Friday, October 12, 2012

Sweet Obsession

Do you ever get stupidly obsessed with something for no apparent reason? It could be anything, and suddenly you just can't get enough of it? Then you feel the need to share and talk about your obsession with everyone you know (like I'm about to do in this blog post)? It happens to me every once in awhile. Sometimes it's because I've discovered something new and want to know everything I can about it. As bizarre as it may sound to some people I love to research the things I get obsessed with. Some of that is my lifelong love of history, some of it is just wanting to know where things come from. I did it with Arthurian fiction, mythology, and any one of a number of other topics that have captured my interest over the years. I get into a new band and start discovering their precedents and influences. I go back farther and farther and discover a lot of great music along the way. The same is true of the comics I'm into. Both of these hobbies are life-long obsessions for me, but I'm still finding connections I didn't know existed.

And then sometimes it's a renewed obsession with something I've been into for a long time. Something reignites my interest and I'm off for a couple of weeks reading and/or listening to everything I can. It happened last year with David Bowie when I read the Starman biography. It happened recently with Love and Rockets (the comic... I swear I'll write those blogs someday), and I have spent a lot of time lately rereading them.

The last two weeks it has been the 1970's Glam Rock band The Sweet.

MickTucker-Drums, Brian Connelly-Vocals, Steve Priest-Bass, Andy Scott-Guitar

You probably know them from their songs Little Willy, Ballroom Blitz, Fox on the Run, and Love is Like Oxygen. Chances are those are the only songs by The Sweet you've heard unless you're a fan. It started when I listened to a collection of live tracks and studio outtakes on Spotify recently. Even though I've listened to them off and on for years and have read about them and watched some documentaries and YouTube videos (see... not really a casual fan before all this), something about this collection set off my obsessive tendencies. I've been tracking down obscure and out-of-print music, rewatching the documentaries, searching the internet... the whole bit. I discovered there was a biography of the band called Blockbuster: The True Story of The Sweet and luckily my local library had a copy in stock (Yay for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh!). There is a long out-of-print autobiography by bassist Steve Priest called Are You Ready, Steve? that I would love to read. Anyone have $900 for the Buy-It-Now copy I saw on Ebay?

The Sweet had a strange and varied career. They went through several changes in style and public perception, from Bubblegum to Pop Rock to Hard Rock to Prog Rock (though the categories are debatable, I'm sure). In the beginning they seemed to be little more than a teenybopper Bubblegum Pop band, and they were very successful at it. As much as we music fans tend to think of the early 70's as the time of the birth of bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and many others of this ilk, the truth is, in Great Britain at least, and to a large extent here in the US, the top 40 was full of Bubblegum Pop. Sugar Sugar by The Archies, an overtly made-up band based on the comic book characters, was the top-selling #1 song of 1969. There was a lot of money to be made with Bubblegum and a lot of people were making it. Two of the most successful purveyors of Bubblegum were the British songwriting team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. For several years they churned out one top 10 song after another for a variety of bands, The Sweet among them.

On a lot of these early singles, though the vocals and harmonies were by the four members of the band, most of the music was performed by studio session musicians. This was a fairly common practice then, and The Sweet weren't the only successful band this happened to. Unlike many others, The Sweet were actually fairly accomplished musicians and constantly pushed to be allowed to record on their own records. They were allowed to do so on most of their b-sides. One of the qualities that set Sweet apart from many of their contemporaries was the strength of their incredible vocal four-part harmonies. Queen is known for the same, and are probably the undisputed champions. None of the members of Sweet could match Freddie Mercury's sheer range and versatility. But, as a distinct band sound, The Sweet were doing this for quite some time before Queen's first album hit the shelves.

They quickly jumped onto the fashion and make-up that was to become the signature of Glam Rock. It started with simple stage make-up and clothing and quickly escalated from there. Whereas T.Rex's Marc Bolan's experiments with glitter and feather boas was seen as just part of who he was, and David Bowie's stage personas were crafted with a more calculating eye, The Sweet were, to use the British vernacular, just taking the piss out of people. Through their sense of humor they took the image to extremes, usually pre-dating and influencing everyone else in the scene. But every time they took the look up a notch more people noticed and they became more famous. They tapped into the androgyny and repressed sexuality of the scene and played it to the hilt. Though straight they embraced a lot of cliché gay imagery and mannerisms.

Benny Hill and Monty Python could dress up like old tarts and it was funny. The Sweet, and the rest of the movement, were threatening to the middle class, in terms of image if not the music they were producing at the time. Bassist Steve Priest in particular went out of his way to stir things up, from wearing hot pants on Top of the Pops (a good six months before Bowie did the same thing to public outcry), to appearing on a Christmas special dressed as a gay stormtrooper, replete with WWI spiked German helmet, lipstick, rouge, and a little Hitler mustache.

I can't find a single still image of this on the internet.

Priest once described The Sweet's approach to all of this as “more camp than a row of tents”.

Though they wanted to be taken seriously as a Rock band, their reputation as Bubblegum teenybopper fodder kept critics and a more mature audience from taking them seriously. The other problem was that the singles were making them ridiculously wealthy. It was difficult to turn your back on another Chinn-Chapman composition that was going to go into the top 10. They did eventually begin to move past this impasse, primarily by being allowed to play on their records, and on the strength of their live performances.

Living in the States I didn't know any of this. The Glam movement never really took hold here in the same way as it did elsewhere, and I'm just young enough to have missed it anyway. I was catching the tail-end of it with Elton John's costuming and a couple of Bowie singles. I was into Alice Cooper and jumped on the KISS bus as soon as I saw them, but they were both darker, less androgynous versions of Glam. I'm pretty sure if I had seen pictures of the Sweet in full regalia I would have been interested, but by the time I was reading the actual Rock magazines the Sweet weren't being covered a whole lot, and when they were their image had moved on. I bought the singles of Ballroom Blitz (another Chinn-Chapman tune), and Fox on the Run (the first single written and produced by the band, and their biggest hit in the US), and really loved both songs. I remember looking at their Desolation Boulevard album in record stores based on the strength of the singles, but for some reason I never picked it up. There was probably a new KISS album I needed to buy on my limited budget.

Sometime in 1976 or '77 I joined the Columbia House record club. You sent in a penny and got 10 or 12 albums, then were obligated to buy several more at full price over the next three years. I don't specifically remember most of the records I purchased through this service, but I did choose Give Us a Wink by The Sweet as part of my original purchase. Having never heard the British term wank before I didn't get any of the sexual innuendo (though the less-than-subtle line “up to my balls inside her” in the song Yesterday's Rain certainly, ahem, pricked up my ears).

On the original album the eye on the left was a die-cut hole in
the album sleeve. An inner sleeve had several different images
of an eye, from wide open to closed. When you slid the inner
sleeve out the cover appeared to wink at you. You don't get
that with CD's and mp3's.

Based on the singles I had heard this was not the album I expected. I now know this was the first album the band wrote and performed entirely on their own, and they were going full-on hard rock. Whatever my expectations, I grew to really love this album, and it remains in my personal echelon of favorite records from my teen years.

But, much to the band's dismay, the album really didn't replicate the sales success of earlier efforts. They were a band that seemed plagued by bad luck and bad timing. At every turn it seemed, just as they were poised to take that next step, something set them back. Some of their problems were of their own making, of course, but others were just ridiculous. BBC Radio went on strike just when they released a single, so it went nowhere. BBC thought the phrase “for God's sake” in the single Turn It Down was blasphemous and refused to play it (oh, how times have changed). They were invited to open for The Who by Pete Townsend, who was a big fan of theirs apparently. This would probably have been the biggest show at this point of their career. But singer Brian Connelly was involved in an assault and got kicked in the throat, making him unable to sing for months (and by all accounts he never recovered full use of his voice). They had to back out of the show.

There was one last surge of popularity. The song Love is Like Oxygen hit the charts in America in the late 70's. Like their entire career, they were counted out, but then managed to squeeze out another success. But that was pretty much the end. By this time the ravages of alcohol abuse had taken their toll on Connelly and he left the band. The other three continued on for three more albums that no one bought (as a fan I didn't even know they existed until I read the biography). There was an attempt at a reunion in the late 80's but Connelly's health prevented it from going forward.

Connelly died in 1997 from a series of heart attacks, drummer Mick Tucker in 2002 from leukemia. At present Steve Priest maintains a version of the band in America with all new members. Guitarist Andy Scott does the same thing in England and Europe. Both bands tour and perform the classic songs. Scott's band has released a couple of albums of new material that sounds remarkably like the original band.

So why this obsession on my part right now? I'm not sure. Maybe I'm just feeling nostalgic, though in truth I really didn't experience much of their career first hand. I didn't even hear the vast majority of their songs until they were rereleased on CD in the 90's. But, thanks to a couple of singles and one album they are a band that is linked to my youth. I can't see the makeup and costumes and stage spectaculars of a lot of modern artists without thinking of what came before (and I'm old enough to realize that fans of Liberace probably felt that way about The Sweet, at least in terms of fashion). Part of it is simply that it's fun. It's over the top and slightly ridiculous and just when it needs to it really rocks and most people don't know anything about it.

I'll leave you with a video of Ballroom Blitz. This song probably sums up The Sweet better than any other single song. It's a Chinn and Chapman top single. It has great Connelly vocals, driving Mick Tucker drums, some great rock guitar from Andy, and the requisite amount of Steve Priest camping it up. Enjoy. It's a lot of fun.

Are you ready, Steve?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Connections and Vectors and Degrees of Separation

So, I decided I needed to reread all of Gilbert Hernandez Love and Rockets Palomar stories before continuing my ongoing Favorite Comics posts. That's taking a little time, though the experience has been rewarding and worth it. But, in the meantime, I wanted to write about something else.

So I decided to write about Love and Rockets. The band this time, not the comic.

Well, sort of.

This past Sunday night I went to see David J perform at the Thunderbird Cafe, a little bar about a two-minute walk from my apartment. David J was the bass player for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, as well as having an ongoing solo career, plus having played in some other random bands over the years. It was a really great show, featuring music from his entire career. I was a pretty big fan of most of this music at one time or another, so there were a lot of great moments for me last night.

But the main thing I want to talk about here are the random connections between people and events as we spiral around this planet of several billion people over time. During his performance, as he sang songs from his thirty-plus years in the industry, my mind started recalling all of the various connections I have with David J, though we had never met until last night.

This is rambling and out of any kind of chronological order, and probably of no interest to anyone but me, but I find these sorts of things fascinating. Bear with me.

I discovered Bauhaus late. They originally existed as a band from 1978 to 1983 when I was living in a place with no access to music that was, at that time, fairly obscure. I have since seen video of their live performances from the time, and I'm pretty sure, given my penchant for costumes and theater, that if I had seen them in 1979 I would have gotten into them. As it was it was 1986 before I discovered them when I moved into a college apartment with five other guys. One of them, Steve, had an amazing collection of vinyl records, most of which were alternative bands I had never heard of. To say his record collection changed my musical life is an understatement. That fall, 1986, Love and Rockets second album Express was relatively new and spent a lot of time on the turntable at the apartment. I got really into L&R. It took awhile to associate them with Bauhaus in my mind. I found Bauhaus to be more challenging for me, and it took longer to get into. At the same time I got really turned onto a band called The Jazz Butcher. David J had played bass on two of his albums between his time in Bauhaus and Love and Rockets.

About a year later (November 9, 1987 to be precise... thank you internet search engines), still at Edinboro University of PA, we discovered that Love and Rockets were playing at Indiana University of PA. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment road trips where a friend borrowed his father's van and 10 or 12 of us piled into it for a road trip. L&R were touring for their third album, Earth, Sun, Moon. We got to the Fisher Auditorium and for five bucks, if memory serves, saw not only L&R but another band none of us had ever heard of prior to that evening, Jane's Addiction.

Lookie what I found on the internet!

Two years after that on August 31, 1989 I saw L&R at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. The Pixies, who I had just discovered, opened. Say what you will about L&R, but they could pick great opening bands. The Pixies completely blew me away.

Then, twenty-three years later, I met David J at a bar near my house. We've been pinging around on this planet together for years. This was the same person I had seen on stage all those years ago and our individual trajectories had finally brought us to a very nice personal conversation. That's when I started piecing together all of the various overlapping vectors in our lives.

Back in 1986, at the same time that I was first getting turned on to David J's work, was when I was reading Watchmen for the first time. I didn't know then that David J was friends with Alan Moore and that they had worked together on various projects. I found out most of this not too long after the fact, but still. David had written the musical score for This Vicious Cabaret, a specific chapter of Moore's V For Vendetta, which I had read at this point. He was in a short-live band with Moore called the Sinister Ducks and recorded a song called Old Gangsters Never Die which came with a comics adaptation of the lyrics by Lloyd Thatcher (you can see it here Since then he has contributed music and participated in Moore's spoken word performances like The Birth Caul and Moon & Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels among others.

1986 is when I first met Steve Bissette and John Totleben, the artists for Moore's Swamp Thing series for DC Comics. For a couple of years I saw Steve and John on a pretty regular basis and hung out with them enough that they know and remember me years later. So even then I was only one degree of separation from Alan Moore, which I knew, and therefore two degrees from David J.

Around this same time (the details of this are a bit fuzzier because I wasn't directly involved) was when the Pixies were coming together as part of the Boston indy music scene. Among several bands that were part of that scene was a group called The Five who were originally from Pittsburgh (The Pixies used to open for The Five). I didn't live in Pittsburgh at the time, but I was coming here fairly regularly for comics and record shopping. One of the comics shops I went to was a place called BEM. Turns out, as I discovered many years later, the proprietor Bill Boichel was friends with the guys in The Five. So I was only three degrees from the Pixies.

In 1990 a couple of friends and I made a trip to Cleveland where we saw The Jazz Butcher at a club called Peabody's Down Under. I met Pat Fish, the Jazz Butcher himself (the only consistent member of the band over their thirty year history), and I also randomly ran into my friend Joelle who had been one of the people crammed in the back of the van with three years earlier (Joelle now lives in New Zealand, opening up a whole new country of potential connections). While there I had Pat autograph the booklet that came with my CD copy of Scandal in Bohemia/Sex and Travel. These were his second and third albums, the ones David J played bass on. At the time this was a very rare German import that I had manged to get my hands on, and for years the only way these two albums were available. When I showed it to Pat his response was something like, “Where the bloody hell did you get this? I've barely seen these.”

A few years later I'm writing for In Pittsburgh Magazine and get the chance to do a phone interview with Frank Black/Black Francis of the Pixies. It ends up being my first cover feature article. One of the musicians opening for Frank at that Pittsburgh show is Reid Paley, former lead singer of The Five. Through a lot of mutual Pittsburgh friends I met and got to know Reid, as well as Five guitarist Tom Moran. At the time Tom was in an Alt-Country band called TheDeliberate Strangers. I saw them a lot and one of my articles about them in No Depression ended up being my first in a nationally published music mag. A couple of years later I met with Reid and some other people for hanging out and drinks at a local bar called the Squirrel Cage and Frank Black is there, just hanging out.

In 2000 the original members of the Jazz Butcher reunite for an American tour and a new album and I met the whole band at the Millvale Industrial Theater (as well as at some small bar in Erie whose name I don't remember). While there I got signatures from drummer O.P. Jones and guitarist Max Eider. Eider had also played guitar on David J's 1989 album Songs From Another Season.

I have a friend, a remarkable poet, by the name of Margaret (check her stuff out at I met Margaret as one of my customers at Phantom of the Attic when she was like twelve. Through her teen years we bonded over Elfquest and now that she's an adult I'm happy to call her a genuine friend. She is part of what for lack of a better term I'm going to call an artist's community that gathers at the Grand Midway Hotel in Windber, PA. The Hotel is home to a mixed group of artists, poets, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and pretty much anything thing else creative you can think of. I have only been there once, to a really amazing Halloween party. One evening, while having dinner with Margaret the topic turned to music and I mentioned Bauhaus, or Love and Rockets, or something, and Margaret casually mentioned that David J hangs out there occasionally. She had met him one morning in the kitchen of the Hotel while he was attempting to make tea.

Small world.

Margaret and several other denizens of the Midway were at the show on Sunday.

And on Sunday night I completed my quest and got David J's signature on the booklet.

Twenty-two years in the making!

I could go on with these connections. One of Reid's albums was produced by Eric Drew Feldman, former member of Captain Beefheart and regular PJ Harvey collaborator. Reid and Frank Black just released a collaborative album. The lines drawn between musicians seem to connect that whole world, and if you end up knowing one of them your world just gets a little smaller. The same is true of the world of comic books, or of any one of a number of hobbies and professions. When these things overlap it's even more true. What I find most fascinating about all of this is backtracking the history. I was listening to David J, the guy who wrote the prototypical Goth song Bela Lugosi's Dead, and reading Alan Moore, the guy who wrote Watchmen, both genre-changing, significant pieces of Pop Culture history, at a time when they felt worlds away from my life. Twenty-five plus years later I know they weren't a world away, just a couple of steps.

And not to overstate something that we've all known since the advent of Kevin Bacon, that's true of everyone.

Anyway, I just want to end this rambling post with a quote from a Love and Rockets song called A Private Future. I've always thought this was really good advice.

Live the life you love
Use a god you trust
And don't take it all too seriously