I first became aware of the not so modestly but very aptly-named Sensational Alex Harvey Band many years ago when they appeared on that greatest of rock music programmes, The Old Grey Whistle Test, and was captivated. Alex Harvey was the vocalist and focal point of the band, but somehow he was far, far more. He did not have to do much to win over an audience, though he did have a few moves when the mood suited him, acting out songs in a manner worthy of the National. But just standing and singing with a gap-toothed smile, resplendent in his trademark hooped t-shirts, sometimes a guitar strung around his neck, was usually enough to enthral his audience from start to finish. Theatrics apart, Harvey positively oozed charisma in a way many artists aspire to but few succeed.
And when Alex stood aside, his band had plenty of presence by themselves. I loved the deliciously melodramatic performance of Delilah, including the bridge section where guitarist Zal Cleminson and bassist Chris Glen did a hugely entertaining postured dance while Harvey played around by putting wigs on the heads of female mannequins, which in itself is a pretty spooky pastime.
Best of all, the equally melodramatic English translation of Jacques Brel‘s Next (originally Au Suivant), complete with masked string section. I’ve been a keen fan of Brel’s dark and sometimes sinister songs since the 70s. Various artists had a stab at English versions, but Harvey was just the man to show them how it was done. This is arguably a cover better than the original, and you really can’t say that very often. Maybe he would have gone on to attempt more Brel songs, had he lived?
Harvey was a performer who had toured the pubs, clubs and small venues for many years when he put SAHB together. Like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, he assembled a top notch band of talented musicians, knowing they would do their stuff and allow him to front the show and add the gloss. For all his nuanced aplomb, Harvey could handle anything from suave crooning right the way up to screaming heavy metal, reflecting his own diverse tastes. Maybe that was one reason the band had difficulty being taken seriously by the musical establishment because they defied categorisation, but their repertoire, from metal via noodling prog rock, through to deeply ironic but deadpan covers of songs you would not normally associate with hard rock bands, helped them stand out for audiences.
As I listened to their material, notably after the band parted company in 1978, I really grew to love it. My favourite album, and apparently the favourite of the musicians themselves, was their final offering, Rock Drill. This includes an extended themed piece, the Rock Drill suite, plus a side of quirky and eccentric original songs about subjects from the Loch Ness monster via the strange diversity of sexual tastes through to a hymn against the bastion of opposition to the permissive society, Mary Whitehouse – so no surprise that the song was called Mrs Blackhouse.
Harvey’s wry humour surfaced regularly, though there’s no doubt that a number of the songs reveal passionate political sensibilities, voiced through irony. Take his version of Tomorrow Belongs To Me, a song which you may know is sung very straight by Nazi youth and people at a country inn in Cabaret. That section of the movie makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – we all know what followed. Harvey’s hatred of Nazism was well-known in the industry, so his choice of this song as the title song of a SAHB album was not accidental, posting a clear message about the dangers of casual acceptance of far-right attitudes.
In many ways, many bands have taken their stage acts much further, but the influence of SAHB on many acts since the 70s is unquestionable. They were innovative, musically and visually, at a time when pop and sweet soul ruled the charts, and my, what a welcome diversion they proved – less grandiose and more accessible, rootsy and working class than most of the prog rock crowd – and they never gave a monkeys what anyone else thought!
Alas, Alex is not here to move things one stage further. He died of a massive heart attack on the eve of his 47th birthday in Belgium. Maybe the rock & roll lifestyle and years of hard drinking and smoking on the road contributed, but Harvey was a family man and is greatly missed by all those who knew him. His brother Les also died young, electrocuted on stage. Two terrible losses, but for the legacy they left us I am pleased to say the world is a far better place for the Harvey brothers having given us the benefit of their short time on earth. The band had already split up but do do revival tours, as do tribute bands, keeping the memories fresh.
RIP Alex Harvey