Graded on a Curve:
The Sensational
Alex Harvey Band,
Next

What the fuck is this? Glam hangers-on The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, trainspotting and pronouncing the word “garage” the way Elton John does in his song “Levon.” Which is just another way of saying that hardly anybody in the U.S. of A. outside of Cleveland ever laid ears on ‘em, much less considered ‘em sensational.

And small wonder, because the Sensational Alex Harvey Band were simply too esoteric gonzo in the grand tradition of unapologetic English eccentrics for mass consumption. Pub rock heroes with progressive rock tendencies who weren’t afraid to shamelessly camp it up for the Glitter kids, SAHB liked to keep the punters guessing, as 1973’s Next aptly demonstrates.

On the band’s sophomore LP you get some Mott rock, a faux-snakeskin swamp blues, an esoteric hoodoo jive number called “Vambo Marble Eye,” some straight-up Glam Rock, and a couple of numbers so completely over the top flamboyant they make David Bowie and Gary Glitter look like wallflowers. Fact is I’ve never heard anything like ‘em outside the canons of Jobriath, Meatloaf, and Morrissey.

All of which to say is that Alex Harvey and Company were some twisted people, as their madcap live shows proved. Superhero costumes, props, you name it–these anything goes eclectitions (a word I just made up!) put every bit as much outré energy into their stage act as Alice Cooper or Jethro Tull, and their fanatical UK cult following adored them for it.

The LP opens on a cheesy blues note with piano stomper “Swampsnake”–on which Harvey plays some very ornery harmonica and does some serious over-emoting–before taking a very “whatever were they thinking?” wrong turn with “Gang Bang,” which sounds like your standard Mott the Hoople pub rocker but flunks every known morality test with its chorus “Ain’t nothing like a gang bang/To blow away the blues.”

“The Faith Healer” (perhaps SAHB’s best known tune) boasts a very cool pop-prog synthesizer riff (think the Alan Parson Project!) that never lets go, as well as some baroque organ noodle and Harvey’s very excitable refrain “Can I put my hands on you?”, which makes me think maybe he’s the guy with the magic hands in Heart’s “Magic Man”!

Meanwhile, Zal Cleminson’s badass guitar snarl dominates the Led Zeppelin-meets-Funkadelic confection “Vambo Marble Eye,” on which Harvey comes on like Robert Plant’s long-lost brother or Billy Squier or somebody. As for the chorus, well, it’s a sing-a-long treat that (why I dunno) brings F. Zappa to mind. And the guitar solo will set your underwear on fire!

On the Glitter front you get a very glamtastic cover of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’ “Giddy Up a Ding Dong,” which could be a classic Chapman-Chinn composition (like Mud’s “Tiger Feet”!) it’s so great. Seriously, if this baby doesn’t have you clapping your hands and stomping your feet in a full-blown case of Suzi Quatro Fever you’re deceased!

As for “The Last of the Teenage Idols,” it’s a three-part Glam Rock suite. On part one Harvey comes on like Alice Cooper in full croon over a monstrous guitar riff, while part two features an even heavier and bigger (Black Sabbath would be proud to call it their own!) guitar riff and is mucho fast, so fast in fact Harvey has a hard time keeping up on vocals. Part Three is pure doo-wop camp that takes us back to Frankie Valli and is every bit as good (or better) than anything on F. Zappa’s Ruben and the Jets. Or B. Dylan and the Band’s “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” even!

But when it comes to sheer camp overkill there’s no beating SAHB’s cover of Jacque Brel’s “Next.” Think overwrought spaghetti Liberace, complete with strings and one of the most shamelessly melodramatic vocal performances you’ll ever seek a restraining order against. But the full-blown histrionics actually make sense cuz the lyrics tell the tale of a survivor of a “mobile army whorehouse” who can’t stop hearing the words, “Next, next” in horrific sex twitch flashback and swears, “One day I’ll cut my legs off/I’ll burn myself alive/I’ll do anything to get out of life, to survive/Not ever to be next, next, next!/Not ever to be next, not ever.” Makes the Pogues’ “The Old Main Drag” sound like Happy Days, it does.

I can think of a whole slew of reasons why The Sensational Alex Harvey Band never succeeded in setting the world on fire, but they didn’t fail for lack of talent or vision either for that matter. Too many irons in too many fires is my guess, which is to say where the hell do you file them? They bear comparison to scads of bands I can think of, but whereas those bands stuck to the knitting and produced a reliable and predictable product SAHB simply refused to be pigeonholed and were proud of the fact.

Next!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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