Alex Harvey: Every Clown Has A Serious Lining

It should really come as no surprise to anyone that the Sensational Alex Harvey Band are touring this month, without their talismanic, gone-but-far-from-forgotten figurehead, Harvey himself.

After all, back in 1977 they did it when Alex was alive. Hell, they even recorded an album, Fourplay, without him. And Alex, bless him, was all for it.

“I think their tour will be a gas,” said Harvey as the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (SAHB) Without Alex tour – as it was monikered then and is now – prepared to hit the road sans himself. “It’ll be great for them to go out and play small venues – a back to the roots thing. For sure, I think the punters are going to be agreeably surprised.”

And that’s pretty much where we find SAHB in 2005, playing on without Alex. The cover artwork for Fourplay says it all: the four musos – the brilliant Zal Cleminson (guitar), thunderous Chris Glen (bass), Hugh McKenna (keyboards, genius) and brother Ted McKenna (drums) gathered around a studio microphone with Alex taped and tied up in the corner. And why not? The band began as a four piece – Tear Gas – before morphing into the Sensational Alex Harvey Band by adding a struggling singer who’d gone through jazz, swing, be-bop, pop and rock. That was Alex Harvey, and the chemical mix between these components was explosive.

SAHB crept up on an unsuspecting nation, grabbed it by the balls and won hearts and minds in unison. 1975, Top Of The Pops is on the telly and there’s a manic wee Scotsman in a Dennis The Menace jumper bouncing about the screen belting out. of all things, Tom Jones’ Delilah. This ridiculous performance however, was just a vehicle to introduce a more enticing agenda, a galaxy of work that sparkled and cracked. The band behind Harvey provided an intoxicating musical mix that gave colour to thought-provoking lyrics and a singer who refused to sacrifice his roots, even down to the point where he sang with a Scottish accent. That was Alex Harvey for you – principles were not for sale.

Alex was an awe-inspiring, rootsy man who’d never lost touch with his street-wise Gorbals background. That was the influence that made SAHB classics like Framed and Next so tough and enduring. His house in north London wasn’t the home of a rock star, more the house of a Glaswegian delinquent.

You got the impression that this was the safe ground of a man who had escaped a terrible inevitability, and found his succour. A nice terraced house, surrounded by everything and everyone he loved. Wife Trudi supplied us with wine and toast (it might sound odd, but it was a staple diet for Alex); his kids Tyro and Alex were playing in the backyard; his da Leslie, 70 then, was filling us in on the beauties of highland Scotland; the dogs, Sheba and Hey You!, were wrestling on the carpet. Me and Alex were going back in time.

I wondered out loud why Alex, who’d tried his luck in pretty much every pocket of pop over the years, should have taken up rock music at the ripe age of 42? Harvey produced a scrapbook, a chronology of the times he’d ‘almost’ made it – particularly with the Alex Harvey Soul Band. One cutting from 1963, an NME readers’ poll, had them voted the fourth best band in the country (The Rolling Stones came in fifth) – though it would be years before cred with the kids would translate into bankable success.

“The machine scared me a bit because I don’t really want to be a star,” he said. “I don’t relish the idea of it. You know Rory [Gallagher]… well, we talk about that often and he’s managed to keep it separate. I try. I suppose I’m very extrovert on stage and everything, but at the same time…”

He looked around the house, the dogs, the kids, the wife, the wine… “I like this. I like the kids and dogs and stuff… I don’t like the flash, the parties. I’ve been through that and it doesn’t ring true. To me, rock’n’roll has always been the truth and I don’t like it when it becomes stereotyped.”

When we talked in 76, punk and new wave was yet to knock and trash down the doors of music; but he seemed to know it was going to happen. “Muzak,” he said surveying the music landscape as it was then. “It’s got straight, really straight. It’s exactly the way it was in 1956 when it was _How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?_, and then Elvis came bustin’ through and it was a breath of fresh air, and that’s what it needs now. I don’t think it will be us, it’ll be some young kids somewhere. Basically, what I would like to do is get hold of a bunch of kids and let them develop because they know what I don’t know. They must know. It’s their time, their year. To keep the music fresh is the main thing.”

‘Fresh’ is a by-word for SAHB albums, for they all were that from the debut, Framed, in 1972. “I like that album a lot,” said Alex fondly. “That’s my favourite. It will always be. We did it, including mixing and everything, in three days.”

It was with that album that Alex decided not to develop a mid-Atlantic accent and sang instead in his native, distinctive brogue. “I went through a period of tryin’ to sound like Ray Charles. When I heard Ray Charles, I went berserk. I couldn’t believe there was such a thing possible. It was like the answer to my life and I tried to sing like that for a long time. People said it was great. It was soul singing but it wasn’t really soul singing. It was his soul singing. For me, real soul singing would be to sing a Scottish ballad.

“On Framed, I didn’t realise I was singing in a Scottish accent. It was just the way it happened and I think that will be my favourite album of all time, even if we do the perfect album. But then I never listen to our albums. I do like to listen to what kids say about our albums, young children – because they know better than us.”

We talked about the album that is regarded as their classic, Next. A bit prog rock, a bit of heavy rock, a little bit clever, it was very Alex. Every hard rock fan should and must know Faith Healer… If you don’t, shame on you!

Next isn’t the most straightforward of albums. Underneath that hard gloss lurks an album of complex issues. Natural progression, Alex thought. “I have never tried to be complex. We’ve never intended to be clever and it amazes me when I’ve read ‘This is very complex’,” he laughed at the thought that he should astound reviewers in such a way. “I can’t understand that. I always like it to be rather like a nursery rhyme, so that kids can understand it. Not even understand it – you won’t need to understand it. You just like it or you don’t like it. There is nothing to understand. It’s only a noise that you hear.”

Next, of course, is the album that introduced Vambo to the world. Vambo was a fictitious inner-city superhero with ecological tendencies. In 1977, for a rock band to concoct something like this was unheard of. Alex Harvey, apparently, had never read the rules book. “I realised when we wrote that first song about Vambo [Vambo Marble Eye] that there was something kinda special about it,” he said. “The primitiveness of it appealed to me. It was untarnished, very instinctive. I suppose I’m a primitive musician and I’ve got Hugh McKenna, who’s quite technological,and also very rootsy,and so the combination works because he can make it sound good without it sounding silly or plastic.

“Vambo grew up around that. But although Vambo sounds violent, the message is ‘VAMBO NEVER VIOLENT BE’.Y’see,Vambo is beyond that; beyond killing and destruction. There’s a bunch of kids in Southend and in the East End of London and they’ve formed a thing called The Vambo Liberation Front. I don’t really know if I like the name but they go out and they help old age pensioners and drunks and derelicts. They’ve got a newspaper called The Vambo Banner. That’s good.”

Alex wondered about this for a while. His Gorbals past. His lyrics. His image. At the time, he was horrified at reports that his band glorified violence. “I thought up a million ways of fighting back on that one,” he said. “I was going to take two pages in Melody Maker and quote the Yes concert when we stopped a fight for them, which we did. Sometimes, I think the wrong impression gets taken, because maybe the kinda kids we get as fans – a lot of them are street kids, but I think they’re the salt of the earth. If their energy can be channelled in some direction that’s for the good of the community rather than destroying themselves, then that’s a good thing.

“People get the wrong impression about what I’m sayin’. We’re only a rock’n’roll band. The only thing I would say is, ‘Don’t piss in the water supply’. What else is there to say? I’ll never preach violence and sometimes it worries me that people get the wrong impression. You show me another band that says, ‘Don’t buy any bullets’ or stops riots. I’ve stopped four since this band started, and it could quite easily be the other way around – that wouldn’t be at all difficult.”

There you go: that, ladies and gentlemen, was Alex Harvey. A total one-off. Born February 5, 1935. Died from a heart attack on tour in Belgium in February, 1982, leaving a legacy of several great albums, with the backing of a superlative band. Who can fault them for going on the road? Not me. I’m looking forward to it. And so would Alex.

His final words to me about that band back then: “Well, the band wanted to move forward, so now I would like the band to come out a bit without me and show what they can do. There’s something amazing there that has yet to come out. We’ve not done it yet but there’s something there.”

This was published in Classic Rock issue 88.

Harry Doherty

Harry Doherty began his career at the Derry Journal in Ireland before moving to London in the mid-1970s, relaunching his career as a music journalist and writing extensively for the Melody Maker. Later he became editor of Metal Hammer and founded the video magazine, Hard’n’Heavy. He also wrote the official Queen biography 40 Years Of Queen, published in 2011 to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary. He died in 2014.