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Few British bands of the Seventies havebeen as under-rated as The Sweet.They released their best LP, Desolation Boulevard, in 1974: that year, Bowie did Diamond Dogs and Roxy Music did Country Life. Even Supertramp's Crime Of The Century and Queen's Sheer Heart Attack have been far more kindly judged by posterity. But it is a superb record.
However, I reckon history has been harsh on The Sweet: a band with a knack for a gloriously catchy riff, a great drummer and a blend of pop hooks and metal looks that would predate hair metal by ten years.
The Sweet's the sweet was in a UK soul band that gloried in the name of Wainwright's Gentlemen, featuring Ian Gillan on vocals and Mick Tucker on the drums. When Gillan quit in 1965 he was replaced by Brian Connolly, and bass player/vocalist Steve Priest joined soon after. A few early singles flopped - the first under the name of Sweetshop - flopped but by 1970 guitarist Andy Scott had joined the band. Scott was more established professionally than the others, and had played on a couple of minor hits by the Elastic Band. The Sweet teamed up with songwriting duo Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, and things started to happen.
The band's major influences were the Sixties bubblegum pop of The Monkees and The Archies, while drummer Tucker was a big devotee of the Phil Spector-associated drummer Sandy Nelson, responsible for the majestic work on stuff like 'To Know Him Is To Love Him'. Check out Tucker's solo on 'The Man With The Golden Arm' for a comparison.
Anyway, alongside the sweet pop tunes that Chinn and Chapman would pen, The Sweet also admired the heavier blues of The Who, and sought to combine some of that ballsy sensibility with their pop. To be fair to them, few acts of the era managed to bridge what was then perceived as a huge gulf between pop and rock and though they weren't exactly going to be revered by your die-hard Zep fan, they certainly managed to blend the two as well as anybody.
1971 saw the Sweet hit and miss in the singles chart, with 'Funny Funny' and 'Coco' doing well but others failing to make the charts. They released a cute but patchy first LP 'Funny how Sweet Coco Can Be' but tensions were growing between the songwriters - who were spoon-feeding the band a succession of catchy but saccharine tunes - and the band, who wanted to go in a heavier direction. The b-side to 'Coco', for example, was a perfectly acceptable bluesy, heavier number called 'Done Me Wrong All Right'. For such bands the b side was always the place where they did their 'and this one is me' stuff. They were being pulled in two different directions - and the band were upset that their handlers brought in session musos to play their parts, thus further weakening any credibility, when the band were competent in their own right.
They then had a series of hits through 1972 and 1973, with 'Poppa Joe', 'Wig Wam Bam', 'Block Buster!' and, of course, 'Ballroom Blitz' which showed that these guys could bang out a mean tune if they were actually allowed to play their instruments. Ballroom Blitz's riff was a classic. And would not have been out of place ion a Stones or Who record. Glam rock was exploding and they enthusiastically embraced the outrageous fashions and stage acts of the day - not always successfully, for instance when Priest pulled a Prince Harry and got on stage with a Nazi uniform. His appearances on TOTP were actually quite controversial as he minced it up to the max. While our dads thought he was 'a bloody puff,' to everyone else it was as plain as the segs in your platform boots that these were four thick-set blokey blokes for whom transvestite or transgender sexual politics meant nothing at all. This was just show business.
Splitting with Chinn and Chapman, the band then released the very good 'Sweet Fanny Adams' in 1974, which moved away from cutesy pop and even away from glam into bona fide hard rock territory - check out the tracks 'Sweet FA' and 'Set Me Free'. Grand stuff. They also started to used a lot of high-pitched harmony singing, which became something of a trademark. The also drooped the 'The' from their name at this time.
1974 was pretty much the band's annus mirabilis - they finally got the acceptance that they craved when Pete Townshend asked them to support The Who at the legendary Charlton gig. Unfortunately, singer Connolly was beaten up in Staines High Street, sustaining throat injuries that made it impossible for him to sing. They could not fulfil the engagement. Just when it seemed that serious rock acceptance was theirs for the taking, their hopes were dashed. Nevertheless, 1974 did see them release Desolation Boulevard, which features a cover of 'My Generation' and a raw, exciting sound. Their best record. Live, the band were a straight up and down rock band playing heavy and loud. Their TOTP alter ego helped sell the singles but ultimately cursed them as a mere pop frivolity right at the time when heavy rock was in its pop and selling by the skip-load.
A compilation album and then a double album, Strung Up, followed in 1975 and by now the band were writing and controlling all their output. They had their biggest hit with their first self-penned single, the brilliant'Fox On The Run' and began trying to break America. They played with Ritchie Blackmore at a tribute to Paul Kossoff in Santa Monica, it was more acceptance from rock's heavy hitters, but they found America a tough nut to crack. Back home, they were increasingly trying to move away from their 'singles band' tag and began combining rock and classical, in a kind of ELO stylee, on Level Headed. A 30-piece orchestra was involved, sir! Their finest song was to be their last hit - Love Is Like Oxygen. A sophisticated, well-constructed, almost prog rockpiece, it was a million miles from Poppa Joe just seven years earlier.
This new direction also involved the marginalising of Brian Connolly, who sang less and less of the lead vocal tracks. His behaviour was also becoming a liability: a gig in Alabama, with various US industry types turning up who the band were keen to impress, was a disaster, Connolly staggering onto stage drunk and incoherent. He left the group in 1979, but the writing was on the wall and Sweet had disbanded by 1982. Various of the members reformed the band under variations of the name - Andy Scott's Sweet, BC Sweet and Steve Priest's Sweet. Brian died in 1997 and Mick died in 2002.
So The Sweet, then: perhaps the best example of that early 70s 'brickies-in-lippy' glam rock.
Related t-shirt The Sweet