The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Late starters, late bloomers; I can’t get enough of them, for obvious reasons. Hardly surprising, you might think, that one should hold a special place in one’s heart for people who slog away, seemingly hopelessly, for years, sometimes decades, and then suddenly find, just when they think life has plateaued at a drearily average grey mid-level before plunging into a disappointingly steep decline, that their time has come. On closer examination, though, it’s clear that those lucky bastards who become famous when they reach 40 do so entirely by their own hand, usually to prevent themselves from doing something else by their own hand, if you get me. But yes, let’s have more noble awkward buggers who have to wait until they’re 40 to get anywhere. Especially if they’re Glaswegian.

Alex Harvey was born in 1935, the same year as Presley (just a month younger, in fact – another contrarian Aquarian), older than everyone who came to prominence in the ‘60s, just four years my dad’s junior. So you will realise how unstintingly odd the spectacle of watching your dad become a pop star in the ‘70s would have been to this lad; and yet it has to be said, Harvey was the idol of my early childhood, a hip middle-aged man from Mungosland in a stripey jumper who eulogised Marvel Comics, who was clearly aware of Situationism and free jazz, and who loved the prospect of music being theatrical, not in a pompous sense, but in a provocative sense. Or, to put it more prosaically: Christ, if he can do it…

He grew up in the Gorbals when that was still a major achievement. His father Leslie Harvey – who from photographs in the ‘40s looks the spitting image of my dad – was a political radical and conscientious objector, as the younger Harvey similarly turned out, albeit with a very concrete passion for wargames. Open-minded, his dad turned the young Alex onto blues, folk and jazz, and encouraged his early interest in music-making. He first came to local notice when he won a contest in 1957 to find “Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele” (and there exists a famous photo of the young Harvey, resplendent in his quiff, jamming on guitar with Steele) and thereafter launched a series of locally popular bands including the Kansas City Counts and Alex Harvey and the New Saints, though it wasn’t until the turn of the ‘60s that he formed his first noticeable group, Alex Harvey and his Soul Band. Taking Ray Charles and Bo Diddley as their initial inspirations, people in Glasgow who saw them still speak with awe about their apparently incendiary stage performances. Eventually they decamped to Hamburg, working the same gruelling treadmill as the Beatles had done before them, and while the records which came out at the time are necessarily only a shadow of what they were capable of doing, mention must be made of Harvey’s white-hot demolition of the Isleys’ “Shout” which he recorded in 1963. This almost outdoes Lennon’s assault on “Twist And Shout” in its bloody-minded rawness, and certainly towers over the far more famous cover a year later by Dennistoun’s finest, Lulu, who was inspired to record her version after hearing Harvey’s rendition, rather than directly by the Isleys. About this time the Soul Band incorporated the Leiber and Stoller/Coasters song “Framed” into their act; a number which Harvey would drastically overhaul in the ‘70s.

The Soul Band didn’t last, however, and in 1965 Harvey retreated to London, where he spent the rest of the ‘60s – much like the young David Bowie – experimenting with different styles but not really finding one that was ideal for himself. For much of this time he was a jobbing session musician, and at the same time he was also keeping a paternal eye on his younger teenage brother, Les Harvey, the straight man to Alex’s exuberant exhibitionist who preferred playing guitar to singing. Alex taught Les guitar, and Les eventually graduated to blues-rockers Stone The Crows, with Maggie Bell on vocals. Alex tried proto-Northern Soul with spirited but not especially distinguished readings of things like Edwin Starr’s “Agent 00 Soul” and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”; he then had a go at psychedelia with the shortlived band Giant Moth, and eventually ended up as lead guitarist in the houseband for the Shaftesbury Avenue production of the musical Hair. By all accounts, Alex kept a keen eye on the staging, and made many mental notes which were later to prove advantageous with the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s crucial theatrics.

He proceeded to move closer to the Harvey we recognise from his ‘70s heyday. A 1969 solo album, Roman Wall Blues, featured a title track based on Auden’s similarly-named poem and his first notable song “The Hammer Song,” later to be covered by Nick Cave. The aura was very much Incredible String Band, but in 1970 Harvey even experimented with free jazz when he participated in Ray Russell’s Rock Workshop album. Russell’s particularly bloody-minded approach to the guitar in this period has already been noted in my piece on Bill Fay, and here – with more or less the same line-up as that on Fay’s Time Of The Last Persecution - Harvey finds an especially brutal backing for his two vocal contributions: “Hole In Her Stocking,” which sounds like the Jools Holland Big Band hijacked by Alan Silva’s Celestial Communications Orchestra, and an extraordinary quasi-atonal rendition of “Wade In The Water” with Tony Roberts in a particularly and gloriously bad-tempered mood on tenor sax.

Still, none of it got Alex anywhere, and it was tragic that it took a sudden bereavement for him suddenly to grasp the reins and focus himself. In May 1972, during a Stone The Crows gig in a Swansea club, Les Harvey touched a microphone which was unearthed, was electrocuted and instantly died, aged just 23. Alex was for a short while inconsolable at his brother’s death, but not long afterwards – that particularly Glaswegian brand of bloody-minded determination again – he resolved to form a band to end all bands, with the express ambition to become big, in all senses of the word. He had lost the person he most wanted to protect, he was approaching forty with not a lot to show for 15 years of slogging away; he must have felt that the Sensational Alex Harvey Band was very concretely his last chance.

So he threw everything he knew and wanted into it. He recruited a young Glasgow band, Tear Gas, as his back-up, prominent among whom where the boggle-eyed guitarist Zal Cleminson (who would embrace the SAHB’s theatricality most enthusiastically out of all the members, eventually appearing on stage in full Pierrot make-up and costume) and keyboardist and co-songwriter Hugh McKenna. “The SAHB encompassed everything I knew in 1972,” said Harvey. Unimpressed by the lads’ devotion to the first four Zep albums, he insisted in coaching them in the art of Louis Prima and Hank Williams, teaching them some history, before emerging into the world.

The debut SAHB album Framed sounded, and still sounds, as though Harvey had unlocked the gates which had been kept forcibly locked for 15 years, to let everything he knew flood through. The title track is the same Leiber and Stoller song which was a staple of the old Soul Band’s repertoire, except here it is magnified and distorted into post-modern and apocalyptic shapes - and this was to become stunningly evident in concert, where Harvey would frequently perform the song in the guise of Hitler, and sometimes even Christ, causing much outrage in the Daily Record at the time, as I recall. In many ways Harvey was Glasgow’s Bowie, and his preferred persona of “Vambo” – a staple of Glasgow graffiti well into the ‘80s – came across as a tougher, less sentimental Ziggy. In theatrical extremis he might even be considered the British Iggy Pop; there was that same uncomfortable yet exhilarating feeling of is he going to go over the edge, is he going to commit suicide on stage? Watching him, you felt that he might. ‘60s songs like “Midnight Moses” and “Hammer Song” were dusted down and metalled up; and indeed Louis Prima was evoked, in spirit if not in musical actuality, in epics like “There’s No Lights On The Christmas Tree Mother, They’re Burning Big Louie Tonite!”

The real stride forward, though, came with their second album, Next, released in 1973. Astutely, Harvey employed the glam-rock producer Phil Wainman, who had lately worked with Chinn and Chapman on the Sweet’s classic series of apocalyptic avant-teen anthems, and thrilling stomps like “Swampsnake” almost out-glitter Glitter. The title track is a Grand Guignol reading of Jacques Brel’s mobile army whorehouse epic; far less sardonic than Scott Walker’s reading, it’s undoubtedly melodramatic and more than a little hammy, yet Harvey seems to extract real, palpable grief from the protagonist’s hopeless situation. The album’s setpiece comes with “The Last Of The Teenage Idols” where Harvey looks back at his “Scotland’s Tommy Steele” days, though the dynamics of the music build seamlessly from rock stomp to freeform ambience and back again.

They kept on getting better. 1974’s The Impossible Dream articulated Harvey’s passion for comics and ripping yarns (“Tomahawk Kid”) with a deglossed urbanism (“The Hot City Symphony” which first introduces us to the character of Vambo) which both anticipates and surpasses that of Springsteen. They were practically superstars in Scotland by this time, and unlucky not to cross over to the national charts with the great anti-war tirade masquerading as a Hurricane Smith/Peter Skellern-style ‘30s danceband pastiche, “Sergeant Fury,” which in Scotland sold heavily as a single. Perhaps its B-side, the, shall we say, somewhat literal “Gang Bang” (next to which 50 Cent sounds like the Mull Historical Society), put off the casual punter. Notice, also, how Harvey’s vocals have by this stage subtly mellowed, sounding not that far removed from Andy Fairweather-Low.

The crossover wasn’t far away, though. 1975’s Tomorrow Belongs To Me featured the coruscating avant-rock-pre-punk-metal workout that was “The Faith Healer” and the gloriously sneered torch song “Give My Compliments To The Chef,” and then a rush-released live album the same year did the trick. From it, Harvey’s deconstruction and reassemblage of the old Tom Jones camp chest-beater “Delilah” was extracted as a single and finally got him into the national Top 10 and – absolutely unforgettably to those who witnessed it - onto TOTP. It’s an astonishing performance; Harvey systematically stripping the song of all Jones’ hip-swinging mockery and real-man affectations, reducing it to what it always was; a cheap, lurid, squalid tale of jealousy and murder which needed no dressing up to cheapen it further, Harvey physically writhing as though he were already strapped into the electric chair, staring coldly yet fearfully at the camera – “forgive me Delilah, I just couldnae take any more…” You could smell the fear on Noel Edmonds’ face as the camera panned back. “Er, and now let’s brighten things up again with Mike Batt and the New Edition as we go to Summertime City…”

It’s safe to say that their Christmas season of gigs at the Glasgow Apollo in December 1975 saw the SAHB at their absolute zenith. My dad took me to one of them, and to me it was the first indication that pop, or rock, could visually, as well as aurally, change the way you thought, or even the way you walked through the world. This extraordinary post-Artaud avant-garde theatre being unfurled before us, and yet the atmosphere was practically Cup Final day at Hampden Park; the SAHB were heroes, adored and idolised.

After that, though, two follow-up singles “Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues” and “Runaway” (the Del Shannon song, taken from their speedily recorded Pin Ups-style cover versions album, The Penthouse Tapes, didn’t do much business, so they left Vertigo Records and signed up with Mountain Records, a new label formed by their manager Bill Fehilly, a close friend whom Harvey had known since the ‘50s. Their first album for the label, 1976’s SAHB Stories, was fairly routine, but did yield a second major hit single in the ominous “Boston Tea Party,” Harvey’s loaded Bicentennial tribute, which he performed on TOTP standing stock still like a cigar store Indian, letting his face, now mischievous, now threatening, do all the work. Sometimes he was more unsettling when he was quiet.

And then it all started to unravel. Fehilly died in a ‘plane crash in July 1976 (a second unexpected blow and personal loss to Harvey), the books of Mountain Management might have well been painted in red, and something in Harvey had undeniably been extinguished. His alcoholism, already considerable, escalated still further; punk was on the horizon, and though Harvey was still “on side,” the theatricals were starting to look a little contrived and grandiloquent compared to what the Pistols were generating (though Harvey was a big Pistols fan, even at one point expressing an interest in managing them). Moreover, his friend Ian Dury was quietly, if amicably, overtaking him on the outside lane; New Boots And Panties conjures up, among many other things, the sort of attitude and music of which a younger, hungrier and fitter Harvey would have been capable.

After one more SAHB album, 1977’s nondescript Rock Drill, Harvey wound the band up. One unexpected fan of the SAHB was Carla Bley, who saw them on a US tour and, impressed by Harvey’s theatrics, asked him to participate in her then husband Michael Mantler’s musical adaptation of Pinter’s Silence, with Robert Wyatt and Bley herself taking the other two main vocal parts. Harvey was likewise a big Bley fan, but less so of Mantler, and wisely turned the project down (the album was eventually recorded with Kevin Coyne taking Harvey’s place, but the record is an embarrassing, disjointed mess and was uniformly panned at the time of its original release). Instead he opted to record an audio documentary for K-Tel about the Loch Ness Monster. K-Tel promptly went bust. He undertook some shambolic semi-Broadway musical performances at the London Palladium, and recorded a couple more albums, The Mafia Stole My Guitar (1979) and The Soldier On The Wall (1982), neither of which need detain any of your time.

He was on the way out, and despite forming a new band, the less than enticingly named Electric Cowboys, he finally succumbed to a heart attack while waiting for a ferry in Zeebrugge in February 1982, one day before what would have been his 47th birthday; outliving Presley by four-and-a-half years, outliving my dad by just over six months. He didn’t live to see Nick Cave, then still frontman of the Birthday Party, taking elements of Harvey’s art to previously unimaginable extremes; but the pain was over. These days he’s something of a historical curio, unheard of and largely unheard by anyone under 40; but he deserves to be more than that. A late bloomer who nevertheless died an early death; was the latter the necessary price to pay for the former?

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