For a whole generation of British music fans, Jacques Brel would have been just another bloody Belgian ponce had it not been for the absolutely electrifying treatment of his song Au Suivant, by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
Most people will recognise the song by its translated title; Next. A song about the loss of virginity in a mobile army brothel.
When Alex Harvey sang, growled, spat, howled and caressed the lyrics, it was utterly unique and anyone who had the privilege of seeing and hearing it live, will never forget it.
Naked as sin
an army towel, covering my belly
Some of us weep, some of us howl
Knees turn to jelly
But Next! Next!
I was just a child
A hundred like me
I followed a naked body
a naked body followed me
Alex Harvey was born in Glasgow in 1935. He had an itinerant early career including, so the story goes at any rate, a spell as a lion tamer. But his first spell in the public eye was in 1956, when from 600 wanabees, Alex won a newspaper competition and was chosen as Scotland's answer to Tommy Steele, the English Teen idol of the time.
It was an odd choice. Not because Alex was without talent, but because his talent was so different from the clean cut, cute and boyish Steele. Alex was small, gap-toothed, well built and had a hardened face.
Alex Harvey and Tommy Steele in 1957
Alex lived off the back of this for a couple of years and then formed Alex Harvey's Big Soul Band who gigged regularly and backed established American stars such as Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane when they came to Scotland. The typical career path for bands in the early 60's took them to Hamburg and Alex had a residency there in 1964 and a recording contract with Polydor.
For the next few years he scaffed about, always on the scene but doing nothing remarkable until 1967, when he secured a five year gig as guitarist in the backing band for the musical Hair, in London. Not original, but seminal. Alex said that it taught him what he had been lacking ……… discipline.
Two events in 1972 seem to have been the catalyst for Alex's real emergence as a Rock and Roll hero.
The first was tragic. His brother Les, the lead guitarist with Stone the Crows, was electrocuted and died onstage in Swansea. Alex and Les were close and had previously released albums together.
The second was fortuitous. Alex was re-acquainted with an old friend, Bill Fehilly. Fehilly had been a promoter on the Scottish music scene in the 60's and had gone on to make a fortune from bingo halls. At the time he was just breaking another Scottish rock act, Nazareth.
Sensational Alex Harvey Band - the band in full flight were truly sensational
Bill put Alex in touch with Zal Cleminson, Hugh and Ted McKenna, and Chris Glenn, the remnants of various fragmenting bands. They clicked and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band was born.
Over the next five years they set a frightening pace gigging and released eight albums. They gained a reputation as the best live rock act in the UK and were at one point acknowledged as the biggest grossing act around.
And it was a unique performance. What stood out according to Charles Shaar Murray, a journalist and friend, was the genuine commitment to the audience and Alex's humanity. He would frequently exhort fans to eschew violence and behave responsibly towards the environment ….. "don't pish in the water supply".
It was a fertile time. In 1975 the band had a UK hit with an eclectic version of the Tom Jones ballad "Delilah" and in the following year another hit with "Boston Tea Party". Top of the Pops was never better.
Alex and Zal
The gigging and the physical nature of the stage act took its toll on Alex's health. Plagued by acute back problems and troubled over the death in 1976 of Bill Fehilly in an air crash, he announced his retirement from live performing in 1977.
But he had the bug and returned to low key gigging in 1978. He experienced legal problems with his old management group, recorded an album with the New Alex Harvey Band, but never regained his popularity or his health.
On February 4th, 1982, a day before his birthday, he died of a heart attack at the end of a European tour.
He would have been 47, he was unique, and he is not forgotten.