Why you can't keep a good man down... can you?
Harvey Andrews describes himself as a minority taste. With his partner, Graham Cooper, he has been travelling Europe giving concerts for the past 18 months or so and as a solo "folk singer" he trailed around British clubs and pubs for many years.
The accepted yardstick for comedians is timing, a factor which played a vital part in retarding Harvey's career. Bad timing has dogged him since his first major album, Writer Of Songs, which was released three years ago on the Cube label. Despite the hangover from the "singer-songwriter" period of the late sixties, Harvey's work was acclaimed widely as being individual, sensitive and extremely hard hitting. From that first album a single called "Soldier" was released. It told the story of a serviceman in Ulster who committed suicide by throwing himself on a bomb to save members of the Ulster public. Harvey's unique strength was at once demonstrated by his ability to deal with a charged subject without being, on the one hand, pretentious or, on the other, trite. Following this album, the invisible pundits of the music business tipped Harvey for certain success. Something went wrong.
"Recording Writer was a process of getting songs out of my system. I'd been building up to recording an album for several years and the songs that finally went down were written over a considerable period before I went into the studio. Since then people have asked me why my material has changed so much without realising that at the time I recorded Writer, much of the material was old."
Andrews is a literate, intelligent man of 32. Ten years ago he was a young student – "intense is how I'd describe my feelings then" – who was involved with politics on an active level. Action for the man came easiest through songs and humour. Encouraged to sing from childhood, the young college performer realised that lacing songs - "at that time I'd do a whole evening of Buddy Holly numbers" - with his dry humour enlivened his act and gained greater acceptance for his work. College culture formed his incubator and he eventually emerged when he heard Dylan and realised that it was possible to find an audience for original songs.
"Within a few days of listening to Dylan, I'd written several songs," admitted Harvey with a grin betraying his feelings about the young man.
The intensity Harvey felt in his politically conscious life not only spilled over into his songs, but almost swamped them. But in music his thoughts crystallised themselves and instead of representing the hackneyed murmurings of conventional insurgent youth, they represent statements that are both timeless and about the society that Harvey saw at the time of writing, a society that was essentially urban and yet small.
His prosaicism in song was his strength. All who seek to express feelings through words struggle with the problem of size. Thousands of writers fail because they neglect to cut their subject down to size, but it seems that Andrews understands this problem intuitively and fires his arrows at the larger world through the small, mean lives of the characters that inevitably play a symbolic role in his "comment" songs.
The song about Northern Ireland is encapsulated in one soldier; "Unaccompanied" (from the same album) is an unashamed piece of socialist (communist?) propaganda about an auto worker living in a high rise block; a subject which would automatically reduce lesser writers - and men - to cliches and truisms, illustrates the subtle originality of the Andrews mind.
His lyrics are a triumph of dialectic and didactic brilliance and he is certainly more expert with words than with music.
"I learned a handful of chords on the guitar and never really bothered to improve very much", lies Harvey, as those who have seen him on stage in recent years will know. "That is why I teamed up with Graham Cooper. He's a really great musician and through him I found I could broaden the musical base I work on".
The partnership between the two men has flourished professionally although they don't mix socially. It has produced Harvey's most recent album (he's now on Transatlantic), Fantasy From A Corner Seat and he's a far more professional entertainer today than when he started out with Writer Of Songs.
But somewhere in between Writer and Fantasy, Harvey's timing went off. The big breakthrough didn't happen. Despite selling over 20,000 copies of the single "Soldier" – that was despite a BBC ban on playing it – the national acclaim (which almost everyone who has ever really listened to the man agrees is deserved) hasn't happened.
"I really don't know what I have to do to get a hit", the man admits. "I suppose it takes lowest common denominator music, and I'm only a minority music man.
I've actually tried writing that kind of music, but it hasn't worked. About two years ago I suppose I should have made it but something went wrong. I get a little bitter when I look back at the way my records have been handled. The Album Friends Of Mine which came out at that time didn't really get the exposure it deserved and something went drastically wrong".
It's the little things that push Harvey onwards. Because of the exposure he has received in the last few years, he now plays concerts rather than clubs and manages to make a reasonable living for his wife and three and a half year old son.
"Not so long ago Graham and I recorded an Old Grey Whistle Test for the BBC. On the show with us were three very well known heavy bands and Del Shannon. Two of the heavy bands went on and did their sets and then Del Shannon was interviewed. We were sitting behind him waiting to do our songs and we really enjoyed the interview; he was intelligent and articulate. After the show we were all taken into the reception room and the girls with the boobs hanging out came in and we all got drinks and we settled down to watch a playback of the show. As the bands did their sets everyone listened intently, only the occasional "really great man" and "nice riff" being exchanged. When we came on a few people started talking together and soon their was a real buzz of conversation going on. Del Shannon stood up and shouted 'Do you mind, I want to watch this act, they're playing fine music, certainly the best on the show this evening'.
Stories from Andrews life on the road abound. Several concern the song "Soldier".
"I arrived at a British Army base in Germany to play for the men and their wives. The information that I did this particular song had proceeded me and the camp commander ordered me not to do the song. At that time it was the climax of my act – I'd even done it in an Irish club full of Sinn Fein members in Liverpool and I knew I just had to do it.
"The commander told me that the men were due to leave the next morning to take up active service in Ulster. I went on and I did the number. About half way through, the wives started dissappearing to the bog crying and when I finished there was a silence that seemed to go on for ever and then there was a terrific roar of applause".
Harvey Andrews plays music of the heart. A good performance from him stays in the memory a very long time.
Interview by Ray Hammond
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