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).
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?