Half Prodigy and half New Kids on the Block, nineties UK boy band East 17 (named after the postcode of their native Walthamstow, East London) were unlikely chart toppers and teenybopper heart throbs. They also possessed a likeable penchant for lurid catastrophe, courtesy mainly of front man Brian Harvey, whose escapades we’ll get to momentarily…
The group were cobbled together by Tony Mortimer, after a record company showed interest in his homegrown pop-rap paeans to raunchy sex, raving and world peace, but would offer him a contract only if he came back as part of a boy band. My abiding impression is that Mortimer went straight to a Walthamstow rave and recruited the first three drug dealers he bumped into. Certainly two of them, John Hendy and Terry Coldwell, were a riddling if thuggish presence over the following years, neither possessing obvious boy band looks or even singing/dancing abilities – their apparent remit to strike silly poses in the suggestive vicinity of keyboards.
While entirely in keeping with the group’s drug dealer aesthetic, third recruit Brian Harvey was also a good enough looker, mover and singer to qualify as the band’s front man – crooning Mortimer’s portentous but tuneful choruses and rubbing his muscles in a succession of improbably tall sock-hats. The band went on to have twelve top ten hits and sell an impressive 20 million records, mostly to young ladies almost certain to start smoking the very millisecond they hit thirteen.
But Harvey would prove himself something of a loose cannon, and in a 1997 radio interview made the unabashed assertion (elegantly inverting the usual boy-band shtick) that “drugs are cool” and that ecstasy could not only “make you a better person” but was “safe” – something Harvey could personally vouch for, he explained, as he had once boshed twelve pills in a single night. After the general laugher had died down, even the staunchest ecstasy apologists were questioning the wisdom of advocating such incautious indulgence to a basically pubescent audience. Questions were raised in Parliament! The tabloids erupted! Harvey was sacked!
Cue wilderness years for all concerned (the band, it transpired, couldn’t survive without their talismanic lout). Then, following a stalled attempt or two at a solo career, Harvey returned to the public eye in May of 2005 courtesy of a very strange incident indeed. “I’d been stuffing my face with jacket potatoes,” he later explained. “They were big. I put cheese on, then tuna mayonnaise and I ate the lot.” Shortly after this characteristically immoderate meal, Harvey decided to drive to a friend’s, and was just backing out in his Mercedes when he started to feel sick. He opened the car door to puke onto the roadside, and it was at this moment that he made a terrible mistake. “Instead of putting my foot on the brake, I hit the accelerator and it flew back. It must have hit four or five parked cars and thrown me out.” Harvey was subsequently crushed beneath the wheel of his own vehicle, sustaining horrendous injuries:
“The car went over my stomach and pushed it up into my lungs, both lungs completely deflated, my diaphragm was ripped and my pelvis was smashed in seven places. I don’t remember the ambulance or hospital. I just remember waking up three weeks later in intensive care with tubes coming out of me.”
The incident was a minor pop culture phenomenon in the UK, and it has long been my suspicion that its impact was partly due to its coalescing, deep in the national unconscious, with Harvey’s earlier drug boasts, which thanks to the accident placed ecstasy and jacket potatoes in a paradoxical dynamic whereby it was demonstrativelyimpossible to do too much of the recreational drug but all too easy to overdose on the vegetable.
In the wake of Harvey’s hospitalisation, reporters discovered that he had actually overdosed (on pharmaceuticals this time) earlier that year in an apparent suicide attempt, and speculated that he had run himself over on purpose. “If you were going to kill yourself you wouldn’t do it like this,” Harvey balked. Guess not, and his incredulity is easy to sympathise with, though it speaks volumes about his public image that he was even considered capable of such a cockeyed scheme. Ultimately, Harvey took it all in his philosophical stride: “You’ve gotta laugh,” he concluded, following a lengthy but full recovery.
My own low-grade but long-standing obsession with East 17 and Brian Harvey received recent refuelling when I found myself temporarily residing in Walthamstow. It’s the kind of dead-zone that has an entirely ironic online tourist board, and where people try and mug you in broad daylight (if you ignore them, they mostly lose interest). And so, when I came across the supposed street name where the potato accident occurred, I was excited, and headed there the following day with a fellow Harvey enthusiast and a raw potato.
I had anticipated ending up on one of Walthamstow’s more salubrious neighborhoods (presuming such a thing exists), and was instead confronted with a leafy jumble of sun-splashed estates – was Harvey, we wondered, still living in council accommodation in 2005 despite selling twenty million records? Impressive. We hung out a bit with the potato, ignored a couple of muggers, and noticed a single flash-looking motor. In the spirit of those oddballs who brought apples to the Apple store when Jobs died, we gently placed our potato beneath the car’s door and left.
Back at mine, I found myself sincerely hoping that Harvey had since moved, and that the posh motor hadn’t been his own – in which case our tender little tribute might easily be misconstrued as a strange and sinister threat…
Thanks to Amy Gwatkin!
Posted by Thomas McGrath |