Albums In My Collection
– The Joker Is Wild (released as “Alex Harvey”)
– The Impossible Dream
– Tomorrow Belongs to Me
– The Penthouse Tapes
– SAHB Stories
– British Tour ’76
– Fourplay (released as “SAHB Without Alex”)
– Rock Drill
It’s a rare occasion when a band pops onto the music scene that so thoroughly defies description, is so unexpectedly different in more ways than one, that no future band ever comes close to fitting the same mold no matter how hard it tries. It all comes down to a trio of necessary traits that I like to refer to as SSI—Sound, Style, and Image. Many bands excel at one or two of the “S’s” but perhaps lack innovation when it comes to the “I.” On the flip side, other bands may successfully create their own unique “I” but either one or both of their “S’s” is nothing new.
Certainly some bands introduced a truly innovative sound (like Jethro Tull or Gentle Giant or Led Zeppelin), some bands developed a unique style of playing instruments or arranging songs as to influence scores of future musicians (such as Van Halen or Dream Theater or Rush), while other bands possessed an off-the-wall image that provided a shocking treat for the eyes (like Alice Cooper or Kiss or New York Dolls). Yet it’s a beautiful rarity when a band is simultaneously innovative in all three SSI areas. The Beatles, Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, and Genesis immediately spring to mind, and all three bands were originally considered “out there” by both music industry insiders and the listening audience when they started generating a buzz. Some, like the aforementioned bands, eventually became household names, while others, however, continue to remain nothing more than “cult status acts” with their names seemingly destined to slowly disappear into the annals of time.
One such talented band falls—unfortunately and unfairly—into the latter category…
During my youth, never had a band been so “out there” as to leave an immediate and an enduring impression on me than The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. The band’s name alone (dripping with arrogance and presumption) was enough to make it a bit different and arouse my curiosity. And better still, the band certainly fit the same mold as The Beatles, The Mothers Of Invention, and Genesis, being innovative in all three SSI areas as mentioned above…
1) SAHB’s sound was certainly “out there,” with the band successfully merging so many genres into its albums—from Hard Rock to Progressive Rock, from Blues Rock to Cabaret, from Glam Rock to Vaudeville, etc. etc. etc.—that the listener never knew quite what to expect with each subsequent release. And…
2) SAHB’s style of playing with certainly “out there” when it came to its off-the-wall instrumentation, often bizarre arrangements, and a highly dramatic singer with a thick Scottish brogue and sandpaper gruffness to his tone. SAHB were also prone to add wailing saxes or harmonicas or brass sections or bagpipes as aural surprises on several tracks. The lyrics were typically creative, humorous and highly sardonic, usually spitting on the fine line between naughtiness and political correctness. To sum up, the phrase “stunningly campy” accurately describes SAHB’s overall style. And finally…
3) SAHB’s image was definitely “out there” when it came to a theatrical aspect—I mean, what other band boasted an auburn-haired guitarist always adorned in photos and on stage in clown makeup who could easily twist his face into cartoonish expressions, not to mention a lead vocalist who happily donned various costumes or used props on stage to dramatize the stories within the often-silly lyrics?
Yes, SAHB possessed a healthy dose of SSI for certain, and was nothing if not unique.
Now, to be perfectly honest, Alex Harvey was not exactly the most talented crooner. As a “straight” singer, his tone and accuracy left a lot to be desired, so his appeal had its limitations. But what he did possess was a wicked sense of humor and an enviable sense of the dramatics. So with a talented group of musicians behind him, individuals who had a wide range of influences in their arsenal and readily embraced the theatrical side of music, Alex’s vocal style fit in quite nicely and seemed somehow appropriate. And of course, like most bands, it took SAHB several albums before its sound and image fully developed and gelled.
The band’s debut platter, The Joker is Wild, appeared back in 1972. Because the album was released under the name “Alex Harvey,” though, it’s typically not recognized as an official release by the band, even though the five individuals (Alex, along with Zal Cleminson on guitar, Hugh McKenna on keyboards, Chris Glen on bass guitar, and Ted McKenna on drums) all performed on it. On this disc, the band plays predominantly Hard Rock and Blues Rock. Although with the band including quite a few cover songs on this album (as it would often do in the future…re-imagining songs from other artists and making them sound like SAHB creations), you have a hint of what would eventually become SAHB during its heyday. Therefore, The Joker is Wild is an “okay” album, nothing great to be certain, but there are a few whimsical moments and, overall, solid musicianship on display.
Framed was released the following year, becoming the first “official” SAHB album. The band’s growth is immediately noticeable. Although some of the tracks are still heavily steeped in Blues Rock (the title track, for one, along with “Buffs Bar Blues” and a cover of the classic Muddy Water’s track “I Just Want To Make Love To You”), other songs flaunt additional musical genres. The track “Isobel Goudie” is heavily dramatic (almost Prog-Rock in its arrangement with Alex singing/speaking the words “Coitus Interruptus,” of all things), the song “Hole In Her Stocking” is a rollicking Boogie-Woogie tune, “Midnight Moses” and “St. Anthony” are a mixture of Hard Rock and Glam Rock, and “There’s No Lights on the Christmas Tree Mother, They’re Burning Big Louie Tonight” is a song with almost a cabaret flair. The humor pours through on just about every track, and this wit would continue throughout the remainder of the band’s releases.
Later that same year, Next… appeared, and by this time, SAHB had fully developed its unique and bizarre style of camp-rock. “The Faith Healer” is one of the album’s highlights, another semi-progressive theatrical excursion that would remain part of the band’s live set for many years to come. The title track (a remake of Jacques Brel’s cabaret ditty) is admittedly a strange choice for inclusion on a Rock album. “Swampsnake” and “Gang Bang” are a mix of Hard Rock and Blues Rock with a “glam” aura. “Giddy Up A Ding Dong” is a cover of a Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys’ track with a 1950’s feel. Several additional tracks add extra strangeness and styles.
The Impossible Dream came in 1974 and remains one of my favorite SAHB albums. Now, fully embracing their campy style, the band slammed forward into full-fledged Rock ‘N’ Roll shenanigans. “The Hot City Symphony” kicks off the album in grand fashion, with “Part 1 – Vambo” being a heavy “glammish” rocker (and another live favorite) and leading into “Part 2 – Man In The Jar,” another stunning example of Theatrical Rock/Glam Rock, with Alex playing a Sam Spade-like detective investigating “the man with no face.” Silly, fun, and highly entertaining with a killer guitar solo, a jazzy and driving rhythm section, along with a full brass section added for extra dimension. Also included on this album was “Tomahawk Kid” (another more theatrical song that also remained a part of their live set), several glam rockers (“Long Haired Music,” “Weights Made of Lead,” and “River of Love”), a quirky 1920’s “flapper” song called “Sergeant Fury,” and the Celtic-sounding “epic” entitled “Anthem.” And also let’s not forget the title track, which is, believe it or not, a brief rocking rendition of the famous song from the musical Man of La Manchia. Holy Crap, talk about a highly diverse collection of tracks!
Striking while the creative fire was hot, Tomorrow Belongs to Me arrived in record stores in 1975 and, like the previous two albums, it featured wonderfully eclectic tracks in various styles. This was the first SAHB album I ever purchased, and it also remains one of my favorites due to a handful of stand-out songs—”Give My Compliments to the Chef,” another Glam-Rock gem with a hint of Prog-Rock, “Shark’s Teeth,” including a frantic opening guitar riff, some jazzy keyboard leads, some rhythm changes and an odd ’30s/’40s sounding middle section (along with an unexpected mention of actor Richard Widmark), and the album’s epic “The Tale of the Giant Stoneater.” This latter track, probably the most ambitious the band ever attempted with all its different segments and orchestration, has to be heard to be believed. Some glam rockers (“Action Strasse,” “Ribs and Balls,” “Shake That Thing,” and “Snake Bite”) fit nicely alongside a Blues-Rock track “Soul In Chains” and the title track, an old German folk song, featuring an accordion, brass section, and gang vocals near the end, sounding as if it’s being performed inside some Bavarian pub. Too weird.
In the latter half of 1975, the band released their “official” Live album (sadly, only a single album when a double or triple album would have been much better). On it, you can hear the way Alex interacts with the crowd and has them eating out of his hand. He was nothing if not a superstar of the stage. Simply fascinating. Besides the terrific performances by every band member, the album also features a version of the Tom Jones’ classic “Delilah.” Worth hearing!
The band soon went back into the studio for the 1976 release The Penthouse Tapes. This time, the band included only three of its own tracks, and for the rest of the album, it recorded renditions of cover songs, including “Crazy Horses” (Neil Young), “Love Story” (Jethro Tull), and “School’s Out” (Alice Cooper). Of course, as only SAHB could do, the band also chose some unlikely songs to record, namely Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” and Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” As always, SAHB put its own trademarked “twists and craziness” on each song.
Next, in 1976, came SAHB Stories, an album of nearly all original songs and probably my favorite of all SAHB albums. There are so many great tracks in the Hard Rock/Glam Rock genres, including “Dance to Your Daddy,” “Sultan’s Choice,” and “$25 For a Massage,” along with one of SAHB’s theatrical-esque songs, “Dogs of War.” But the finest track (oddly, the only non-SAHB original) is “Amos Moses” (made famous by Jerry Reed). SAHB turned this country track into a kick-ass rocker, featuring perhaps Zal Cleminson’s finest guitar solo ever put to tape. Killer!
Something odd (even odd by SAHB’s standards) happened next…in 1977, while Alex was busy on a side project, the band recorded and released the album Fourplay without him. Indeed, the album was even released under the name “SAHB (Without Alex)” and showed only the four musicians on the front cover (and Zal without the usual clown makeup). But, in only SAHB’s “wink-wink/nudge-nudge” fashion, the back cover shows a bound and gagged Alex Harvey kneeling beside a trunk in which he was presumably held captive while his band recorded the album without him. Hilarious! Anyway, although Fourplay has some decent tracks, and the band plays as wonderfully as ever, the album doesn’t do much for me. The “normal” (or “abnormal”) SAHB style is obviously lacking without Alex, so it’s more a “novelty” album for me, a pleasant listen, at best.
A year later, an important change occurred in SAHB with the exit of long-time keyboardist Hugh McKenna, to be replaced by Tommy Eyre for the Rock Drill album. It wasn’t a truly noticeable change when it came to SAHB’s overall sound/style, but it was an omen, and unfortunately this would end up being the band’s last album. Here again, SAHB includes some outstanding rockers (“Rock And Rool” and “Nightmare City”), loads of naughty humor (as in “Who Murdered Sex?”), a few more epic-laden tracks with Prog-Rock leanings (“Rock Drill,” “The Dolphins,” and “King Kong”), and some strangeness (“Water Beastie” and “Booids”). Despite the change in keyboardists, the quality holds up. And even though it’s a shame the band fell apart after this album’s release, at least it went out on a high note.
After SAHB disbanded, Alex formed another group (Alex Harvey – The New Band) with only Tommy Eyre coming with him and new musicians hired to replace the others. This band released an “average” album (The Mafia Stole My Guitar) in 1979. Several years later, at the time of his untimely death in 1982, Alex had just recorded his last album, The Soldier on the Wall, with a whole new set of musicians. The album was released posthumously the following year. (Note: To me, neither album matched the grandeur of the original SAHB, but are both worth investigating anyway.)
I, for one, miss Alex dreadfully. And the sensational band just as dreadfully.
Alex Harvey will always remain a legend, and like most legends, he left behind a legacy of awe-inspiring material by which any musician would be proud. Meanwhile, SAHB remains one of Hard Rock’s most exciting acts to have “ever been,” and a band that sadly is also one of the most-forgotten acts to have emerged from the 1970s. Instead, the band deserves to be honored and revered for its creativity, wackiness, and overall uniqueness. The SSI factor in full, dynamic force.
Oh, and one final thing…Vambo Rules!!!
(Fans of SAHB will know what I mean.)