"Rock and roll music – the music of freedom frightens people and unleashes all manner of conservative defence mechanisms.”
“Rock has no beginning and no end for it is the very pulse of life itself.” Larry Williams
“I'm just a guy being a professional musician, trying to make a living. But since the band got together and I've seen the things I've seen... I'm not particularly intellectual, but I'm a survivor and can smell what's going on. I feel that there's another change coming. Everyone keeps saying 'when's the rock and roll revolution gonna come?" The rock and roll revolution has been and gone.” Alex Harvey
Rock is that beast of music which is either loved or hated by the music lover, there doesn’t appear to be much leeway in the middle. Paul Gambaccini tells us that the age of rock is part of history now, “like jazz”, so it is tempting to look at the phenomena from a historical lens Yet this ‘genre’ of music, who encompasses nearly every country in the world, is still growing. Ask one hundred fans to name their favourite rock band, and you could easily get one hundred answers.
I may cause controversy in my definition of rock music.
Here’s the Free Dictionary:
Rock music (noun), a genre of popular music originating in the 1950s; a blend of black rhythm-and-blues with white country-and-western; "rock is a generic term for the range of styles that evolved out of rock'n'roll."
A generic term is pretty much how I use it. I don’t have too much interest in sub categorizing in punk rock, acid rock, metal, heavy metal, ‘too popular to be real rock’, prog rock, etc etc. I think we can spend too often defining the music we listen to, instead of taking each song or artist on their individual merits. So here I take the artists I like on their merits, and besides, the categories are merely an excuse to talk about the damned music!
NB This would have had more bands, only yours truly got a little carried away on one band, and figured people didn't want to be sitting around trying to read a thirty-thousand word opus one day in November... The rest will follow along...
“I just go where the guitar takes me.” Angus Young
Some people, like me, think AC/DC were a good band that never reached the heights they had with Bon Scott. Others think they have been awesome for the last forty years, and who am I to argue with them? I do feel that the band lost a certain spark with the premature passing of the Scot, another notch on the bed of music stars and self-destructive ends.
And yet, most of the songs I like come from the post-Scott era. I’m hypocritical like that. I just appreciate the commercial aspect of the 1980 and beyond band, while accepting the original group had a rawer intensity to their music, which surpasses the more commercially successful variation.
"My new schoolmates threatened to kick the shit out of me when they heard my Scottish accent. I had one week to learn to speak like them them if I wanted to remain intact. 'Course, I didn't take any notice. No one railroads me , and it made me all the more determined to speak my own way. That's how I got my name, you know. The Bonny scot, see?"
"I think after Bon [died] I felt horribly grown up in a way, when you're young you always think you're immortal and that time really spun me around"
Songs to appreciate from AC/DC include the obvious tracks: Back in Black, Highway to Hell. But I’d like to give a small moment to the trope-namer of this section. Let There Be Rock isn’t the sharpest, the best ear worm, the chart legend. It is however an earnest example of the band having fun with their sound.
“These people who wreck hotels, it's a form of pollution. It's needless. Smashing up a hotel is exactly the same as some firm coming along and dumping oil waste in a lake, then saying, "It'll be cool, man, we can pay for the damage.' It's a mental disease, which causes friction. No one needs that." Alex Harvey, 1975
The mad man from the poverty stricken Glasgow slums, Harvey took rock music, turned it upside down, added pathos and insanity, and changed the face of music worldwide, gaining acclamation from even folk like Andy Williams, before dying stupidly young in 1982.
Alex Harvey went from being a tombstone carver in Kinning Park, to leading two bands for twenty years from 1958. The Alex Harvey Soul Band would cover such tracks as “I Just Want to Make Love to you” and “Got my Mojo running”. It was such light and day away from the Sensational years that had a familiar Glaswegian drawl not added its own unique impression over the old blues tracks, you’d be forgiven for not recognising any links whatsoever between the two.
“Much, much later, we're in a mini-cab hurtling through the Gorbals. Alex and General Grimes are in the back. harvey's thrashing away at a huge banjo. The General's having a few problems with his 12-string acoustic and they're both more than a little worse for wear after the seven ours of drinking that have led us to this moment. Up front, next to me, the cab drivers looks petrified at these two apparent lunatics singing rebel songs and screaming obscenities.
"There goes Thistle Street." Alex shouts into the night. "See that corner? I had my fuckin' hand slashed open there once by a guy wi' a razor."
Then, suddenly very angry, he opens the window of the cab and starts screaming; "Fuck Thistle Street! Fuck the fuckin' Gorbals. Fuck the fuckin' lot of youse!"
"Fer Christ's sake, Alex," says General Grimes. "Shut the fuck up and play your banjo. What the fuck are you tryin' to do? Give the neighbourhood a bad name or something?"
Allan Jones, Uncut Magazine, 1975
Then in 1972, two pivotal moments occurred that were to shape the last decade of Alex’s life. His younger brother Les, co-founder of Stone the Crows, was killed in a freak electrocution whilst in Swansea for a gig. (A microphone was not earth-grounded.) Les had previously narrowly avoided death in 1965, when as part of the Blues Council, the van the band toured in crashed, killing two members.
The second was the forming of the Sensational Alex Harvey band.
Don't encourage me to murder
'Cause it pays to advertise
Don't treat me with suspicion
Don't tell me no more lies
You know I love your company
You shouldn't do me wrong
Although it's true I'm worried nowI won't be worried long
SAHB was Alex Harvey turned up to eleven. He wasn’t just go to take on the music gods at their own game, he was going to smash right through with his own style of in your face, leftist, grieving, angry ROCK. The above lyrics from Anthem are symptomatic of the SAHB style: why use the outdated Donkeys route to take on hostile feelings to world war, when you can flip the switch 180 degrees, and sing from the position of a conscientious objector? As I’ve mentioned before, one of my uncles was a WW2 concy, and he suffered grievously for his ethics, so this song matters on a personal level. It works on so many levels though: the defiant Harvey standing against the unseen interrogator, the enemy on his own side; the use of Anthem as a title, playing immediately to the imagery of Wilfred Owen; the mournful and haunting Vicky Silva over the pipe band... Wonderful. In one song, Harvey and co manage to sum up not only the great spirit of rebellion, not only the futility of war, but with the addition of the Scottish TA pipers, the Scottish spirit itself. It’s such a shame the song failed to chart, much to Harvey’s chagrin.
Success was around the corner though. A cover of the Tom Jones song Delilah reached 7 in the British charts. Then the “Boston Tea Party” reached 13th spot in 1976. I can’t stand that song, so Mandy would sing the refrain (“Are you going? Are you going to the Boston tea Party?”) over and over. Mind you, I appear to be in a minority there, not only was it a hit with my wife and the record buying public of the 1970s, but Sarah Ferguson announced on the BBC once that it was one of her favourite songs!
All ya got to do is feel
your body's going to start to heal
The fingertips of holy fire
everlasting sweet desire
It don't matter what the doctor said
the healer man will sail away
Immortality for two
the miracles, they will come to you
In Faith Healer, Harvey’s voice practically spits out venom towards the charlatans he is after. Famously the band once played it live at the Reading Festival in 1973, having not even recorded the song yet.
They call me the Midnight Moses
everything I touch is comin' up roses.
Harvey’s heaviest riff is a knowing look at his own reputation. Hold Nazi style parties (according to Melody Maker)? Have another hit. Drink to excess? All part of the image. Swear and rant and act strange? Ack, he’s from Glasgow, it’s what they do up there. Yet, it would be unfair to take any song of Harvey’s as straight up hubris gathering, to take the lyrics of Midnight Moses as a snippet away from the whole would be like judging Machiavelli as a supporter of princes based on The Prince, and not the satirist republic lover he was. Ditto everything around the Midnight Moses shows us the mood it is to be taken in, of a singer wearier than we might think, knowing of the pitfalls and tribulations on the road ahead. When you are living in the fast lane of rock, everything comes up roses until the day it doesn’t. Harvey was too grounded by the tragedies he saw in his life, and yet that day arrived for him all the same.
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
Everyone covers Jacques Brel, so to have one of the definitive covers of a Brel song in English is no small feat.
“I have and we have no aspirations to make another rock ‘n’ roll movie, even a movie like Tommy or anything. It would have to be a new way of doing it – and I think there is a new way of doing it.
“I think a horror movie would be good. Not necessarily a rock horror movie; a gothic horror movie, but real. Not one like Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
“I don’t know many superstars, but I do know a few, and I don’t know any that are happy. They get hung up on smashing hotels and get into heavy drugs and stuff, and their personal lives just don’t seem to be happy.
“Success, to me, would be to communicate, and maybe discover a new form of communication, whatever it would be. I don’t know. I might have been an explorer – I may have been an astronaut. As long as I’m discovering something.”
Alex Harvey to Janey Macoska, 1974
Problems began to mount for Alex Harvey. His manager Bill Fehilly was killed in a plane crash in 1976, a tragedy Alex never fully recovered from. The last SAHB track ever recorded, No Complaints Department, makes mention of both loses (Fehilly and Les Harvey) and its eerie tones of acceptance almost stand as an obituary to Alex himself. Back problems caused by his energetic stage performances meant he needed to retire from SAHB in 1977.
“I think a lot of people thought it was a curse. There was an air about it." Maggie Bell
He retained his admirers till the end though. In 1971, Andy Williams covered Harvey’s “Someone Who Cares”.
Alex was pure rock theatre. He was decadent rock Burlesque. No one else was doing it. He was ahead of his time.'
Alex Harvey died in 1982, the day before his forty-seventh birthday. He was in Belgium waiting for a ferry back to England after a gig. Two massive heart attacks silenced him in the end, an end hastened on by severe alcoholism. Tales of how widespread his booze issues were, and how they hurt not only his performances in later years, but his personal life, are common enough. Out of personal decorum however, and being the friend of friends of his son (though we have never met, to the best of my knowledge) there shan’t be any of that here.
Instead we’ll look to the obituary of the fallen star not for the juicy gossip, but for the epitaph. What he left to the world:
“What showed most about Alex Harvey the performer was his very real devotion to his audiences. He would go to any length to enlighten and to entertain, and - as his notion of theatrical presentation developed from a few simple costume changes and bits of business to complex arrangements of props and gadgets - his work was never bombastic and never attempted to substitute extravagance for genuine communication. Time after time, he would exhort his audiences to avoid both private and institutionalized violence - 'don't make any bullets, don't buy any bullets and don't shoot any fucken bullets' - and to behave responsibly towards each other and their environment - 'don't pish in the water supply.” Charles Shaar Murray, New Music Express obituary, 13 February 1982
Alice in Cooper
“People that haven't seen us yet are shocked because they think that Alice Cooper must be a female folksinger. They don't expect the whole thing. And the whole thing is a direct product of television and movies and America, 'cause that's where America's based. That's where their heart is from the sex and violence of TV and the movies, and that was our influence. We weren't brought up under a blues influence. We were brought up under an electronics influence -- the bomb (I'm not knocking the bomb, I think the bomb's a gas), but television has been the main influence for this generation, and that's why this whole thing is happening. You just let your lower self go, and then it takes on all these aspects of the society -- the city with horns blowing, the people yelling things at each other, and the all-in-all violence and chaos of the city. Put that on stage with music, and that's what this is.”
Alice Cooper, 1969
Songs to listen to from Cooper? Schools Out. No More Mr Nice Guy. Poison. Elected. Yeah, I know, I’m Captain Obvious here, but sometimes the greatest hits are known as the greatest hits for a reason.
Though I must say:
Well we got no class
And we got no principles
And we got no innocence
We can't even think of a word that rhymes
Schools Out has one of the finest lampshading moments of lyric creation in rock, with that final line. It’s as good as the blatant one in Do-Re-Me. (You know, “la, a note to follow soh...”. Douglas Adams wrote a fine piece on it, which you can find here.)
“Most of modern rock is a product of guilt.” Captain Beefheart
I didn’t know much of Captain Beefheart till about two years ago, when he was dead and buried. My intro to the man’s music was through the writer Jim Steel, who has a rather eclectic (but good) taste in music and who insisted people gave him a shot.
“I don't know what to do about racial or political
things. It was just a poem to me. A poem for poem's sake."
Take away the tragic subtext of his career and personal issues (especially with Zappa), and what we have is a master lyricist, able to fawn off pretensions of grandeur with his daft moments (Abba Zaba), then sneaking in the odd pertinent thought when everyone has their guard down. Within the context of Ashtray Heart, for example, to suddenly come face to face with the line “someone’s had too much to think” within the context of that song is the work of a master songwriter at work.
Abba Zaba is the song everyone sings along to, despite not understanding any of the lyrics.
“The stars are matter, we’re matter, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Bob Dylan impresses me as much as...well, I want to say a slug, but I like slugs.” (Quote added for no other reason than...hey, if someone dislikes Dylan, they’re ok with me!)
Now there was a man with a sense of the Glasgow Zen, so to speak.
(All images off free sites like Wiki, rights their respectives. Am indebted to Wunnerful.com for its collection of Alex Harvey interviews, reviews, biographical details, etc...)