Think of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and which of their songs first springs to mind?
“I’d rather it was The Faith Healer than Delilah,” SAHB guitarist Zal Cleminson told Classic Rock in 2007, clearly perturbed that many people might instead think of the novelty cover of a Tom Jones-popularised song that gave the Scotsmen a UK Top 10 hit in 1975.
A remarkable piece of rock theatre, The Faith Healer first appeared on the Next… album released two years earlier. At more than seven minutes long it was never destined to be a single, but it crystallised the band’s often disturbingly dark sense of drama into something truly magical. It also helped bring SAHB a gold album at the second attempt.
“I’ll never forget that song’s birth,” keyboard player Hugh McKenna recalled. “Next… was the only album that Alex [Harvey, frontman] and I locked ourselves into a room to write. Afterwards we wrote within the framework of the band, and with more input from Zal.”
Some time earlier McKenna had casually informed Harvey about a book that he was reading called Many Mansions. Its American author, Gina Cerminara, was a noted authority on spirituality and reincarnation.
“A guy gets hypnotised by his dentist and is regressed to a previous life as a confederate soldier,” McKenna explained. “It doesn’t tie in completely with what The Faith Healer’s about, but Alex said he wouldn’t have written the song had I not told him about the book.”
Harvey presented McKenna with a set of virtually finished lyrics, and the pair began to set them to music. After the pulsing bass line that introduces the song – initially played on piano – the part that “sounded like monks singing” was added.
“It was all about building an atmosphere,” McKenna explains. The song’s framework was then presented to Cleminson, who came up with the signature riff. “Until then it was almost heading in a funk direction,” the guitarist says.
Like the rest of SAHB, Hugh McKenna immediately recognised that The Faith Healer was something special: “In rehearsals our manager Bill [Fehilly, who also represented Nazareth] told us it was incredible. It was just so powerful.”
However, for all the track’s enduring qualities, Cleminson harboured reservations about the way producer Phil Wainman – who had earned his reputation producing The Sweet, Mud and The Bay City Rollers – made it sound on Next…
“It’s grown so much through the years. The original production sounds strange now,” he admitted. “Rhythmically it never quite kicks off. It was only on stage that Ted [McKenna, drums] seemed to use the whole of his kit.”
The band’s long-time opening number in concert, The Faith Healer was performed live for the first time in front of 30,000 fans at the Reading festival on August 25, 1973. Eyewitnesses suggest it “slayed” an audience that was mostly there to see Status Quo and Rod Stewart.
“Oh, absolutely,” McKenna enthused proudly. “That’s still my favourite of all the gigs I’ve played. The sun was going down, Alex had done his whole ‘Let me put my hands on you’ routine and a couple of women were dancing topless. It was a magical, almost preordained moment.”
Harvey’s religious-themed interaction with the crowd went on to become a highly popular staple of the band’s live shows.
“He would adopt a biblical stance, holding his arms out ahead of him, wanting to put his hands on the audience,” Cleminson explained. “It was almost like somebody summoning their flock, offering to heal them, Jesus-like. And I think Alex actually believed there were kids who needed some kind of guidance. That’s what a lot of his subsequent songs were about.
“We’ve tried any number of other songs to begin the show,” the guitarist added, “but nothing does it like The Faith Healer.”
Indeed, a fan club poll confirmed it as the group’s most popular song. Which pleased McKenna, as long as other gems in the SAHB catalogue weren’t overlooked.
“We’ve done things that run it close,” he said. “Give My Compliments To The Chef [from 1975’s Tomorrow Belongs To Me] and The Dolphins [from 78’s Rock Drill], for instance. It’s become our Stairway To Heaven. But every band of note has an anthem that becomes a focal point.”
Although SAHB had split up four years earlier, Alex Harvey’s death in 1982 [one day before his 47th birthday] following a heart attack seemed certain to mean a permanent end to the group.
Against all the odds, however, they came together again, albeit without their talismanic namesake. From 2004 until 2008 ex-Shamen sideman Max Maxwell fronted a version of the band that included the other four original members: Cleminson and the two McKennas, plus bassist Chris Glen. They released one live album, 2006's Zalvation – and it opened with The Faith Healer.
“Even without Alex we still love playing The Faith Healer live,” Hugh said. “Max is a performer. He acts out the songs instead of just singing them. So it still feels like the real thing to me.”
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 106, published in May 2007. Hugh McKenna died in 2019.