Christmas 1975. I’m thirteen and my scary mate Dan’s got us tickets to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band at the New Victoria Theatre, down near the station. It’ll be my first-ever gig but all I know about the band is they’ve done some Tom Jones cover that everyone seems to think is brilliant. Tom Jones! I’m cool, me: why do I want to go and see a forty-year-old bloke run through dodgy old songs by someone my parents like? And why can’t Dan just leave me alone, leave me to splash about in my happy, perfumed bath of Buddy Holly/Quo/Slade/Sweet (while... ahem... secretly liking disco)? And anyway - McMillan and Wife’s on tonight and I really fancy Susan Saint James. Though not Rock Hudson. Just Susan. Ahem.
We travel there on the 29, arrive about six and Dan strides confidently into the first pub we come across while I shuffle in behind him, trying desperately to look mature and hard and nonchalant. The place is heaving - loud and jostling and fogged with smoke and aggressive bonhomie, and, having barged his cocky way through the tattoo’d blokes wearing Celtic scarves, Dan orders us two large ones. Fuck! The harsh jab of the cheap whisky takes my breath away but I act like I’m used to this stuff, used to crowded pubs full of eight-foot ten Scotsmen, used to spontaneous bursts of A Nation Once Again, used to the sticky male sweat of pre-gig expectation.
Christ, I’m English - I’ve never felt more English. Dan, slipping into his dad’s Cork accent, gets talking to a bald bloke with an almost-impenetrable accent, going on about the ‘Ra and imperialism and how Our Day Will Come. I sip the evil spirit, trying not to sound like I’m from Enfield and wishing I was at home lusting after Susan (but not Rock) and eating beans on toast.
About half seven, we stumble out into the light and rush of Victoria, cross the road to the theatre. Up the steps: if anything, the place is more packed, intimidating, more exciting, more viscerally shaking than the pub had been. We flash our two-quid tickets at the doorman, push our way through into the big, dirty hall; Dan’s going on about how brilliant this is going to be - ‘no more listening to Kool And The Fucking Gang for you after this, Kev’ (how does he know!?) - and I’m feeling pissed, like I’m about to be sick. Right now, even if Susan flung herself at me, I’d have to say, ‘No, sorry Susan. I can’t. Not only because I’m thirteen, deeply, deeply frightened of girls my own age, let alone real, actual, women and wouldn’t know where to start anyway, but because I might well throw up. And Dan would only go and tell everyone at school I’d thrown up on Susan Saint James. Which would make me even less cool than I am already. Oh, and the same goes for you too, Rock, as well.’
As I’m thinking all this, as I’m trying so, so hard not to vomit, a razor-sharp, hammer-heavy guitar riff emerges from the darkness behind the stage. The lights in the whole place go out. There’s silence for a second. And then the riff strikes again, twice as loud, pounding and cutting and sawing. I’m not sick anymore. I’m pinned to the floor, free of thought and feeling. A man, picked-out by a single spotlight, skips onto the stage, all clown make-up, glammy clothes and weird grin. There’s a roar that I’ve only ever previously heard at Spurs - the roar of men united within a temporary community, a transient certainty of connection and loss of self, a near-sexual thrill of anticipation. The painted man plays one huge, building-collapsing chord, the spotlight disappears, it’s darkness again and then He’s there, suddenly, at the front of the stage: black-and-white striped shirt, a lined, knowing face, the smile of the Devil. The roar from inside me and out, from every man there, is deafening, inhuman. A drummer and a bassist and a keyboard-player magic onto the stage behind Satan and The Clown and they start to embrace and kiss and stroke the riff, engorging it, transforming it into a warped, sinewy soul-blues thing that twists and turns and makes me feel more alive than I ever remember feeling.
And then? And then Alex Harvey starts singing. Or, rather, Alex Harvey starts commanding and preaching and whispering and cajoling and seducing and threatening. This isn’t a pop singer. This isn’t like any singer I’ve ever heard. This is an angry, amused, terrifying man who’s both deeply, theatrically other and tremblingly, disturbingly real. He’s telling us stories: he’s from Glasgow and Louisiana and Liverpool and Detroit and Chicago; he's a cowboy, he's a warrior, he's Vambo. And he’s utterly captivating. Despite the spice and leer and vitality of the guitarist, despite the muscular drive and vigour of the other three, I can’t take my eyes off Alex Harvey. I want to be him and I want to run away from him at the same time. The music his slaves are playing is sharp, strong, stabbing, subtle - whatever he needs it to be so he can beguile us and seduce us and Gorbal us into his shadowy Gothic pantomime, so he can pull the pin of the sweet, orgasmic, dark-camp, circus-caress grenade that sits beneath the stories and poverty, the meaninglessness and waste and glory of our lives. The world has changed; the two-hour (probably) set lasts two years and two seconds and then we’re staggering out of the place, dripping with sweat, the chorus of Delilah echoing round the city and round our heads, a mesmeric thrum that will last for days...
...thirty-five years later, I’m sitting in front of the computer and listening - for the third time this morning - to Framed, the album Dan said I should get if I was only going to buy one Alex Harvey album. I’ve been thinking about how that night changed me, how I fell in love with music that Christmas, fell in love with spectacle and with the catharsis of sound, how I fell in love with Alex Harvey and the blues and rock and soul and, somehow, recognised the possibilities we all have in us to change ourselves and others for the better, keeping one foot all the time in the shadows; I've been trying not to think too much about how I've let that recognition fade. I’ve been thinking how genreless and timeless Harvey and the band were/are, how they trod on blues and pop and vaudeville and rock’n’roll and glam and clambered higher, reaching up to and beyond punk, merging black and white, linking the US and Scotland respectfully but never warily. I’ve been listening to the vast Isobel Goudie, proggy in its ambition, yet sensual, insidious, celebratory, doomed; to the Glaswegian gobbling, swallowing and spitting out of Leiber and Stoller’s title-track; to the Francis Bacon-inspired, oddly-never-quite-made-it-as-a-Yuletide-hit There's No Lights On The Christmas Tree, Mother, They're Burning Big Louie Tonight; and to the Gothic/Catholic Southern-burnt rhythms and concerns of the thing as a whole - serious and winking and blistering and religious and secular and like nothing else and like everything else.
And I’ve been thinking this morning about time and the ways in which a middle-aged man bewitched a young kid by taking from the past and handing the best bits on to him. I’ve been thinking about Dan and the gratitude I owe him for introducing me to SAHB (and gigs and Bob Marley and politics and not accepting the obvious). I’ve been thinking about how sad I felt when Alex Harvey died in ’82 and no-one I knew seemed to care and how proud I felt when my daughter went out the other night wearing a Vambo tee-shirt with His picture on the front. Above all, I’ve spent a couple of hours this morning not thinking anything very much, just losing myself in the power and the joy and the silly, redemptive possibilities of music. And, just a little, in memories of Susan St James.