Hugh McKenna, Chris Glen, Alex Harvey, Zal Cleminson
San Francisco Civic Auditorium, San Francisco
April 4, 1974
Photos 1-6, 8, 22-25, 34, 41 by Dan Cuny
Photos 7, 9-21, 26-33, 35-40, 42-44 by David Miller
Text by Michael Collins Morton
Alex Harvey was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1935. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, and tried his hand at a number of things before turning to music. His first musical activities were centered on Dixieland jazz, and he later became involved with skiffle, a homespun style of music that swept through the United Kingdom in the 1950s, providing a foundation for the subsequent growth of British rock'n'roll. In common with many British musicians of the period, he also felt a deep affinity for the rhythm and blues that came from black performers in America.
By the late 1950s, Alex Harvey was leading his own band, Alex Harvey's Big Soul Band, making frequent appearances at venues in Scotland and also performing regularly at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, Germany. It was during Alex Harvey's time in Germany that he was given the opportunity to make his first recordings. His album of bluesy rock'n'roll, Alex Harvey and His Soul Band, was released on Polydor Records in 1964.
In 1972, Alex Harvey joined with the members of a Scottish band, Tear Gas, and together they became known as The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Alex Harvey was leader and vocalist, with Zal Cleminson on guitar, Chris Glen on bass, Hugh McKenna on keyboards, and Ted McKenna on drums. The first album by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Framed, was released on Vertigo Records at the end of 1972. (Also in 1972, Les Harvey was killed in an electrical accident on stage, while performing with his own band, Stone the Crows.)
When The Sensational Alex Harvey Band appeared in San Francisco in April, 1975, they had built a formidable reputation in the United Kingdom and Europe, but were not widely known in America. Their daring combination of heavy rock and glam rock, along with Alex Harvey's outsized personality and his undisputed flair for turning every performance into a striking piece of theater, made it difficult to pigeonhole their music. Alex Harvey truly stood apart from his peers in rock'n'roll. To describe the music that he and his band played as "sensational" only begins to convey their unsparing power as performers.
David: I have to admit, I never fully understood The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. I enjoyed their music, which was a mix of hard-driving rock and cabaret. Alex Harvey acted out the characters in the songs, and with great humor and gusto. He had a charisma about him that made it hard not to love him and his antics on stage.
His character "Vambo" was fascinating and curious at the same time. He pulled out the "Book of Vambo" and read from it, in a heavy Scottish accent, "In the beginning, Vambo Rool!" He continued, "Vambo is like Santa Claus and Captain Marvel!" The band took off into a hard-driving tempo, singing "Vambo, comin' to the rescue." Alex Harvey then jumped up to a fake brick wall and spray painted VAMBO ROOL! on it.
To make it all the more curious, the guitarist, Zal Cleminson, had his face painted to make him look like a joker or a fool. He was dressed in a green and yellow striped, one piece outfit, and stretched his face as if it was made of rubber. Hugh McKenna (keyboards) was in a bath robe, and Chris Glen (bass) was dressed in a sharp blue Swede jumpsuit. He scowled and curled his lip throughout the performance. It all made for great theater and music, but it did leave me scratching my head a bit.
I was impressed with their musicianship. Zal Cleminson used a lot of wah-wah pedal effects and chunky chords, which were underlined by Hugh McKenna's more lyrical keyboard work. Alex Harvey was a commanding presence, and had a strong and moving voice.
I believe that we saw them at their peak. Their third album, The Impossible Dream, had been released and was selling in the USA. They had been on American TV and were getting some airplay on FM radio. It was unusual for us to see a concert at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. It had red plush seats, which was much different than the usual cow corral, standing only, Bill Graham venues that we were used to.
Their last song, "Anthem," was a slow military march. Alex Harvey stood on top of a monitor and swayed back and forth, waving the peace sign with both hands, while two Scottish bagpipe players appeared on stage. It was a very memorable performance, and nothing like any other that I have seen, before or since.
Gary: This was toward the end of our concert going, in 1975. I remember driving around looking for (very scarce) parking in this area of SF. The Civic Auditorium was not a normal venue for rock music. Styx headlined, but we only saw The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and left between acts.
It was a great performance by one of the truly amazing, unique bands in the history of creative music. They certainly were "sensational," and though the band was comprised of very talented musicians, it was definitely Alex Harvey's band. With "Rubberman" (Zal Cleminson) playing some of the hottest guitar licks on the planet, and Chris Glenn and the McKennas all providing mood swings, sass, and a rhythm and blues backing (as well as progressive music with a blues element), Alex Harvey was free to be himself: looning, philosophizing, cajoling, and threatening. A half-mad Scotsman, part pacifist, part barroom brawler. Alex Harvey definitely went his own way. VAMBO ROOL!
I really enjoyed the band. They did cabaret-style songs with mime and character parts. I remember "Vambo" ("comin' to the rescue"), "Faith Healer" (with a suspended guitar chord that never quite resolved, very irritating and hypnotic at the same time), "Framed" ("I was FFFFFRAMED!!"), "Tomahawk Kid" (a great catchy song), and "Delilah" (which I knew from Tom Jones on AM radio).
The image of Alex Harvey, with Zal Cleminson on one side and bassist Chris Glen on the other, all with their feet propped up on top of a monitor, with sarcastic looks on their faces, has stayed with me through the years. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band was a one of a kind coalition. When life gets too depressing, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band is the right antidote.
Dan: This is a show that I went to see with Greg Copeland, one of my good friends from high school. Gary, Michael, and David went to the show together, and although I didn't see them at the show, I know from looking at the photos that we must have been sitting close to them.
My recollection of this show is not as strong as my recollections of some of the other shows that I've discussed in the past, but I do remember several moments. Not being as close to the front of the stage as I would have liked (to get good photos) was disappointing. I remember Alex Harvey wearing a very bold striped shirt, and the guitar playing of Zal Cleminson was great. Zal Cleminson had a very strong presence on stage, especially with his painted face, which made him look oddly clownish. I remember bagpipes being played during one of the songs, which I had never seen at a rock concert. The other very striking and bold visual for me was was when they had a brick facade in the background, and Alex Harvey painted VAMBO ROOL! on it with spray paint.
Alex Harvey's strong vocals still stand out for me from this show. Zal Cleminson's sizzling guitar and stage presence made this a great show. I still look back at this concert with fondness, as I think this band was under appreciated, especially in the USA. I'm very happy to have seen them, and to have photographed them, more than thirty-five years ago.
Michael: Seeing a performance by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band was not something that could easily be forgotten. Their act was absolutely extraordinary. Alex Harvey himself was one of the two or three most impressive performers that I have ever seen. He clearly was born to be a showman. He took over the stage and boldly engaged with the audience, forcing them to surrender to the raw strength of his talent.
Alex Harvey and his band were not actually the headliners when we saw them in San Francisco, but they certainly were worthy of being at the top of the bill. They had to play a fairly short set, but they seemed determined to make the most of it, and they undoubtedly startled many members of the audience, most of whom probably had never heard of them. They gave a fearless and provocative performance, with a hard-edged feeling that was more than a little sinister.
The moment that I remember best was the one in which Alex Harvey assumed the character of Vambo, using a spray can of paint to write VAMBO ROOL! on a wall behind the band. With a crooked smile and a wicked gleam in his eyes, he addressed the audience in the sly voice of a street tough, looking as if he had used both fists to fight his way up from the gutters of Glasgow. He was as much an actor as a singer, showing himself to be an expert at creating a dark mood with props and gestures. Zal Cleminson, with white makeup covering his face, also made a distinct impression. His forceful style on guitar was a major element in the adventurous sound of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
Alex Harvey was, by any reckoning, one of the most gifted performers in the history of rock'n'roll. It is a shame that his powerful music was not known to a wider audience in his brief lifetime. He never achieved the high degree of fame that his abilities warranted, particularly in America, but anyone who ever had the opportunity to see him on stage, as we did in 1975, could testify to his undeniable greatness.
More about The Sensational Alex Harvey Band at David's Rock Scrapbook