second, fatal attack, just one day shy of his 47th birthday.
A final addendum to this remarkable career were recently disinterred from producer Shel Talmay’s personal vaults. The master tapes of the previously unreleased SAHB studio album Hot City. recorded in 1974. were initially intended as a follow up to Next but the band and management decided to scrap the album choosing instead to re-record most of the songs for The Impossible Dream, and whilst the later versions remain superior Hot City is a fascinating snapshot of a band in full flow, and will certainly delight long term fans.
The Best Of The Sensational Alex Harvey is out now on UMC and all the SAHB albums are currently available as 'twofer' sets