Musical tastes are important when it comes to relationships, something I realized the night Alex Harvey died, in 1982. The radio was playing a loop of tracks in memory of the great man, when my then girlfriend asked why I liked The Sensational Alex Harvey Band? I explained, and she replied, ‘But he looked so dirty, like a bad workman that would come to your house and drink Dad’s booze and fuck Mom.’ She had a point, and some imagination, but that was the moment I knew we wouldn’t last.
If you lived in Glasgow in the 1970s, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were bigger than Jesus. Well, Alex was at least, for he was one of the city’s three religions - the other two being soccer and alcohol. While soccer could disappoint, and drink left you hungover, SAHB never let you down.
As Charles Shaar Murray wrote, after Alex Harvey’s death in the NME:
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were one of the craziest, most honest, most creative and most courageous bands of their time, and also the most public and best-known phase of the career of Alex Harvey, the man who won a Tommy Steele rock-alike contest in Glasgow in the mid-fifties and thereafter dubbed himself The Last Of The Teenage Idols.
Alex Harvey was a genuine working-class hero, born in Plantation, the harbor district of Glasgow in 1935, he grew up with a love of Billie Holliday, Big Bill Broozny, Charlie Parker, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. In 1959, he formed his first band, Alex Harvey’s Soul Band, which established his great, cigarette and alcohol voice that didn’t mimic American inflection, but delivered songs in his native Glaswegian. The band toured the U.K. and Europe, and for one gig had the embryonic Beatles as support.
But Harvey was more than just a Blues singer and he moved on to performing in the musical Hair, which inspired the theatrical style he used with his most successful group, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
SAHB were unique as they mixed genres and styles - Weimar cabaret, film, Blues, rock and torch song, with which, as Murray writes, “they achieved their impact simply because Alex Harvey had the insight to locate the central core of the song and the passion to get him to that core.”
What showed most about Alex Harvey the performer was his very real devotion to his audiences. He would go to any length to enlighten and to entertain, and - as his notion of theatrical presentation developed from a few simple costume changes and bits of business to complex arrangements of props and gadgets - his work was never bombastic and never attempted to substitute extravagance for genuine communication. Time after time, he would exhort his audiences to avoid both private and institutionalized violence - “don’t make any bullets, don’t buy any bullets and don’t shoot any fucken bullets” - and to behave responsibly towards each other and their environment - “don’t pish in the water supply.”
During the period of Alex’s greatest popularity, he did not just provide an escape from everyday existence through dem ol’ rock and roll fantasies, but he depicted and celebrated that existence and the process of that escape, and the relationship of one to the other.
Vambo still rules.