Glaswegian blues and rock musician Alex Harvey (born 1935) was a veteran of the music scene long before he brushed shoulders with fame. A gifted interpreter, innovator and a highly distinctive band leader and songwriter, his 1970s variation on glam rook with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band employed a tough but tongue in cheek take on theatrical presentation with cheerful props and a wildly exciting stage image enhanced by his ability to step into character while his lead guitar foil Zal Cleminson chewed the scenery alongside him. Alex released two accomplished blues discs in the mid-sixties - Alex Harvey and His Soul Band and an album simply called The Blues; both on Polydor and well worth tracking down. They remain big sellers in Germany where the SAHB would also thrive. As a unit the group were perhaps more successful on the boards, their natural milieu, than they were in the studio. The albums were terrific, forces of nature all, but stick Alex and company in a theatre or a club and everything made weird sense.
Harvey enjoyed life and accomplished a great deal before being taken from us far too young in 1982, the day before his 47th birthday. Revered in his native Scotland, Harvey spent more time living in London where he recorded excellent albums like Joker Is Wild, Framed, Next, The Impossible Dream - all of them receiving considerable and justified critical acclaim. His albums are available via the Universal reissue programme, often as 2 on 1 packages and decent compilations are available for swift discovery.
Born in the working class district of Kinning Park, Glasgow in 1935 Alexander James Harvey was an early practitioner of the peculiarly British skiffle music though he was also interested in R&B and Dixieland jazz, the other traditional go-to form of the era. In 1960 Alex Harvey and his Big Beat Band opened for Johnny Gentle and His Group – historians will recall that His Group was actually the very early Beatles (John, Paul, George, Stuart Sutcliffe and Tommy Moore). If the significance of this event didn’t register at the time Alex would relate his reminiscences later on with considerable glee. "All at once Elvis and Little Richard burst into the charts. . . and you were either a believer or an outcast," he told me in 1976. A true believer, Alex began by playing songs by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Big Bill Broonzy.
In the 1960s his blues, folk and rock and roll apprenticeship continued but by 1967 he was part of the underground scene and played in the pit orchestra in the original London cast stage production of the hippy musical Hair at the Cambridge Theatre where he stayed for five years.
In 1972 Harvey caught the new progressive bug and formed The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (aka SAHB) with Cleminson, bassist Chris Glen (ex Tear Gas) and Hugh and Ted McKenna on keyboards and drums (also ex Tear Gas). But before they made it to vinyl Alex camped out at Regent Sound Studios and recorded the mostly-demo form album The Joker Is Wild, helmed by Paul Murphy, featuring his brother Les (Stone the Crows) on lead guitar.
The official SAHB debut is Framed, a combination of fine electric blues and originals committed to tape with Morgan Studios genius engineer Mike Bobak capturing the results, including a raunchy take on Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make to You” and the warped folk suite “Isobel Goudie”.
Next (1973), with the cover art depicting Alex in his trademark striped shirt, is the first of the band’s out and out hard rockers with eclectic material – originals in the main plus the title cut being a Jacques Brel/Mort Shuman composition. Having built a solid reputation as a live act The Impossible Dream turned that good will into chart accomplishment. Engineered by Martin Rushent (Fleetwood Mac, T. Rex, Yes et al) this fusion of incendiary rock and cartoon imagery (Harvey appropriating the “Sergeant Fury” guise) appealed to those with a penchant for Alice Cooper and US comic book culture. They refined the act for Tomorrow Belongs to Me that includes their classics “Snake Bite”, “Action Strasse” and “Give My Compliments To The Chef”.
The Live album (recorded at Hammersmith Odeon in 1975) is the pinnacle disc. It contains their Top Ten hit, a cover of the murder ballad “Delilah”, now given a Scottish reboot, as opposed to Tom Jones’ power ballad. Adding synths and BJ. Cole’s pedal steel to the mix the Live album can be obtained as the 2 in 1 disc with The Penthouse Tapes, another eccentric set that covers Cooper’s “School’s Out”, the Osmond’s “Crazy Horses”, Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” and Del Shannon’s 1961 smash “Runaway”. Hats off to Harvey for that one.
The semi-punning SAHB Stories is a cult favourite thanks to “Boston Tea Party” and “$25 For a Massage”, just some of the tunes that had an obvious influence on AC/DC whose Bon Scott surely borrowed the Alex vocal roar, and why not? Incidentally SAHB had a good following in Oz. Nick Cave is another fan.
Confusingly the Fourplay album, 1977, doesn’t include Harvey who had decided to take a sabbatical and make his own project Alex Harvey Presents: The Loch Ness Monster.
The Sarge was back for Rock Drill (1978) with Tommy Eyre taking over keyboards duties on what is now viewed as an album for diehards. The title track is as hard as they ever got and “Water Beastie” sees them spinning off into funk and reggae grooves with success.
By his own admission Harvey was suffering from road fatigue and associated physical problems due to his love affair with alcohol allied to chronic back pain. In fact the SAHB made their last emotional appearance at the Reading Festival in August 1977 and blew the place apart.
The main man recovered his mojo to make The Mafia Stole My Guitar and Soldier on the Wall, released shortly before his death in Zeebrugge, Belgium to a fatal heart attack. One of the great front men his passing left a sizable hole in the British rock scene and made many realise that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. The self-styled Sheik of Tomorrow and King of the Cowboys was a one-off for sure, an agreeable philosopher, raconteur and a highly knowledgeable musicologist. In a career that took him from Glasgow’s Gorbals to Hamburg’s strip clubs to London’s hipster scene and Cleveland’s hard core rock arena one was always guaranteed showmanship, flair and fun from him. He remains sorely missed.
Words: Max Bell
After making an impressive and promising debut with Framed, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band perfected their unique, glam-inspired fusion of hard rock and cabaret styles on Next. It also happens to be their best-sounding album, thanks to the efforts of Phil Wainman, a producer best known for his work as a bubblegum-pop svengali to the likes of Sweet and the Bay City Rollers. Wainman puts the band's sound over the top by adding a sense of studio polish that fleshes out their odd combination of styles without taking away from the music's sense of rock & roll power. The result is an album that has all the muscle of a good hard-rock recording but tempers its bombast with a sense of big-production depth and clarity that brings outs the band's tight musicianship. Next also produced the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's first hit single with "Faith Healer," the creepy tale of a religious con artist that blends an intense vocal from Harvey with a thunderous, guitar-driven wall of sound production. Other standout moments include the title track, a frenzied reading of a ribald Jacques Brel tune that effectively pits Harvey's anguished wail against lovely orchestrations, and "The Last Of The Teenage Idols," an autobiographical exploration of Harvey's travails in the music business that shows off the band's versatility through an arrangement that encompasses hard rock, big-band soul, and even doo-wop. To sum up, Next is one of the true high points of the English glam-rock boom and required listening for anyone with an interest in Alex Harvey's music.
Words: Donald A. Guarisco
Harvey's merger with Tear Gas, a faltering rock band, was the smartest move of his career. With a heady mix of theatrics and driving rock, SAHB quickly made a name for themselves across England, releasing this album along the way. Harvey struts and yowls and gets raunchy (prefiguring the SAHB version of "Delilah") while Zal Cleminson rips up the territory with some astounding guitar work. A great debut and a hell of a rock album.
Words: Steven McDonald
Whoever thought that the surface obsession of glam rock never met the loopy idealism of the hippie movement -- at least in the musical realm -- has obviously never heard the appropriately titled The Impossible Dream. Recorded, again, appropriately, as the Age of Aquarius was in full transition to the age of the Spiders From Mars and, later, the me decade, The Impossible Dream manages to capture that cultural DMZ in an operatic blast of pub rock-based pomp without circumstance. Harvey is the bacchanalian ringleader, marshalling the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's considerable, flexible resources to the task at hand and providing a damn good listen in the process. Multi-part song cycles, three-minute rockers. and tomes such as "Long Hair Music" keep you, the unexpecting listener, on edge. This is one of those overlooked records, and Harvey was one of those artists, that could easily have reached less than an arm's length and touched T. Rex, Queen, the New York Dolls, AC/DC, or Sweet, and, by extension, Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Guns 'n' Roses. The Impossible Dream is a key album in the discography of one of rock's little-known grand schemers. It rocks out, is pretentious, bombastic, rollicking and grand, but it's never boring.
Words: Chris Handyside
By the time they recorded Tomorrow Belongs To Me, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band had perfected a totally unique trademark sound, an audacious and often surreal witches' brew of heavy metal thunder, glam artsiness, prog complexity, and all sorts of left-field cabaret and big-band elements. This album does not break any new ground for this oddball synthesis, but it is a solid and high-powered outing that will please anyone who enjoyed Framed or The Impossible Dream. Highlights include "Snake Bite," which sets a saucy tone with a sleazy hard-rock riff then adds all sorts of funky keyboard shadings for further spice and "The Tale Of The Giant Stoneeater" a slice of surreal mythology whose backing track sounds like the hard rock version of a Godzilla movie soundtrack. Unfortunately, other tracks find the Sensational Alex Harvey Band slipping into complacency: "Soul In Chains" wraps a tired, cabaret-inflected tune around a surprisingly cliched lyric about romance gone bad and "Ribs And Balls" is a short throwaway that wastes a worthwhile riff. Despite these occasional lapses, the majority of Tomorrow Belongs To Me holds up well and offers plenty of solid tunes: "Give My Compliments To The Chef" is a complex, atmospheric mood piece with surreal lyrics about social breakdown that became a concert favorite and the group's surprisingly straight-forward take on the title track has a twisted yet heartfelt sense of grandeur. In short, Tomorrow Belongs To Me won't win the Sensational Alex Harvey Band any new fans but makes a worthwhile (if unextraordinary) addition to any fan's Harvey collection.
Words: Donald A. Guarisco
The sixth album for the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, released following a year-plus hiatus that nevertheless saw the release of two new LPs: the water-treading Live, and the odds 'n' oldies collection Penthouse Tapes. Both portrayed the band in a light that had only a little in common with the group's true strengths -- both, attended by major chart success and exposure, left the band uncertain quite how -- or even if -- they should proceed. SAHB Stories suffers accordingly.
At its greatest, it shines alongside the very best of the band's past. The closing "Dogs of War," though bombastically overwrought, nevertheless ranks alongside John Cale's similarly fear-lashed "Mercenaries" as one of the greatest-ever examinations of the soldier of fortune, while the twisted history of "Boston Tea Party" -- quite likely the only U.K. hit to mention George Washington's wooden teeth -- is set to a pounding tomahawk guitar riff, and an extraordinarily contagious chorus. A positively spellbinding interpretation of Jerry Reed's "Amos Moses," meanwhile, drops the listener headfirst into the Louisiana bayou, hunting alligators and police chiefs alike. Elsewhere, however, the sense of finality that gathered around the band's period live shows was echoed in the album's failure to ever get out of second gear. "Dance to Your Daddy" is catchy but a little too cute; "Sirocco" rumbles with pulsating Eastern promise, but never quite delivers, and so on. The end of the band was nigh, and Harvey himself acknowledged that when he quit the group just a few months later. He would return, of course, but the dead horse was beyond flogging by then.
Words: Dave Thompson
Anyone familiar with the work of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band knows the group had an intriguing penchant for performing odd cover versions from all different areas of popular music. This 1976 album allowed the group to give full vent to this obsession: three of the tracks are band originals, but the rest are a series of covers that hit everything from Irving Berlin to the Osmonds to Alice Cooper. The resulting album has a thrown-together feel that keeps if from cohering properly, but still manages to be a worthwhile listen thanks to a combination of spirited performances and interesting arrangements. The highlight of the band originals is"Jungle Jenny," a gender-switched Tarzan tale that sets lyrics about a lusty white goddess who drives the apes mad over a tune that mixes glam rock guitar with tribal drums. In terms of covers, the standout tracks include a moody mid-tempo take on Jethro Tull's "Love Story" and "Crazy Horses," which utilizes Harvey's larynx-shredding wail to bring out the apocalyptic overtones in this surprisingly hard-rocking Osmonds tune. The band also takes some surprisingly effective stabs at country rock with their boozy sing-along cover of "Gamblin' Bar Room Blues" and "Say You're Mine (Every Cowboy Song)," a Harvey original. A few of tracks come off as throwaways ("Runaway" is energetically performed but adds nothing to the tune), but this album is a solid listen overall for any fans of the Alex Harvey sound.
Words: Donald A. Guarisco
Although the Sensational Alex Harvey Band showed off plenty of sonic firepower on studio outings like Next and Tomorrow Belongs To Me, they were always at their most ferocious in the concert arena. As a result, Live is an especially rousing and engaging addition to the group's catalog. Since the set list is almost entirely composed of time-tested favorites, it also one of their most consistent albums. The album's contents are taken from a single night's performance at the Hammersmith Odeon, and this gives it a sonic coherence that other live albums rarely capture. A totally committed performance from the band seals the album's appeal with its thrilling combination of heavy metal bombast and tight arrangements that carefully deploy keyboard shadings to flesh out the guitar-heavy sound. The proceedings start powerfully with "Faith Healer," an ominous rocker whose thunderous riffs take on a new level of muscle in the live arena. Other highlights include "Give My Compliments to the Chef," a sci-fi-influenced tale of societal breakdown that slowly but surely builds into a hard-rocking frenzy, and the group's cover of "Framed," which transforms the classic Leiber-Stoller tune into a twisted psychodrama where Harvey debates with the audience over his innocence. However, the finest track on the album is a cover: the group's surprisingly subtle version of the Tom Jones hit "Delilah" tones down the original's fevered psychodrama to create a waltz-like tune with a tongue in cheek circus atmosphere. This track is also notable because it was released as a single and became one of the group's biggest hit singles in Europe. To sum up, Live is a double-triumph for the Sensational Alex Harvey Band because it functions both as a strong live souvenir for the group's fans and also as a solid introduction to the group's highlights for the novice.
Words: Donald A. Guarisco
This album, the final effort by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, finds the band ‘s energy at a low ebb. In fact, Alex Harvey had originally intended to leave the group after a lengthy hospitalization for liver problems but was talked into returning to the group for another album. The resulting album feels like an afterthought. All the hallmarks of the group's sound are there (dramatic arrangements, glam-rock guitar firepower, odd covers) but it often feels like the group is going through the motions: "Rock ‘N' Roll" is a surprisingly cliched tune that lacks any distinctive or memorable riffs and the generic boogie of "Who Murdered Sex?" lacks the ribald spirit that a song with such a title should have. Another problem with Rock Drill is that it lacks the dramatic shifts of sonic style that characterized outings like Tomorrow Belongs To Me: the band forsakes the intriguing cabaret and big-band elements they had toyed with in the past in favor of a straight-ahead rock sound that robs the band of much of its personality. However, the album does include a few worthwhile moments for fans: the title track is a pounding rocker that sports a committed vocal performance from Harvey and "Water Beastie" starts with an odd, tribal-styled chant that segues into a quirky fusion of reggae and hard rock. However, these bright spots can't make up for the overall uninspired feel of Rock Drill and, as a result, this album can only be recommended to hardcore Alex Harvey devotees.
Words: Donald A. Guarisco