Sensational: Thirty years after his death, Alex Harvey’s music is still influential

Alex Harvey pictured in  August 1975
Alex Harvey pictured in August 1975
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MUCH has happened in the 30 years since Alex Harvey died, on the eve of his 47th birthday, on 4 February 1982.

The characteristics that bemused mainstream audiences in the 1970s – the singer’s theatricality, signature outfit, bonkers back story, broad Glasgow accent – have, in the intervening years, become highly desirable and deeply marketable. Today there are dad rock mags which devour the forgotten legends of yesteryear, MTV and its many imitators, a vast heritage rock touring circuit. Each one would adore the mercurial, chameleon rocker, if only he had lived to enjoy their attention.

The frontman of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (SAHB) had a heart attack while waiting for a ferry in Zeebrugge. After six productive years, the group had fallen gradually to bits and Harvey left in 1978. He had formed a new band, and was returning from shows in Belgium, when he died.

Harvey in his black-and-white striped top was glam rock via the Gorbals, a menacing mix that stood out in the pre-punk era. He came to rock music comparatively late, having won a contest to find Glasgow’s “Tommy Steele” in the 1950s, and played in the house band for the musical Hair for five years. He called himself “the last of the teenage idols”. Slade’s Noddy Holder had a different view: “Alex was pure rock theatre. He was decadent rock burlesque. No-one else was doing it. He was ahead of his time.”

Despite not being heavily remastered and repackaged over the years, Harvey’s music has inspired several generations of disparate musicians and still resonates today. John Lydon cited him as an influence and Ian Dury’s narrative songs have Harveyesque touches. Nick Cave covered him with his pre-Birthday Party group, Concrete Vulture. “The band were extraordinary,” he said of SAHB. “And his lyrics are just the most twisted thing, the places he went, nobody went.”

Fish from Marillion is a lifelong fan who saw SAHB supporting The Who in 1976. He went on to collaborate with the surviving band members after Harvey’s death. “I always loved Alex’s voice and the band’s style, his dramatic stage presence and vocal style.” More recently Jon Fratelli – another Glaswegian with a taste for burlesque – described Harvey as “the craziest, most talented performer I think I’ve ever seen.”

While the band did bother the charts, with a cover version of Tom Jones’ Delilah in 1975 and Boston Tea Party in 1976, it was their intense live shows which formed the basis of their reputation. They had, according to Martin Kielty, whose book Alex Harvey: Last Of The Teenage Idols is published next month, a way of winning over any audience, however unpromising. “Fans of Slade and The Who, notoriously scornful of other bands, loved SAHB. Who else could have toured with Jethro Tull and the Tubes, and won fans from both their crowds?”

For Kielty, it’s SAHB’s unusual geographic and musical influences that set them apart. “They didn’t fit, and in an environment hunting for new ways to express identity, that was exactly what made them so special. The Glasgow that had spawned them was being torn down. The heavy rock movement had been around long enough for people to become bored by it. But SAHB didn’t just draw influence from heavy rock – they leaned just as much into music-hall, vaudeville and traditional music.”

Harvey was an astute self-promoter, telling people he had done more than 40 different jobs, including carving tombstones and taming lions. If the occasion called for a Glasgow hardman, Harvey could play that part too. Backstage at the first ever Knebworth festival, in 1974, SAHB were relaxing in a caravan. The Doobie Brothers’ minders came along and tried to throw them out. Harvey’s response was: “You can tell the Doobie Brothers if they want this caravan, they’re going to have to fight us with knives.”

The band were all inveterate booze hounds and womanisers. After they finished recording their last album Rock Drill in 1978, the studio manager was still finding empty whisky bottles and beer cans in the garden six months later. Harvey’s nocturnal adventuring was once outed by a heckler at a show at the Glasgow Apollo. Performing the song Framed with his customary bravado, he stood centre stage, bathed in the spotlight. “Ah didn’t do nothing,” he pleaded, arms outstretched. In the dramatic pause that followed an audience member interjected. “Aye ye did. Ye shagged ma sister.”

They were darlings of the music press. Allan Jones, later editor of Melody Maker, who used to hitchhike to SAHB shows, called them “the only band that made any kind of sense to me at that time”. The NME’s Charles Shaar Murray wrote in an obituary: “Alex Harvey had the insight to locate the central core of the song and the passion to get him to that core. His performance of Jacques Brel’s Next is purest bravura, and it works precisely because Harvey reduced the distance between himself and the song to nothing. He became the song, was utterly present in the song and, by doing so, pulled the listener right in there himself.”

For rock critic David Belcher, the band had a musicality that made them stand out. “SAHB’s music was uniquely nimble: dynamic, tuneful and powerful heavy rock deftly played. Rock is usually boys-only music, but SAHB’s worked for women too, in part, because Alex was self-deprecating, consciously daft and dryly witty.

“All his songs told stories, or tried to make some sort of wider social point, without being obvious and bludgeoning. He brought an unusual range of pop culture influences: cartoon superheroes; pulp fiction detectives; inner-city gangland and its graffiti; stage musicals. He was educated, informed, aware, older than the average pop star and thus more knowing. Alex was also the very definition of gallus: charismatic, cocky, smart, self-made.”

Why does he continue to resonate in today’s overcrowded musical marketplace? According to Shaar Murray, Harvey had a singular ability to “express that dream he had of rock’n’roll, not as the sad and discredited thing that it sometimes seems to be, but as something as rough and warm and wild and generous as he was himself.”