Alex Harvey – The Mafia Stole My Guitar: Released – 1979

FRANKIE Miller once told me a great tale of the time Alex Harvey phoned him looking for a favour. The request came after Miller had made his acting debut in Peter McDougall’s BBC drama, Just A Boy’s Game.

His role as hard man Jake McQuillan was critically acclaimed. In the play – shot in Greenock – challenges by rival gangs to “Come ahead, McQuillan” were met by his memorable ice-cold stare. It could have frozen molten lava.

Harvey had a problem with a record company executive who had reneged on a deal. That look was exactly what he needed.

The pair burst into the guy’s office in London, and as Harvey marched up and down reading him the riot act, Miller just stared at their hapless victim. The dispute was resolved forthwith.

In 1979, the former was setting out on a new solo career after his shock split from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, a year earlier.

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Legal hassles – plus a lasting depression caused by the deaths of his brother, Leslie, who was electrocuted on stage while playing guitar with Stone The Crows in 1972, and his manager Bill Fehilly, who lost his life in a plane crash six years later, led to one of the finest records of his chequered career.

The opening line of the title track said it all: “The Mafia stole my guitar/Aha aha/My old time Telecaster/Aha aha.”

Harvey still had a lot to prove. The success of SAHB, kicked off by the superb 1972 debut album, Framed, paved the way for a string of six further records including The Impossible Dream and Tomorrow Belongs To Me.

Who can forget Harvey’s appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973, spitting out the lyrics to Next … Jacques Brel’s tale of debauchery in a mobile army whorehouse?

Or those now legendary Christmas shows at Glasgow Apollo in 1975, at the peak of his band’s career.

Creatively, could lightning strike twice? I had my doubts. But he proved me wrong.

Despite his personal problems, Harvey had undoubtedly found his mojo again.

“When SAHB played the Reading Festival in 1977, my dad had run out of the strength and anger he’d channelled following the deaths of Leslie and Bill,” recalled Alex Harvey Jr., the singer’s eldest son.

“His management was a mess. In terms of contracts, I don’t know how much was written down and how much was just word-of-mouth.

“He was tangled up in lot of legal s***.

“But this album was a glimmer of hope … he’d really got his spirit back again.”

Harvey, then aged 44, formed a group who he lumbered with the pedestrian name, The New Band. That was the only dull thing about them.

HeraldScotland:

They booked Morgan Studios in London and the involvement of jazz saxophonist, Don Weller, helped transport Harvey back to his roots playing the Star Club in Hamburg with his Big Soul Band in the early 1960s.

“He was in a much better place when he made this album,” revealed Alex Jr.

“At Reading, I knew something was wrong. He’d run out of steam, he should have had a break. He was definitely very depressed. Today, there would have been some kind of an intervention … he’d have received professional help.

“It was terrible for him to walk away from a success with SAHB that he’d strived for so long to achieve.”

His previous solo album, Alex Harvey Presents: The Loch Ness Monster in 1977 was a spoken-word curio in which the singer interviewed people who claimed to have spotted Nessie.

Musically, The Mafia Stole My Guitar provided a clean slate. Harvey did not waste the opportunity.

The title track captured the sheer essence of Harvey’s appeal. In the studio, he didn’t record vocal takes … he recorded performances.

And his pleading: “Oh Godfather … why has thou forsaken me?” was the singer at his tortured best.

Wait For Me Mama – a heroic tale of a fictional British imperialist father who “fought for the flag and the last bugle call” – was surely the ultimate irony.

Harvey was a conscientious objector, like his father and grandfather before him, who was spared National Service, aged 17, due to his beliefs.

The closest he ever got to military combat was when he played with his collection of toy soldiers.

The tribal rhythms of the epic track continued the musical timeline of his pre-punk classic, The Faith Healer, from SAHB’s album, Next in 1973.

While spirited covers of the 1960 hit, Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody – popularised by US bandleader, Louis Prima in 1929 – threw a bit of showbiz into the mix.

But it was The Whalers (Thar She Blows) which underlined he was far from a spent force.

Harvey was the first rock star I recall who actively pushed a message to save the planet, years before Sting or Peter Gabriel pledged their support to Greenpeace.

He’d tell audiences: “Boys and girls … don’t piss in the water supply”.

The mantra of his mythical musical superhero, Vambo was: “Vambo never vandal be/Vambo never cut down tree/Vambo from the future borrow/He lead children of tomorrow”.

Alex Jr. told me:

“He was an avid comic collector. So the whole fantasy of having a superhero, Vambo, coming to the rescue was his interpretation of the gang culture he grew up with in the Gorbals, where there was a team every four or five streets.

“But the difference was … his gang were a force for good.”

His lyrics in The Whalers hit the target with the force of a harpoon gun, when he sang:

“Gimme the spear/Gimme it quick/I’ll kill the son of Moby Dick.

“Slaughter cubs and mummy too/Here’s a perfume just for you”

It was stirring stuff.

“He’d contributed to one of the very first Save The Whale gigs,” recalled Alex Jr.

“It was unusual to hear a musician talk about conservation or saving the planet. It wasn’t common or trendy then.”

The Mafia Stole My Guitar wrote a new chapter for Harvey. Sadly, he didn’t get to build on the quiet impact of an album cruelly overlooked.

He died of a heart attack on February 4, 1982, while on tour in Belgium one day before his 47th birthday.

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“He found the whole process of recording a little difficult again, but he was pleased with the results,” said Alex Jr.

“He absolutely loved the Mafia album. It was a fresh start and the quality was there.

“As a performer, he was powerful on stage... but very fragile. I told him I wanted to get involved. He needed somebody to watch his back. But it was not to be.”

ALEX AND THE ROBBERS

MY favourite Alex Harvey story is of the time two masked men burst into a Glasgow record store and held the staff at knifepoint.

They demanded the day’s takings and made their escape.

Suddenly, one turned on his heel and said: “Oh, and two copies of the new Alex Harvey album.”

His unique sound helped pave the way for punk rock.

The singer suffered from insomnia. He once phoned me at 4am... “for a chat” about Sid Vicious.

The controversial Sex Pistols’ bass player – who died of a heroin overdose in 1979 – had set him thinking.

“What Sid did was brilliant. The voice, the look, the attitude... he’s got everything,” Harvey told me.

“I want to find a kid – maybe somebody who’s just come out of borstal – and write songs for him.

“Can you imagine some tough kid, with nothing going for him, making great records. I could do it.”

The idea sadly never came to fruition.

Alex Jr. said: “His mate ran The Vortex in London, so he’d go down there and hang out with all the punks.

“He was serious about finding a young guy and turning him into a star. But I used to say: ‘You wouldn’t have the stamina to do that’.

“He’d have loved the music side of it... but he’d never have been able to do all the organisational stuff needed to make it happen.”

THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.