Like so many people the first time that I encountered Alex Harvey was when I saw some old Top of The Pops footage of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band performing their 1975 cover of ‘Delilah’. Alex, looking like a blue print for the Jack Sparrow character waltzed around the stage in a ballet-esque manner whilst seducing a selection of broken mannequins. And then there were SAHB (Sensational Alex Harvey Band) themselves with the clown painted Zal Cleminson (a shamefully under rated guitarist) with stage moves that made Brett Anderson appear butch. I remember being completely enthralled by the performance as never before had I witnessed such theatrics from a ‘rock and roll’ band. I was nine, maybe ten years old and I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything quite so peculiar and yet utterly genius since.
But the theatrics were merely the tip of the ice berg. You see SAHB, led by the disgustingly gifted Alex Harvey, were a phenomenal band. Their songs oozed with scorn, humour, emotion and sometimes flippancy (see ‘Gang Bang’ from ‘Next’, 1973). What made SAHB so phenomenal was their leader and tiny mountain of charisma Alex Harvey. Born in a deprived area of Glasgow in 1935 Harvey’s initial flirtations with popular music were in the form of his love of Skiffle and Dixieland Jazz. He formed Alex Harvey’s Big Soul Band in 1958 and from then until their demise in 1965 he gained a reputation as a kind of Scottish Tommy Steele. Despite other projects, including a failed attempt at a solo career, SAHB didn’t materialise until 1972 when Harvey recruited ex members of prog rock band Tear Gas. From then until their split in 1982, the year of Harvey’s death, SAHB made a total of thirteen studio albums.
So what makes Alex Harvey so special? Well there’s the quality of his songs. From Boston Tea Party to Swampsnake Harvey’s work possesses all of the swagger of say, Mott the Hoople and the eccentricities of Jethro Tull. Harvey is often referred to as a glam rock artist. This does him and SAHB a great disservice. He was in fact a pioneer of the British blues movement (see ‘Framed’ from Framed 1973) in the same vein as Rory Gallagher. Like Gallagher Harvey didn’t subscribe to any of the traits that you might associate with rock stars of his era. Unlike so many of his contemporaries Harvey managed to retain his hard-nosed working class wit and a humility that you would find in any Glasgow pub. Listen to the ‘The Sensational Alex Harvey Band; British Tour 1976’ and you will hear, in tiny snippets between songs, a successful rock star with a sense of humour; something a rarity. Above all Harvey was, in every sense, an ordinary working class Glasgow lad that happened to front a successful rock band.
Harvey, as in life, was beautifully ordinary in death. He died in 1982 after suffering a heart attack whilst awaiting to board a ferry returning from a rare North European tour (Harvey had retired from performing in 1977 due to back problems) with his new band Electric Cowboys. He died in the Zeebrugge, a small Port town in Northern Belgium the day before his 47th birthday.
If I had to describe Alex Harvey to a new comer I would say that he had all of the throat of Bon Scott and the stage presence of David Byrne. Of SAHB I would simply say that they were a Uriah Heep for those that had actually lost their virginity.