One of the inevitable consequences of getting older is that your heroes get older too – and sometimes die.
Quite a few of my musical heroes are dead – Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Warren Zevon, Danny Gatton and Ollie Halsall to name but a few – and mostly long before their time, too.
Not all of these people are remembered as well as some – Hendrix does very well, for example – and some who die are virtually forgotten just a few years later.
I’d like to remind people of one such individual – and he truly was an individual!
I was very upset indeed when I heard that Alex was dead. Not quite old enough to be my father at the time of his death, but almost, Alex was a truly unique character who lived hard, exemplifying the rock and roll lifestyle and providing the world with some truly great music.
Born in Glasgow in 1935, Alex’s first musical influences were skiffle and trad jazz. This soon led to a career in rock & roll and after a talent contest he became known as ‘Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele’. This places him in a different musical period and context to the Beatles, say, and allies him more to people like Cliff Richard, although Alex was certainly no Scottish Cliff – fuck no. He’d have hated that!
Forming the Alex Harvey Soul Band and recording a couple of albums, Alex spent the ensuing years gigging all over the British Isles, as well as playing regular stints in Hamburg.
In 1967, he somehow blagged his way as a guitarist into the pit orchestra for the London production of ‘Hair’, and this band recorded a cash-in album of their own which featured some Harvey originals.
After a few years leading various bands and recording several albums with limited success, Alex made a move which would bring him real fame at last. He teamed up with a young Scottish prog band called ‘Tear Gas’ and so the Sensational Alex Harvey Band was born – or SAHB for short.
With a young and accomplished band providing the musical smarts and the right framework, Alex could front the act and bring all his music hall brilliance to bear on live shows.
Never a good singer in the true sense of the term, Alex’s talents lay in his ability to relate to an audience, his frequently tasteless humour and the creation of his own mythology within his songs and stage show. Dressed like some deranged glam-rock pirate, Alex would come on stage dressed in leather jacket, spandex and striped T shirt, along with various props, and then treat the crowd to rock vaudeville backed up by a very classy band indeed. Lead guitarist Zal Cleminson – in green spandex and white clown makeup – was a brilliant player and a great foil for Alex on stage. The rest of the band weren’t slouches either.
People soon took SAHB to their hearts and 7 great albums over 5 years brought them commercial and critical success. With a band capable of playing in almost any style, Alex’ lyrics explored a wide range of subjects such as faith healers, gang bangs, witchcraft, bondage and monsters, mythical or otherwise. Not only that, but the band also chose some great covers. Whilst ‘Delilah’ might be the best known example and their biggest hit, they also recorded the Osmonds’ ‘Crazy Horses’, Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’, Jacques Brel’s ‘Next’ and many, many others.
In 1976, Alex left the band and went solo again with virtually no success, although one of the albums he made post-SAHB in 1979 is a real cracker – ‘The Mafia Stole My Guitar’, which has a scorching version of ‘Shakin’ All Over’ as an opener.
Alex continued to gig until his death in 1982 and actually died when about to go ashore for a gig in Zeebrugge in Belgium.
It was the day before his birthday, so he didn’t even make 47…
It barely seems believable that he’s been dead for 28 years now, although that’s probably more about my perception of time than anything else. However, his recordings with SAHB hold up really well today and I still play them often.
Somewhere on YouTube there’s a great 9 minute plus b&w video of SAHB playing ‘Framed’ where Alex crams some stockings in his mouth in some strange parody of Brando in ‘The Godfather’. It’s quite, quite mad but it’s totally brilliant and even the zoned-out crowd don’t know what to make of Alex’ performance.
File under ‘sadly missed’.