The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (SAHB) was one of the most eclectic and theatrical rock bands of the 1970s, known for their potent mix of hard rock, glam, and the blues, with an infusion of vaudevillian performance style. Formed in 1972, the band was built around the charismatic figure of Alex Harvey, a seasoned performer from Glasgow, Scotland, who had been active in music since the 1950s.
Before SAHB, Harvey had a varied career, having performed with his own Alex Harvey Soul Band in the early 1960s, and later as part of the rock musical Hair. The formation of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band came about when Harvey joined forces with the members of Tear Gas, a rock band from Glasgow that had seen little commercial success on their own. The original lineup consisted of Alex Harvey on vocals, Zal Cleminson on guitar, Chris Glen on bass, Hugh McKenna on keyboards, and Ted McKenna on drums.
The band released their debut album, Framed, in 1972, which set the stage for their unique blend of rock, but it was their live performances that truly defined them. SAHB’s stage act was a spectacle, featuring theatrical elements like mime and comedy, with Harvey’s dramatic storytelling leading the show. Cleminson’s striking mime-based face paint and stage antics added to the visual impact of their performances.
Their breakthrough came with the 1973 album Next…, which included a cover of the Jacques Brel song “Next” and the noir tale “The Faith Healer,” indicating the band’s ability to tackle a range of subjects with both humor and depth. Over the next few years, SAHB released a string of successful albums including The Impossible Dream in 1974 and Tomorrow Belongs to Me in 1975. Songs like “The Boston Tea Party” and “Give My Compliments to the Chef” showcased the band’s ability to create narrative-driven rock songs with a distinctively theatrical edge.
The band’s commercial peak came with the album Live, released in 1975. This live recording captured the raw energy and performance dynamics that made their concerts memorable. However, by the late 70s, internal tensions and struggles with alcoholism affected Harvey and the band’s momentum began to wane.
After the release of Rock Drill in 1978, the band started to disintegrate. Alex Harvey left the band and went on to pursue a solo career until his untimely death in 1982 from a heart attack. His death marked the end of the band’s original era.
#10 – Isobel Goudie
“Isobel Goudie” is a suite of songs by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band from their 1973 album Framed. This suite is divided into three parts: “Part 1: My Lady of the Night,” “Part 2: Coitus Interruptus,” and “Part 3: Virgin and the Hunter.” These tracks weave a complex story based on the tale of Isobel Goudie, a woman who was tried for witchcraft in Scotland in the 17th century. The narrative within the suite explores themes of sexuality, paganism, and transformation, and it’s delivered with the band’s signature theatrical and darkly humorous style.
The production of the album Framed took place in 1972. The album was produced by the band’s mentor and frontman, Alex Harvey, in collaboration with Phil Wainman, who was known for his work with The Sweet and Bay City Rollers.
The musicianship on Framed, and by extension on “Isobel Goudie,” showcases the varied talents of the band members. Alex Harvey’s theatrical vocal delivery is a standout feature, while Zal Cleminson’s guitar work ranges from driving riffs to intricate solos, demonstrating a style that would become an integral part of the band’s sound. Chris Glen on bass and the McKenna cousins, Hugh and Ted, on keyboards and drums respectively, complete the ensemble, contributing to the song’s dynamic and dramatic arrangements.
Critically, “Isobel Goudie” was received as an ambitious work, encapsulating the band’s ability to create a rock opera-style narrative within the confines of an album. It did not chart as a single, as the suite’s format and length made it unsuitable for a single release. However, it showcased the band’s potential to a broader audience and helped establish their reputation for creating conceptually complex music with a rock edge. The storytelling aspect of the song, combined with the band’s performance, made it a memorable piece for fans and a highlight in live shows. While there was no traditional music video made for “Isobel Goudie,” any live performance footage of the suite would emphasize the band’s dramatic stage presence and Harvey’s compelling interpretation of the characters within the story. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s rendition of “Isobel Goudie” remains a distinctive piece in their discography, representing their fusion of music and theater that set them apart from their contemporaries.
#9 – Last of The Teenage Idols
“Last of the Teenage Idols” is a significant track from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s 1973 album, Next…. The song is an epic in three parts, spanning over seven minutes, and serves as a quasi-autobiographical musing from Harvey, reflecting on the nature of fame and the passage of time. The song’s structure, with its extended length and multiple sections, was a departure from conventional radio-friendly formats of the time, echoing the progressive rock tendencies that were popular in the early ’70s. The line-up of the band on Next… featured Alex Harvey’s distinct vocal style, Zal Cleminson on guitar, Chris Glen on bass, Hugh McKenna on keyboards, and Ted McKenna on drums.
#8 – Anthem
“Anthem” is a grandiose track from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s album The Impossible Dream, released in 1974. The song is not just a showcase of the band’s own talents but is also embellished by the contributions of additional musicians. Vicky Silva’s guest vocals bring a distinctive texture to the track, creating a rich interplay with Alex Harvey’s lead vocal performance. Furthermore, the inclusion of the London-Scottish TA Regiment, providing drums and pipes, infuses the song with a martial and ceremonious air that amplifies its anthemic quality.
This collaboration with external musicians marks “Anthem” as one of the album’s most expansive works, both in terms of musical arrangement and production. The presence of military pipes and drums lends the track a Scottish flavor that resonates with Harvey’s own heritage, and this is juxtaposed with the rock elements provided by the core band members. The result is a piece that is both personal and powerful, and it serves to bring The Impossible Dream to a dramatic and memorable conclusion.
The impact of “Anthem” within the context of the album contributed to the album’s commercial success. The Impossible Dream reached number 16 on the UK Album Charts, a testament to the band’s popularity and the strong reception of their work at the time. The song’s position as the final track on the album acts as a fitting capstone to the eclectic collection of songs, encapsulating the ambition and the diverse influences that The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were known for.
#7 – Next
“Next,” a track from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s 1973 album Next…, is a cover with a significant twist that separates it from its predecessors. The song, an English adaptation of Jacques Brel’s “Au Suivant,” was notably covered by Scott Walker, but it was SAHB’s interpretation that carved a distinct place for the song in rock history. The band’s version is infused with a raw, almost carnivalesque energy that reimagines the narrative with a new intensity.
Alex Harvey’s vocal performance on “Next” is a departure from Brel’s solemn original and Walker’s smoother rendition. Harvey’s voice conveys a sense of lived experience, his Scottish accent adding to the song’s gritty authenticity. The musical arrangement by SAHB transforms the track into something unmistakably their own. The forceful guitar lines, the throbbing bass, and the commanding drum patterns create a sound that’s more aggressive than the earlier versions, aligning with the band’s rock ethos while still honoring the theatrical core of Brel’s work.
#6 – Midnight Moses
“Midnight Moses” is a raucous opening track to The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s debut album, Framed, released in 1972. The song immediately sets the tone for the band’s distinctive blend of rock, blues, and glam with its gritty guitar riffs and Harvey’s commanding vocal presence. With its driving beat and anthemic chorus, “Midnight Moses” captures the essence of SAHB’s energetic and theatrical style that would come to define their live performances.
The production of the Framed album was overseen by the band in collaboration with Phil Wainman, known for his work with a variety of artists and his ability to capture the live essence of a band in the studio environment. The ensemble on the album featured Alex Harvey’s powerful and distinctive voice, Zal Cleminson’s innovative guitar stylings, Chris Glen’s solid bass playing, Hugh McKenna’s dynamic keyboards, and Ted McKenna’s energetic drumming. Together, they created a sound that was both raw and sophisticated, with “Midnight Moses” being a standout example of their tight musicianship and creative synergy.
#5 – Sergeant Fury
“Sgt. Fury,” a track from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s album Next… released in 1973, is a rousing homage to the comic book character Sergeant Nick Fury, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. The song is a fine example ofThe Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s ability to draw inspiration from a wide range of cultural references, imbuing their music with a strong sense of storytelling and character. With lyrics penned by Alex Harvey, Hugh McKenna, and David Batchelor, “Sgt. Fury” combines rock with a march-like rhythm, reflecting the military theme associated with the comic book hero. The album Next… was produced by the band and Phil Wainman, whose expertise helped to sharpen The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s sound to create a more polished yet still edgy production.
#4 – Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues
“Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues” is a track from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s fifth studio album, The Penthouse Tapes, released in 1976. This album was a departure from their previous work, as it was composed primarily of cover versions rather than original compositions. “Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues” is the band’s rendition of a song originally by Jimmie Rodgers, a pioneer of country music, who co-wrote it with Shelley Lee Alley. SAHB’s version of the song is a prime example of their ability to take a classic tune and inject it with their own unique rock sensibility.
The album The Penthouse Tapes showcases the versatility of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, with each member bringing their individual flair to the covers. Alex Harvey’s gritty vocal interpretation of “Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues” adds a layer of rock ‘n’ roll intensity to the country classic. Zal Cleminson’s guitar licks, Chris Glen’s pulsating bass, and the powerful drumming of Ted McKenna create a robust and dynamic sound that complements the original’s storytelling, while Hugh McKenna’s keyboard work adds a distinctive texture that rounds out the band’s arrangement.
Critically, “Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues” exemplifies SAHB’s talent for reimagining and revitalizing songs from a diverse array of genres. Their cover maintains the narrative spirit of Rodgers’ original while elevating it with a dose of rock energy and theatrical drama that was characteristic of the band. Though the album The Penthouse Tapes did not yield significant chart success for individual tracks, it was a testament to the band’s broad musical influences and their skill in adapting various musical styles into their own distinctive sound.
While John Mellencamp’s later cover of “Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues” on his 2018 album Other People’s Stuff brought the song to the attention of a new generation, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s version stands as a notable interpretation that bridged the gap between the traditional roots of the song and the more modern rock approach.
#3 – Boston Tea Party
“Boston Tea Party” is a song by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band that became one of their most recognized hits, featured on their 1976 album SAHB Stories. The song is a rollicking, spirited rock number that draws lyrical inspiration from the historic American event of the same name, which was a protest by American colonists against British taxation policies in 1773. The track is known for its catchy hook and driving rhythm, making it a fan favorite and a highlight of the band’s live performances.
Produced by the band in conjunction with Mountain Records’ David Batchelor, “Boston Tea Party” showcases the SAHB’s musical prowess. The band’s classic lineup with Alex Harvey’s distinctive vocals, Zal Cleminson’s scorching guitar riffs, Chris Glen’s thumping bass, Hugh McKenna’s evocative keyboards, and Ted McKenna’s solid drumming created a sound that was at once anthemic and nuanced. The song’s arrangement cleverly intertwines elements of hard rock with a narrative that pays homage to a pivotal event in the American fight for independence.
Critically, “Boston Tea Party” was well received for its inventive blending of rock music with historical storytelling. The song’s success on the charts, peaking at number 13 on the UK Singles Chart, was indicative of its broad appeal. It struck a chord not only with rock enthusiasts but also with a wider audience due to its catchy melody and accessible storytelling approach. “Boston Tea Party” was an exemplar of how the band could construct songs that were as lyrically engaging as they were musically compelling.
#2 – Delilah
“Delilah” by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band is a robust cover of the song initially made famous by Tom Jones. The track appeared on SAHB’s 1975 album Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Known for their theatrical stage presence and musical innovation, SAHB transformed “Delilah,” a song about a crime of passion, into a rock-infused powerhouse that reflected the band’s gritty and dramatic style. The original song, penned by Barry Mason with music by Les Reed, won the 1968 Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically and was a significant hit for Tom Jones, reaching number two on the UK Singles Chart.
SAHB’s version of “Delilah” was produced by the band in collaboration with Mountain Records’ David Batchelor. The song’s energetic performance and innovative arrangement contributed to its success, allowing it to reach number seven on the UK Singles Chart, a remarkable achievement given the original song’s iconic status.
#1 – The Faith Healer
We close out our top 10 Sensational Alex Harvey Band songs list withe the fantastic song “The Faith Healer.” The song is a quintessential track by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, encapsulating their flair for theatrical rock with a dark and moody undertone. The song is from their 1973 album Next… and stands out for its hypnotic rhythm and Alex Harvey’s intense vocal delivery. A concoction of bluesy hard rock and progressive elements, the song’s brooding atmosphere and lyrical content delve into the world of a charismatic faith healer, exploring themes of belief, desperation, and the search for miracles.
The band, produced by themselves in collaboration with Phil Wainman, brought “The Faith Healer” to life in a way that melded Harvey’s storytelling prowess with the band’s musical capabilities.
Feature Photo by Dominik Scythe
Updated November 7, 2023
Top 10 The Sensational Alex Harvey Band Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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