Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Live

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band

Released 1975 on Vertigo
Reviewed by Mrs Ahab, 24/05/2004ce

Glasgow born Alex Harvey’s career began in the 50’s when he won a competition to become Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele. In 1972, Alex joined forces with Progressive band Tear Gas, guitarist Zal Cleminson, Hugh and Ted McKenna (keyboards and drums) and bassist Chris Glen to become the truly sensational, Sensational Alex Harvey Band. In the same year Harvey’s brother Les, guitarist in contemporary Scots group Stone The Crows, died when he was notoriously electrocuted on stage. This event served to fuel Harvey’s desire to create one of the most talented bands of the 1970’s. At the height of his career Alex was into his forties and was often quoted as being Britain’s oldest punk, he died of a heart attack in 1982 the day before his 47th birthday, “The Last Of The Teenage Idols”.

This band were deadly serious even when they were ridiculous. They had a massive sound and this album gives you a taste of the awesome legend they are reported to have been live. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were famous for their theatrics and where American counterpart Alice Cooper was Vincent Furnier’s fun filled character on stage, Alex Harvey was the player. This split personality honest Jock acts out each song as if it were a play in itself with a new cast every time. You will spend the duration of this recording pressed up against the barrier on the front row, every scene and costume change taking place in your own imagination.

The SAHB sound has many faces and I don’t want to compare them to any one else, A, because I can’t think of anyone and B, because they were so unique. I’ll just say that they were heavy, dirty, rampaging, bluesy, ballsy, frolicking, fucking fantastic, straight up rock ‘n roll.

This album was recorded live at the Hammersmith Odeon on May 24th, 1975. By this time they have three albums, Framed, Next and The Impossible Dream under their belt and it’s the last night of their British tour. The timpani’s roll in, the cymbals crash, the fanfare sounds as the crowd cheer and we prepare to be introduced to ….

“The Sensational Alex Harvey Band!”

In walks the hypnotic Faith Healer, from their album Next. This guy has more projection than a dose of gastric enteritis. The spotlight flicks on and the band open with a whirring, doom laden riff. The Faith Healer stands hands outstretched, zombie pose, eyes fixed. Harvey hollers “Let me put my hands on you”, unlike the album version which asks “Can I “, this is not a question. This is an order. This guy seeks the desperate, the ones who are willing to believe because all else has failed. This guy’s got it on a plate and he’s offering it up, he is your salvation, he’s gonna bring you everlasting life, “don’t matter what the doctor said” After all, all you gotta do is take his hand. But he is the bad guy; what ever Alex tells you, however much his healer man tries to win your trust the band tell it different. This track is as much about the spaces as it is the riffs, it’s like being in storm, ominous quiet before the sky cracks with electricity and then the thunder begins. It’s like pantomime or hammer horror, when ever the baddie’s on scene clown faced Zal cranks up the danger music. Alex reinforces his characters names, like mantras he repeats them throughout his songs, over and over with more intensity every time until you’re brainwashed. The band emphasize this imposing figure’s power of persuasion with dark ebbs and tides of swirling guitars and keyboards backed by pounding rhythms, this is heavy duty SAHB. Alex demands again and again “Let me put my hands on you” and you cower back in fear as this dude reaches into your core; intoxicating you with his mesmerizing stare. As we come to the end Alex bawls “I just wanna put my hands on you” in case there’s any last bit of doubt as to his motives, and then the patient begins to go under, tunnel vision sets in as you slip under his control. The song ends echoing that final moment when your eyes spin and the trance begins. This is terrifying stuff.

Then we meet the Tomahawk Kid, from the album Impossible Dream. This track starts in a jazzy Steely Dan fashion with girly swoons from the guys. They are perfect backing singers, playing the girls and the boys (you know what these glammy types are like). But don’t be fooled, based on Treasure Island, Alex’s crew are cutthroat pirates and Alex has been eating dead men’s bones before singing this. Alex would famously dress in pirate gear for this number as he tells Stevenson’s story. Poor ol’ Tomahawk Kid is the failed pirate who never got to the treasure in time
“The Tomahawk Kid, you know what he did, He hung his head in sorrow. No treasure chest, he did his best, He gonna come back tomorrow”.
Not being overly familiar with the story myself I would not like to speculate on which character Alex portrays but he’s laughing at the dumb kid, he knows where the treasure is, but he ain’t telling, every time they chant “Yo Ho Ho” he’s rubbing his hands with glee. This track is a prime example of how Clemison and Hugh McKenna have this great style of mirroring each other laying the foundations ready for Zal to take flight. It alternates between a really heavy loaded chorus where Alex raucously batters us with Tomahawks name as Zal rips and saws it up; and Panto-esque sections, sounding like something from HMS Pinafore. These glam rock sailors jig their Yo Ho Ho’s up the lighting rig wielding guitars instead of swords.

In Alex’s words”Vambo is like between Santa Claus and Captain Marvel, coming to the rescue. Vambo is not a vandal, ‘cos Vambo knows the streets belong to him and you, therefore he must look after it, he lives there”.
Vambo - Marble Eye is a tribal glam rock monster. During this number Alex, clad in leather, would usually graffiti their trademark brick wall backdrop and later kick his way though it. Alex’s cartoon biker creation grew out of the streets of Glasgow and this track sparks fear, but Vambo is here so you’re safe to enjoy yourself. The toms and bass lock in a throbbing groove and the crowd call Vambo’s name. It is tight yet sloppy at the same time and a total racket. This version far outweighs the album version and is easily the best track on this LP. Chris Glen and Ted McKenna are solid enough to anchor this fucker permanently to the stage. The whole song being nearly ten minutes long takes up a large chunk of this recording (which is only about 45 minutes in total). Zal’s solo is teasingly not quite long enough as it runs down the back alleys of the Gorballs ricocheting off walls, pulse racing on the kick drum, slamming into McKenna’s Keyboards (mirroring again) taunting like a kid poking his tongue out “NER NER NER NER NER”. The keyboards then develop this great sireny quality as the good guys run from the funk cops and our hero arrives “VAMBO COMING TO THE RESCUUUUUUUE”. The crowd erupt and Alex knows they believe in him, here through rock and roll; there is a real life superhero. This song says “De ne’ fuck wi’ me” I’m here for the good guys, Vambo Rules OK!

Side B opens with Give My Compliments To The Chef, a stunner from the (at the time unreleased) album Tomorrow Belongs To Me. It is probably my least favourite of the album as it doesn’t have the immediate urgency that I love about the rest of the tracks on here but it’s a song of two halves really and it shifts into overdrive in the second, if the whole song were the second half it could be a contender for my favourite. It starts off with a slow, undulating guitar solo bobbing up and down on a gentle sea, Alex’s gruff Glaswegian accent is absolutely eloquent and as the tempo rises Clemison and Glen provide a dangerous undercurrent whilst we ride on the crest, hanging over the edge of what gradually becomes a tidal wave ready to destroy everything in its wake. It’s different to the others on this selection with no obvious characters being played and I have to say I’m really not sure what this ones about, it makes a few social comments though which I like
“The Salvation Army's asking but nobody ever thinks of giving, You know I wish I could see yesterday, The way I can see tomorrow, Go and take a look in a history book, It's up to you to mix the stew, And when you do, Give my compliments to the chef”.

Tom Jones’ chart topper Delilah was a hit for SAHB, in their classic comic style they deliver the tragic story of Delilah’s jealous husband, how he caught her at it and finished wee lassie off. It’s a laugh and has a kind of sea-sideyness about it. SAHB did great cover versions (check out Crazy Horses on Penthouse Tapes) and made them completely their own so don’t be put off by their choice. Hugh McKenna’s keyboards are reminiscent of Supertramp at times, oom-pah-pah-ing it up at all the right moments, Zal interjecting with his characteristic “he’s behind you” panto riffs. You cannot help but start waltzing to this. It’s the perfect number for Alex as he’s a bluesman at heart, he likes to play the misunderstood, the wrongly convicted, the good guy who did a few bad things but didn’t mean to. He needs you to believe that for the whole show to work. If we don’t believe him he’s not working hard enough. This guy’s done a bad, bad thing, but we still love him. At the end, the picture unfolds of Alex on his knees, pleading for forgiveness, before they lock him away; and the crowd love it.

You know Alex Harvey was framed? Well he was. I’m telling you, he never did nothin’.
“I’m walking down the street mindin' my own affair, when two policemen grabbed me and I'm unaware. They said "Is your name Alexander?" and I said "Why, sure!" They said "You're the cat that we've been looking for."”
This time it’s the Alex playing himself, he’ll tell you that, but he’s still acting, like a howling wolf he insists “I was Framed” and you gotta believe him, he’s standing in the docks with his hand on the bible. Like most of the album by the same name ”Framed” is essentially SAHB blues. Its slick as you would expect with heavy bass lines gliding seamlessly through Zal’s teasingly seductive licks in its sleazy striptease groove. The recording quality of this album is flawless, but there is a load squeak in this track which never fails to trick me into thinking the cat has brought in a mouse (this may just be a defect on my copy, lets hope). The track finishes and Alex banters with the crowd, they are high, the energy in the Apollo that night oozes out of the speakers as it drips down the walls Harvey pants and you can smell the sweat, he goes of into a pantomime episode asking the crowd weather they believe him or not, checking if their on his side or the bands. When they decide their with the band Harvey roars “THIS CONCERT IS CANCELLED” The crowd play along with him but after a while when he asks” do you believe me?” you get the feeling that he is not only asking them if they believe “Alexzzzhaaaander” is innocent but that they believe in Harvey as a performer. The interaction between Harvey and the fans is wonderful they’ve seen him a million times before, nobody ever just saw him once. It’s like being at mass, they know what to say in all the right places, when to stand up and when sit down (not that many bums would have stayed in seats, but you get my drift). The band concludes the album in glittering style with a typical blues outro. The crowd scream for more as the love, drama and exuberance of that night fades out and we say Amen.

SAHB albums generally have a mixture of rollicking hunks of rock and fillers, this is a selection of their most excellent at the time, there are no fillers on here. It’s a great place to start or a must have addition. They were always said to be far, far more of an experience live than you could ever get from the recordings, purely due to the theatrics. This recording shows The SAHB at their best, the magnificence of this band and the aura they created around them, it truly comes to life. Changing masks, Harvey becomes each song and whilst the band paint the scenery, he is the ultimate narrator. Why was I born too late and will never get see them? What a bummer.

Harvey’s musical vocation went through many phases over the years before SAHB, jazz, soul and skiffle none of which was commercially successful. He was even part of the back up band for the musical hair and was purported to have held over 40 different careers including that of lion tamer. Given all his efforts you can see why it was so important to him when he finally made it that his audience believed in his characters, his band, his music and most of all, in Alexander. From Faith Healer to Framed it’s all about trust, this is a band you can put your trust in.

So when He introduces you to the band he calls his SENSATIONAL Alex Harvey Band, you better believe what the man says.

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