Monday, 9 May 2011
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Delilah (1975/ No. 7/ 7 weeks/ Vertigo)
Friends of mine will need little reminding of my visceral dislike of the works of Tom Jones, and his singular ability over 45 years to convert any given song that he is given to sing into a display of showboating, bellowed by a fool. Normally the effect of this is merely irritating, but when it comes to Delilah the effect is distasteful to the point of being offensive.
Despite its jolly oompah karaoke reputation, Delilah might actually be one of the most horrible songs to have have been a top ten hit, the story of a cuckolded man who lies outside Delilah's home watching her in flagrante, hangs around until dawn waiting for the other man to leave, knocks on the door, is laughed at by Delilah, stabs her to death and breaks down in remorse and self-pity before the police come. My fucking Christ! Put like that that doesn't sound very funny does it? This does not in any way make Delilah a bad or immoral song, just one that needs some thought put into it.
Enter Alex Harvey, one of the great unsung heroes of British rock history, by 1975 already the wrong side of 40 and with 25 years of singing behind him, recognised in Scotland but before the SAHB invisible south of Paisley. The band manage to fuse his astonishing serrated tearing Glasgow holler to a cabaret backing (that's cabaret in a Wiemar sense, not a working men's club one) holding back and then roaring free in a way that's both funny and genuinely frightening, with songs that are often about war and history in some way. By all accounts, Harvey himself was an intimidating character, a combination of bonhomie and aggression that sometimes, to outsiders, Glaswegians seem particularly prone. He died in 1982. No-one was surprised.
The SAHB version of Delilah is certainly an audacious work, full of pauses and pleasant keyboard lines, oddly reminiscent of 'I'm Not In Love' that quickly stop. A bloopy moog line echoes each development in the protagonists' murderous thoughts in a truly grotesque way.
And then the middle eight bit, which in Jones' version is a rather silly trumpet solo, here becomes a delirious dumb show. You get the effect just through listening to the single (and this is also one of the very few singles which is enhanced by being a live recording), but how this actually looked in performance is an astonishing sight;
Most of all though, Harvey's voice is compelling throughout - the frisson of distaste as "She stood there... laughing!". The final hoarse glee and proud self-justification in
to break down the door!"
(I've actually done it!)
turns instantly into self pity and sobbing
"Forgive me, Delilah!
I Just couldn't take any more!"
(I've actually done it...)
This theatrical rendering of a melodramatic song encourages tremendous melodramatic acting on the part of the singer. If Tom Jones had made you think of this as a cartoon song, the Alex Harvey version will make you see it as a Dostoevskian story of a vengeful and dangerous underground man.