A buyers’ guide to The Sensational Alex Harvey Band

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band cut a unique dash through the mid to late 70s rock scene. A little bit hard rock, a little bit glam, a little bit blues, a little bit theatrical, a little bit prog, a little bit pub rock, they were simultaneously all of these, yet none of these, and though their influence on the punk scene was never fully appreciated at the time, in retrospect SAHB’s street gang feel was adopted pretty much wholesale by the punk movement.

Alex Harvey himself had been on the music scene since the late 50s (originally moulded as a teenage idol, he was ‘The Tommy Steele of Scotland’ apparently), however despite his innate talent and undeniable charisma, success continued to elude him, and he eventually found himself as part of the pit band for late 60s musical Hair. By the early 70s Harvey was now in his late 30s and stardom appeared to be further from his grasp than it had ever been. Determined to make one last concerted effort to achieve success, he threw in his lot with Tear Gas, a prog rock quartet a decade his junior who had similarly failed to make any impression on the charts. Against the odds, the chemistry between the hard-bitten veteran and the younger band was immense, and Harvey had finally found the musical vehicle he had been searching for for years, and Tear Gas acquired the charismatic frontman they desperately needed. With freshly acquired confidence and a sense of destiny about them, they decided that The Sensational Alex Harvey Band would be a suitably catchy band name and they spent the next few years recording a string of eight albums and wowing audiences with a unique live show. As eye catching as Harvey’s onstage character of an aging gang leader was, the rest of SAHB hardly shrank into the background. Guitar player Zal Cleminson wore Pierrot clown make up a good eight years before Bowie did for “Ashes to Ashes”, while bass player Chris Glen wore ridiculous glam-rock inspired outfits, while the McKenna cousins Ted and Hugh looked like they were a couple of members of a function band who had somehow got in the back of the wrong transit van at the motorway service station.

Released in 1973, SAHB’s debut Framed was an earthy sounding rocker with more than a hint of vaudeville about it. Even at this early stage in their careers it was obvious that the band were determined to grasp success, and Framed was a collection of genre-spanning rockers that made great use of Cleminson’s way with a riff. Evidently recorded on a tight budget with little left over for any actual production, its raw sound was both inevitable and a huge bonus. From the distinctly theatrical opening title track, to the wild riff rocking of “Midnight Moses”, to Nick Cave favourite “The Hammer Song” (During the 80s Cave was almost alone in the music industry to confess to the influence of SAHB on his own output) and the almost cabaret-style singalong of “There’s No Lights on the Christmas Tree Mother, They’re Burning Big Louie Tonight”, Framed is an album that makes a number of death-defying stylistic leaps, but not once do SAHB ever sound like they are out of their depth, with Harvey’s own enthusiasm and charisma managing to carry the listener through the album, until the energetic closer , “St Anthony”, concludes. As debut albums by rock bands go, it’s certainly attention grabbing and brimming with the unique character that would establish SAHB as one of the finest rock acts of the era.

Follow up album Next, while not as surprising as Framed, continues to establish the SAHB sound. With the fine line in cover versions continued by way of the title track, and “Giddy Up a Ding Dong” being as close to cookie-cutter glam rock as they’d ever get, it was another album that saw SAHB gleefully leaping around the various genres of 70s rock with almost reckless abandon. It’s also an album which also sees them give further shape to the SAHB mythology, particularly with the introduction of the ‘Vambo’ character (effectively a character Harvey would play on stage, in much the same way that Bowie would play Ziggy Stardust, only much, much more down to earth) and the closing “the Last of The Teenage Idols”, in which they nod to the early days of Harvey’s career and a cheeky wink to the fact that he was old enough to be the father of some of his fans. Best of all though was “Faith Healer”, the hypnotically repetitive, cycling introduction of which continuously raises the anticipation for the rest of the song. Few ‘serious’ progressive rock bands could build up the tension so slowly and inexorably, without it eventually becoming repetitive and boring. “Faith Healer” is a remarkable song, slow and sinister, yet possessing an extraordinary power and strength. It’s arguably SAHB’s finest moment and reason alone to seek out Next.

SAHB toured incessantly to promote their early albums, gaining a reputation as a uniquely potent live act on the way and increasing the size of their audience as they went. It wasn’t a vast surprise then when their third album, The Impossible Dream, finally saw them crack the charts. After initial sessions were scrapped (eventually released decades later as Hot City), The Impossible Dream was recorded with a touch more production polish than SAHB’s earlier albums. Achieving a level of musical sophistication without alienating their audience, Alex Harvey had by this time formed a solid writing partnership with keyboard player Hugh McKenna, with Cleminson regularly contributing to the songwriting process, and the rest of the band chipping in with regularity as well. The closer knit creative unit resulted in a more ambitious sound, but still with an eye on the rock and roll thrills and vaudeville that had served them so well so far.

The Impossible Dream saw the return of the Vambo character, as well as experimentations with music hall (“Sergeant Fury”), straight up rock (“Long Hair Music”), and drew on a whole host of references and influences. It broke them on the album charts for the first time, not so much because it was significantly better than the two previous albums, but because they had become such a potent live act, that they had now gathered a large enough fan base for them to make an impact on the album charts despite the lack of a hit single, though in truth, the album is dragged down a little by the questionable “Hey”. It could be argued that The Impossible Dream and it’s follow up, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, are two halves of a great double album (indeed in recent years, they have been packaged together). While Tomorrow Belongs to Me finds a few more minor mis-steps creeping in, especially in the shape of the ponderous “The Tale of the Giant Stone Eater” and “Ribs and Balls”, it’s an album which is carried forward by SAHB’s trademark swashbuckling style and their good humour.

Much of the success of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band was down to the fact that they were a superlative live act, something which their studio albums had hinted at and appearances on various BBC television and radio shows had confirmed. It’s a shame then that the inevitable “Live” has such an uninspired title and packaging. It’s a solid live document of the band, and one that was well received by fans at the time and is still held up by some as their definitive release. It also boasted SAHB’s first hit single, in the form of their much celebrated cover of “Delilah”. A prime example of everything that made SAHB the tremendous act that they were, “Delilah” has almost become their signature tune, as they slowly but surely wrestle it away from the more widely known Tom Jones version. The SAHB version of “Delilah” scores heavily over the Tom Jones version for two massively important reasons. Firstly, it rocks a whole lot more. Secondly, Harvey actually has it in him to sound mentally unhinged enough to have actually brutally murdered his lover.

Live is dominated by “Delilah”, but taken as a whole the album is a fair live document of one of the great live acts of the era, but there’s an inescapable feeling that if their record label had wanted to, it could have been a significantly more substantial package.

Released in March 1976, The Penthouse Tapes further drew parallels between The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and David Bowie. Effectively SAHB’s Pin Ups, The Penthouse Tapes was largely a collection of cover versions, hastily recorded to eep the SAHB name at the forefront of the fickle record buying public. You’d be foolish to dismiss it as a mere filler release though, as SAHB had always delivered a fine line in cover versions, and The Penthouse Tapes was a celebration of that, as they gamely tackle tunes by Jethro Tull (an almost unrecognisable “Love Story”), Lead Belly (“Goodnight Irene”), Alice Cooper (a distinctly punky version of “Schools Out”) and, of all acts, The Osmonds (a glorious stampede of “Crazy Horses”). Some fans consider The Penthouse Tapes to be a relatively disposable release, however, it’s a hell of a lot of fun too, and is well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of imaginative cover versions.

Despite its rather bland artwork, SAHB Stories is something of a hidden gem among Sensational Alex Harvey Band albums. The final album by the original line-up (though they would record an album without their celebrated frontman before keyboard player Hugh McKenna departed the band), it boasts their second chart single in “Boston Tea Party” and demonstrates that even though they had enjoyed the sweaty smell of success, they were continuing to expand their sound.

Part of SAHB Stories’ strength is its diversity. It has toe-tappers like “Snakebite”, the aforementioned “Boston Tea Party” and the dated, but enjoyable, “The Sultan’s Choice”, and on the flip side, it also has numbers like “Sirocco”, where the band are gamely trying something new, without being entirely successful. This willingness to mix the formula up a bit is laudable, giving hope that the band would survive the onslaught of punk, a movement that lifted more than a little influence from Harvey’s gang-leader mentality.

40 years since it’s release, SAHB Stories does everything you’d want a SAHB album to do. Harvey ‘s vocals remain instantly recognisable (Bon Scott was evidently paying close attention), Zal Cleminson’s guitar work remains as inspired as ever, and the rest of the band lock seamlessly into place, with Hugh McKenna remaining Harvey’s main songwriting foil. While there are better SAHB albums available, SAHB Stories is still pretty good, and offers a few aural textures not available on their earlier albums, as they start to sound slightly darker and a little less content.

Perhaps even more than SAHB Stories or The penthouse Tapes, 1978’s Rock Drill is considered the runt of the litter of Sensational Alex Harvey Band albums.

By this time SAHB had temporarily gone their different ways, with the four members of SAHB not called Alex Harvey having recorded Fourplay, before the band reformed, carelessly losing Hugh McKenna on the way. If the band was on the back foot, that was certainly not in evidence from the album cover, which is easily the best of their short but productive career. With McKenna having been replaced by Tommy Eyre, Rock Drill still sounds like a SAHB album, however one with a distinctly different energy to what had gone before. The first half of the album is effectively a concept, as the band experiment with a sort of heavy prog rock, before concentrating on their more traditional individual songs on the second half of the album.

As a musical unit the band performs well and Harvey himself remains in fine voice, however there’s a distinct feeling of a band not feeling entirely committed to the album, as if they are a little unsure of the material and wondering when inspiration might strike. Zal Cleminson’s remains top draw, and Tommy Eyre certainly makes the most of what is available, but ultimately, it’s the material that is lacking at the end of the day.

Some SAHB compilations ignore Rock Drill entirely, which given its different tone is perhaps understandable, though closing with the Mary Whitehouse-baiting “Mrs Blackhouse” showed that they were still capable of hitting the mark when the mood took them and it deserves its place on any Sensational Alex Harvey Band playlist.

There have been many (perhaps too many) compilations that have attempted to sum up SAHB’s career, but perhaps the best of them is 1991’s The Best of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, which was released on the budget Music Club label. Released at a time when SAHB had been pretty much forgotten, it’s a solid summation of his career, and particularly highlights their power as a live act, even boasting a live version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, which I’ve not heard on any other collection.

There have also been a bewildering number of archival live recordings dug up from the vaults down the years, but the best is, Live at the BBC, which is as you might expect, a compilation of SAHB material from the BBC archives, which basically consists of highlights from a pair of incendiary live gigs from ’72 and ’73, four Old Grey Whistle Test performances, a Top of the Pops performance (I can’t recall any other TotP performance by anyone being released on CD before), and finally closing with a pair of recordings of SAHB without Alex, which, although the same musicians, were a very different proposition without their much-celebrated frontman.

Despite being out of print for far too long, since 2002 the eight core Sensational Alex Harvey Band albums have been easily available as a series of two CD compilations with Framed / Next, The Impossible Dream / Tomorrow Belongs to Me, Live / The Penthouse Tapes and SAHB Stories / Rock Drill paired off so you can handily ignore certain phases of their career should you choose to. This year there was also the monster The Last of the Teenage Idols box set, an immense 14 disc epic that covered Harvey’s career from the late 50s through to his sad death in the early 80s, and includes all of the SAHB material recorded. It’s a luxury few could afford, but if you’re a dyed in the wool SAHB fan, well worth the investment.

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band are an act that have a devoted fanbase, so while there’s still material in the archives, those fans will be willing to buy it. The thing is, outside that devoted fanbase, for too long few remembered SAHB, however through a solid reissue programme and more and more acts of all ages admitting their debt to Harvey, Cleminson, Glen and the McKennas, it seems that they’re finally on the way to getting the respect and recognition that they deserve.

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