A rock ‘n’ roll memory
It was 1974, and my buddy Joe Stew and I really, really, really wanted to be rock stars. We did all the right things. We formed a band called Dr. Scarabus & the Sponge Reunion. (How could that name miss?) We read Creem and Circus. We bought albums at Franklin Music and Record Museum. We scrimped and saved to buy guitars and amplifiers and microphones and mic stands (albeit, of wavering quality). We learned how to play barre chords, fer cryin’ out loud.
Our eyes and ears were always open for anything that “rocked.” Then one night, a group called the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (above) appeared on ABC-TV’s Friday night rock show “In Concert.” Me ‘n’ Joe went nuts. Looking back, the performance was a sendup, really, a put-on. But we were 16. We wanted to have our minds blown. And the Sensational Alex Harvey Band blew our minds.
Especially … especially … the Clown Guy.
The band formed two years earlier in Glasgow. (We just assumed every rock star with an accent came from England.) The track they performed, “Vambo Marble Eye,” was from the band’s 1973 album “Next.” Harvey, a comic book fan, called Vambo “a cross between Santa Claus and Captain Marvel, coming to the rescue.”
This special edition of “In Concert” was taped at the Rainbow Theatre in London (established 1930), where the 1973 live album “Eric Clapton‘s Rainbow Concert” was recorded. When lead singer Alex Harvey took the stage, he said, in his impenetrable Scottish brogue, “Good evenin’, boys an’ girls, an’ hallo, America.” (That was us.)
Harvey was very theatrical. He “read” from a big, old, Bible-lookin’ book, talking about this guy Vambo. His singing reminded you of Bon Scott. He was mostly funny, but sometimes, he injected a hint of intimidation. He was workin’ the crowd.
Harvey was styled like a ruffian. But his band was full-on glam. Bassist Chris Glen (above left) wore a feathered-and-blown Rod Stewart and the Faces shag cut without irony and, as you can see, a powder-blue codpiece over electric-blue tights. Glen’s partner-in-outrageousness was the guitarist (above right) in a green-and-yellow costume, teased red hair and clown makeup.
Actually, it was “mime” makeup, not “clown” makeup. But we unsophisticated 16-year-olds didn’t catch that subtle distinction. We just called him … “the Clown Guy.”
Here he is taking a solo — actually, the song “Vambo” has some great riffs — while Harvey spray-paints “VAMBO ROOLS” on a faux brick wall. What really got me ‘n’ Joe was how the Clown Guy sang the chorus in a raspy, high-pitched voice, wearing a Joker-like expression of evil glee. We thought that was the coolest.
You’ve gotta remember that 1974 was a banner year for glam rock. Man, you had David Bowie‘s “Diamond Dogs” and “David Live” … Mott the Hoople‘s “Mott” and “Live” … Roxy Music‘s “Country Life” … Eno‘s “Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)” … the New York Dolls‘ “Too Much Too Soon” … Be-Bop Deluxe‘s “Axe Victim” … Sparks‘ “Kimono My House” and “Propaganda”… Hawkwind‘s “Hall of the Mountain Grill” … Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” … Queen‘s “Sheer Heart Attack” and “Queen II” … Kiss‘ first two albums “Kiss” and “Hotter Than Hell” … it was on.
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band — or SAHB — is revered across the pond, but I’ve yet to meet anyone in the U.S. besides me ‘n’ Joe who knows of them. (Wait a minute. I’d bet anything that “The Electric Ballroom” host Keith Roth knows all about SAHB.) Sadly, Harvey died of heart failure on the day before his 47th birthday in 1982.
A weird aside: Also on “In Concert” that evening in ’74 were two bands that became favorites of mine: Procol Harum and Foghat. But I don’t remember those bands being on the show. I only remember the Sensational Alex Harvey Band … and the Clown Guy.
The ‘Clown Guy’ today
Where is this all going? Well, the memory of that weird performance suddenly popped back into my head. (Yep, onset dementia is knockin’ at my door.) Lo and behold, I found that exact performance on the YouTube. I never dreamed I’d ever see it again. And I thought: The Clown Guy really made an impression on me. I’ve never forgotten him. Who is he? Is he still around?
Imagine my surprise when I learned that the gentleman, Zal Cleminson, is not only still around, but he was actively playing live as recently as 2019. (He announced his retirement from music that year.) Cleminson was even still wearing makeup onstage — no longer the mime look, but shock-rock raccoon eyes at the very least, sometimes more.
He’s now 71, and had this to say in a 2019 interview with Metal-Rules.com: “Seventy is the new middle age. Ritchie Blackmore is up there, still doing it. And so why not? The whole age thing seems to have gone out the window. It’s not a consideration anymore about how old you are. It’s how old you feel in your head.”
I’d call Cleminson a Scottish Goth-metalist. I throw in “Scottish” because he wears his homeland on his sleeve, especially in a song like “Govan Boy” (Govan being a district of Glasgow), with its lyrics: “The Govan boy / Close the gates one last time / Oh, rusted chains, and the place stripped down / The Govan boy / Little town, the river / What did he see / Last of an industry …”
His last solo band was called Zal Cleminson’s Sin’Dogs. The songs are beautiful and meaningful. His metal side rips. Cleminson has a way of starting a song out gently, almost quietly … then layering and building … until suddenly … he drops the hammer. Great power chords, great ripping solos. I hope he is lured back into the music world. Watch and listen below. I will be joining you shortly.
‘Vambo’ (1974): Yeah, I now cringe at the all the tights and crotch-thrusting. But I have since concluded that these guys were, as the Brits say, taking the p***. They were using rock theatrics to point out the absurdity of rock theatrics. And like I said, those riffs rock. “Vambo” is ripe for covering, yo!
‘Govan Boy’ (2018): This visually affecting, fan-edited video was posted by Sir Henry Baskerville, who notes: “This video is totally unofficial! Respectfully … SHB.” It opens with what appears to be vintage newsreel footage of laborers in a ship-building town. I spotted a snippet of Fritz Lang‘s “Metropolis” on the lyric, “With the clock on his face.” For Cleminson’s solo, Sir Henry cuts to the Sin’Dogs in black-and-white (though non-synch), with a “scratchy film” filter. Beautifully done.
‘Hungry Heart’ (2017): Sir Henry also posted this mournful Sin’Dogs song performed at Sahbrock, a festival for SAHB fans held annually in Glasgow.
‘The Faith Healer’ (2018): Pushing 70 here, Cleminson sings and plays his heart out with the Sin’Dogs at Masonic Hall, a.k.a. Lodge St. Servanus No. 771 (established 1890), in Alva, Clackmannanshire, Scotland. This is the Sin’Dogs’ thoughtful cover of a 1973 SAHB song. The video was posted by ShakeyLiveMusic.
Cleminson/McKenna interview (2018): Zal Cleminson and Ted McKenna recall the SAHB years on the “Talk Music Podcast” hosted by Scott Cowie.
P.S.: Here’s one more look at Cleminson in the old daze. He once said of the makeup: “The mime face came about with bigger gigs. More people could see what I was up to.”
Read about Alex Harvey HERE.