Premature success, like premature birth, can be a tragedy. Like a child who's born before it really knows what's happening, musicians can often find early success which later deteriorates, leaving one hit wonders pumping petrol in Scarborough five years after their third appearance on Top Of The Pops.
To think that Alex Harvey, given a different wind at a different time, might have recorded "Little White Bull" that the Scottish Tommy Steele might at this very moment be preparing for a Christmas panto... well, it is to think the impossible.
Alex Harvey had never thought much about an unnatural success. He won the title of "Scotland's Tommy Steele" at 21, and proceeded into an amplified skiffle band, which was, one suspects, bad news.
The good news was the Alex Harvey Big Soul Band, a good small band which sacrificed nothing in backing Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and gained a creditable reputation as a blues band, right up there with John Mayall.
It is necessary to ask of a man who floats along through a period where he is near the top, and later emerges (like now) at the top, where the ideas and goods were in say, 1959, 1963, 1967 or any of the adjacent years. Alex Harvey and his various bands were then bopping up and down the country, playing regions and towns that would leave them with, well, enough to live on, but not much towards comforts.
The answer is, fortunately, that apart from a little of the mellowing and shaping that age brings anyone, Alex Harvey was, far from going to the mountain, waiting for the mountain to come to him. It came, in the form of a great band and a whole new audience.
Even now, as he teeters on the edge of his greatest popular success, Alex is canny about his future. "I'm not all that interested in success, whatever that is. There's more to life than being big".
Somehow you can't picture the man stuffed into a tuxedo and singing "I Did It My Way", but the sentiment is the same, albeit a bit less indulgent.
"What use is popular success", Alex wondered, "if it's not acclaim for what you wanted to do in the first place. I can't understand it, people keep asking me if it feels good to be a success. I just ask, what does that mean? In my own terms I've been a success for years".
The point is that with the new album, Tomorrow Belongs To Me, Alex Harvey and his Sensational Band may just be among the most popular of British bands.
"It's a complete departure for us", Alex told me. "It's sort of a cross between Framed and Next on one hand, and The Impossible Dream on the other.
"Like most of our stuff, it was written while we were on the road, last December during our American tour. You know, it was written on planes and in dressing rooms, some of the lyrics popped into my head in the middle of the night. It just happens".
"My favourite track is probably 'The Tale Of The Giant Stone-Eater'. I was holidaying up in the West of Scotland, and I was driving along a bit called the Road to the Isles, Bonnie Prince Charlie Country, and all of a sudden I saw this enormous bulldozer, eating through centuries of history; really unspoiled, beautiful land was just disappearing so a motorway could be built.
"It just came to me, I sat down and wrote it out. It's spoken, a bit like 'Man In The jar' off the last album in form, but an extension of that. There's a lot of sadness in it, but also plenty of hope. We've put strings and horns on it, and I guess it's about as serious as I get".
Hugh McKenna wrote the music and Alex, as always, wrote all the lyrics. Again, as always, they reflect his tremendous sense of humour. Even in the darkest moments, with evil breathing down his neck, he manages to see the funny side of things. "I guess it comes of living in Glasgow. If you don't laugh you tend to end up an awfully moany, preaching sort of person. I think it's probably better to laugh".
Harry Secombe once said that the one thing which spoiled his career as a serious tenor was an inexplicable need to cross his eyes for the camera at the critical note. It's this kind of need that Alex also shares.
So the music was and will be broken up with Alex's strong comic sense. Glasgow does seem to produce false prophets and real comedians in equal numbers, Alex belongs to the latter clan. The answer is to laugh, even when it hurts the most and judging by Alex Harvey's life, it seems pretty good advice.
If his sense of humour had failed him eight years ago, he might then, as he says, have started job number 38.
"When you get your freedom, don't piss in the water supply"
Alex Harvey c 1974
The Alex Harvey Big Soul Band broke up in 1967 after eight years, and Alex went to work as a night club guitarist. The London production of Hair opened, and Alex had a steady gig as a guitarist in the band. Six nights a week, a couple of matinees, a regular cheque and someone else's music, no stage, no travelling and no encores.
Whatever he lost in that period, which lasted four years, Harvey picked up afterwards. It took Tear Gas, a Glaswegian band of heavy tastiness, to bring out the best of Alex Harvey, and also the best of Tear Gas.
The amalgamation of Alex Harvey and Tear Gas, hereafter known as the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, was a rich and important undertaking for both parties. Compared to Alex the rest of the boys were kids. Zal Cleminson, Ace guitarist; Chris Glenn, bass guitarist; Hugh McKenna, electric piano; and his cousin Ted McKenna, drummer.
The union was, as they say in Glasgow, "Fucking magic, Jimmy": good musicians and a great personality. A series of small victories followed: London clubs; the Reading and Buxton festivals; a tour with Slade...
Imagine, for a moment, touring with Slade. An audience packed full of yobs and would-be yobs, all come to see Slade. They don't want to see you — you're an impediment, a barrier, and by God you'll know it before you go off. Part of Alex's act at that time consisted of defiantly breaking up a chair by smashing it against the floor. One night, in Leeds, the chair wouldn't break. No matter how many times Harvey smashed it to the stage it wouldn't give. Neither would the audience, but he smashed that chair later. In spite of it, in spite of the audience, it broke, and with it, if it isn't too cute, so did the audience.
That tour almost broke the sensational Alex Harvey Band as well. They went to Reading and, coming on at the 6 o'clock 'hangover spot', stirred a more sympathetic audience into action.
Framed, the first album, gave everyone a good look at the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Uncompromising funky rock. Alex hadn't forgotten his funky background, and Tear Gas remembered their progressive rock roots very well. It was a mutual education, a feast for everyone and an album with a lot to say. Violently anti-authoritarian, anti-anything but the human spirit, the first album was well, if sparsely received.
The second, Next, was a bit more sure, relaxed if you will. The band was a Band: they worked well together, the compositions were funky and funny — little numbers like "Gang Bang" and "Swampsnake" began to appear, and with them a hint of the unvicious humour that makes this band sensational.
Sex and laughter are never very far apart, and always present in Next. And always, the funk with the good, raunchy renditions which Cleminson, Glenn and the McKennas handle so well.
Next has its wankers, "The Faith Healer" and "The Last Of The Teen Age Idols", and one not too serious hero "Vambo". Vambo is cool, living in the present with all its frightening choices and traps but he still has his faith in goodness. A criminal? Yes, but who's side is he on? Ours.
And then with a thud, comes The Impossible Dream.
It should have been the big one for the band. Their tours were picking up — people had seen the band in dance halls and pubs a year ago, were now going to the Palladium and Odeons to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, plus supporting bands.
It wasn't so much a bad album as a soft album. The band had gone out on a limb with The Impossible Dream. For anyone else it might have been a serious error, but Alex has been in the trees too long for serious mistakes. It was good but not nearly as strong, with a few notable exceptions like "Sergeant Fury", "Anthem" and a second coming of sorts for "Vambo". Very inventive but short of funk.
What was surprising and telling about the band as well was the number of fans that the band picked up with The Impossible Dream. Alex and the band would hold their following and in addition picked up a good sized audience from people who liked Dream.
Now there is a fourth album, Tomorrow Belongs To Me. Typically ironic (the title is taken from a favourite Hitler Youth ditty) full of raunchy sex and bawdy humour, as in "You Left My Soul in Chains": Did you read my letter, published yesterday? Lookin' for a brand new piece of meat to pass the time away. Once again, in a subdued but nonetheless vital fashion, the funk is there.
Whether or not this is THE album that makes the Sensational Alex Harvey Band or not is really academic, just as popular success is academic for Alex and the band as well. They do what they do well, and they just won't do anything else. They're honest, funny, powerful... "Fucking Magic".
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