Our writer, John Barlass, takes us back in time to when Bolton was a hive of live music and to a time when The Senstational Alex Harvey Band brought their show to the tiny stage at Bolton Institute of Technology…B.I.T.
Bolton in the early 1970s.
We genuinely didn’t know we were born. The weekend routine, and it was compulsory, started at 7pm, queuing on the stairs to be let into the upstairs room at The Trotters, an ugly 1960s edifice serving revolting fizzy Whitbread beers, but which had a jukebox that was always turned up to maximum volume that featured not only the chart hits of the day but also an Aladdin’s cave of prog titles such as Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and Cream’s “Badge” (yes – I know, but we called anything that wasn’t on TOTP “prog” in those days). You could either spend the £1 you’d allocated for the evening on six pints of Whitbread Tankard and take the last bus home, or spend it on seven pints and walk home, usually stopping somewhere near Bolton School to throw up.
On Saturday morning you’d go into town and peruse the racks for new vinyl at Derek Guest’s or The Record Shop on Deansgate or, if you had serious ambitions of, one day, walking out onto the stage at The Free Trade Hall or Belle View, you’d window shop at Harker and Howarth’s and Booth’s music shops, both on Churchgate, gazing longingly at the guitars you’d never, ever be able to afford, even on easy terms.
After that, if it was winter and the Wanderers were at home, you’d meet your mates in The Man and Scythe for a couple of pints, before wobbling off down Manchester Road to Burnden Park where, despite the cider-y odour that pervaded your hair and clothing, you’d join the under-14’s queue for admission. Match over, you’d rush home for a quick bite to eat and a wash (no showers then, and only enough hot water for the more senior members of the family to have a bath) before heading out for the weekend’s highlight – the gig at the B.I.T.
Bolton Institute of Technology, or the B.I.T. as it was universally known was the ONLY place to be on a Saturday night in college term time. From the perspective of 2020, it’s almost impossible to believe the range of acts that appeared at that backwater minor college venue between the years 1971 to 1975. Sometimes the bill was filled by a local act such as Iron Maiden (not THAT one – this was a Bolton band and quite a stunning one too) or Solstice or one of the bigger Manchester acts like Greasy Bear or Drive In Rock, but increasingly frequently, the evening’s entertainment would be provided by a “name” act that we’d read about in Melody Maker or Sounds. Indeed, it came to be something of a disappointment if they weren’t familiar, in name or appearance, if not in repertoire.
By way of example, in 1971, Curved Air arrived on their tour to promote the ground-braking “Air Conditioning” album and Arthur Brown graced the stage wearing, if my memory is correct, a half black, half white suit. In late 1971 (or was it early 1972? I wasn’t keeping a diary at that point…) Wishbone Ash paid a visit and played an awe-inspiring set based upon their then-current “Pilgrimage” album and, just a few weeks later, Hawkwind – minus Stacia, probably because there wasn’t room for her and the six band members on the B.I.T’s tiny stage, took us In Search of Space. In a matter of weeks, they would be Pop Stars. As the seventies really got into gear, the big names started to appear on an almost weekly basis and my diaries for 1973 and 1974 record the following:
20 January: Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come. They arrived late but delivered an amazing set with material drawn from their then current “Journey” album. I was amazed to find myself taking a wizz next to Arthur Brown himself, fully kitted out in a gold face and wearing a bishop’s mitre. The road crew dressed as traffic lights and a galleon for one number; Arthur Brown collapsed on stage and ended up in Bolton Infirmary.
24 January: A then unknown Suzi Quatro appeared with her band, just days before hitting the big time with her “Can The Can” single. She was brilliant and really worked the crowd. Hair the colour of a new Brillo Pad, she invited members of the audience onto the stage to tell “dirty jokes” whilst the rodies changed a fuse in a busted amp.
31 January: Jo’burg Hawk. The sounds of Sowteto hit Deane Road, Bolton. 12 years before “Graceland.”
5 February: Heads, Hands and Feet. Bolton bedazzled by the magic fingers of Albert Lee.
12 February: John Martyn brings his Echoplex to town and gives us a first breath of Solid Air, surely one of the best albums ever.
16 February: What a double bill! Michael Chapman, still doing the rounds and producing awesome music, supported Robin Trower who was promoting his new “Twice Removed From Yesterday” album. I became a lifelong convert to both.
3 November: Another great double bill. Genius deviant Mike Absolom treated us to a selection of his peccadilloes (“Hector the Dope-Sniffing Hound, anyone?) before our eardrums were punctured by Stray.
10 November: Trapeze. Where it all started for Glenn Hughes.
8 December: Andy Fraser’s post-Free band. Fraser had left the band by the time they came to Bolton, but the lineup still included future punk mentor Chris Spedding. They were touring their new album, “Jab it in Yore Eye.”
15 December: Bedlam. Boisterous Cockney fun from a band featuring the soon-to-be famous Cozy Powell on drums.
9 February: Camel. I was disappointed that it wasn’t the version of Camel led by Peter Frampton; rather it was the prog band led by Peter Bardens that would, within 12 months, hit the big time with “The Snow Goose.”
23 February: One of those life-changing events. Magma performed “Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh album (lyrics delivered in Kobaïan, a language created by the band’s drummer and leader, Christian Vander).
The performance left a lasting impression with many of those present, just as the album influenced such luminaries as John Lydon, Steven Wilson and even snooker player Steve Davies.
2 March: Yet another up-and coming maverick, this time the inimitable Kevin Coyne. He played a chord-tuned National steel guitar, barring chords with one finger and played a set of songs drawn from his amazing “Marjorie Razor Blade” album.
9 March: PC Plod’s Love Affair – a brilliant piece of comedy theatre from ex-Scaffold member John Gorman that provided a great deal of influence when I formed my own comedy band later that year.
16 March: Principal Edwards. The former John Peel mentees no longer using the erstwhile “Magic Theatre” part of their name. They performed an incredible set drawn mainly from their contemporary “Round One” album and struggled to fit the more theatrical aspects of their show onto the B.I.T’s tiny stage.
12 October: I celebrated my 19th birthday at an appearance by Dr Feelgood. Wilko hurtled around the stage and Lee sweated in his still fairly new and clean white suit. Little did we know that we were seeing what would, within 12 months, be the UK’s number one concert attraction.
And that’s just a selection of the bands that appeared at that one venue. Even in Bolton there were other venues where, during the same period, Budgie, Home, Judas Priest, Pink Fairies and many others could be spotted, and that was even before we bothered getting the number 12 bus to Manchester… Great days indeed.
But of all the B.I.T performances, over all the years that I, my partner and virtually all my friends were fortunate to see, the one that stands out above all others was the show by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band that took place on 27th January, 1973.
The show stands out in my memory for a number of reasons; firstly, although Glam was probably at its height in January 1973, its excesses were something of an irrelevance to the B.I.T crowd. We were more inclined to the patched denim look that denoted a more “serious” approach to music, so The Sensational Alex Harvey Band really stood out in their COSTUMES!
Alex was, of course, wearing his trademark (although we didn’t know it then) stripy matelot shirt but the eyes were really caught by Chris Glenn in his blue “onesie” and particularly by Zal in a green leotard. And he was wearing MAKEUP (!) although nowhere near to the excess he was later to adopt when the band broke into the big time.
Secondly, despite the costumes and makeup, these guys looked and sounded scary. It was rare to meet someone in Bolton in 1973 who spoke with an unadulterated Glasgow accent and the place I now know to be one of Europe’s, if not the world’s greatest and friendliest cities had, shall we say, a certain “reputation” in mid 70s Bolton.
Although Zal had primped himself effectively, Alex stalked the stage like the schoolmaster from hell and Chris spent the entire set glaring into the eyes of any audience member with the courage to make eye contact. No-one was going to step out of line whilst these guys were in command of the stage.
But really, and happily, it was the music that left the most lasting impression. Veering between progressive rock, heavy metal, rock and roll, pop standards and vaudeville, their set was a joy from start to finish. I’m obviously hazy about the exact content of the band’s set, after all, this happened 47 years ago (blimey!) but I’ve enough of a memory to recall that the setlist was something akin to a mixture of the contents of the “Framed” and the “Penthouse Tapes” albums.
They definitely did “Midnight Moses,” “There’s No Lights on the Chrismas Tree Mother, They’re Burning Big Louie Tonight,” “Hole in Her Stocking,” and “Jungle Jenny.” “Jungle Jenny” was introduced by Zal, in an Australian accent for some reason and he displayed such vulnerability that one, probably drunk, audience member was brave enough to shout “Get yer makeup off, cock” at him. How foolhardy – I bet they kicked his head in in the car park afterwards! I recollect also that they did a cover of Sly’s “Dance to the Music” and, unless my memory is playing cruel tricks on me, they had an interlude in which members of the audience were invited onto the stage to join the band playing 12 bars of anything they chose (perhaps any readers who were present that night can confirm this?)
But the set highlights were two songs that would become highlights of the band’s repertoire as they passed along that continuum from a tiny college refectory to the cavernous Celtic Park; “Framed,” the title track of their (then) newly released debut album and “St. Anthony,” a hard riff-laden rocker from that same album. They hadn’t, at this stage incorporated the theatrical trimmings that would, in the not-too-distant future see Alex walking though a brick wall wearing an Adolf Hitler costume during “Framed” but the music was strong enough to carry the songs, despite this omission.
I was lucky enough to see The Sensational Alex Harvey Band on several more occasions during their short life. Shows at Buxton Festival, Manchester Free Trade Hall and The Vetch Field, Swansea (during The Who’s “Put The Boot In” tour) were fantastic on each occasion.
The theatrical content of the show was greater on each occasion, but the basics – gritty, uncompromising rock, especially once “The Faith Healer” had found a place on the setlist, remained the same. But my greatest memory of this incredible band remains that time they came to the tiny, low ceilinged, sweaty, stuffy refectory at the B.I.T.
Listen to St. Anthony below. Let us know about your memories of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band in the comments.
You can read more from our Time Tunnel archive, here.
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: Facebook