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Sensational Alex Harvey Band - The Penthouse Tapes
Review No: 294
Alex Harvey: Vocals, Guitar
Zal Cleminson: Guitar
Ted McKenna: Drums
Hugh McKenna: Keyboards
Chris Glenn: Bass
The Sensational Alex Harvey band was formed in 1972, when a thirty eight year old Alex Harvey decided he should have one more crack at the world of rock superstardom. Alex’s brother Les had died that year, having been electrocuted on stage by a malfunctioning microphone, with his band ‘Stone The Crows’ in Swansea. Despite a ten year age difference Les and Alex had been close; although devastated by his young brother’s death it made Alex even more determined to succeed. He went back to his native Glasgow, Scotland, to check out a bunch of young tearaways who had formed themselves into a hard rock act called ‘Tear Gas’. Words were spoken, ideas exchanged, and Alex persuaded these young lads to become his band.
In 1968 he had joined as guitarist the London based orchestra pit for Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s iconoclastic musical ‘Hair’. This would have a heavy influence on Alex, making him more aware of the theatrical side of rock music and why it was so important to put on a good show to back up your music. As Alex himself once said he formed ‘The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’ and in turn invented Pantomime rock, with plenty of ‘boo and hiss’ and ‘look behind you’.
Tear Gas was quickly transformed from the normal long haired rockers in their jeans, boots and T-shirts to characters in Alex’s show.
Of course on stage out front was the man himself, Alex Harvey, the first rock ‘n’ roll pirate. Skin tight jeans, dirty red handkerchief hanging out his back pocket, a black and white hooped T-shirt, with Alex’s huge head sticking out the neck (he needed a big head to store up all his creative thoughts), a mop of unruly jet black hair on his head, all topped off with a swaggering black great coat.
Zal Cleminson, a staggeringly good lead guitarist in
his own right, was persuaded into a skin-tight green cat suit and clown’s
white slap on his face, which made every gurn of his face during his searing
solos turn him from one minute into something quite comical, to the next
something quite sinister, the perfect foil for the band leader.
I Wanna Have You
On the other side of the stage with a bass guitar in his hand was Chris Glenn, who would be attempting his Elvis impersonations, but actually coming across more as one of Elvis’s body guards. So while all the girls flocked around Alex and Zal, everybody kept their distance from the mean looking bloke on the left.
Behind the drums was Ted McKenna. Every band has to have a rock on which to build on and Ted McKenna was the rock that the ‘Sensational Alex Harvey Band’ was built on, and absolute no nonsense drummer who could also turn his hand to any of Alex’s little idiosyncrasies.
On keyboards, holding the whole thing together musically, no matter how far off on a tangent the others went, Hugh McKenna always kept the ship on an even keel, even though he always did look a lot more like a school music teacher than a rock ‘n’ roll star.
So the scene was set for fame, fortune and frolics. Immediately the band started touring, playing anywhere that would have them, all the time working up their act. Vertigo signed them, and released the first album ‘Framed’ (1973), which met with great critical acclaim but little else.
It was on the road, though, that the word was being spread. Seeing that they had a hit band on their hands the executives from Vertigo, smelling money, put the band back in the studio with famous glam rock producer Phil Wainman and gave them an unheard of in those days month off the road to record their next album. When it came out, ‘Next’ (1973) was not an instant hit, but slowly crept up the charts. After more touring, appearing at the Reading Rock Festival, touring as support to Slade, and appearing on the British rock show ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, it finally went into the British top thirty in early 1974.
That year the band set about consolidating their position at the top of the rock ‘n’ roll tree, touring all over Europe and releasing another album, ‘The Impossible Dream’ (1974) which went straight into the Top Twenty album charts.
But it was 1975 where they hit pay dirt. ‘The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’ was the largest grossing live act in the U.K. Completing two extensive tours, headlining the Reading Rock Festival, releasing two Top Twenty albums (‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ and a fabulous ‘Live’ album), plus a Top Five hit single with their version of ‘Delilah’. I do not think that ‘Top Of the Pops’ ever recovered from having this lot on.
After the homecoming Christmas dates in Glasgow at the end of 1975, the band should have been given some time off to recover, particularly their leader. But the record company wanted more product, and the band was put back in the studio. With not much material written for a new album, the decision was made to put out what they had, and fill the rest up with some of the cover versions that they used to play in their live set. This may not sound like such a good idea, but what actually came out as ‘The Penthouse Tapes’ (1976) is a real fun rock ‘n’ roll album.
The album opens up with a fat slice of Glam Rock Alex style in ‘I Wanna Have You Back’, followed by another band original ‘Jungle Jenny’ which is possibly the naughtiest song ever recorded. Then who can resist the band’s version of Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’? A throwaway rock through I. Anderson’s ‘Love Story’ and then perhaps the album’s highlight, Alex preaches to his boys and girls that when you get freedom within the sweaty grasp of your hand you should hang onto it and not pollute the water supply. The band then breaks into a rampant version of Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools Out’, a brilliant piece of musical theatre.
Next up is one of the better known songs in Pattaya, ‘Goodnight Irene’, a Jackie Lomax song. The famous Pattaya Tahitian Queen Rock ‘n’ Roll bar plays this every night to let us all know to go home. Well, Woody better not get his hands on this version, as it starts off in its traditional dreamy manner, but in the hands of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band it is of course soon twisted round into a vicious rocker that would soon have the aisles of Tahitian Queen rocking again.
‘Say Your Mine (Every Cowboy Song)’ is a gentle parody on Country and Western featuring some fine pedal steel guitar from B.J. Cole. ‘Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues’ is sung with such conviction that perhaps somebody from the record company should have realized there was a problem lurking just under the surface. With tongue firmly in cheek the band then rocks through the Osmond’s ‘Crazy Horses’, although Alex himself had very serious concerns about the environment having already penned ‘The Tale Of The Giant Stoneater’ from the ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ album, which dealt with green issues. (Those Crazy Horses were actually cars spouting carbon monoxide.) The album closes in style with a lovely tilt at Irvine Berlin’s ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’. You just have to remember which cheeks Alex is talking about here.
The Penthouse Tapes charted well, but ‘The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’ never recovered. Alex left the band in 1978 and the band imploded in his absence. Alex formed a new band, but never recovered his former glories and tragically Alex Harvey died of a heart attack while on tour in Europe in 1982, the day before his 47th birthday.
But at the height of their powers, his band was truly sensational.
You can buy ‘The Penthouse Tapes’ as a two
for the price of one now. So you get the ‘Penthouse Tapes’
and ‘Live’ for your buck: get onto www.amazon.com right now.