The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – why you should check 'em out
Ah, the wonders of the human memory! – I just need to hear Killer Queen by Queen and I`m transported back to 1975, listening to my hissy wee transistor radio or taping the chart show on my very first cassette player (a blocky thing in white plastic with a carry handle that slotted into the bottom edge). Nostalgia from the pre-digital era. Which, boys and girls, brings me to the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
Like a lot of the music I listened to in the 70s, SAHB came to my ears courtesy of the immensely talented Stewart Robinson, who was in some of my classes back in good ol’ Clydebank High School, and who remains to this day me soulbrother and source of sheer video magnificence. The difference with Alex Harvey though was that he was Scottish, as were his band, and even better – they were a Glasgow band that went on and made it. Alex Harvey had had a considerable career with his earlier band, the Alex Harvey Soul Band, after which he played guitar in the theatre musical hit, HAIR. He also recorded a few solo albums before hooking up with a Glasgow band called Tear Gas to form the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. I don`t intend to go into full-on documentary mode – there`s plenty info out on the web, but I did want to say my piece about the last couple of albums that Alex Harvey made (before the Soldier On The Wall one), namely ROCK DRILL, the last one made with the Sensational band, and THE MAFIA STOLE MY GUITAR, made with the New Band.
I`ve seen several reviews panning these as somehow below par, lacking in inspiration, just not worthy of serious consideration. Having listened again to these CDs recently I can tell you that such opinions are utterly wrong. ROCK DRILL had a slightly subdued, slightly less theatrical air to it but the strength of Alex Harvey’s narrative songwriting come through glitteringly sharp on the tracks Rock Drill and Dolphins, while Rock n Roll and Who Murdered Sex are chock-full of dramatic contrast. Maybe it takes a bit of living to appreciate some things, but its only now that I can hear the observational detail in Who Murdered Sex and grin with delight (damn, I can almost see the video that could along with it, and its a killer). The other infonugget about ROCK DRILL is that it originally was meant to include a track called No Complaints Department, but last minute faffing by the record company caused it to be dropped in favour of a lesser track, Mrs Blackhouse.
After recording ROCK DRILL, Alex seemed to finally tire of the setup and disbanded SAHB. But it wasn`t long after that he put together the New Band, including Tommy Eyre, Don Weller, and the sparkling Matthew Cang; they recorded THE MAFIA STOLE MY GUITAR, an album which, in any other point in the 40-odd years-long history of rock, would have been seen as a triumph. Except that it came out in 1979 when punk/new wave was in full swing and just about every music journalist was in thrall to anything with a spiky hairdo. When Alex Harvey and the New Band toured to support the album, I went to see them at the fabled Glasgow Apollo, the only time I got to see him live. The Apollo’s capacity was, I think, about 4.5 thousand but it was less than a third full that night, but the band still put on a great performance; if I had a time machine, that is where I would heading!
THE MAFIA STOLE MY GUITAR had a significantly different sound to that of the old Sensational band, but Alex’s songwriting talents shone through on mini-epics like Back In The Depot, Wait For Me Mama, The Whalers, and Oh Spartacus! The album was and remains a funny, moving, intriguing, superb piece of work which should have been the launchpad for a continuing career, but it wasn`t to be. The musical trends were against him, and his own alcohol problem was too, and for unknown reasons he broke up the New Band. Later he put together yet another called the Electric Cowboys and recorded THE SOLDIER ON THE WALL album, but that truly does come over as a lesser attempt. The songs still have Alex’s spirit to them, but the complexity is missing and there are less surprises and hard-hitting impact. And then the man had a heart attack in February, 1982, in Zeebrugge while waiting for the ferry back to Blighty. If he`d beaten his demons, booze and otherwise, Alex would be collecting his pension, doubtless still playing a part in the creation of music in Scotland, mebbe being a bit of a grumpy old guy too. But we might have had more Alex Harvey music – I firmly believe that he still had many, many stories to tell.
So my recommendation to you, boys and girls, is to get hold of ROCK DRILL and THE MAFIA STOLE MY GUITAR and see what can be done with rock music!
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