The Troubled Life of a Glasgow Troubadour
by James McNair
WHEN ALEX HARVEYfinally made it to Top Of The Pops, he was 40 years old. And this man was no late starter. Alex Harvey was a pub philosopher to rival Rab C. Nesbitt; a warm, intelligent auto-didactic with a gap toothed, impish grin. He was a man of contradictions: a pacifist who collected toy soldiers, a gallus frontman who was a bookworm at home. No one could boast an apprenticeship to match Harvey's, stretching back to 1962 when he backed singers like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran When he finally hit the Top 10 it was with the unlikeliest cover version, a flamboyant take on the old Tom Jones hit Delilah. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band seemed invincible. But his big break was, sadly, not so much the end of the beginning, as the beginning of the end. Time and the weight of circumstance would soon conspire against Alex Harvey.
He was born in the chilly climes of Govan, Glasgow on February 5, 1935. Like the rest of Britain, the city was gripped by economic depression. Clydeside's shipyards were struggling; most families were surviving on less than a pound a week. The year before, the city's cinemas had played host to Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who delivered an optimistic New Year speech via Movietone newsreel. When he announced that unemployment was falling, his message fell on deaf ears. Not here, pal.
Alex grew up in Kinning Park in the notorious Gorbals district. His formative years ran parallel with the rise of the city's razor gangs; by the time he was in his early twenties Rock'n'Roll was making its impact on dance halls like the Locarno in Sauchiehall Street. For decades, big bands had played standards in strict tempo for an adult audience. Now their rule was challenged.
Initially, Alex was smitten by trad jazz artists like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. Hence, his first musical forays were on trumpet, but after a brief flirtation with Glasgow's Dixieland revival, he'd been moved to switch to guitar and vocal. "All at once Elvis and Little Richard burst into the charts. . . and you were either a believer or an outcast," he told writer Max Bell in 1976. A true believer, Alex began covering songs by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Big Bill Broonzy.
Next came a change of image. Alex was a regular at the Barrowland Ballroom and, clocking his fellow patrons, he developed a taste for Teddy Boy garb: "It was my ambition to have a full drape wi' ox-blood crepes and striped butcher's socks." Despite such taste, he went on to win a 1957 Daily Record competition to find 'Scotland's Tommy Steele'. The pair were photographed shaking hands, but in truth there was no similarity.
In 1945 his parents, Greta and Leslie, celebrated the birth of a second son, Leslie Jnr. Ten years younger than Alex, Leslie was less robust and outgoing than his brother, but shared his love of music, reading and history. A gifted blues guitarist, Leslie would eventually form Stone The Crows with singer Maggie Bell. The two bandmates were also lovers, and for a time Maggie lived with the Harveys in Kinning Park. She remembers the house in Durham Street as a seat of learning.
"Mr. Harvey was a clever guy, and very inspiring," she says. "He was a conscientious objector, too, and that fed down to Alex and Leslie." An engaging man with an encyclopedic knowledge of history, Leslie Snr. had a surprisingly modernist world-view. When Alex read Sartre and Hegel in later life, or when Leslie swapped esoteric books with Jimmy Page, it was easy to see where the brothers' thirst for knowledge came from.
IN 1958, ALEX BECAME ONE OF THE KANSAS CITY COUNTS. It was a name that proclaimed rock'n'roll cred but also invited obscene revisions, so the Counts became the Alex Harvey Band, then Alex Harvey And The New Saints, then the Alex Harvey Soul Band. Someone obviously felt he had leadership qualities. This assertive streak was to be one of Alex's strengths, and one of the people who helped him develop it was his friend, mentor and big-brother figure Bill Fehilly. When they first met in '50s Glasgow, Fehilly was a gig promoter and Alex worked for him. Posting bills advertising stars like the wrestler Gorgeous George, or The 'Fabulous' Temptations, he quickly noted the potential of a hard sell. Later, Bill would also arrange for the Soul Band to back Gene Vincent and John Lee Hooker, and Alex never forgot this. Indeed, when he formed Sensational Alex Harvey Band in 1972, Fehilly was his first choice as manager. It was quid pro quo.
In the early 1960s, the Soul Band were still obsessed with black urban styles, but their left-field take on Bo Diddley and Ray Charles left room for improvisation on sax, vibraphone and piano. In Glasgow, gigs were limited and the circuit was claustrophobic. The answer, it seemed, was to join the tail-end of the beat exodus to Germany. When the Soul Band relocated to Hamburg in 1963, their leader had already been gigging for a decade. In Brian Hogg's History Of Scottish Rock And Pop, former Star-dust saxophonist Ricky Barnes suggests that this gave Harvey an edge: "He was way ahead of the competition, both as an experienced player and [in] his feel for the blues. None of the Liverpool groups had it - and I mean none of them. They were more like showbands."
That October, the Soul Band recorded a 'live' album for Polydor at Hamburg's Top Ten Studios. Alex's spirited vocals are impressive, and the surprisingly groovesome set includes shufflers (Backwater Blues), swingers (Let The Good Times Roll), and slinkers (Leiber & Stoller's Framed). Though the work is sometimes cited as Scotland's first rock album, according to writer and Harvey affectionado Brian Serridge there were various spurious elements at play: "It wasn't recorded live, and you can hear that in Alex's stilted introductions. Polydor didn't have a licence to record at the Top Ten, so they had to add the applause later." Because Alex alone was signed to Polydor, the real Soul Band didn't play on the album. "Their line-up was always changeable," continues Serridge, "but here it's a complete mix-up. You've got George Carmichael on sax instead of Bill Patrick, Bobby Thompson on bass instead of Jimmy Grimes."
Though Alex would eventually pay homage to his Hamburg apprenticeship in SAHB's Action Strasse, details of his time there have proved difficult to unearth. Now in his sixties and residing in Glasgow, Bill Patrick politely declined to be interviewed for this piece, maintaining that he "just wanted to put those days behind him". Scots' singer Maggie Bell isn't surprised. "Hamburg was just music, strip bars and craziness 24 hours a day, and I think it took its toll on everybody, " she says. "That's why it's become a closed shop. I mean, imagine going from early '60s Glasgow or Liverpool to that, then adding Preludin to the equation. "
Dissolving the Soul Band in 1965, then recording The Blues album in Hamburg with Leslie, Harvey also found time that year to record an excellent version of Edwin Starr's Agent Double-O Soul, the first of two solo singles for Island. The promo shots from the period (some of which utilized the James Bond Aston Martin!) find Alex looking extremely dapper.
Recorded at London's Marquee, the single featured Steve Winwood on piano and was produced by Island's Chris Blackwell. But Alex's solo career stalled, and while London swung in the summer of '66, he headed home again. At the Dennistoun Palais he shared a brief residency with ex-Poets singer George Gallagher. Their unnamed band also featured Leslie, Bill Patrick, his brother Bobby on bass and third-lead vocalist Isabel Bond. Izzy had recorded the rare Everything's Alright With Isabella Bond for Decca in Hamburg, Alex guesting under two different aliases.
"We did Tamla's poppier stuff, the Stones, anything that was current," says Gallagher of the Palais gigs. "I can still picture Isabel singing Sweet Talkin' Guy with Alex 'oohing' and 'ahhing' behind her. It was a beautiful theatre, too. Big revolving stage. "
Meeting him so soon after his homecoming, Gallagher was also privy to some of Harvey's Teutonic tales: "Alex told me that he'd witnessed some occult ceremonies when he was in Bavaria," he says. "I don't know if he dabbled himself, though. " Pressed further, Gallagher also recalls a tale concerning Soul Band bassist 'General' Jimmy Grimes, a near-legendary figure who'd been a pal of Alex's since they sailed from Shields to London together circa 1954. "They'd been away in Hamburg for ages, never written, never sent any money," says Gallagher, "and one of the wives turned up at the Top Ten Club while they were playing. She was so pissed off she threw a wean up on-stage. I think Jimmy caught it."
THE WORD, IN 1968'S SWINGING London, wasn't Grease - it was Hair.
Gerome Ragni and James Rado's musical wasn't short on expletives or nudity, and the love generation identified with its reformist stance on drugs, the draft and sexual politics. Alex Harvey - iconoclast, bon vivant, pacifist - identified too, and now that his baby son Tyro was on the scene he needed a steady wage. Frustrated once again by the limited possibilities in Glasgow, Alex had returned to London in 1967, settling in Highgate. Inspired by fellow Glaswegians The Incredible String Band, he then formed Giant Moth, a full-on psychedelic outfit with a penchant tor finger-cymbals and Eastern mysticism. Two bizarre, commendable singles for Decca sank without trace, and Alex changed tack. He took a job in Hair's house band.
While Oliver Tobias and Marsha Hunt did their thing on-stage, Alex was down in the orchestra pit, strumming chords for Galt MacDermit songs like Good Morning Sunshine and Aquarius. Richard O'Brien - who would later write The Rocky Horror Show - also acted in Hair. He soon befriended Harvey.
"Alex was cheeky," says O'Brien today. "Special. Very charismatic. A naughty boy who didn't want to grow up. After we'd finished at the Shaftesbury Theatre, we'd go drinking at The Intrepid Fox in Soho. He was full of stories, Alex, but one never knew whether they were true, half true or what. One night he told me about a time when he was arrested in Sweden on suspicion of being part of the Baader-Meinhof Gang He said, "The police got me stark bollock naked against the wall, and the next minute one of them had his finger up my arse.' I said, What did you do? He said, 'I told him he looked like a big, strong boy."'
O'Brien also explains that Alex was careful to ensure that his day job didn't stifle his own music. 1968 saw him record Alex Harvey Sings Songs From Hair, and in 1969, he delivered Hair Rave-Up and Roman Wall Blues. His financial and creative bases covered, Alex Jnr. asserts that the four years his father spent at Hair were the happiest of his life. Maggie Bell concurs with the memories of Alex 'the family man'. On Sundays - the only day that everybody had off- Maggie and Leslie would hook up with Alex, his second wife Trudy and baby Tyro. They'd take a picnic to classical concerts at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, or visit the museums in South Kensington, pushing the baby in the pram. Bell also recalls that, when Tyro grew a little older, he shared his father's love of toy soldiers. "Alex would buy broken ones for him at the markets, then spend hours melting down wine bottle tops to repair them," she says. "The kid was chuffed. "
Up in Glasgow, though, things were changing again. It was 1971 and much of Kinning Park was being demolished to make way for the M8 motorway. One of the flattened properties was the house on Durham Street where the Harveys had grown up–a property on whose walls someone had once chalked: "This is the house of music." With the benefit of hindsight, the building's demise seems symbolic.
It was on May 3, 1972 that Alex Harvey suffered the first of two tragic losses. His kid brother Leslie was electrocuted on-stage at the Top Rank Bingo club in Swansea. He'd been sound-checking with Stone The Crows. Maggie Bell: "It was a concert for doctors and nurses. I remember Leslie saying, 'There's something wrong here, but we want this to be a good gig, so bear with us.' He put his hand on the mike, and he was gone. It was just as quick as that."
Sensational Alex Harvey Band drummer Ted McKenna: "I remember the state Alex got into when we went back to play at the Top Rank. Fuck knows why we went. We got into the van afterwards, and Alex was in tears. And he was a tough guy; it was all that 'tough guys don't cry' stuff. From that I'd assume that he and Leslie were very close."
From 1970 onwards, Stone The Crows were managed by Peter Grant; Leslie and Maggie had been living in an apartment at Led Zeppelin's Swansong building in the Kings Road. Neither the Crows nor Alex were earning much money and couldn't afford to bring people down from Glasgow for the funeral. "Peter Grant was an honourable man, though," Bell remembers. " He paid for all the aunts and uncles to get the train."
Distraught at the loss of her fiance', Bell couldn't face his funeral, and stayed with Alex's wife Trudy at the couple's house in Highgate. Later that evening, however, Alex and Maggie walked to the local pub to get a whisky carry-out. "He was devastated. He put his arm around me and said it should have been him,'' says Bell. "Leslie had lived a very cosseted life, `D you understand? He wasn't a party animal at all."
In the tale of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band's inception, there's often talk of Alex being 'galvanised' by Leslie's death. 'Driven', and manically so, would be more accurate; between 1972-76, SAHB would release seven LPs. And when they weren't recording they were touring Ted McKenna maintains that although Harvey was already 37 when they met, he had the physique and constitution of a 22 year-old. "But he was small," adds guitarist Zal Cleminson. "Small like Napoleon or Edward G Robinson.''
With bassist Chris Glen and Ted's keyboard-playing cousin Hugh McKenna, the above pair made up Tear Gas, a little-known if spunky rock-fusion act. Cleminson loved Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, and his toothsome guitar sound wasn't just fat - it was obese. Hugh McKenna was a virtuoso who could match Zal lick for lick on Moog synthisizer It was all clever stuff, but it hadn't shifted many albums.
Tipped off by Bill Fehilly, Alex had traveled back to Glasgow to check out Tear Gas. Later, he'd confide that they were "loud, confident and wrong". But the morning after the singer's reconnaissance mission, the agent Eddie Tobin got a phone call: Could Alex meet the band at the Burns Howff in West Regent Street?
"To put things in perspective," Ted McKcenna told Radio Scotland's John Cavanagh, "Tear Gas wasn't in great shape. We'd been roughing it in London, paying off gear Financially, things were falling to bits. Alex had a lot of experience, and way of doing things that demanded attention and respect. We thought, What have we got to lose?"
From the outset SAHB's "Sensational" tag was crucial - a totem to instil belief, a tip of the hat to 'Gorgeous' George, a standard to aspire to. Alex's new band would become a melting-pot for his ideas and influences, so, it was crucial they were able to play in any style. But first, he felt they should get back to basics.
"We were into Led Zeppelin," says Cleminson. "But every time we went round to Alex's house he would stick on Hank Williams or Louis Prima. It was like 'Why can't you cunts play like this?' Alex was locked into what he grew up on, and eventually that fed through to stuff like Cheek to Cheek written by Irving Berlin and covered by SAHB. We were game for a laugh," he continues, "but Alex thought it was great. That was what he'd wanted to do all along."
SAHB's early gigs were edgy affairs Tear Gas fans initially didn't take to Alex, but when they heckled him, he shouted and swore back. SAHB soon became aware that their new frontman thrived on conflict, and that he much preferred hostility to indifference. "'Give me your kind applause' wasn't in his vocabulary," says McKenna. "It was, 'Listen to this or leave."'
Much of the early set appeared on Framed, a no-frills rock record recorded in just six days. From his Soul Band years, Alex brought the title track and Midnight Moses, and from a bottomless sack marked 'country and Vaudeville', SAHB produced an unlikely Christmas single, There's No Lights On The Christmas Tree, Mother, They're Burning Big Louie Tonight. Such eclecticism brought mixed blessings. Artistically, they were a breath of fresh air; commercially, they were a marketing nightmare.
But live, SAHB were fast becoming the hottest of tips. Alex had studied the way Hair's producers rehearsed their cast, and he'd learned a lot about how to focus an audience's attention. "The SAHB show was almost scripted –people had something to watch all the time," says Ted McKenna. "We used to do a song called Love Story [Jethro Tull], and during his introduction Alex wore a smoking jacket and horn-rimmed glasses. He would pick the petals off a rose and eat them, then transform himself from a Noel Coward lookalike into a kind of karate expert."
Leading by example, Alex was encouraging his charges to become more extrovert. Soon Zal had donned a green rubber cat-suit and, drawing inspiration from Batman's foe The Joker, began making up with grease-paint to exaggerate the faces he pulled while soloing. Eventually, Alex would have bassist Chris Glen doing impromptu Elvis impressions, and Zal tap-dancing on a metal tray while reciting Hamlet. "I thought it was a fucking superb," says the guitarist, "but Hugh always used to win our talent competitions. He'd get out the accordion, and the fans loved that. "
In the studio SAHB were maturing, too. Although 1972's Next... album (see also MOJO 69) featured a wonderful Jacques Brel cover, it also showcased some excellent originals. The Faith Healer - a big favourite of Nick Cave - had a throbbing groove as unsettling as any murder ballad. Fully inhabiting the song, Alex was its eponymous miracle-worker; a sinister quack on a mission. Ted McKenna remembers how Harvey would approach such vocal takes in the studio: "He'd go like this (grits teeth fiercely), then look at himself in the mirror and shout, 'CUNTS!"'
War. Peace. Aggression. Acquiescence. The more you learn about Alex Harvey, the more complex his network of contradictions appears. Like his father, he'd been a pacifist, and on-stage his "don't make any bullets, don't buy any bullets, don't shoot any bullets" request became a mantra. Yet Alex was fascinated by war. He collected lead soldiers, boned up on military strategy and spoke fondly of the 11th Hussars and their cherry-red breeches.'Maggie Bell: "He liked man-to-man stuff, honourable battles, duels. But I never saw Alex be violent."
BUT ALEX WASN'T TOMMY STEELE. HE WAS a kid from the Gorbals. And although he regarded Glasgow's Rangers/Celtic vendetta as "caveman stuff", and once famously placated some Hell's Angels at the Buxton Festival, he could be hawk as well as dove. Zal: "Around 1972 we were down in the Speakeasy one night after a gig. We'd had our steak and peas, and we were having a dance. I here was this guy who kept floundering into Alex, and Alex had told him politely a couple of times to take it easy, but he wasn't interested. Alex stuck the head on him.'
Ted: "And the guy came back at Alex and people were trying to restrain him. Alex said (nonchalantly), 'Let him go.' They let him go and he nutted him again. " Zal: "That approach was contra to what Alex preached, and people were always a bit wary of that front he had. He was a pacifist, but had an anarchic streak too. He didn't want to be constricted by rules or taboos. "
Indeed he didn't. Picture this: Oslo, Norway. SAHB are playing an outdoor festival. The stage is at the top of an old ski-slope, and at the bottom, there's a lake. As The Faith Healer's pulsing riff kicks in, Alex is standing on the far shore of the lake. Save for a swimming cap fashioned from a polythene bag, he's butt-naked.
Alex dives in, swims across the lake, then begins making his way up the ski-slope and through the crowd. When he reaches the stage, he pulls on his pirate-stripe T-shirt and jeans, then climbs up to introduce "The Sensational. . . Alex. . . Harvey. . . Band". The next day he made the front page in all the Norwegian papers. Ted McKenna still has the clippings.
In October 1974, SAHB released their third studio, album, The Impossible Dream. Talking to Brian Matthew in a Radio One interview from the period, Alex explained that the record represented certain fantasies he had, "comic book fantasies, if you like". As a child - and right through into adulthood - Alex read Sgt. Rock comics, while Leslie's favorite had been Spiderman. "You'll see Sgt. Rock on The Impossible Dream cover," says Ted McKenna. "He looks a bit like Alex; square jaw, muscular body."
Taking a leaf out of Marvel artist Stan Lee's book(s), Alex had created Vambo, a cross between Santa Claus and Spiderman. Utilizing tribal drums and an urgent sounding guitar riff, the song of the same name evoked Alex's gangland youth, its eponymous, altruistic hero forever "coming to the rescue". When SAHB performed it live, Alex would don a stocking-mask, then spray 'Vambo Rools! OK" on a prop wall. Even today, you'll find that sentiment echoed in graffiti around Glasgow.
BY 1975, SAHB'S LIVE SHOW WAS A TOUR DE FORCE. Artists like Blue Oyster Cult and The Tubes learned on US tour dates that Alex and co. weren't easy to upstage. Alex would perform The Galloway Hills accompanied by two bagpipers in full highland regalia. According to Ted McKenna, Tubes singer Fee Waybill loved this old folk song, hut BOC's biker audience were bemused. "Alex was like, 'Shut up and you might learn something - this is a story about some of your ancestors.' They didn't like that."
Back in Blighty, May saw the band release Tomorrow Belongs To Me, but tellingly, their biggest hit was to be a cover version recorded on the accompanying tour. Delilah was perfect for SAHB, and their arrangement of it was a pioneering exercise in vaudeville-metal. Best of all, though, it got Alex on Top Of The Pops.
1975 had been a gas, and as a thank-you for a wonderful year, SAHB played three sold-out gigs at Glasgow's Apollo Theatre that Christmas. Sadly, no one thought to film it. The concert programme- contained a heartfelt message in which Alex reminded fans: "If it hadn't been for you, we wouldn't be here this evening." It closes: "Wish the stewards a happy Christmas, don't pissh [sic] in the water supply, and have a stoatin' New Year. "
Though it included peaks as well as troughs, 1976-77 was to prove a particularly testing period for Alex Harvey. Drinking had began to cause liver problems, and he was increasingly troubled by a back injury from when he was struck by falling scaffolding in Germany. In an NME interview from the period, a concerned Charles Shaar Murray learned how Alex was treating his ailment. He was chewing raw steak mince.
1976 had began with The Penthouse Tapes, the first of two SAHB albums to be released that year. A hotchpotch of cover versions, it included takes on Del Shannon's Runaway, Alice Cooper's School's Out, even Crazy Horses by The Osmonds. The Vertigo label had been keen to cash in on the success of Delilah, and pushed for this stop-gap release while A]ex and co. recorded SAHB Stories. Penthouse was certainly entertaining, and reached Number 14 in the UK charts. But it was hardly an astute commercial move. Had SAHB's creative well run dry?
For a time at least, SAHB Stories' flagship single managed to convince fans that it hadn't. Boston Tea Party was vintage SAHB, and relied on tried-and-trusted elements. Here was another history lesson from Alex, his parlando approach complemented by Hugh's cyclical piano chords. Here was Ted with another tribal drumbeat - shades of Vambo, but quieter. The song's choruses used a neat little passing tone - a device that Prince would later employ in the verse of Mountains. It was simple, but effective.
Despite little airplay, Tea Party peaked at Number 11, and interviews from the period find an elated Alex waxing lyrical on Scottish Indian chiefs and the origins of the tomahawk. SAHB had also signed to Bill Fehilly's Mountain label, and this added to their renewed sense of optimism. But it was to be short-lived.
In July 1976–just four years after Leslie's death–Alex Harvey was visited by a second tragedy. Flying back to Scotland after a meeting with Nazareth, SAHB manager Bill Fehilly was killed in a plane crash in the Scottish borders.
"Where the end of my dad's life is concerned, look no further than Bill's death to understand the whole thing," says Alex Jnr. "He couldn't cope with it. There's this song dad wrote with Jimmy Grimes, The No Complaints Department. It was supposed to be on the Rock Drill album, hut they took it off at the last minute. The lyrics go: 'My best friend was killed in a plane crash My brother was killed on the stage.' (sadly and quietly) Dear oh dear, you know?"
Maggie Bell: " I think a lot of people thought it was a curse. There was an air about it."
Just as Leslie's death had prompted Alex to form SAHB, so Fehilly's death prompted another new project. This one was less orthodox, however. Late that summer, the whole Harvey clan traveled up to Invermorrison, near Loch Ness. They aimed to combine a family holiday with a social history project.
"We stayed in three caravans on the shore, and my grand]papa had arranged for dad to speak to locals who claimed they'll seen Nessie," says Alex Jnr. The edited interviews would form the bulk of Alex Harvey Presents The Loch Ness Monster, a spoken-word curio released by K-Tel in 1977. Alex Jnr photographed the sleeve, and SAHB producer Dave Batchelor handled the recording. The thespian voice in the introduction belonged to Richard O'Brien, Alex's chum from Hair.
The album was anything but standard rock fare. Over a backdrop interspersed with submarine noises and ominous-sounding church bells, Alex Snr. quizzes sundry monster-spotters including Father Gregory from the abbey at Fort Augustus. While interviewing or narrating he sounds focused but he eventually whips out an acoustic guitar to close with a whimsical song.
Somewhat inevitably, the album sold poorly, its limited potential further compromised by a half-hearted marketing campaign. "l think what my dad was trying to do was start a production company," says Alex Jnr., "but we were still pre-video, and he wasn't in the best frame of mind to think things through. Nowadays, you'd film it and sell it to the BBC."
Easy to say in retrospect, but SAHB should have taken a year off here. They didn't. Autumn '76 saw them embark on another European tour, and in October Alex was hospitalized after he collapsed. He was 41, grieving but in denial, and consuming a bottle of vodka a day. Something had snapped, and his band-mates were aware that it was affecting his performance.
"By the time we got to Sweden, Alex was losing his grip," says McKenna. "He was very tired and couldn't keep up with us any more. "
"I remember we did this gig in Malmo," adds Cleminson, "and Alex actually fell asleep at the mike. I kicked him up the arse and he turned round looking like he was going to kill someone."
The upside of all this was that Alex was finally forced to rest. 'SAHB Without Alex' recorded the Fourplay album, and began a tour minus Alex at the end of January 1977. Even at this point, Harvey would turn up for interviews; supportive, helpful, adding more superlatives to his band's moniker. Neither the tour nor the album sold well, though, and Harvey felt under pressure to return. When he did, it was much too soon.
Rock Drill – the last SAHB album to feature Alex – was an uneven affair, recorded that summer. After an argument about time-keeping, Alex's main songwriting foil Hugh McKenna had quit, and Tommy Eyre had replaced him on keyboards. Alex's back was still causing him serious discomfort; unsurprisingly, he had little enthusiasm for the sessions.
Perhaps compensating for Alex's injuries, the other SAHB members recorded a version of the King Kong theme composed by Max Steiner in 1933, and indulged on the title track and on Dolphins, both over six minutes long. Alex's best contribution was Mrs. Blackhouse; its skiffle feel recalling his youth and its anti-censorship lyrics directed at Mary Whitehouse. On Water Beastie, he still seemed obsessed with Nessie. The song's cod-reggae chorus invited listeners to "look at de monsta".
BY NOW SAHB WERE ON THE HOME STRAIGHT, BUT AS Alex's anarchistic ethic found new torch-bearers, the singer began hanging out at the Vortex to meet the Sex Pistols. In a 1977 interview with NME journalist Tony Parsons, Alex had expressed an interest in managing Rotten and co, but Malcolm Mclaren wasn't relinquishing his hold on that particular gig. Directionless, SAHB kept on gigging, for here they knew that could still command respect. Their swansong show came at August's Reading Festival. Perhaps sensing that the band's days were numbered, Alex was determined to be controversial. About halfway through a triumphant set, he briefly disappeared, then came back on-stage dragging a huge white crucifix. The singer had decided to cast himself as Christ, and he'd adapted Framed's lyrics accordingly: "I was just a carpenter doing the Sermon On The Mount / My mother was a virgin, we were giving kisses out /Two soldiers grabbed me, they said Jesus is your name / There's lots of trouble going around and you're the one to blame."
Was Alex just being mischievous? Difficult to say. Once again, though, there was symbolism here if one cared to look. After all, just how much pain was one man expected to bear?
In November, Harvey quit SAHB while rehearsing for a Sight And Sound concert. The performance had been scheduled for broadcast on BBC2 and Radio One, and Alex was accused of squandering a great opportunity. He'd left the rehearsal studio after another argument over time-keeping; this time the late-comer was Ted McKenna. Later, all evidence suggested that a minor fracas had triggered an inevitable coda. Alex simply wanted out.
As is often the ease, neither party fared well after the split. When the singer returned with a new Alex Harvey Band in March 197S, the 'Sensational' tag had been dropped, but he still managed to turn in a respectable performance on 1979's The Mafia Stole My Guitar. His alcoholism, though, was becoming ingrained. Richard O'Brien: "It got to the point where he was actually hiding the bottles, and his lovely, long-suffering wife Trudy had to deal with all that. One felt for her "
Post-SAHB, Zal Cleminson remembers several affecting encounters with his former frontman. Harvey's departure left his bandmates in a precarious financial position, and although Cleminson would later become the guitarist with Nazareth, for a while he took a job as a minicab driver. " I was working out of Greater London Hire in East Finchley," he says, "and one day I went round to make a pick-up. By sheer coincidence it was Alex and his new guitar player, Matthew [Cang]. I said, Fucking hell, Alex! How are you? Get in!"
Cleminson points out that where others might have mocked, Harvey was typically optimistic. "He was like, 'Great, you've got yourself a gig - we'll all get by,"' he says. "I took them down to the Bridge House in Canning Town and said, Have a good one."
Shortly afterwards Harvey got in touch with Cleminson again, inviting him and former SAHB producer Dave Batchelor to his house in Highgate to hear some new songs. Cleminson recalls Harvey expressing interest in re-forming. Zal wasn't keen
"I remember thinking, These songs don't sound very good to me, and I told him I was happier with what I was writing myself," he says. " Looking back, it was a cruel thing to say considering what I felt about Alex in the long term, but I was trying to be honest."
Cleminson's final encounter with Harvey was more poignant, and came some two years after the guitarist had joined Nazareth. The band had just played a gig in London, and Mountain management were holding an aftershow reception at a nearby hotel.
"Alex turns up, and the doors are all locked," says Cleminson. "He's banging at the window shouting, 'Let me in!'– and I'm in the foyer looking at him. Behind me, all the band and the hangers-on are giving it laldy [partying in good spirits]. I'm saying, Can we not let him in? But I'm hearing: 'No, don't. Don't let him in."'
As Cleminson explains, at this point everything became "a bit surreal". Members of Nazareth and SAHB had gown up together. They'd shared the same management and record company, even conducted their business affairs from the same office. Torn loyalties. "Alex was in front of me and my new life was behind me," says Zal, pointing over his shoulder. ''I turned away from the window and Alex must have went home. It was an odd moment. A terrible moment, if I'm honest."
IN AUGUST I981, HARVEY RETURNED TO SCOTLAND FOR what would be his last holiday with his sons, Tyro and Alex Jnr. Armed with a couple of guitars and some tents, they traveled to the Cowal Games near Dunoon, then on to Loch Eek, Cambeltown and Arran. Tyro was 16 and Alex Jnr. was 22. "I remember brewing-up on the beach at Brodick, and this guy stopped, looked at my old man, and said 'Hello,"' says Alex Jnr. "Dad couldnae believe it – it was one of the guys from Giant Moth."
The party travelled together on the boat to Ardrossan, the former band-mates catching up on the years since their brief flirtation with psychedelia. Earlier on in the holiday, Alex had also enjoyed an unexpected reunion with 'General' Grimes.
Everything was turning full circle.
In December, Harvey recorded The Soldier On The Wall. It was to be his last album. After four punishing decades in the business, this ill-conceived and badly produced work found his talents sadly depleted, and it only ever gained a posthumous release. Engineer Roy Neave, of Hull's Fairport Studios, was called in for work on remixing the multi-track: "There was one particular song where the vocal sounded really muddy [probably Carry The Water], and we couldn't understand why. When we phoned to ask what had happened we were told that Alex had recorded it through the bass-drum mike. Apparently he1d fallen on the floor and was too drunk to get up again."
Though Alex dearly wasn't keeping it together, he and his new band, The Electric Cowboys, began a European tour in support of the new record in January 1982. As Harvey fan Neil Russell explains, this would see the singer take the 'show must go on' ethic to a heart-rending conclusion: "A while back, I spoke to Jack Dawe. He was the bass player in The Electric Cowboys. Near the end, there was a private concert in Vienna. Jack said Alex had been shaking quite a lot, and that particular day he just couldn't walk. When it came time to play, the roadies carried him to the stage. The lights were down, and they left Alex hanging on the curtains. When the lights came up, apparently Alex was transformed. He stood up and did the performance." But a few days later, Dawe was walking onto the quayside with Alex in Zeebrugge, Belgium, when the singer collapsed. For a time, the ferry was held up for Harvey, but when the paramedics arrived he was taken to hospital and the boat departed. Halfway across the Channel, his band-mates received the news: Alex had died of a heart attack. It was February 4, 1982 - a day short of his 47th birthday.
"Dad would be drawing his pension this year, and that tickles me," says Alex Jnr. "The other day I could picture his take on the news of me telling him about Catherine and I's baby," he adds. The little girl is named Georgia, after one of the first songs that her grandfather ever sang.
Tragically, Leslie Harvey Snr. outlived both his sons. The mourners remember he spoke movingly at Alex's funeral service, at Golders Green crematorium. "I remember him wobbling up on his walking stick and saying, 'No tears today, Richard - Alex widnae like that,"' says Richard O'Brien. "I said, You're absolutely right, but then this lone piper skirled into action. It was impossible not to get tearful after that."
Zal Cleminson remembers walking down the line to offer the family his condolences, and kissing his former frontman's father because it seemed like the only appropriate thing to do. "He'd been good to us, old Leslie," he affirms. "I've still got a little book he gave me about Schubert; the inscription inside's quite touching. "
Leslie Harvey Snr. was to die of a heart attack exactly one year after his rock star son, on February 4, 1983. "Nobody mentioned that it was the anniversary of my dad's death," says Alex Jnr, "but papa knew, of course. I think that was what killed him in the end. His heart couldn't stand it."
With thanks to Trudy Harvey, Ted McKenna and Neil Russel for their help with photographic research for this feature.
This article appeared
originally in the April, 2000 issue of MOJO.
Article reproduced with the kind permission of the author.
Photos ©2000, MOJO
This Page is copied from Wunnerful's Magnificent Tribute to Alex Harvey
D Wade McDaniel
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