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Alex Harvey: the despairing story of an entertainer's last years

Alex Harvey
(Image credit: Ian Dickson/Getty Images)

The beat was so slow it broadcast nothing but aggression. The band knew you knew the riff, and understood your need to hear it faster. But they were going to keep playing it this fucking slow. Trapped under its spell, the Reading festival audience could do nothing but pay full attention as Alex Harvey appeared on stage, dressed as Christ and carrying a cross, shouted: “I was framed!” and then threw the polystyrene prop into the bouncer pit, where it smacked Radio 1 DJ Fluff Freeman on the head. 

In 1977, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band were at the height of their powers. They were about to record Rock Drill, an album that would ensure their survival while many of their “classic rock” counterparts fell victim to the punk infection. 

To those who’d followed Harvey’s career it looked like he was finally about to achieve the global success they felt he deserved. But Reading was to be their last live show, Rock Drill was to be their last album, and it was the beginning of the end for Harvey – a chain of events triggered by a plane crash in July 1976 , which killed his manager, Bill Fehilly. Fehilly was on a flight from Blackpool to Perth when the plane crashed in the Highlands, killing everyone on board. 

“Bill Fehilly was the only man who could control Alex,” says SAHB bassist Chris Glen. “He really cared a lot.” 

Eddie Tobin, part of the band’s management team, remembers: “Alex only trusted Bill. He never trusted anyone else, and he had good reason. If you hadn’t been ripped off, you hadn’t been in the music business.”

Harvey, already in the fifteenth year of his career when SAHB formed in 1972, could provide plenty of first-hand examples. He’d found fame in 1957 when he won a national talent contest and was named “Scotland’s Tommy Steele”. That saw him embarking on his first tours, in which he shared a WWII car with his band, and stole potatoes from fields for sustenance. 

In the early 60s the Alex Harvey Big Soul Band was formed and became a big name on the touring circuit. They went to Hamburg after The Beatles had made it big and cut an album, Alex Harvey And His Soul Band, which received positive reviews but left him penniless. Two years later he recorded The Blues, but once again left with nothing. He was launched as a pop starlet and released several singles, but they all flopped. One music paper wrote of a collective feeling of desperation on the London scene: “He ought to have been nailed up as a star long ago.”

Harvey spent four years playing in the house band for hippie musical Hair, during which time he appeared on three more albums; but personal success continued to elude him. When he found himself singing as a crooner in seedy London clubs Harvey, disillusioned, called time on his musical career. 

Soon after that Fehilly, an old friend from his days in Glasgow, knocked his door and said it was time to make him a star. Under his guidance, SAHB went from strength to strength. In 1973 they played more UK gigs than any other outfit and supported Slade when everyone else was too scared to do it. By 1976 they were the biggest-grossing touring band in the country. 

Albums Framed, Next, The Impossible Dream, Tomorrow Belongs To Me, Live, The Penthouse Tapes and SAHB Stories had all received almost idolising reviews. They’d had an accidental hit with Delilah (to them, a novelty number) then a genuine one with Boston Tea Party

Harvey ruled the stage with an iron attitude and the assistance of harlequin guitarist Zal Cleminson, keyboardist and co-writer Hugh McKenna, Hugh’s cousin Ted on drums and Chris Glen on bass. He was older than his band and most of the crowd, and he treated them like school kids one moment, best pals the next. He played a street gangster in Framed, a private eye in Man In The Jar, a superhero in Vambo. He spray-painted “Vambo rool OK” on a wall then burst through it. And at every show he told his audience: “Don’t make any bullets. Don’t buy any bullets. Don’t shoot any bullets. And remember we love you.”

Fehilly’s death was the second large-scale tragedy in four years for the man known as “the last of the teenage idols”. His brother Les, guitarist with Stone The Crows, had died on stage in Wales in 1972 when he made contact with a live microphone. That had hit Harvey hard: when SAHB later played the same venue, he took a band member aside, leaned on his shoulder and sobbed silently. 

Soon after the passing of his manager and friend, Harvey was forced to take several months off due to ill health. The official line was a back problem, the reality probably had more to do with a touring schedule of more than 250 shows a year for four years straight, and all the excess that entailed. 

Ted, who passed away in 2019, remembered a key moment on tour in Europe, soon after Harvey had performed Framed dressed as Hitler in Germany: “Zal was up doing his bit and Alex had gone off, then decided he wasn’t going to come back on. I tore into him: ‘Come on, fuck’s sake, you can’t give us all that crap about pushing and pushing for all these years then say you can’t go on…’ He did go back on but he kept whimpering – Alex Harvey whimpering! – that he didn’t want to be there any more.” 

Chris adds: “Instead of taking it easier he was taking pills to kill the pain. He was exercising less and trying to take more drink and drugs to cheer himself up, because the pills were getting him down.” 

The tour, inevitably, was cancelled: Harvey was flown home from Sweden in October 1976, under heavy sedation, and given 24-hour medical attention. Eventually they reconvened to work on what would be Rock Drill – but that work even began under a cloud. 

Tobin says: “Alex did the last album under protest. He felt it was so corrupt that a band could make millions of pounds, like SAHB did, and the musicians paid very little. Everyone says we made nothing – it wasn’t quite nothing, it was a good living. The end-of-year accounts would show we’d brought in three million and Alex would ask, ‘Where is it? Who’s got it?’ Studio time cost a fortune and when you were on the road you were talking five to ten hotel rooms – the cost of it all never occurred to him.”

The pressure of dealing with an unhappy frontman forced Hugh, his main collaborator, out of the band. “Alex said something I just could not forgive at the time. I’d turned up late and Alex said, ‘Right – you’re on probation from now on’. I said, ‘How can you say that to me? I’ve had two fucking breakdowns with this band! On probation? You can stuff your band up your arse!’ And I picked my jacket up and left. The boys all came down the next night. They had a quick stab at changing my mind, but it was clear I wasn’t going to.”

Zal says: “Alex never had the same creativity with anyone else. But Hugh had felt for a long time that Alex wasn’t good for his life.” 

“We got Tommy Eyre in,” said Ted. “But from then on it changed. Any band with a chemistry like ours… No matter how good Tommy was, it was never the same again.” 

As Rock Drill progressed, Harvey became more and more difficult to deal with. “Recording the album was such a funny experience,” Zal says. “From a musical point of view it was very interesting. Alex was all over the place, he was desperate for things to inspire him. He was running about with a video camera at the time – he would get us to act out all these mad little sketches, and everyone was chipping in. But he just wasn’t focused on the music. 

"He was desperate to do something different – the press were calling him the father of punk, because he’d said it would happen. He liked the idea of being its father figure and he wanted that. He got Ted to lose the drumkit and play a barbecue. He went round shooting the lights out with an air rifle while we were recording. He was maybe trying to find something that made a unique noise. We all went for it, we were up for it.” 

But Ted said: “I just didn’t know what he wanted me to play. I was playing an off-the-wall drum thing – which was off the wall, but not enough for Alex – and he had a big long piece of poetry that he wanted to read over the top of it. I always tried to give him what he thought it needed, but I was torn… Eventually I just picked up the kit and started throwing it around the room. And he went: ‘That’s it! That’s it! That’s what we want!’”

Under the punk character and behind the creativity of what might be called a prog-punk album, Harvey’s colleagues saw someone who’d “lost the plot,” was “self-destructive” and “just angry and lost”. 

Zal says: “Some of the lyrics I felt he was scribbling on the back of a fag packet – he wasn’t being genuine about anything, it was just all imagery.” Tobin says: “Alex just wasn’t interested at all. It was all getting quite mad. We spent more on having fun than recording the album. It was the party before you abandon ship.” 

However, there’s at least one moment where, perhaps, the gravel-voiced Glaswegian tried to explain himself. The final track on the last SAHB album is a slow, honky tonk piano-led piece called No Complaints Department, co-written with “General” Jimmy Grimes, a lifelong friend who’d been bassist with the Soul Band. 

With almost painful honesty Harvey sings: ‘Saw my best friend die in a plane crash, my brother was killed on the stage… They took my old pal to the madhouse, in horror, in fear and in pain…’ then goes on to reflect: ‘There is no complaints department/It’s only up to you.’ He wept as he recorded the lead vocal. 

“It’s real, proper blues,” says Chris. “It was painful for him to write and play.” But for reasons that have never been revealed, the track was pulled from the record after early pressings, to be replaced with a far less memorable number called Mrs Blackhouse. The operation was done so hurriedly that album sleeves still listed No Complaints Department while the vinyl played Blackhouse. 

Chris says: “Alex insisted that it went on the album so I don’t know what happened to it. Someone suggested that Bill’s wife might have pulled the plug on it, but I don’t see that at all. ‘My best friend died in a plane crash’ – that’s the reference to Bill. How could anyone object to it?” 

“It’s just another example of people sticking their oar in,” Zal reflects. “We had to deal with a lot of that shit. But we’d all known. Alex was in no fit state to do a tour. He looked ill. Even if his head was alright, his body wasn’t.”

Eddie Tobin remembers the difficulties involved in booking the tour after Harvey’s issues had forced the cancellation of the previous one. “The agents, sponsors and record labels were all very nervous. We’d assured everyone Alex was back – we’d done Reading and there was a new album. At that final rehearsal I was told he’d left. I jumped in a taxi and went to his home, where he said he’d left because he’d seen a purple light, and that was a sign not to cross water. But we’d crossed the Thames twice already anyway. 

“I tried to deal, coerce, threaten, cajole; but nothing could convince him to play. The penalties for cancelling this tour were serious. But he was very relaxed and very straight when he closed the band down. He did it the way you close a book – no tears, no emotions. That was it: goodbye.” 

Harvey later said: “I just thought, what’s the point? There’s nothing worse than thrashing an old horse to death. Everyone wants me to be a 43-year-old punk rocker – but I’ve been doing punk rock things since I was 18 in Glasgow. I’m not angry at anyone but myself. I shouldn’t have let it go on so long.” 

SAHB tried to carry on as the Zal Band, but as Cleminson says, “The minute Alex wasn’t there, there was nothing to fire off – there was no reason to be on stage.” 

As the management firm dealt with penalty clauses Tobin describes as “terrible” the entire organisation began to cave in, leaving the band members without even their own musical instruments. Everyone moved on; including Harvey, who changed his mind about retiring. 

“I’m an entertainer – what else am I going to do?” he inquired. In March 1978 the New Alex Harvey Band announced a triumphant appearance at the London Palladium. It was billed as the long-awaited moment the Vibrania Suite would be performed – a concept Harvey had been working on for years, based in a world where everyone is pardoned for their first two crimes, but executed for their third, regardless of its severity. But what was left of the management company took out an injunction against Harvey playing new material. 

Instead, the show consisted of songs from his pre-SAHB days, and cover versions including a waltz arrangement of Anarchy In The UK

“It was an experiment, to see what would happen if I tried to work again,” Harvey explained. “I thought the management might do something, but I wanted to know how far it would go. It took a lot of unravelling but I’m able to work again – they tell me I set a precedent or something.” 

As a no-hard-feelings gesture he invited his former representatives to the concert, and then billed them for their tickets.

Later that year he recorded The Mafia Stole My Guitar (the title inspired by the theft of SAHB’s gear truck in Florida). Hugh McKenna rejoined his old writing partner for the album and tour. “What made me go back? Money – I had none,” he says. “Nothing was said between me and Alex about SAHB. I got very drunk and out of it on that tour, but I enjoyed working with that band. 

“I think we’d have got on a lot better if we’d both cleaned up our act. By the end we’d stopped talking completely. I couldn’t do it without a drink by then. A guy from a record company showed up one night, and I think Alex felt if I’d said I was into working with him again, we’d have been offered a deal. But I wasn’t paying attention.” 

While some fans found the legendary Harvey magic alive and well at those shows, many others became disillusioned. Reviews spoke wistfully of SAHB rather than positively about NAHB. One said: “Alex still exudes that hypnotic godfather stance and his vocal is as strong as ever. But the new songs were rather listless.”

Zal joined Nazareth. Ted played with Rory Gallagher for three years then joined Chris in Michael Schenker Group. By the end of 1981 Alex had a new band, the Electric Cowboys, and a new album, The Soldier On The Wall. But when they took it on the road, the remaining supporters who bought tickets tended to wish they hadn’t. 

Fan Mike Kendall remembers: “They were due on stage at 11pm but they finally surfaced at 1am, and Alex was out of it. He could barely walk, let alone perform. He broke his mic stand, and when the roadies couldn’t fix it he started using the parts to demolish the stage. He called for a member of the audience to hold the mic, but there was a general reluctance. He shouted: ‘I’ve played better fucking places than this, you know.’ Finally someone held the mic and he tried to sing, but it was incomprehensible. Before long he started another tirade of abuse. I left soon afterwards and to this day I wish I’d never gone.” 

Ray Conn, who’d known Alex since the 1960s, was brought in to act as “a kind of good influence to keep the bad influences away.” He was present for the singer’s last hometown appearance at the Glasgow Apollo, scene of SAHB’s long-remembered sell-out Christmas shows in 1975. But his own gig sold so poorly that bouncers were offering free tickets to passers-by in the street. 

“Some of the press reports were very cruel,” Conn remembers. “Alex cried his eyes out. And because we were in Glasgow he went home to stay with his parents for a couple of days. We went to collect him to go to Newcastle, but he was in a very bad way with the drink. His dad said he’d been like that since he’d arrived. We got him into a bed on the tour bus and he lay there the whole time. Five minutes before the Newcastle show was meant to start, he jumped up, took a shot of brandy, pulled a handstand and went on. It was the best gig I’d ever seen. It goes to show how fit he was – but the danger of that is how little reserve he had left.

Stefan Pawlata was at one of Harvey’s last shows, in Vienna. “I hadn’t heard the stories about his health, but it seemed obvious he wasn’t in the best physical state,” Pawlata says (although, seeing the photos, Ted McKenna commented on how relatively healthy he looked). 

Pawlata continues: “At some points he was singing and shouting, full of enthusiasm. At others he seemed to be in a trance, standing still, smiling to himself and looking as if his thoughts were far away. He’d get tired and lean against the amps. And every time he started looking hazy there was a guy just offstage in a Roland top who was watching intently and trying to encourage him to keep going.”

The Harvey magic could still shine through. “He wanted us to sing something for him. The response wasn’t good enough and he got really wild: ‘I want more, louder! Sing it for me!’ You could see the passion and feel his enthusiasm. Then he invited all us boys and girls to come on stage and dance with him. It was a real happening.”

A few weeks later on February 4, 1982, with the tour at an end, the band were waiting for their ferry home at Zebrugge. Harvey suffered a heart attack, and on the way to hospital he suffered a second, fatal one. He would have been 47 the next day. 

Ted remembered getting the call. “A friend of mine said, ‘Have you heard? Alex is dead’. I put the phone down and I sat down on the bed in a daze. The phone rang again and it was a guy I knew on talk radio who asked if I’d do a phone-in. I just said, ‘I’m not surprised, but I’m sad. Alex lived it to the edge’.” 

In Henley village hall, Zal’s new band stopped work when drummer Barriemore Barlow told them the news. Cozy Powell ran round to Chris’ flat so he’d hear it from a friend. “I got very drunk and I don’t remember the next couple of days,” says the bassist. “He once asked me to manage him and I’d said no, because what did I know about management? But I couldn’t help wondering if things might have been different.” 

Hugh played SAHB track Anthem at the funeral. “My only concern was I might be nervous and screw it up. My right knee started shaking and I was thinking, ‘That’s him doing that, from beyond the grave’. I wouldn’t put it by him.” 

After the ceremony, Ted remembered sitting in the room of a house with a few mourners of the same age as Harvey. “I went to the older guys and said, ‘Let’s sing The Gallowa’ Hills for Alex’. It was a song we used to use all over the place, marching up and down hotel corridors with pipers, waking everyone up, or annoying other bands backstage. 

“The guys struck into a song I hardly recognised, all up-tempo and almost like a ditty, not the version we used to do. That’s when I realised Alex had done to that song what he did to everything: he’d taken it and changed it until it became really powerful. It’s the only song I ever sing to this day. I think about that song, how many times we did it, all the emotional moments of my life where it’s come up, and it all says ‘Alex Harvey’.” 

“Would we have got back together with Alex?” asks Chris. “Absolutely. And it would have been even more sensational than it was the first time around."

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 167. Martin Kielty is the author of SAHB Story: The Tale of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

Not only is one-time online news editor Martin an established rock journalist and drummer, but he’s also penned several books on music history. He’s appeared on TV and when not delving intro all things music, can be found travelling along the UK’s vast canal network.