'I've been trying to pick my nose for the past five minutes,' slurs Alex Harvey, his forefinger prodding hopefully around and about his nostrils, 'only I can't find where the hell it is!'
Alex has just been to the dentist and much of the upper part of his face has been numbed, paralysed if you like, by painkilling injections. 'I feel like one of those animated corpses from 'Tales from the Crypt',' he continues, 'you know, the ones that emerge from the grave with half their head rotting away. Awwwwwwww.....'
The rest of the band look on, smile unsympathetically at their leader's swollen face, and return to their previous occupation.
Tucked away down a side street in Victoria, in a basement room below a dusty antique shop, is a small but congenial rehearsal room. It's here that the Sensational Alex Harvey Band have initially chosen to map out and plan the shape of their forthcoming series of Christmas shows, probably the Yuletide event of the 1975 rock year.
Its walls lined with coarse hessian, the ceiling stuck with overturned matt black egg boxes, the room yields a wonderfully crisp, well defined sound - although Zal Cleminson seems to be the only one who's utilising it at the moment. Tatty acoustic guitar in hand, he's picking out a particularly complex piece which requires some deft fingerwork.
Minus slippery greasepaint, sitting, almost bashfully, on a wooden stool, dressed in the inevitable jeans and T-shirt, no skin-tight zip suit to be seen. Zal looks quite human. Light brown stubble protrudes from his chin and his unruly hair has been brushed to a semblance of neatness.
He only occasionally makes concessions to his wild-eyed, staring Reed Richards type stage image: when his precise plucking of the guitar becomes a strum, he momentarily forgets himself and lifts the neck to grimace oh-so-slightly, as if he expects some raucous sound to issue forth. When it doesn't, he's quick to readopt the former modest pose.
Of the others Chris Glen is propping up a Marshall amp, alternately ogling at the latest 'Mayfair' (in the band's formative days, an essential to their continued survival was their weekly porn allowance, y'know) and scouring an issue of 'Exchange and Mart', looking for - and this may go against the grain of the SAHB's image - a dog to buy his son for Christmas. The McKenna cousins, Hugh and Ted, are quietly reading.
A large piece of paper is pinned to one of the studio walls, and on it is scrawled a most curious selection of songs, ranging from the very old - 'St. Anthony'. 'Isobel Goudie' - to the very new -'Delilah', 'Gamblin' Bar Room Blues'. Ostensibly, this is the tentative running order for the Xmas extravaganza.
Alex, still fingering his frozen face, mumbles that the show should by now be on the road. Slipping off his grimy parka to reveal an equally grimy jumper, he mentions that rehearsal time's a wasting. So the band take to their instruments and strike up a familiar tune.
Dragging a microphone towards him, Alex tries the lyrics. 'There's no lights on the Christmas tree... mother; they're burnin''... but it sounds as if he's singing with a wet blanket over his head. Alex's upper lip is still stiff and he can't really form the words properly. Laughter.
Instead the band content themselves with discussing the aforementioned order of the songs.
Seeing a SAHB concert, with its incredible number of high spots, building up to a climax and a truly awesome finale, you perhaps don't realise the amount of time that's spent carefully constructing the show, so that it flows freely, so that everything travels uphill, so that a feverish quality prevails throughout.
But the lads go through the order with the care of a precision engineer, anxious to mould their set into a faultless shape, to piece it all together with the smugness of a well used jigsaw.
'' 'April Kisses'....'' Zal plays that right through, finishes the song. ''What's next? 'Framed'? It could be a bit tricky, unless it's handled well, having those two songs together...''
''Shall we have a spiel there? No? Run 'Jungle Jenny' and 'Gang Bang' into eachother then....''
''That's silly, you're changing the tempo of the two songs to make the link between them...''
''But you've got to keep the atmosphere going, you have to have the tension, you can't relax...''
''How about the 'Talent Contest'?''
''The Talent Contest'?''....
Alex Harvey, the man that time forgot. His career has been well-documented in the past, yet, within the context of this article, it's worth relating once again.
Born in Glasgow - Thistle Street in the Gorbals to be exact - Alex's early influences were his uncle, who played guitar, and Django Reinhardt. And by the time he started gigging as a solo blues singer in the city in the mid-Fifties he had a whole lot of other sounds going around in his head - those of the skiffle groups, Muddy Waters, Elvis and Little Richard, to name but a few.
By 1958, he had formed the now legendary Alex Harvey Soul Band. With the initial line-up of two saxes, congas, drums, timbale and maracas - brought about by listening to both Bo Diddley and Art Blakeley and his African Drummers - the band began to gig around the bread and butter Scottish dance halls circuit. "It was fortunate that we had a lot of good guys, people who could play. I couldn't really, but I could organise." says Alex. It all lasted well into the Sixties. Although the AHSB bypassed the white rock boom a little, they still found themselves, on occasions, alongside Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. And finally, much to their surprise, they were tagged with the label 'beat group' and were travelling over to Germany to gig in Hamburg.
"It was great, we spent a lot of time over there." Alex recalls. "It was amazing for us, straight out of Glasgow. We hadn't even been to London and there we were, in Hamburg."
The band had good times - indeed, Alex has the theory that just as New Orleans gave birth to jazz, and Chicago to blues, so did Hamburg give birth to beat music. Because of exhaustive concert schedules, bands were getting too tired too quickly. Musicians found themselves cutting out any superfluous playing and just concentrating on the beat, as a means to conserve energy, more than anything else.
"You could sing anything as long as it was on top of that beat." Alex continues. "Groups began to sing stupid things, swearing and singing really obscene songs." And it was this perhaps, that led to the eventual formation of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
In 1966, with just a few LP's under his belt, the AHSB folded. Alex had found playing in the band becoming increasingly tiresome and it had never been a definite business proposition, anyway. A 'minstrel' period followed. He travelled around with General Grimes, the Soul Band's remarkable bass player for a bit, then he came to London to work in the night-clubs as a guitarist and singer. He played in restaurants, in cabaret singing songs like, would you believe, 'I Lost My Heart in San Fransisco', and did one-off gigs with various bands.
Whilst in a seven piece outfit working at the old 800 club in Leicester Square, Alex met up with Derek Wordsworth, who was to become the musical director of 'Hair'. Apparently, the show needed a rhythm guitarist and, as Alex, by virtue of his experience in Hamburg, 'knew the beat', he got the job. He stuck with 'Hair' for five years and kept himself in trim by playing literally countless sessions.
And so it was that, slowly, new musical ideas began to emerge in Alex's mind. Eventually, cutting down on his 'Hair' appearances, he set about forming another band. After a few attempts - his trio consisting of Alex, guitar; Ian Ellis (ex-Clouds) bass and Dave Dufont (ex-Velvet Opera) drums, is probably about the best known of them - and a few gigs he met up with an almost-but-not-quite-defunct band called Tear Gas.
Which is where Chris Glen and Zal Cleminson come in.
Chris proudly hands me a couple of LP's. Although the covers are well creased and are fraying around the edges, the titles stand out clearly: 'Piggy Go Getter' and simply 'Tear Gas'.
"The first one was released in 1970," he says, "and the second in... in...."
"1971" chips in Zal.
We're sitting in Chris Glen's cosy Bounds Green home, reminiscing about the days of yore. Chris looks relaxed and is sipping a cup of tea; Zal however, his tiny golden earring glinting as he jerks his head, looks a little nervous - which, once again, strikes you as being strange when you pause to consider his crazed stage act.
One of Zal's very first bands was called the Bo Weevils - in fact, David Batchelor, now the SAHB's sound engineer and producer, was vocalist alongside him. When the BW's broke up, something called Mustard was formed as a stop-gap group. Chris Glen happened to join them, but only on the condition that Tear Gas would be formed a month later.
And so they were. With the line up David Batchelor, vocals; Zal, guitar; Eddie Campbell, organ; Chris, bass and Wullie Munroe, drums, they gigged a little (mainly overseas) and made a debut album.
For the second LP, Munroe left and Ted McKenna joined. Directly after the recording, his cousin Hugh joined as a replacement for Campbell and also to hand the vocals.
How were the Tear Gas albums received by the public?
"They were generally ignored," Zal admits. "One sold about 5,000, the other about 7,000. Tear Gas wasn't a successful band."
Maybe not successful - but still extremely loud and very visual. They used to carry around a roadie whose sole job was as an amp-holderupper. Apparently Zal was, if you can believe it, rather more wild in those days than he is even now, and was wont to periodically fling himself at the stacks throughout a set.
Zal can remember playing the Marquee once or twice, as support to one of Alex Harvey's many try-out bands. "Alex was bad, you know." he says glumly. "He was trying to put across several songs that we've done with him since then, but it just wasn't working. Nothing was happening in his band. The sound was all wrong and having Alex play an instrument was all wrong too."
"Yeah, Alex had two or three bands before he came across us. Various people, and he wasn't doing too well." Chris expands.
Zal: "Alex had joined Mountain Management to try to further his career and a guy who was working there had been - or was - the manager of Tear Gas. He knew that Alex was desperately looking for a band, and he happened to suggest us.
"Alex listened to our records and he must have been impressed - he came up to see us, this was in early 1972, I guess. We were sitting in a pub waiting to meet him and he came in with his guitar over his shoulder. He bought everyone a drink and that was it. We had our first rehearsal that very day, played 'Midnight Moses' and there was no holding us back."
I wondered if the band had found themselves in awe of Alex, given that he'd had about twice the amount of experience of them all put together.
"No not in awe," replies Zal. "But I admired him a hell of a lot, I'd seen him with his Soul Band back in... back in....oh, I don't know, years before, and I thought he was incredible then. He was singing like a soul singer, like James Brown or someone like that.
"I couldn't believe it ws the same person when I saw him at the Marquee. He was so different - he'd stopped singing soulfully, he used more or less the expressions he uses now. However, I think he found the right vehicle in Tear Gas for his songs. When he first played them to us, things like 'Isobel Goudie' and 'St Anthony' we thought that they sounded awfully simple. We'd been into a ... progressive music kick if you like, and were in the process of getting carried away with it. Alex came at us and chopped away at this, at that, then he played a really facile riff and we thought... that's a bit easy, isn't it? But at the same time there was something about it, you know, some sort of atmosphere in it's simplicity."
Didn't you resent Alex's interference with Tear Gas' music?
"No, no, no," Chris stresses. "The band were just about ready to break up anyway, when he came along. We thought we'd give it a try - after all, what did we have to lose?" ....So, with Alex, a man much experienced in the complex workings of the rock and roll machine at the helm, the outfit took shape. It was given the blatant name The Sensational Alex Harvey Band as a joke more than anything else, as a parody of names that often used to crop up on soul package tours, like the Fabulous Youngsters, or the Amazing Incredibles.
The first LP, 'Framed' recorded towards the tail end of 1972, received polite, safe reviews, but made no impact.
Zal: "'Framed' was all Alex's songs that he'd been kicking around for a long time, maybe over a period of 10 years. We heard the songs and said 'Ok, let's make a record. 'Framed' was the end result. At the time I thought that the album was great - still do, in fact."
"The good thing about 'Framed' " interjected Chris, is that it's a non-production job - no production. I mean, it sounds just like a live band. There are a lot of dodgy things on the album, however, the vocals could have been brought up in places, there should be more level on the whole thing.... but overall its quite valid."
Zal: "There's something about the electricity, the rawness of that record that I don't think we'll ever be able to repeat. We didn't know any better, you see. There were these songs, so we just went in and played them, hardly even bothering to rehearse.
"Alex is into spontaneity anyway, that's what he gets off on, that air of not quite knowing what's going to happen next. Now that we're successful, now that things have perhaps become rather more refined, I don't think we'll ever be able to capture that aspect of the band ever again."
The ablum eventually released in January 1973 and, as I mentioned before, was received lukewarmly. Were you disappointed?
"No" Chris answers, emphatically. "It was a relief - especially to Alex - to get the album out of the system. He'd had those songs for so long, and at last they were out of the way. The path was clear for all the new stuff he had brewing inside his head."
Despite disappointing record sales, the band were enjoying some great success onstage. The SAHB gigged around the club college circuit, leaving an ugly black mark whereever they went. A second album, tentatively titled 'I Was A Teenage Idol', finally emerged as 'Next' at the end of '73. Phil Wainman produced.
"We didn't worry unduly about him producing us," Zal reveals. "He could have perhaps got a better drum and bass sound, but that's just a personal opinion."
Chris: "He injected some discipline in the studio, which I think was very good for us. The sound he eventually arrived at was a bit too clean for my personal tastes - but then again, a lot of people consider it to be the best album we've yet made."
'Next' was another rung up the ladder - and certainly its reviews were more enthusiastic than those 'Framed' received, ranging from the praiseworthy to the ecstatic. Yet the most important event for the band in 1973 was not this recording of a second album, but rather their astonishing appearance at the Reading Festival earlier that year.
"We took a break from recording 'Next' to play the festival," Chris recalls. "We'd benn rehearsing 'Faith Healer' in the studios and wanted to play it for the first time onstage out there. We had no idea how it was going to be received.
"But it was like a piece of magic. There were those 30,000 people, the sun was just going down, Alex sang 'Let me put my hands on you' and everyone just went completely wild. Bananas. It was really freaky..." his breath tails off as his mind drifts back, "it was marvellous, simply marvellous."
Over the next few months the SAHB did a few gigs with Mott the Hoople - and then came a tour as support act to Slade. At that time the Wolverhampton boys were The Tops and most bands were refusing to even contemplate the idea of playing alongside them. But the SAHB rose to teh occasion.
"A lot of the kids loved us," says Chris, "and a lot really hated us. The gigs tended to follow a pattern. When we would first come on, the audience reaction would be great. Then, about half way through; I guess the kids probably thought, 'hey, wait a minute, we're supposed to be here to see Slade. Then they would start throwing things. But it wasn't that bad."
Zal: "People were saying to us that we shouldn't take on the tour. But we went out as if we were topping the bill, which was the right attitude. What else could we do? Just stand still, play our instruments and be polite?"
Chris: "And the interesting thing is that when we finished the Slade tour and started doing gigs ourselves again, a lot of the kids reappeared, which was quite a surprise. Despite the can-throwing and the cat calls, we'd obviously got through to quite a number of them."
Soon enough it was time for a third album 'The Impossible Dream'..... ....time for a third album, 'The Impossible Dream'.
"Did we have problems with that one." wheezes Zal. "Phil Wainman couldn't produce it, so we got another guy in and he was terrible. No one was happy with the end result - the whole thing had a very clean, clinical sound. There were no dynamics, there was nothing in it. Eventually, we decided to scrap the tapes, look for another producer and record it all over again."
"It turned out that David Batchelor was right for the job." Chris reveals. "He'd been a member of Tear Gas, you may remember, and since the formation of the Alex Harvey Band he'd been doing our stage sound. Who better? He'd had little experience with studio techniques at that time, but I think the fact that he had an empathy with the band more than made up for it."
"There was a long gap between the release dates of 'Next' and 'The Impossible Dream," says Zal, "and that's what accounted for it. In effect, we recorded two LPs during that time - even though it was actually the same one done twice. It was unfortunate."
Doubly unfortunate because much of the impetus the band had gained through the Reading/'Next'/Slade series was lost because of the delay. 'Dream' was eventually issued towards the end of '74.
Of all the albums so far, it came closest to capturing the full manic, lunatic fury of the SAHB live. Tracks like 'Tomahawk Kid' and 'Anthem' succeeded in ensnaring their true dynamics.
"It was a lot better," says Chris. "The subject matter was perhaps not quite as commercial as the 'Next' album - the songs were after all a lot longer and more involved. At the time, we were very pleased with it."
Some more tours and a good deal of striving for that elusive hit single followed. Then, almost before the band knew it, it was time for yet another album, 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me', was finally released in April of this year.
Cited in SOUNDS by the exuberant Pete Makowski as the band's 'finest record yet' it contained the ultimate in theatrerock 'Tale of the Giant Stoneater' as well as the familiarly vitriolic 'Snake Bite' and 'Action Strasse'.
'The SAHB have reached another peak' Makowski continued, 'if they continue going at this rate, they'll either acieve totaly lunacy or world-wide success.'
Or maybe both. With the subsequent release of 'Live' - which looks like becoming the band's alltime best selling album - and the long sought after chart record 'Delilah', the SAHB boys are currently riding an all time high. How much importance, I asked do you place upon the success of 'Delilah'?
"We don't know," says Zal, "it hasn't proved at all yet because we haven't played live in Britain since its release."
"It's helped the Christmas shows to sell out, obviously," says Chris. "Probably, many people will be seeing us for the first time. Also, since 'Delilah' charted, our LP sales have shot up quite dramatically. So it's done us good in that respect - even though the BBC radio almost completely ignored it. They've got the wrong impression about us. Because Alex comes from a rough area of Glasgow, I think they reckon us to be uncouth, violent sex maniacs. We're all right, really. We don't shit on the carpet or mutilate people... maybe we should."
And so to the Christmas shows.
"What we're trying to do with them," says Chris, "us to present a history of the band - exactly like, in fact, what we've been talking about this afternoon. We're starting off the set with the first numbers we ever played, then travelling up through time to the new stuff. A greatest hits thing if you like, containing little landmarks, routines - like our much-vaunted 'Talent Contest'."
Zal: "The shows sould out so quickly, I couldn't believe it. It should be exciting."
Due to great demand, the SAHB added extra dates at Glasgow and London - at the expense of making a profit. The high cost of expressing their equipment between the two cities, brought about by the adding of the extra dates, has eaten away the profit they were going to make right down into a loss.
Chris: "The Christmas shows are basically request spots. We probably won't be doing many of the numbers again. In 76 it'll be all change, a lot of newness.
"We've just about finished our next album and it's very zany and really commercial. At one time we had the idea of doing an album of other people's songs. We rehearsed it for three weeks - and decided to scrap it.
But we'd booked a lot of studio time all the same, so we just went in there and played. There's some country music, a version of 'Runaway'.... it really is quite amusing.
"What do you think? Do you like it?" asks Alex, dressed in a back-to-front black pullover motioning towards the impressive stage set at Shepperton studios.
SAHB, now rehearsing in the disused film complex, certainly have gone to town for the sake of a few Christmas concerts. The band's instruments are grouped around the base of what looks like a derelict building. Its walls are grey and brown, bricks are missing here and there, splintered window frames hang limply, corrugated iron sticks out sharply. "Plenty to climb about on eh?" Alex remarks, with almost an evil glint in his eye. "I didn't want to have anything flash, you know. You think it'll do?"
Yup. It looks like something lifted straight out of delapidated Glaswegian tenements, a perfect backdrop for the band's actions.
But, basically, Day Three has been a non-productive one. The equipment has only just been released from customs where, or so the band think, it had been stored in a damp warehouse. Consequently, fuses kept blowing for no apparent reason, equipment had been malfunctioning repeatedly and tempers were progressively getting more and more frayed. There was a lot of talking, smoking and drinking done, but very little actual playing.
Towards early evening, things began to change for the better. Zal, Chris, Ted and Hugh took up their instruments and began to jam - curiously, surprisingly, a solid, funky, almost AWB sound emerged from the dusty amps. Alex complained about the lack of monitors and while they were being fixed, he began to climb over, arounde and behind the mock building.
Swinging with an agility that belied his age, Alex, 30 feet above ground, shoved at scaffold poles and pulled plywood testing its sturdiness.
Then, just as the band were set to begin the rehearsal proper, dinner - piles of fish and chips - arrived.
I could see that very little music was going to be played tonight. The band finished their meal and, as they struck up another jam in 'Cut the Cake' vein and as Alex continued his clambering, I decided to call it a day.
"Is that another of those pop bands they've got in there?" asked the lady cleaner, sweeping in the corridors outside. "What's their name?"
"The Sensational Alex Harvey Band," I replied.
"Never heard of them."
"You know that Tom Jones song, 'Delilah'?" I noticed her eyes light up at the mention of the Welsh lad's name. "They recently did a version of that. It was a hit."
"Oooh," the lady sighed. "So they're rich and famous?"
"They hope to be," I murmured, "They hope to be."
(transcription courtesy of Pauline Cooper)