Sweet

TrackSingle / Album
Little WillyRCA 2225
Wig-Wam BamRCA 2260
BlockbusterRCA 2305
The Ballroom BlitzRCA 2403
Teenage RampageRCA LPBO 5004
AC-DCSweet Fanny Adams
The Six TeensDesolation Boulevard
Fox On The RunRCA 2524
ActionGive Us A Wink
Love Is Like OxygenLevel Headed

Sweet photo 1

Sweet (l-r): Steve Priest, Mick Tucker, Andy Scott, Brian Connolly

 

 

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Sweet playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

I’m greatly appreciative to Toppermost for giving me the opportunity to proselytize my favorite artists, to prattle on and on about some of the most significant (and sometimes underappreciated) singers and bands in rock history.

Sweet is not one of those bands.

For all the fun moments – and even elitist rock snobs have to admit the band had some wickedly entertaining singles in the early- and mid-70s, a combination of bubblegum pop and glam rock that couldn’t help but bring a smile to your face – Sweet wasn’t, by most objective measures, all that great a band. Hell, for much of their history they weren’t even a real band at all. In their early days, they sang vapid sunshine pop played by studio musicians (an even less artistically credible Monkees, if you will), and served primarily to put a face to the ready-made radio hits written by their production team; later, after their early 1980s break-up, the band’s members toured separately under variations of the Sweet name, re-recording the band’s classics for albums easily mistaken for the real thing by consumers failing to read the small print.

Still … I’ll always have a soft spot for Sweet, the band that checks off the box in the perennial trivia question, What was the first record you ever bought?

I first discovered rock (or at least pop) music as a nine-year-old kid back in 1975. I’d become obsessed with Top 40 radio, listening day and night, entranced by the hits moving up and down the charts. And Sweet’s Fox On The Run was an early favorite, one of the first songs that kicked off my journey as a life-long music obsessive. One day, accumulated allowance in hand, I headed over to the local mall with my dad and picked up a copy of Desolation Boulevard, the first slab of vinyl I ever purchased with my own money. It was the US version of the album, a bastardization of the UK original which compiled highlights from the UK version and its predecessor, mixed in with a few singles.

I thought the album was ok; there were a few great pop songs, but also some harder rock that didn’t really hold my interest. What made the biggest impression on me, though, was that my parents simply hated this album. They hated the music. They hated my insistence on playing it really, really loud on my dad’s stereo. They hated that picture of the four skeevy-looking, long-haired, menacing yet vaguely androgynous guys on the front cover. Somewhere in my parents’ horror, I discovered the true meaning of rock & roll.

Sweet came together around 1968 in London, recording first as The Sweetshop, later shortening it to The Sweet, and along the line (much like Facebook) losing the “the” and becoming simply Sweet. Their first few singles were pretty much straight sunshine pop, totally sappy, ranging from mediocre to downright horrifying. (Listen to the creepy lyrics of Lollipop Man if you dare.) The best of these, Get On The Line, was actually an Archies cover – and while I’ll proudly declare my undying love of the Archies, it’s not a great sign when you’re covering make-believe cartoon bands. Needless to say, they found little success. (These early tracks were collected on an album called First Recordings 1968-1971, definitely for diehards only.)

Their fortunes began to shift when they connected with the songwriting/production team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. The pair provided the band with material like Funny Funny, Co-Co, and Chop Chop, whose titles alone give some indication as to the nature of the music (Funny Funny was a deliberate reworking of the Archies’ Sugar Sugar). Chapman-Chinn were essentially a UK version of the American Kasenatz-Katz production team (responsible for similarly studio-constructed bubblegum bands like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and Ohio Express), the songs full of cheesy lyrics, alliterative titles, and cowbell – lots and lots of cowbell – with an occasional Caribbean flair. And as with the Kasenatz-Katz bands, Sweet existed largely to provide vocals and visuals; studio musicians continued to played all the instruments on the early singles.

Mind you, the songs were undeniably entertaining sing-alongs, however embarrassing they may have been to more discerning rock fans (I came pretty close to substituting in Funny Funny for one of the others on my list above). And at least Chapman brought some production chops, the songs far more polished than those earlier, almost lo-fi tracks. Lead singer Brian Connolly could sound like a more teen-friendly Robert Plant, while the band provided distinctive helium-pitched, highly-compressed harmonies.

The band’s full-length debut, 1971’s Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be, was … well, look at the title, that pretty much says it all. The singles were rounded out by a few more Chapman-Chinn tracks and some covers, as well as a couple band originals. The latter gave the first indication that the band members themselves had slightly different musical inclinations than their sponsors, songs like Spotlight and Done Me Wrong All Right closer to Pretty Things-styled harder rock. That said, the band also penned the gag-inducing Jeanie, out-bubblegumming Chapman-Chinn. No, really, have a look:

By 1972, the band’s singles started taking on a more electric edge. In a Monkees-reminiscent coup, the band were allowed to play their own instruments, and musically the sound moved into edgier glam, much closer to T. Rex than the Archies, though the lyrics remained on the lightweight side. Little Willy was, let’s face it, a banger, a Who-like three-chord rocker whose raucously infectious chorus more than made up for the innate silliness of the track. Wig-Wam Bam was a similarly amusing pop-glam confection, some problematic lyrics aside (a recurring issue for Sweet, whose sometimes arguably racist, sometimes undeniably misogynist lyrics don’t always age well).

Chapman-Chinn continued churning out ridiculously catchy singles, a string of 1973 hits including the T. Rex-like Blockbuster, Hell Raiser, and of course the frenetically turbo-charged Ballroom Blitz, the latter simply blasting out of the gate with the band-member call-out and locomotive beat. While each of these songs grew progressively harder-rocking, with an almost metallic edge, they were still radio-ready pop songs with earworm choruses – which was fine commercially, but apparently didn’t sit well with the band, whose own compositions (relegated to B-sides) tended towards straighter hard rock. The disparity limited the band’s success, concert audiences who expected to hear Funny Funny and Wig-Wam Bam disappointed to find a band on stage that looked like the New York Dolls and sounded like Status Quo.

The band asserted its independence with 1974’s Sweet Fanny Adams. In contrast with the debut, most of the tracks were written by the band members, with just a pair of Chapman-Chinn contributions. The catchiest tune is Chapman-Chinn’s AC-DC, the pop-metal ode to the singer’s bisexual girlfriend a bit more risqué than, say, Little Willy, but musically still pure pop.

Elsewhere, however, the band proved a surprisingly credible hard rock act: Set Me Free simply cooks, as does the extended, almost prog-metal Sweet F.A. and the dark groove of Into The Night; meanwhile, the Chapman-Chinn-penned No You Don’t finds the band’s Svengalis making a respectable stab at the hard rock style favored by the musicians. (The rougher edge also owes in part to a throat injury suffered by Connolly, with the gruffer-sounding guitarist Andy Scott and bassist Steve Priest taking on some of the lead vocals.)

Setting aside the out-of-place golden oldie Peppermint Twist, it’s a reasonably compelling album, an unironically solid slice of under-appreciated 70s hard rock. (Throw in CD reissue bonus tracks like Blitz, Blockbuster, and Hell Raiser, as well as another uproariously fun Chapman-Chinn single from the era, Teenage Rampage, and it’s downright essential listening.)

The follow-up came just a few months later, Desolation Boulevard again built largely on the band’s own songs, though with more … well, questionable, results. It opens with a Chapman-Chinn ringer, the frivolous yet charming The Six Teens, its teen-oriented bubblegum an ill-fit with the rest of the album yet blessed by the songwriters’ command of a killer chorus. After that, the album veers all over, with some sludgy hard rock sounding too much like Kiss, the brassy Man With The Golden Arm sporting an endless drum solo, and power ballad Lady Starlight trying (unsuccessfully) to crib from Bowie. You’ve also got a workmanlike but kinda pointless cover of My Generation. Not to mention Fox On The Run, that song that had first won me over to rock and roll all those years ago (though the original album version actually falls pretty flat).

Fortunately, I was spared the underwhelming UK iteration of Desolation Boulevard. The American version I bought at the mall all those years ago blended the best songs from Sweet Fanny Adams, a few holdovers from the UK Desolation, and some singles … now, that was an album. Most notably, it included the re-recorded single version of Fox On The Run, far superior to the duller album take, a song so charmingly giddy and joyously catchy that it’s kind of a shock it was penned by the band rather than Chapman-Chinn.

Sweet severed ties to Chapman and Chinn at this point, and the 1976 album Give Us A Wink eliminates most remaining vestiges of the band’s old pop-glam style. Instead, it’s relatively generic hard rock, kind of back-bench Aerosmith, though the distinctive harmonies prevent it from becoming entirely faceless. However, the album has a ringer in the inclusion of the 1975 single Action, arguably the band’s finest moment, with a Ballroom Blitz-like locomotive pulse and the sort of killer chorus that shows the band picked up some lessons from their time with Chapman-Chinn. (In a switch from Fox On The Run, the slightly-longer album version improves on the single, a slow lead-in building up to the song’s cathartic verse.) It’s not a terrible album – The Lies In Your Eyes and 4th Of July at least have some decent hooks – but fans of the band’s run of catchy hits will, Action aside, come away disappointed.

While 1977’s Off The Record lacks a song nearly as compelling as Action, it’s an improvement overall, a few songs like Live For Today and Fever Of Love sounding much more lively and engaging, the band milking some solid hooks and getting a lot of mileage out of those classic compressed harmonies. Again, though, it’s a hard rock album with few concessions to pop, not a genre that holds much interest for me.

For the original quartet’s final album, 1978’s Level Headed, they decided to change things up. The album is far more reliant on ballads, with elements of prog and even disco, sounding a bit like a cut-rate Queen. While the willingness to step away from bland hard rock was admirable, it doesn’t mean the album is very good; the world wasn’t really in need of another Styx. That said, it includes the disco-fied pop wonder Love Is Like Oxygen, which could be either the band’s dumbest song to date, or a song brilliantly embracing banality in service of a near-perfect hook. As someone who grew up on the band and first heard the song as a last-hurrah as I approached my teen years and abandoned Top 40 radio for more respectable album-oriented classic rock, I can’t help but feel a sense of giddy nostalgia when I hear it, but I’m not sure that would translate to a first-time listener today.

Alas, Connolly’s ongoing health issues and alcoholism took their toll, and he was pushed out after a final tour. The remaining trio recorded three more albums between 1979 and 1982, and if you’re guessing that they’re terrible, I can assure you that I have listened to all of them, and terrible doesn’t really do them justice. Let’s just say that even a diehard Sweet fan would be embarrassed to display them on the shelf (ok, 1979’s Cut Above The Rest has a couple tunes that are at least passably mediocre, but that’s as far as I’ll go).

The band then split up, with Connolly, Priest, and Scott all taking iterations of off-brand “Sweet” line-ups (New Sweet! Steve Priest’s Sweet! Andy Scott’s Sweet!) on the road over the years. (Connolly passed away in 1997, Priest in 2020.) The band’s proper catalog has gone in and out of print, and can be hard to find these days (a definitive 2005 reissue series offered remastered sound and loads of bonus tracks; that’s the one to seek out). Plus, the band’s alumni recorded myriad studio and live albums reworking the original repertoire, littering online shops and streaming services with an array of confusing counterfeits, so buyer beware.

Ultimately, the Best Of Sweet compilation (the one with the pink cover) collects most of the band’s post-1971 singles and is more than enough Sweet for all but the most serious devotee of the band (all but one of my top 10 above can be found here). Yet while I have mixed feelings about the band’s legacy, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss them as mere purveyors of kitschy pop singles. The hair metal bands of the 80s, from Motley Crue to Poison, are deeply indebted to Sweet, and while those bands aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Sweet were ahead of their time, and had they surfaced 15 years later they would have been huge.

As a final note, let’s circle back to Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who led incredibly successful careers beyond their work with Sweet. They worked closely with several other 70s pop-glam acts, most notably Suzi Quatro and Mud (the latter had a hit with the wonderful bubblegum pop nugget Dyna-Mite, which Sweet had foolishly rejected and would’ve made for a fantastic Sweet/Chinnichap collaboration). They also wrote a litany of huge radio hits in the late 70s and early 80s (Tony Basil’s Mickey, Huey Lewis’s Heart And Soul, Tina Turner’s Better Be Good To Me). Chapman, who handled most of the production, also went on to produce everyone from Blondie to the Knack. One of these days, it might be time to do a stand-alone Toppermost dedicated to the best tracks written/produced by Chapman and/or Chinn.

 

 

 

Sweet photo 2

 

Brian Connolly (1945–1997)

Mick Tucker (1947–2002)

Steve Priest (1948–2020)

 

The Sweet (Wikipedia)

Andy Scott’s Sweet

Blockbuster! The True Story of the Sweet
Dave Thompson (Cherry Red 2011)

Glam rock bottom: why did it go so sour for Sweet?
David Cavanagh article in The Guardian Sep 2010

Mike Chapman (Wikipedia)

Sweet biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter. Marc’s previous posts include The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

TopperPost #937

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Feb 21, 2021

    Marvellous toppermost. Marvellous.
    A couple of things struck me. I don’t know who the high voice is, but he hits a higher note than Roger Taylor in Bohemian Rhapsody (Galileo) or, really Great King Rat from he first album.
    Ballroom Blitz is a perfect single. The name checks, the lyrics that say nothing and in so doing say everything, the hooks the size of the city of London…
    Finally, Love is like Oxygen – is it just me, or could it have been influenced by Godley and Creme from 10cc? It has the slightly demented melodic style that 10cc did so well. In your question of its worth, I think I’m leaning to it being a work of genius…

    • Marc Fagel
      Feb 21, 2021

      Thanks. I hadn’t picked up on the 10cc vibe, but I see it now. One of the key assets of the band was the dense production, particularly those high, layered harmonies, something 10cc certainly helped pioneer.

      • Andrew Shields
        Feb 21, 2021

        A trip down memory lane this one. Would still count ‘Fox on the Run’ as a classic single. And I can definitely hear the 10cc vibe on ‘Oxygen’ – which I can remember hearing a lot on Luxembourg back when it first came out.

  2. Simon Sadler
    Feb 21, 2021

    Good to see Sweet getting a deserved reappraisal. As well as the classic singles, I really like a lot of the heavier stuff (like Sweet FA, Own Up, and the dizzying Keep It In from Give Us A Wink) which, in a parallel universe, would have seen them considered as being in the first division of 70s classic rock bands.
    I agree Oxygen has a real 10CC vibe. I also hear echoes of Slade in Fox On The Run (another band unjustly overlooked as a serious rock band).

    • Marc Fagel
      Feb 21, 2021

      Yeah, I see Slade much the same way, with some joyfully catchy pop-glam singles littered among albums that I found less compelling. I’ll be the first to admit that hard rock and heavy metal are outside my comfort zone, so my assessment of some of those edgier tunes you cite is not necessarily on the money. Interesting to hear that others have a more positive assessment of that facet of Sweet’s work.

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