Saturday, December 3, 2011

Death by Misadventure: Les Harvey

How dangerous is it to play an electric guitar? In the U.K. during the 1970's it could be deadly. Between 1972 and 1976, at least three well known musicians were victims of electrocution.  A testament to shoddy British electrical codes and practices or just unfortunate accidents? In the case of guitarist Les Harvey (an obscure member of the 27 club) negligence on the part of  a stage hand was to blame.

The terms ground and grounding are used in U.S. electrical practice, in the U.K. the equivalent terms are earth and earthing. Most electrical systems connect one supply conductor to earth (or ground) If a fault within an electrical device (an amp, microphone or guitar) connects a hot unearthed supply conductor to an exposed conductive surface (the guitar or mic) anyone touching it while electrically connected to the earth (making contact with the ground) will complete the circuit and receive an electrical shock.

Leslie Harvey was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1945, the younger brother of Scottish soul singer Alex Harvey. Les got his start with his brother's Big Soul Band before joining another Scottish band, The Blues Council. With Les on board Blues Council scored a regional hit "Baby Don't Look Down" but were struck by tragedy before they could cash in on their success. In 1965 while touring in the U.K., their van crashed killing vocalist Fraser Calder & bassist James Giffen, Harvey escaped unharmed. 

Shorty after that tragic accident, Alex introduced Les to his future bandmates (vocalist Maggie Bell, drummer Colin Allen, keyboardist Jonathan McGinnis, bassist/vocalist James Dewar) They were then known as Power, but soon changed their name to Stone the Crows (an English  exclamation for surprise or shock) Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin's manager signed them and they quickly garnered much attention in their home region. The band would record three acclaimed albums, "Stone the Crows", "Ode to John Law" & "Teenage Licks" and establish itself as a must see live act.   

In 1969, just as Stone the Crows were starting to pick up steam, Les Harvey (at the insistence of manager Mark London) hooked up with Cartoone, a Scottish band  that had financial backing from Peter Grant. He recorded with them and then joined them on a U.S. tour opening for Led Zeppelin and Spirit. Despite Grant & London's best efforts Cartoone folded and Les reunited with his Stone the Crows mates. Les Harvey's future looked bright, he was a rising star and then came that ill fated May 2nd. 1972 booking at The Top Rank Ballroom in Swansea.

Contrary to most accounts of the accident, the band was not performing in front of an audience. Les Harvey was killed during a sound check, prior to the concert. Harvey wasn't electrocuted by his guitar, but rather by touching a microphone that had been energized through an amplifier that wasn't grounded. It's said that his hands were wet, though no plausible explanation for this has ever been brought forth. Maybe, he was sweating profusely, in any case when Les Harvey grasped the microphone (that wasn't grounded, in contrast to Les, who was) he competed the electrical circuit and was killed instantly.

Stone the Crows carried on, Jimmy McCullough (Thunderclap Newman) replaced Les Harvey. The band would record one last album before breaking up. Maggie Bell recorded two solo albums and sang on Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story. James Dewar became well known as Robin Trower's lead vocalist and bass player. McCullough reached the pinnacle of success as the lead guitarist for Paul McCartney's Wings, before leaving to join the reformed Small Faces. Jimmy McCullough, who at age eleven had been mentored by Hank Marvin of The Shadows, died of a heroin overdose in 1979, he was just 26 years old.  

The Shadows were the British Ventures, but unlike those dull Seattle lads they had charisma. Formed in 1958 by Cliff Richard as his backing band after the success of Living Doll. They found their own audience with the release of their #1 hit "Apache" in 1960. (Apache sold a million copies in the UK alone) and went on to have 35 chart hits of their own. They pioneered the four man rock group format (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar & drums) that would soon revolutionize popular music around the world. 

Guitarist, Hank Marvin (who wore Buddy Holly specs), was one of England's most recognized musicians. Although, all the band members: Bruce Welch, Tony Meehan & Jet Harris had their followers. Due to personality clashes, the band was rife with dissension and this led to Meehan & Harris quitting to pursue solo careers. John Rostill  became the new bass player, after Brian Locking (who didn't work out) was let go. By the time John Rostill joined them in 1963, they were well established. 

However, their days in the spotlight were numbered. Beatlemania and the first wave of the British invasion would soon wash them away. John was with The Shadows through their break-up in 1968 and then during the period (1969-71) when they reformed. In order to advance his post-Shadows career, he built a studio at his home and got involved in production. On Nov. 26th 1973, former Shadow, Bruce Welch arrived at Rostill's house to record some songs. Unable to gain entry after announcing himself, he summoned Rostill's wife and together they forced their way into the studio. They discovered John Rostill dead on the floor, electrocuted by the ungrounded bass guitar that he still clutched.

Only the shadow knows what lurks inside the heart of men and faulty electrical wiring. If you've learned anything today, it's that electricity always finds ground, no matter what gets in the way. Here's something else you already know: The Yardbirds served as a launch pad for three hall of fame guitarists, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. However, Keith Relf  as the front man for the Yardbirds, was the face best associated with the band.

Keith Relf's voice and harmonica launched a thousand garage punk bands across America. Their success on the charts carried over from England to the U.S. where they proved to be very popular. Without them there would be no Shadows of Knight, Count Five, Music Machine etc. Outside of The Rolling Stones nobody influenced the American garage punk scene like The Yardbirds. Keith Relf and Chris Dreja formed the Yardbirds in 1963, the name came from an English expression describing hobos hanging around railyards. 

The Yardbirds had a run of success that would rival that of most British Invasion bands. There was always a static energy coursing within the band, the bi-product of trotting out one gifted guitarist after another. The end result was a string of iconic hit songs on both sides of the Atlantic. By the fall of 1968 the infighting had grown tiresome and the band broke-up due to "artistic differences." The band's main composer/producer Paul Samwell-Smith had already quit in 1966. Keith Relf and Jim McCarty left to pursue a style influenced by British folk and classical music.

Jimmy Page and Chris Dreja set about rebuilding The Yardbirds as  a hard rock outfit (ala Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience) Peter Grant (Stone the Crows) was brought in to manage the "new" group, it didn't take long for Grant & Jimmy Page to take the reins, pushing Dreja aside. Chris got the hint and left to pursue a career as a rock photographer. After considering B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum and vocalist Terry Reid, they settled on the line-up that we've come to know and love as Led Zeppelin.

The New Yardbirds (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones & John Bonham) served as the studio band for a PJ Proby album and then embarked on a Scandinavian tour. As they prepared to record an album as The Yardbirds, Chris Dreja hit them with a cease and desist order, stating that he owned the rights to the name "Yardbirds" Needing a new name and inspired by something Keith Moon had said (you'll go over like a lead balloon) they changed their name to Led Zeppelin and the rest is history.

Keith Relf and Jim McCarty teamed up to form an acoustic duo called Together, they then formed Renaissance, a folk rock group that included Keith's sister Jane Relf.  After that he put together a hard rock band Armageddon, and produced tracks for other artists, none of which received much acclaim.  By the mid-1970's Keith was still searching for the formula that would return him to musical prominence.  

Keith had built a home studio in the basement of his home. On May 14th, 1976 he retired to his studio to rehearse tracks for a project that would reunite the original members of Renaissance. As Keith picked up his ungrounded electric guitar he was jolted by electrical current, his son found him on the floor near death. He was rushed to a hospital, but a recent illness had left him in a weakened state and he died soon after the accident. 

In Keith's case the culprit was a gas line that ran underneath the floor where he was standing, when he picked up the guitar, the electrical current raced through him seeking out the grounded pipe below. For years an urban myth circulated that Keith had been killed while playing his electric guitar in the bath tub. It sounded like something from "A Thousand Ways to Die" but it wasn't true. It was however a shocking end to Keith Relf's pursuit of rock & roll stardom.