The Shocking Demise Of Les Harvey
The secret of rock n’ roll has always been electricity. Without the eternal spark we never would have gained the power to amplify a guitar loud enough to be heard above a noisy club and a banging drum kit, let alone overdrive signals to the point of feedback and distortion. Electricity made it possible to push a human voice above the music with a microphone and use that same device to record and broadcast music over the airwaves. Without a small touch of lightning, there would be no rock n’ roll.
By 1973, at the age of 27, Les Harvey had already learned a thing or three about harnessing
the power of pickups and amps. He’d been playing electric guitar since he was a kid growing up in 1960s Glasgow. His much older brother, Alex Harvey (Leader of the eponymous “Sensational Alex Harvey Band”), had opened up the musical door when he started playing skiffle music in the mid 1950s. By 1965, they were playing and recording together. Les developed his craft playing 6 nights
a week as a teenager and became a solid guitar player with roots in blues, R&B, and rock n’ roll.
In the early 60s his brother introduced him to a dynamite blues singer named Maggie Bell. Maggie had already been making a name for herself and by 1968 she had garnered some attention as the
“Scottish Janis Joplin”. She certainly had a great stage presence and a big bluesy voice, and soon they started dating and put together a band named (unfortunately… for reasons that will soon become clear) “Power”.
Around the same time Peter Grant, the former pro-wrestler turned thug manager of Led Zeppelin, took an interest in Les and Maggie. He had Les fill in on guitar with another one of his bands, Cartoone, and the young Scotsman received some extreme life lessons after a 1970 tour with Led Zeppelin at their wasted and creepy worst. Peter Grant also agreed to manage “Power” but suggested they change their name to the British slang term “Stone the Crows”. With the new name they went into the studio and knocked out two albums, “Stone the Crows” and “Ode to John Law”, in less than a year. But it was third album, “Teenage Licks”, that finally got the band a lot of attention. They dropped their bluesy sound for a more rock n’ roll feel and even threw in some weird Celtic folk and a Bob Dylan cover. It opened a lot of ears and a lot of doors, and they suddenly found themselves booked for all the big festivals, including opening an epic 5-hour circus themed Led Zeppelin rock spectacular on November 20, 1971 called “Electric Magic”.
By the spring of 1972, Stone the Crows were still riding the wave and touring all over the UK. On May 3, they were scheduled to play a show at the Top Rank Suite in Swansea, Wales. It would be an easy show, providing the entertainment for 1200 kids attending the University of Swansea’s “Coming Out Ball”. The Top Rank Suite was a former movie palace in downtown Swansea turned concert venue and had become a regular stop for bands on their way up.
Exactly what happened next is one of those things that gets a little bit fuzzy with time and retelling. It’s one of those sad situations where we’ll never know for sure because the only person who can tell us isn’t here to share his story. According to most reports Les Harvey was tuning his guitar and completing soundcheck as about 1,000 people came through the doors of the venue. Les Harvey strummed at his famous Les Paul and stepped up to test his microphone. What would occur next has been attributed to sweaty hands, bad wiring, or wet beer bottles, but it all ends upthe same. Les reached for
the mic and as soon as his skin made contact, his body was blasted with enough electricity to power a big deal rock n’ roll show. The mic wasn’t grounded properly and when Les touched it the electricity coursing through the wires used his body as a path the stage. After a few frozen seconds, Les Harvey fell to the stage.
For a moment his band and the audience stared stunned, as if they had been shocked too. Soon, his bandmates and stage crew ran to his aid, and someone started CPR. Someone else ran backstage to tell Maggie and she came running out in tears, confused and screaming. When the ambulances arrived a few minutes later both Les and Maggie were taken to the hospital. She was sedated, but it was too late for Les. He was pronounced dead a couple of hours after the accident.
The same electricity that had given him his shot at rock n’ roll, the same force that had powered his magical tubes and pickups, had killed Les Harvey at the mystical rock n’ roll age of 27.
The band tried to regroup with a new guitarist, but their hearts weren’t really in it. “After he went we didn’t want to write songs anymore,” Maggie Bell said in an interview years later. “It was as though the air had been pushed out of us.” The band put out a posthumous record featuring
some leftover Les Harvey tracks and called it quits in 1973.