(The Sensational) Alex Harvey (Band) Albums Ranked — Worst to Best
Born in a rough district of Glasgow in 1935 Alex Harvey stumbled into music at a relatively late age, first performing in skiffle groups and then with his own Big Beat Band who even appeared on stage in 1960 with the group that would become the Beatles. Like the Beatles to be, his band were playing blues and rock and roll songs and spending considerable time on the road in Britain and Germany and it was during one such tour in 1964 that his debut album Alex Harvey and His Soul Band was recorded.
After leaving his Soul Band, Harvey briefly tried for a solo career including a stint playing folk guitar (The Blues) but with little success. In the late 60s he joined the London stage production of the musical Hair as a member of the pit band.
He formed a rock band with his brother Les, and continued to concentrate on cover songs re-recording some of the standards from his Soul Band days (Roman Wall Blues) whilst maintaining a brass element. However by now in his late 30s solo musical success continued to elude him.
He was then introduced to fellow strugglers, a Scottish progressive rock band called Tear Gas. The chemistry between Harvey as charismatic front man and this much younger band of accomplished musicians was immediate and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band was born (previous singer Dave Batchelor left the group becoming SAHB’s producer and Ted’s cousin Hugh joined on keyboards).
They looked like the Bay City Rollers but played like Led Zeppelin!
Riding a unique wave between prog, rock and glam, SAHB produced a succession of highly regarded albums from 1972 (Framed) through to 1976 (SAHB Stories) and forged a reputation as an incendiary live act. Although enjoying cult status the band never really achieved large commercial success either in the UK or the US although they did score a couple of minor single hits (Delilah and Boston Tea Party).
Harvey decided to leave the band in 1976 but re-emerged for a reunion album in 1978 (Rock Drill) and then a couple of solo albums before his premature death in 1982 aged just 46. The remaining members of SAHB went on to work with Nazareth, The Michael Schenker Group, Ian Gillan, and Rory Gallagher, as well as still occasionally touring and recording as various reincarnations of SAHB.
The ranking below includes the eight core SAHB albums plus the pre and post solo albums some of which were genuine chronological releases and some which were released from old tapes after Harvey’s death. There are many live recordings and bootlegs of course although the only official live record ranked below is Live from 1975.
There are also a wealth of compilations and greatest hits packages too, many of which overlap, and a comprehensive 217 track 14 cd box set retrospective entitled The Last Of The Teenage Idols which collects together the majority of recordings across Harvey’s whole career. It includes all the regular albums plus rarities, demos, b-sides, live recordings, and various sessions.
The eight SAHB albums have also been released in pairs, and the first five in a great value cardboard sleeve box set.
Alex Harvey and His Soul Band (1964)
The Blues (1964)
Roman Wall Blues (1969)
The Joker is Wild (1972)
The Impossible Dream (1974)
Tomorrow Belongs to Me (1975)
The Penthouse Tapes (1976)
SAHB Stories (1976)
Rock Drill (1978)
The Mafia Stole My Guitar (1979)
Soldier on the Wall (1982)
Alex Harvey — vocals, guitar
Zal Cleminson — guitar
Hugh McKenna — keyboards
Chris Glen — bass guitar
Ted McKenna — drums
Others (excluding The Soul Band):
Leslie Harvey — guitar
Matthew Cang — guitar
Simon Charterton — drums
Tommy Eyre — keyboards (plus in SAHB for one album)
Gordon Sellar — bass guitar
Don Weller — saxophone
Mickey Keene — guitar
Bud Parkes — trumpet
Derek Watkins — trumpet
Derek Wadsworth — trombone, brass arrangements
Frank Ricotti — saxophone, percussion, brass arrangements
Ashton Tootell — saxophone, flute
Laurie Baker — bass guitar
Maurice Cockerill — keyboard
Pete Woolf — drums
Pete Kelly — piano
Stephen Allan — keyboards
Jim Condron — bass guitar
George Butler — drums
discography and personnel courtesy Wikipedia
The Top 14
14. Alex Harvey and His Soul Band (1964)
Alex Harvey had been on the music scene since the late 50s performing in skiffle groups and big beat bands. In the early 60s he put together his own rhythm and soul group and, like other beat groups of the time, played some gigs at a Hamburg club.
This debut album of R & B standards, released in 1964, is ostensibly taken from these live recordings although there is some debate whether the crowd noise was dubbed.
13. The Blues (1964)
Here Harvey displays his Dylan chops with a record of solo acoustic folk and blues numbers. It’s out of character compared to what he became in the 70s but does demonstrate that he was an accomplished folk guitarist in his own right and although the voice is not quite as characterful as it would become later on you can certainly recognise who it is.
Recorded with his brother Les Harvey accompanying Alex on guitar the album contains two tracks self-penned by the brothers amongst a selection of traditional songs and covers by Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, and Jimmie Rodgers, among others, and a bunch of blues standards.
Les, who was also a member of Alex’s Soul Band, went on to play with a couple of other Scottish bands including Stone The Crows and continued to guest on Alex’s solo albums Roman Wall Blues and The Joker Is Wild. He tragically died from an on stage electrocution in 1972 becoming another member of the “27 club”.
12. The Soldier On The Wall (1982)
The Soldier On The Wall was a disappointing posthumous swan song recorded with another new band (only Tommy Eyre remained from the previous The Mafia Stole My Guitar) and released shortly after Harvey’s death in 1982.
It is patriotically Scottish featuring quite weedy synthesizer, marching drums, accordion, and even bagpipes.
Over the heather the wet wind blows
Lice in my tunic, and a cold in my nose
The rain comes falling out of the sky
I’m a soldier on the wall and I don’t know why
Apparently half the tracks were re-engineered from inferior tapes and the album does give the impression of having been somewhat cobbled together — even Harvey’s usually crystal clear articulation is lost in the rather muddy production.
Album openers Mitzi and Billy Bolero are passable Harvey pop tracks and Nervous is the closest to classic SAHB rock (released alone and away from the context of this weak album this could have been celebrated as a lost classic).
11. The Penthouse Tapes (1976)
The Penthouse Tapes was largely a collection of unusually uninspired covers rushed out by the record company in order to cash in on Harvey’s fleeting popularity following the Delilah hit single. The versions are very throwaway — perhaps fun as a live spectacle but don’t go down so well on record — the world didn’t really need more covers of School’s Out or Runaway.
The most interesting songs are the more unusual covers such as Jethro Tull’s Love Story and The Osmonds’ Crazy Horses or the more cabaret flavoured music hall numbers like Cheek to Cheek that particularly suited Harvey’s theatricality.
The album does start off with a couple of originals — the very glam I Wanna Have You Back and the more usually typical SAHB sounding Jungle Jenny despite the odd Australian accent!
10. Roman Wall Blues (1969)
Five years on from his soul band record Harvey resurfaced with Roman Wall Blues. This is a transitional album of mostly covers beginning his transformation from big band leader to rock star.
The brass section is very prominent and although it does firmly anchor the album in the period it lends interesting texture to recordings of songs that would become more famous in their rock format on later albums. The version here of Midnight Moses is fascinating with the honky tonk brass and latin drumming, and we are treated to a groovy version of Hammer Song. Jumping Jack Flash goes down a storm and became a staple of live performances.
However despite some filler and missteps the most significant aspect of this record is Harvey’s developing vocal delivery which has taken on his trademark phrasing and confidence and makes all these tracks immediately recognisable. That is apart from the instrumental slow blues of Down At Bart’s Place which has nice bass playing but is ultimately pointless.
It seems obvious but it makes you realise that most of Harvey’s music is only his because of him and without his vocal this music would be largely forgettable. The SAHB without AH were an entirely different proposition and Harvey’s solo albums pre and post SAHB are equally valid parts of the discography.
9. Rock Drill (1978)
Rock Drill was the last proper SAHB album (SAHB did record another album Fourplay between Stories and this one, although bizarrely without Harvey who was equally bizarrely otherwise engaged working on a Loch Ness monster documentary!).
Although often considered a bit of a non event and largely disowned by the band who were slowly disintegrating at the time (keyboardist Hugh McKenna had already left being replaced by Tommy Eyre who would stay for Harvey’s following solo albums), Rock Drill does, to be fair, contain some inspired moments despite some degree of general incoherence.
In it’s best moments the album continues where SAHB Stories left off, extending further into a more progressive heavy rock sound. The first three tracks are excellent ranging from the heavy metal title track, through the progressive The Dolphins (considered “one of the best things we ever did” by Zal Cleminson) and the straight forward rocker Rock N Roll with it’s Adam Ant like jungle drumming (a percussive style that appears on several tracks).
But tracks like the instrumentals King Kong with strings and Booid with Scottish pipes are confused and ultimately pointless, and the album finishes weakly with the country style Mrs Blackhouse although not before a welcome return to basics with the Zeppelin/Stones swagger of Who Murdered Sex and Nightmare City.
Oddity Water Beastie was no doubt inspired by Harvey’s recent Loch Ness monster research.
Disappointingly another track No Complaints Department was oddly pulled from the final pressings at the last minute apparently at Harvey’s personal request:
So my best friend died in a plane crash
my brother was killed on the stage
So don’t be upset if I’m angry
and seem in some kind of a rage
Although by no means as weak an album as some critics have made out Rock Drill, not unlike many of Harvey’s records, is a two thirds decent record that doesn’t quite match the consistency of his best work, hence it only just sneaks into the Top 10.
8. The Joker Is Wild (1972)
This album has a curious provenance being originally recorded as a series of demos for another singer Tony Caldeira who was credited with a couple of the songs when the recordings were subsequently recovered and released under both the Alex Harvey solo name here (and also wrongly as This Is SAHB — none of the future SAHB members appear on the recordings).
As you’d expect from such inauspicious beginnings the album is slightly patchy but is probably the best of the “unofficial posthumous” releases and contains enough good earthy blues to warrant a place in the Harvey discography. Penicillin Blues is an excellent walking blues and the cover of I Just Wanna Make Love To You rocks.
Harvey’s covers can be hit and miss and here we get several which attempt to be more faithful to the originals than some — we have a hit with a great Willie the Pimp where the band perfectly imitate Beefheart’s Magic Band and a miss with the ponderous He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother — a ballad which just doesn’t suit Harvey’s vocal. Alex’s brother plays excellent slide guitar throughout the album and extra poignancy was added to this cover with his premature death later the same year.
The title track by Caldeira is probably the best track on the album being a catchy pop tune foreshadowing a lot of SAHB’s most upbeat mid period moments.
A combination of the best tracks from this and Harvey’s other pre-SAHB solo record Roman Wall Blues would have made an excellent single album.
7. The Impossible Dream (1974)
Production became a little more polished on this, SAHB’s third album, with plenty of brass and backing singers, and leanings towards more ambitious prog with mixed success.
Probably the best track is the foot tapping Tomahawk Kid with a great jaunty vocal delivery from Harvey.
Final track Anthem begins (and ends) with a questionable falsetto vocal over a military drum roll and even some bagpipes but morphs into a great rock epic mid track.
However overall the album is a bit of a mish mash with Harvey appearing to be unsure of his direction.
6. Live (1975)
The SAHB by all accounts (and as evidenced in youtube footage) were an exceptional live act but like many live albums it isn’t always possible to catch the true excitement of the live experience on disc.
This single LP documents but a small portion of the SAHB set circa the mid 70s (actually recorded at Hammersmith Odeon on 24th May 1975) across just seven tracks but does include live favourites Delilah and Framed and a storming version of Give My Compliments To The Chef with Chris Glen’s pumping bass and Hugh McKenna’s John Paul Jones like electric piano thrusts — a kind of super charged No Quarter.
5. The Mafia Stole My Guitar (1979)
This album represents quite a departure from Harvey’s rock and blues roots. The vocals are still there of course and are stronger than ever making it unmistakably Harvey but the musical arrangements are more involved displaying a wide range of dynamics both across and within songs resulting in moments of power and beauty. An approach that was perhaps attempted with less success on the preceding album, the less cohesive Rock Drill.
However Harvey has literally gathered a new band here. Although SAHB were no slouches you get the impression he has sourced some crack session musicians here from the rock and jazz field.
This is immediately evident with the instrumental opener which showcases new horn man Don Weller’s saxophone breaks which remain prominent throughout the album. Meanwhile the guitarist Matthew Wang trades in clean solos with less emphasis on the heavy riffing of Zal Cleminson, and the bass player and drummer underpin a very tight band. Keyboardist Tommy Eyre remained as the only surviving member from the last SAHB album.
There are two epics which with their slow piano based build up recall former glories like The Last of The Teenage Idols or Give My Compliments to The Chef; Back in the Depot, and the save the whales anthem The Whalers:
Murder in the silver foam
Grab the gold and sail back home
Slaughter cubs and mummy too
Here’s a perfume just for you
There she blows
See the spout
Money is what it’s all about
In leopard skins and tiger shoes
We all sing the dog food blues
Sling it on the rusty deck
Rip the sinew from its neck
You can’t complain, it’s fair enough
We kill it and you buy the stuff
Both covers in the set are inspired — Shakin’ All Over and Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody. The latter would have been quite a fitting last hurrah for Harvey if the ill conceived The Soldier On The Wall had remained in the vaults.
With an invigorated Harvey, brilliant musicianship, a strong song set, and crisp production, The Mafia Stole My Guitar is a return to form and stands up as Harvey’s last great (and often overlooked) album despite the absence of SAHB.
4. Tomorrow Belongs To Me (1975)
Partly because of the two cartoon covers I used to find it hard to distinguish between this and the previous album The Impossible Dream. But this is the stronger album largely due to the focus Harvey maintains by way of concentrating on what he does best — that is heavy blues based rock with an assured glam flavour topped with a sprinkling of swing and funk. Hugh McKenna lends electric piano which grooves on Soul In Chains and the powerful Give My Compliments to the Chef.
3. Next (1973)
Harvey reveals more cabaret on his second album with the Sensational Band but there’s also rockabilly and plenty of glam.
The Jacques Brel title track is one of Harvey’s most loved covers perhaps made most famous following a literally disturbing appearance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test — many people’s first introduction to SAHB.
Yet the band showed they could still rock out with the best of the heavy metal bands of the day with Faith Healer which, with it’s hypnotic pulsing build up, became the band’s live opener, the Led Zeppelin like shuffle of Vambo, and the latter half of album closer The Last of The Teenage Idols.
Next makes it into a top three that has been hard to separate not least because they are each quite different. In that way the three together represent a good range across all that is best about Alex Harvey.
2. SAHB Stories (1976)
Considered by many fans as SAHB’s peak this accomplished album has always had a special place in my heart being the first one I ever heard (thank you to the eccentric Iron Bridge pub in Exeter who put it on one evening in the early 1980s). It also has the most interesting cover!
Without any of the cabaret style covers which did vary in quality it is perhaps the most consistent of all Harvey’s albums. Yet being one of his most straight forward rock albums it is also consequently potentially one of his more middle of the road albums (if anything can ever be middle of the road for Alex Harvey!).
Stand out tracks are Boston Tea Party which was a minor hit and led to a Top of the Pops appearance:
The king has said he’s gonna put a tax on tea
And that’s the reason you all Americans drink coffee
… and the Jerry Reed number Amos Moses with it’s AC/DC like riff:
When Amos Moses was a boy
His daddy would use him for alligator bait
Tie a rope around his neck and throw him in the swamp
Alligator bait in the Louisiana bayou
Sirocco is a haunting jazz tinged slow burner reminiscent of John Martyn and $25 For A Massage sounds like the rockabilly funk Led Zeppelin were fond of at the time.
Lacking some of the more “in your face” tracks present on the earlier albums Stories contains many hidden delights and an inner strength which grows on repeated listens. Harvey is relatively chilled out and restrained. It is SAHB’s serious rock album.
1. Framed (1972)
What a (proper) debut! Harvey had been going a while by 1972 of course and had already recorded several albums under his own name, but he really arrived when he formed his “Sensational” band and put out Framed.
The album kicks off with three tremendous re-workings of tracks from his previous solo albums. Harvey’s new interpretation of the title track Framed (a version of which appeared on the Alex Harvey and His Soul Band album) must be the heaviest and most exciting version of this classic Leiber and Stoller song ever. An extended theatrical version would become a staple of his live shows throughout his career and the power is captured magnificently on this studio album opener (with a limited production budget the album retains a live and raw feel throughout).
Next is the Hammer Song which previously appeared on Roman Wall Blues along with track number three, Midnight Moses with Zal Cleminson’s chunky riffing and Harvey’s exclamation “Hey… Hey, Hey, Hey!” Harvey fan Nick Cave would cover Hammer Song live and on his Kicking Out The Pricks album.
Centre piece is the 3-part Isobel Goudie — a story of 17th century Scottish witchcraft which builds slowly over haunting organ and thunderous drums.
The Willie Dixon classic I Just Want to Make Love to You also covered on The Joker is Wild is given another working over. Flanked by a couple of other blues numbers these songs are each given the full on honky tonk piano and brass treatment with the unique Harvey vocal interpretation.
There’s No Lights On The Christmas Tree Mother, They’re Burning Big Louie Tonight points the way towards the singalong vaudeville Harvey would consistently tip his hat to on subsequent albums although the subject matter (being a power cut resulting from an electric chair execution) was typically macabre.
Harvey is one of those rare vocalists where his strong accent remains intact while singing and of course he makes the most of his Glaswegian upbringing rolling his rrrs and accentuating his dsss like in “murrdah!” and “bloodah!”. Equally at home singing cabaret, rock or blues, Harvey delivers with a confidence, range and clarity not heard before, and a drama and zeal which would be maintained throughout the rest of his career.
The album finishes with the break neck chug of St Anthony with Cleminson’s wah wah guitar thrusting over Glen’s pumping bass as Harvey recalls a cheeky tale of lust and temptation:
St. Anthony was a travelling man
And she was a gogo agitator
He went to bed with a whip in his hand
Doing his best to stimulate her
St. Anthony was all alone
And around come a two tone chocolate biscuit
She comes around when the sun goes down
Saying come on baby you can risk it
She tied St. Anthony to the bed
And she said I’m gonna be your master
Come on baby don’t turn me loose
Just keep on doing it faster, faster
Framed is a magnificent album of heavy rock and blues delivered with the unique Harvey humour and panache.
So there you have it — my personal run down on the top recordings by this unique and often overlooked artist. How many of these are essential? How far would you go? Are there any obviously misplaced albums or any that are missing from the list altogether? Can Framed be topped — or does the top spot belong to Next or did Harvey reach his peak with the assured Stories?
What about latter period SAHB — is there anything worth hearing post Stories? Are any of the pre SAHB albums valid or are they ill conceived attempts by record companies to cash in with quantity over quality? I’d love to hear your comments.
Early pre Zal Cleminson clown makeup appearance playing St. Anthony
Old Grey Whistle Test debut 1973 with Next
Celebrated 1974 black and white festival footage of a very theatrical Midnight Moses / Framed
1976 Boston Tea Party Top of the Pops appearance
A humourous opening to a very obviously dubbed Amos Moses
Old Grey Whistle Test Give My Compliments To The Chef
Old Grey Whistle Test Delilah
photographs appear courtesy general Google search — if any photos infringe copyright please accept my apologies and get in touch for a credit and link or removal