I long ago lost count of the number of times I heard that introduction during the first half of the seventies. 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 died last week. I want to remember Alex Harvey as I knew him and I want you to bear me witness. If you knew him too then you'll know what I saw is true, and if you didn't then I wish you had.
I remember him like this: after a sold-out Rainbow show where the SAHB were received - totally received - by an utterly open audience, Alex was hunched over in a corner, desolated. There was a post-gig party going on all over the balcony, and Alex was convinced that he hadn't communicated what he wanted to communicate to the audience: the gig had been a 'success', but Alex felt he hadn't done what he wanted to do. In fact, he had: the reaction from the audience had been as honest and enlightened as the band's performance, and he finally allowed himself to be convinced of this. 'But I don't ever,' he insisted, spacing the words out very calmly and very definitely, 'want to hear that Harvey was great if Harvey was shit. If I'm shit I want to know about it.
I remember him like this: in Miami, Florida, the day after the band's truck - containing all their instruments and equipment and costumes - was ripped off from outside the hall where they'd played. Alex was running around a dolphinarium in T-shirt, shorts and cowboy boots admiring the most intelligent species on the planet. He only alluded once to the disaster. 'I wouldn't'a minded,' he announced, 'but I had a coupla Sergeant Fury comics lyin' around in that truck.
And I remember him like this, too: a small, solidly built, black-haired man with rough, seamed features, gapped front teeth, eyes both piercing and amused and a grin that hit his face like an earthquake. He had the kind of voice that most English people would consider to be archetypically Glaswegian, and he embodied warmth, compassion and an all-consuming interest in and concern for other people. He was also one of the least bitter people I have ever met.
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.
His work derived from a variety of sources: his own experience of growing up in a decaying inner city, the music which he had discovered in his early teens and identified with so thoroughly (the music of artists like Billie Holiday, Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Parker, Django Reinhardt, Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Hank Williams, Big Bill Broonzy and Little Richard), and a rich vein of fantasy. He loved King Kong and Treasure Island, Sergeant Fury and his Howlin' Commandos and Tarzan, Frankenstein and Rio Bravo, Dashiell Hammett and Marlon Brando. In concert, he would demand 'Let me put my hands on you' and - in character as The Faith Healer - he would provide a series of Saturday morning serials that took what was going on outside the cinema into account.
He could appear as Vambo, the graffiti-spraying Robin Hood of the tenements, as the piratical narrator of 'The Tomahawk Kid', as the trench-coated private eye trapped in the bewildering case of 'The Man In The Jar', and - probably most memorably - as the doomed Wild One-style hoodlum of 'Framed', a number which eventually developed into one of the most highly charged set-pieces on the British rock stage.
Originally, he would appear as the Brandoesque biker villain implausibly claiming to have been stitched up, punch his way through a fake brick wall at the back of the stage and - by stuffing a stocking-mask into his mouth - transform into the Brando of The Godfather, still pleading his innocence. As the piece changed over the years, Alex took it to the furthest extreme by doing the number as Adolf Hitler, a confrontational reaction to the early signs of the increasing threat of the bonehead Right.
Yet Alex was not only effective when working with his props and costumes. Before the formation of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, I saw him work supported only by a bass player and a drummer, and he was excellent. And even with SAHB, two of his most effective performances utilized no elaborate devices; 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.
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. He did the same with 'Delilah', the old Tom Jones chestbeater, by forcibly entering the song and demonstrating exactly what it was about: murder and sexual jealousy, something squalid and vicious and utterly unworthy of glamorization.
It is a familiar truism to say of performers that there was no pretence or artifice about them, but in the case of Alex Harvey it is totally appropriate. When he told his audiences that he loved them they believed him, and the reason that they believed him was that they knew it was true. He commanded the same kind of love, trust and respect that Ian Dury does, the kind that comes from a relationship with the audience that is based on honesty. 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.
Prior to the arrival of punk, Alex and his band enjoyed the closest relationship with the urban realities of the UK of any of their contemporaries and competitors. The SAHB foreshadowed punk, welcomed it and broke up with its arrival.
The two greatest contributing factors to the decline in Alex's fortunes over the last five years were the death of Bill Fehilly, his long-time manager and close friend, and a severe back injury during a tour which rendered him immobile and in great pain for quite some time. Bruised and debilitated both emotionally and physically, he never quite regained his full powers. He formed a post-SAHB band which made one patchy album for RCA which was redeemed by two astonishingly powerful tracks, and had returned to low-key touring during 1981.
What comes most often to mind when thinking of Alex Harvey is his warmth, his humour, his compassion and his seemingly endless capacity to give. It's foolish to talk about his quarter-century in music and his long service to rock and roll as if it was a spell in the army or a lifetime job in an insurance company.
Alex Harvey started in music in the fifties as 'Scotland's Tommy Steele', he formed a band that backed visiting American starts from Vincent and Cochran to John Lee Hooker, he played nightclubs and musicals and finally got to be famous, and the whole time he just gave and gave. Whenever he was in someone's company, he gave himself unreservedly to that person. When he was in front of an audience he gave himself unreservedly to that audience.
A faith healer indeed.
His death comes ten years after that of his younger brother Leslie, the lead guitarist and founder member of Stone The Crows, a soul-influenced early-seventies band featuring Maggie Bell as lead vocalist. It was after Leslie died of electrocution onstage that Alex marshalled his full artistic and personal resources to go out and really do it, to express that dream he had of rock and 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.
Alex Harvey was my sergeant. I never met anyone quite like him and I never will again.