Having established themselves as one of the best value acts on the live circuit, and releasing a pair of albums that captured an idiosyncratic style, by their third studio album The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were ready to make the next step towards commercial acceptance. Or as accepted as any band fronted by a diminutive Scottish fellow old enough to be the father of any potential fans could be.
Whether loosely basing their new album around a series of songs around Vambo, a character Harvey would occasionally depict on stage, was SAHB’s attempt to do a Ziggy Stardust is debatable, especially when you consider that in terms of attitude and presentation they were a significant contrast to the other-worldly glamour of Bowie and the Spiders. That said, it’s difficult not to draw parallels, as the magnetic Harvey gleefully played the role of Vambo to adoring live audiences and the rest of SAHB seamlessly interlocked behind in the way that only the very best rock bands do. The finished article, The Impossible Dream, was a slightly different album to what was initially recorded with Shel Talmy, although that version was eventually released decades later as Hot City. It would be tempting then to view The Impossible Dream as a something of a compromise, however, in retrospect, scrapping the session with Talmy was the right thing to do, as it resulted in a much more taught album, rather than the more playful brass-slathered Talmy-produced material.
The Impossible Dream starts with a drum pattern from Ted McKenna opening “The Hot City Symphony Part 1 – Vambo”, which in itself is a wonderful introduction to Alex Harvey as the on stage street gang leader. This is where Harvey’s position as a wily veteran comes into its own, with his appearance about as far away from the preening rock-god cliche as possible, and an obviously lived-in voice, he sounds every inch the experienced leader followed by a bunch of young bucks hell-bent on gaining respect by fair means or foul, which is effectively who the rest of SAHB were, as they were the remains of prog-rocking also-rans Tear Gas. Not that you could classify The Impossible Dream, or SAHB themselves as prog rock. No, they were very much a unique beast, a muscular riffing rock machine with just enough music-hall tradition about them to come across as slightly disturbing. By the time “Part 2 – The Man in the Jar” comes around, we’re deep in hard-boiled private detective territory, and it’s obvious that SAHB have already forged a musical identity very much of their own.
Throughout The Impossible Dream, SAHB’s ability to switch styles without losing their identity is utilised to its fullest extent. If Vambo was Alex Harvey’s equivalent of Ziggy Stardust, then Zal Cleminson in his pierrot clown make-up, was his Mick Ronson. One of the most criminally forgotten guitar players of the era, Cleminson’s striking visual presence saw him take a share of the limelight on stage, but his visual appearance often resulted in him being underestimated as a wonderfully versatile guitar player. Cleminson was absolutely vital to SAHB’s sound, often giving them some harder rocking credentials than they are remembered for, as well as a visual counterpoint to Harvey’s swashbuckling persona. As vital as Cleminson was to the band’s sound, it was keyboard player Hugh McKenna that was often the band’s secret weapon. Constantly looking like he was performing in some seedy function band, he was often Harvey’s closest musical collaborator and arranger, McKenna’s keyboards were not always front and centre of the band’s sound, but his arrangements sounded like nothing else his more flamboyant contemporaries were putting out there.
The first SAHB album to chart, The Impossible Dream’s diversity is its strength. Beyond the Hot City Symphony offerings, it saw SAHB tackle music hall (“Sergeant Fury”), all out rock (“Long Hair Music”), as well as their usual spot on narrative storytelling (“The Tomahawk Kid”) and every point in between. Sure, there are moments where silliness gets the better of them, such as “Hey”, but even then, you can’t escape the fact that even by the diverse standards of the 1970’s, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were an utterly unique proposition.