Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Sweet: Soft Centres to Hard Rock

One of my all time favourite bands is The Sweet... I've always felt that they never got the credit they deserved, and are often dismissed as some sort of novelty joke band. Yet the truth of the matter is they were always a bone-fide rock band, struggling to break free of the restraints that record companies, marketing departments, song writers and ultimately the fans put on them.

You have to go back to the mid 60's to find the origins of The Sweet... when in 1965 a certain Mr Brian Connolly joined a band called Wainwright's Gentlemen. Connolly was signed up as a replacement for their recently departed lead singer, Ian Gillan. The band continued until 1968, when Connolly and the drummer, Mick Tucker decided to call it quits and start a new band, Sweetshop, later to be shortened to The Sweet. A bass player, Steve Priest, was recruited, and the search was on for a guitarist.... Frank Torpey came and went (but not before playing guitar on the debut single Slow Motion), as did Mick Stewart (who was in the band for the next three singles), finally Andy Scott joined in 1970 and the line up was complete.

Their first hit single - Funny Funny - soon followed, starting a love\hate relationship with writers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (the 'Stock, Aitken, Waterman' of the 70's). The band had always seen themselves as a rock outfit, but RCA, Chinn and Chapman had other ideas, and the lightweight hit singles continued (Poppa Joe, Little Willy, Wig-Wam-Bam), with the band sounding more like The Archies than Aerosmith! The only saving grace on these early singles was the band insisting they put their own material on the b-sides, where they were finally able to find an outlet for their real sound (and no doubt causing a fair few raised eyebrows when played for the first time but the unsuspecting punter!). Despite the now regular hits, the bands first proper album (Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be) did nothing in the charts, and left them branded as a 'singles only' band.

The onset of glam pushed the band in that direction, and with it came a ballsier sound to their recordings, although at this point the hits were still all being written by Chinn and Chapman. Monster glam hits came thick and fast in 1973 and 74... Blockbuster, Hell Raiser, Ballroom Blitz, Teenage Rampage... Incredibly, nobody at RCA thought of giving the band another try at an album whilst they were having all this success. The band grew sick of glam as well as all the puppet masters controlling them, and decided enough was enough and turned down a string of potential new glam hits (including Dynamite and Tiger Feet, that eventually the band Mud went on to have big hits with). They dropped the glitter, replacing it with a tougher rock image, and set about writing an album on their own terms. Over the next four years, the band would release 4 cracking rock albums (plus a live album too), not only writing almost all of the material, but eventually even producing themselves.

They released two albums in 1974; Sweet Fanny Adams, and Desolation Boulevard. Sweet Fanny Adams is still a great album. Opening track 'Set Me Free' tee's you up a treat for what's in store... and check out the 6 minutes that is the title track - Andy Scott's guitar musta been on fire after that! Desolation Boulevard was yet more of the same... heavy riffs and those incredible trademark harmonies. Check out their frenzied cover of the theme to the Sinatra film The Man With The Golden Arm... it still blows me away!

In 1975 the double album Strung Up was released... two sides were the band live at the Rainbow, whilst the other two sides mostly hoovered up recent singles (A and B sides) and a new track too.

It was back in to the studio for 1976's Give Us A Wink. The first album completely written by the band, and also the first one to be self produced. This album is even heavier than the previous two, is full of attitude and swagger and contains plenty of instrumentals\solos, showing what great musicians these guys really were. The album contains their classic song Action, which has remained in my all time top ten for over 30 years.

1977 saw the release of their last heavy sounding album (and also their last release for RCA) Off The Record. Again fully written and produced by the band, this carries on where Give Us A Wink left off.

So these 4 faultless albums finally showed the British music fans what the band was all about then eh?? Well unfortunately... not really. Unless you moved on pretty sharpish (Bowie, Roxy, Sparks etc), being lumped in with 'glam' meant you were pigeonholed, and it was hard to be taken seriously later on. As Andy Scott said on the subject years later 'You are not allowed, or very rarely allowed, to change your spots: you're a leopard, mate.' When The Sweet moved from glam to their rock sound, the were throwing down the gauntlet, and demanding to be taken seriously. Sadly, it didn't work for them, well not in Britain anyway... Purist 'rock' fans seemed to spurn The Sweet because of their glam past, and glam fans spurned them because they didn't like the new 'heavier' sound. The Sweet found themselves alienated, sitting somewhere between the fans they once had and the fans they wanted. It wasn't all doom and gloom though, as much of the rest of the world were happy to embrace their new sound... USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, they all loved these new albums, and bought them in big numbers. In fact, guess the ONLY country where Desolation Boulevard, Give Us A Wink, Strung Up and Off The Record all failed to enter the top 100 album chart?? Yup , you guessed it, Great Britain!

The weird thing is, The Sweet were Queen before Queen! yet nobody was really interested in The Sweet. Whilst they were churning out these great albums, Queen hit the big time. The sound and the harmonies used in tracks like Killer Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody have a real likeness to what The Sweet had been doing for some 18 months prior.

In 1977, The Sweet signed to Polydor and went into the studio... New label, new album, and new sound as it turned out. 1978's Level Headed was a much mellower affair, a sort of classical rock kind of feel. The one song everyone remembers from this album is Love is Like Oxygen... the only trouble is, most people always think it's ELO!

Brian's alcoholism had been causing a problem for some time - some say as far back as the glam years, but by 1979 he had become a real liability, and was kicked out of the band. Brian stumbled (no doubt quite literally) into a solo career, and The Sweet spluttered on as a three-some for another three albums... but the magic was gone from both camps. There was a very brief re-union in the late 80's but Connolly had still not dried out and it came to nothing.

I was too young to see The Sweet in the 70's, but I did get to see bits of them in the 80's and 90's, as various original members started up their own versions of The Sweet - (a Sweet selection you might call it!). In 1984, after the failure of his solo career, lead singer Brian Connolly took his version of The Sweet (AKA: New Sweet) out into the nostalgia circuit (often on bills with the likes of the Rubettes and Mud). He would carry on this band (which had an almost constantly changing line-up of young musicians) pretty much until his death, pumping out all the hits to the best of his ability. These gigs were pretty lively affairs at the start, but by the 90's, it was a sorry sight to see this once beautiful man, ravaged by alcohol, and allegedly in later years Parkinson's disease, so obviously on his last legs. I say 'allegedly' on the Parkinson's disease, as there now seems to be little mention of this. However, it was a stock answer from his management during the last few years, when people used to complain after gigs that Brian performed like a shaking shambling wreck. I will always remember the last time I saw him perform... he was shaking uncontrollably on stage, and was holding on to the mike stand grimly with both hands just to support himself. During a guitar solo, he slowly made his way to the back of the stage to get himself a much needed drop of liquid (strictly non-alcohol by this time). He picked up a pint glass of orange juice, but was shaking so much that not one drop made it to his lips. He returned the empty glass to the stool, and made the slow return to front stage to continue the song. I don't know now if it was Parkinson's or just a completely wrecked body from years of alcohol abuse, but it made me want to weep there and then, and was just about the saddest thing I've ever witnessed at a gig. Brian passed away in 1997 aged just 51. In 2002, Mick Tucker died aged 54.

Guitarist Andy Scott has been touring his own version of The Sweet since 1985, and they are still going strong. As you might expect, Andy's band have always had the best sound of the spin offs (his incredible guitar playing is still top notch). However the lack of Brian on vocals (they have had something like 6 or 7 vocalist since the formation) has always made me feel this is little more than a glorified tribute band. Bass player Steve Priest also has his very own Sweet, which tours predominantly in America.

A really under-rated band, who rocked much more than people think. Here's a few video clips of The Sweet at each stage of their career... but if you're in a rush, my tip is to go straight for number 3 (Action)... Enjoy!







Mondo said...

With you all the way on this Piley - Sweet are one of those bands like The Damned and Small Faces - with a huge influence and little recognition..

Brian Connolly is one of Rock's lost icons who influenced two of the biggest 80s metal bands Motley Crue and Guns N Roses (and before this Hanoi Rocks)..

All albums are killers although Give Us A Wink has the edge for me

And if there's ever a proto-punk anthem it's Turn It Down (note the sticker on Andy's guitar and sreech-back solo)

PS I downloaded Burn On The Flame from Russian site - but there's been a bit of lost in translation about the title, which has ended up tagged as 'Bum On The Flame' - ouch!

Furtheron said...

Bloody hell!!! Memories. My brother was a big Sweet fan - although I think it was I who first bought the singles and played them to death - esp. Ballroom Blitz! :-)

He went on to buy many of the albums. I remember Sweet Fanny Adams and Desolution Boulevard well.

Off the Record was probably my favourite though - I remember having that on cassette and playing it alot ... Windy City - that was a terrific track.

Love is like Oxygen - remember learning that in one of my early bands as well - they were the sort of band you could play to any audience, pub, rock, punk and get a good reaction.

Anonymous said...

The Sweet used to rehearse at our local community centre which was actually a victorian workhouse that Charlie Chaplain went to. They used ot shag all the available school girl slags that we couldn't get hold of - so they were truly gods in our eyes. We used to hang around outsid eand the band were a nice bunch of blokes who would bung you a shilling if you went to the shop for their fags and such (probably whicle they were shagging the birds). Good times remembered fondly thanks to you P. The new Magic Ship album has a track on it that we have been playing live for a while called Exasperation Station and it is an homage' to the Sweet.

Piley said...

Mondo - Cheers... always thought there was a bit of the Andy Scott about the young Mondo (circa mid to late 80's)... well???! Think Def Leppard were influenced by them too... didn't they do a cover of Action?? Bum on the Flame eh?? That's gotta hurt..

Furtheron - Great times, great albums eh?? Think you're right too, their sound can appeal to many different types of music fan... Just think in their day, many people didn't give them that chance.

Col - Wow thanks for that, what a great story... Too much to ask that there are some yellowing snaps kicking around somewhere taken by a young Axe?? Full set of autographs perhaps?? Like the sound of that new track mate - can't wait to give that a spin.


Mondo said...

You mean this look - oh yeah none of that Mission, Sisters of Mercy, Smiths for me - it was Sweet, Hanoi and Bolan in the blender

Piley said...

That's the one!!

BTW - 'Bum on the Flame' was the soundtrack to that BBQ a few years back wasn't it?!


E F RICE said...

I'm ashamed to say when I first met you and you told me you were into the Sweet I laughed, and I think I hurt your feelings ! While I will never be a great fan of them I must say I have collected the odd bit here and there over the years, and would rate Love is Like Oxygen as my favourite tune of theirs.

Sorry for dissing you mate in those early days, I enjoyed playing the clips here and wish I had gone to a couple fo those Brian Connolly gigs with you ! Even though they were disastrous.

Anonymous said...

No mate. I was so poor I didn't even know what a camera looked like. As fo rautographs. I hat eto confess this but I hav enever been into that scene. Always to cool for school if you know what I mean. I was just content in my own little private world.

Anonymous said...

How queer. This blinkin' wordpress account is calling me magischip now. Whatever next.

Anonymous said...

One of the most under rated bands ever. My sister had the Teenage Rampage and Hellraiser singles. I flipped em over and heard Burning and Own Up Take A Look At Your Self for the first time and i was hooked. The screaming girls hated the heavy b side and album tracks the rockers would not take em seriously because of the pop hits so Sweet were kinda up shit creak really. All the albums rock even the 3 with out Connolly. Desolation Boulvard and Give Us A Wink are my faves. Mick Tucker is right up there with Ian Paice , John Bonham and Mitch Mitchell as far as i'm concerned.RIP. Great fuckin band !!!!!. Supposedly Sweet are a "guilty pleasure" so i'm told, why feel guilty about liking rock n roll ?.Some poncy Bob Dylan fan probably said it any way zzzzz. Slade did some winners too.


Anonymous said...

P.S. No one in Sweet had a mullet (like you did) Mondo :-).


Heff said...

Good Lord !! They WERE Queen !!!!

Mondo said...

Mine was more of a generic glam-metal look, Carl - Michael Bolton and Billy Ray Cyrus are the Mullet-Masters

Anonymous said...

Short at front long at back = MULLET , generic glam metal Cyrus Bolton trailer trash or other wise :-). You should grow it back boy :-).


Piley said...

E F - yes you hurt my feelings!! bastard! But at least I had you down as a cad right from the off..

Col - identity crisis??

Carl - very true about Mick Tucker... i get a bit bored with drum solos sometimes, but you have to admire the one in 'man with the golden arm' stunning isn't it??

Carl\Mondo - now now, come on bys, play nice! ;-)


Anonymous said...

Man Mick Tucker rules, i love his playing. Just teasing i love the ol tic tac man :-).


Anonymous said...

One of those bands I appreciate a lot more now than I did at the time. Wish I'd been a bit more on the ball and bought a few albums as they were definitely a much better rock band than their singles made them appear. Yes, Def Leppard did do a cover of Action.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.