February 6, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

Paying tribute … your own Crazy Train!

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band — perhaps the fifth greatest Scottish band of all time — never really broke the ice in the United States.

Cleveland, city of abandoned steel mills and burning rivers, was the only exception. In the 1970s, the disaffected youth of Cleveland embraced these grubby, marginalized lads from Glasgow and their burlesque-apocalypse rock ’n’ roll show. WMMS flew their freak flag, like radio stations sometimes did before Clear Channel delivered our new freedom. They fell in love with this fantastic Weimar nightclub sort of gay football hooligan music, and they played the hell out of it until the record company finally noticed and sent the band over — over and over.

While I could easily overstate the impact of this co-mingling on Cleveland’s music scene, I do know for sure that Cheetah Chrome saw the band several times. I am still giddy about this new insight into the unwholesome zeitgeist of The Dead Boys and their Rust Belt nihilism.

Last week, my band played at the Beachland Ballroom in a charming, rebounding section of Cleveland. Vambo Rools, the local Sensational Alex Harvey tribute band, was playing in the ballroom down the hall! The enthusiasm of their fans, the unlikely fact of the band’s very existence, and the transporting nature of the fog machine caused me to get up on the “Googler” and conduct this exhaustive research. Yes, I can say with certainty that there is a lid for every pot, and yes, something freaky happened when the children of those two ruined industrial monsters first looked into each other’s angry, bloodshot eyes.

Alec Harvey got his start in the mid-’50s Glasgow skiffle scene. By 1957, Elvis was headed for total world domination and the British were worried. A little blond guy named Tommy Steele was England’s Elvis, but who would be Scotland’s Tommy Steele? Seriously. That was the conceit of the “Teenage Idol” contest won by the future leader of the iconoclast glam-rock proto-punk freakshow known as The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, henceforth here to be known as the S.A.H.B. Just participating in such a contest could have caused some psychic damage. Winning it helped launch our hero on a wild and successful musical ride, ending with his death from a massive heart attack at the age of 46, on Feb. 4, 1982.

When the band’s first record came out in 1972, they toured with Slade. The influence was mutual. S.A.H.B. was creepier (partly because of the clown costume), and they seemed more deranged, but both bands clearly shopped at the same awesome Mott the Hoople platform-spaceboot store. In 1975, S.A.H.B. opened for Jethro Tull at Louisville Gardens. I don’t know if I was grounded, or not yet born, or what, but I didn’t go to the show.

I would never, ever have heard of S.A.H.B. if not for Rivertown Records, Louisville’s greatest used record store of the 1970s and probably of all time. My brother and I spent hours in there. No one ever asked why we weren’t in school. The records were really cheap, mostly a dollar. It was easy to take a chance on the unknown — The Incredible String Band, Folkways recordings of Bahamian guitar god Joseph Spence, maybe some Scottish guys dressed like clowns doing a Jacques Brel cover …

A record you find by digging around in a great used record store (especially one that is really dim and musty with lots of precarious stacks everywhere) is yours in a way that something from the interweb can never be. It is yours like you discovered it, almost like no one else has even heard it before.

We have some really good record stores here right now. We should keep them alive. The eco-consciousness of the digital download is a perplexing First World problem. So many things designed to reduce waste actually seem to increase consumption. If you have the same stereo for 30 years, you should get enough credits to buy a little bit of vinyl.

Catherine Irwin plays in the band Freakwater, who once spawned a tribute band called Geekwater.