The Sweet: is it finally time to give them the credit they deserve?
From Little Willy to a six-foot, confetti spewing penis, The Sweet had it all... except for the credibility they craved. Were these critically derided glam tarts really rock gods after all?
"We were like four dissipated old whores, mincing about on Top Of The Pops and churning out computerised pop, just being as flash as assholes. Everybody thought we were a bunch of poofs…” The above, offered by drummer Mick Tucker in 1974, is evidence of the many misconceptions concerning The Sweet, or merely Sweet as they became known once the affections of teenyboppers wore off. The four members of Sweet were actually womanising, drug taking, hell-raising, macho alcoholics. And although they burst onto the scene miming to early hits like Funny Funny and Co-Co, then emerged as highcamp stalwarts of the UK singles with glam-rock anthems like Blockbuster, The Ballroom Blitz and Teenage Rampage, their best music by far was created once the glitter had worn off. If you flipped over just about any of the quartet’s classic singles, a selfpenned B-side like Burn On The Flame, Rock ‘N’ Roll Disgrace or Need A Lot Of Lovin’ would be ready to assault your eardrums.
Yes, Sweet were rockers… albeit frustrated ones. At their prime, circa the Sweet Fanny Adams and Desolation Boulevard albums, they were making records good enough to have matched any of the true giants of the 1970s, including infinitely more credible names like Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Sadly, you probably never heard any of them. That’s because Sweet were never anywhere near as cool as the icons whose respect they craved. Though unmissable, their exploits on Top Of The Pops branded them damaged, novelty goods. To make matters worse, wrapped up in their own vanity and self-importance, they often behaved like complete and utter fools. This, then, is a tale of glorious underachievers. But by Christ, did Sweet have fun while it lasted…
The year was 1966. Vocalist Brian Connolly and drummer Mick Tucker formed a band called Sweetshop with bassist Steve Priest and guitarist Frank Torpey. Various small-time gigs were performed, some fuelled by a unique concoction they nicknamed The Benny Buzz. Consisting of the contents of a Benedryl inhaler and Coca Cola in a glass, it helped The Sweet (as they later abbreviated themselves) to numb the pain of seeing their first four singles all flop dismally.
Torpey was briefly succeeded by Mick Stewart before the line-up solidified with the arrival of former Elastic Band guitarist Andy Scott. Behind the scenes, Sweet had also signed to RCA and been introduced to producer Phil Wainman and songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. Mere months later, Funny Funny had peaked just outside the Top Ten, becoming the first of Sweet’s 15 hit singles.
At the start, these were exclusively penned by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who along with producer Phil Wainman insisted that Connolly should be backed by session musicians. Wigwam Bam was the first single that Sweet were actually allowed to play on, though they had been responsible for their own B-sides since the start. Naturally, these restrictions caused immense unhappiness. To further compound the situation, Sweet had agreed to let Chinn and Chapman manage them.
“What a stupid thing for us to allow them to do,” commented Steve Priest years later. “We were being controlled by a couple of novices. Mike Chapman could write what sounded like hit songs, but Nicky was brought up in a private boys’ school and didn’t know his arse from his elbow.”
Whatever anyone’s reservations, the pair’s formula proved immensely successful, and they soon began using it on such other acts as Mud, Suzi Quatro and Arrows. “Chinn and Chapman’s songs were banal and simple, but they offered endless possibilities,” admits Andy Scott now. “We wanted to start having some of our own material used, so the arrangement was never going to last forever. So other bands ended up using our rejects, though I won’t name any names.”
One of these was Mud’s Tiger Feet, a fact confirmed years later by Mick Tucker when he bitched: “Any group who’d recorded that would have got a hit. Even though it went to Number One, it was still an awful song.”
For the first and last time, The Sweet topped the charts with Blockbuster in early 1973. It beat off stiff competition from David Bowie’s Jean Genie, which featured an almost identical guitar riff and was released via the same label just a week apart. “I swear I’d never heard Bowie’s song before ours was released… I was onto Nicky Chinn as soon as I heard it on the radio,” says Scott now, adding gleefully: “We felt a bit shabby about Blockbuster coming out a week later – but ours went to Number One.”
Sweet would go on to stall at Number Two on no less than five occasions, most annoyingly in September ’73 when the Simon Park Orchestra’s Eye Level repeatedly held off Ballroom Blitz for weeks at a time. As a small child I recall sobbing in the kitchen when the single began to plummet down the charts, but as Scott rightly points out: “Sales-wise, what would have been a Number Two in those days would now top the charts for months on end.”
Steve Priest admits that certain underhand tactics were used to massage their sales. Indeed, at least one of Sweet’s early 45s may still be ‘bubbling under’, in a manner of speaking: “Nicky [Chinn] sent Phil [Wainman] and Mike [Chapman] around the country to the stores whose sales were used to compile the Top 30. Between them, they purchased vast quantities of our new release and dumped them in the Thames.” Nevertheless, the group’s bubblegum anthems and über-camp delivery established them as mainstays on Top Of The Pops (“We got to know the guy who let us into the bar very well,” winks Scott). Nobody who experienced it on the small screen will ever forget Priest batting his eyelids and mockstuttering “W-w-w-w… we just haven’t got a c… oh!” during Blockbuster or Connolly prefacing Ballroom Blitz with the legendary questions, “Are you ready, Steve… [“Uh-huh”]… Andy?… [“Yeah”]… Mick?… [“Okay”]… well, alright, fellas, let’s go-o-o-o-o-o.”
But as Sweet later discovered, the dressing up and cosmetics would haunt them when they decided to get serious. According to Scott, upon seeing Marc Bolan in all his glam glory they realised they simply had to compete.
“Steve Priest very aptly summed it up,” winces the guitarist. “They already thought we were poofs, so we may as well elaborate. And it worked. Steve had fan clubs all over the world. In places like Sweden there would be bunches of geezers hanging around outside the hotel. I guess that Wigwam Bam is the one that people tend to remember, with the miniskirts and headdresses. There was definitely a sense of competition with Dave Hill of Slade and – dare we mention his name – Gary Glitter, who used to come up with daring outfits. Top Of The Pops sometimes seemed a bit like a pantomime, and The Sweet were definitely the ugly sisters!” “
At the start, we just used make-up as a giggle,” recalled Mick Tucker years later. “We were at Top Of The Pops for Little Willy and Bowie kept telling our make-up girls, ‘No, no, no, their eyes aren’t right’. We all thought, ‘What a strange young man, taking it so seriously’. Perhaps for Bowie it was the excuse he needed to wear make-up in public, but for Sweet it was all a piss-take. “
After a while things rapidly got right out of hand,” Tucker elaborated. “At gigs, Andy would mince onstage swinging a handbag and call himself Andre. Steven became Stephanie and I changed my name to Michelle. Brian was the only one who never really went along with the make-up thing.”
Gradually Sweet became aware that their audience was polarising. While younger sisters were playing the A-sides of their singles, older brothers were appreciating the harder, self-penned rock of flipsides like Burning and Someone Else Will. 1974’s Sweet Fanny Adams is generally acknowledged as their first real album. Besides the two Chinn/Chapman compositions, tracks like Set Me Free and Sweet F.A. were undoubtedly the handiwork of a credible hard rock act. Critically panned, it barely charted in the UK, though Germany and mainland Europe were more open-minded.
Released the same year and featuring the hits The Six Teens and Fox On The Run, the follow-up, Desolation Boulevard rewarded Sweet with their first self-composed success. With Chinn and Chapman away in the US, the latter was re-recorded even without Phil Wainman and climbed to Number Two. Musically, Sweet were on a roll. They had made no secret of their appreciation of Deep Purple. Priest, in fact, had very quickly arrived at the conclusion that Tucker was in awe of Purple’s Ian Paice. “Mick had decided that he and Ian were in competition,” Steve later said. “In my eyes, this was a mistake. He expended a lot of energy trying to play like Ian, but he didn’t have to.”
However, other acts also benefited from Sweet’s innovative use of vocal harmonies. Among them were Queen. “They beat us to it,” later conceded Phil Wainman. “I saw them as a support band at Hammersmith Odeon. I went up to Roy Thomas Baker, who was producing them and had been an engineer for me. I said, ‘Roy, that band are phenomenal. I’ll swap you all my acts for that band’. He said, ‘I can’t do that’. I played Killer Queen to Sweet, and all Andy could say was, ‘Yeah, Phil, we’re being ripped off’”.
“I was scared to death when I heard Queen’s first album, because till then I thought we were doing alright,” comments Scott now. “I remember having a wry smile when I met Brian May in Los Angeles. Bohemian Rhapsody was out, and there were definite similarities. I told Brian I liked the last part of that one, that it was very reminiscent of [our own] Action. But that’s okay, you beg, steal and borrow. I’ve put a lot of Jeff Beck and Hendrix into some of the cheapest and nastiest pop singles ever, and nobody realises.”
The Sweet were also becoming notorious for their lewd, hedonistic ways. Each night they took to the stage to the strains of The Stripper, and Someone Else Will was introduced by the line “If we don’t fuck you then someone else will”. There were reports of a band member pulling down his strides in a left to a Swedish teenage girl, and in March 1972 the group were banned by the Mecca Ballroom chain after John Chapman of the Portsmouth Mecca said their show was, “The most disgusting performance I’ve seen in 11 years” at the venue (Sweet duly responded with the B-side Man From Mecca). Considering their audience comprised of under-age females, does Scott believe that Sweet always behaved responsibly?
“Does anybody in the music business?” he parries. “At the time what we sometimes did was considered out of order, but you only have to look at Channel 5 late at night to put it into perspective. Compared to Sex In Japan, which was on the other night, what The Sweet did was fuck-all, mate.” Nevertheless, on another early Swedish tour, it was alleged that Sweet beat up a promoter, broke a window, rubbed excrement into a tablecloth and pissed in an ice bucket. “The incident you’re probably referring to was an open air show in Stockholm,” clarifies Scott. “It was pissing with rain, 15,000 fans were angry that the show was cancelled and because there were no curtains on the dressing room window we smeared some guacamole over a pane. It was also reported that we took a shit into a fucking piano… that would’ve been really stupid. But afterwards we couldn’t get a hotel in Stockholm for more than two years.”
Sensibly, Scott does not attempt to deny that there were other moments of excess. “I personally couldn’t drink and take drugs, so it was one or the other,” he explains. “There are now only two of us left [alive], so I shouldn’t need to add too much to that fact. But we definitely lived the life. Rarely a week went by without Brian being in the press for something or other.”
In his autobiography Are You Ready, Steve, Priest portrays himself to be something of a serial shagger. So what would be the most people that Andy ever shared a bed with? “Ha ha… my prowess wasn’t in that department,” he grins. “You should be asking that to MT or BC, the two that aren’t here.”
With kudos for their talents a rare commodity in Britain, the rock world was astonished when Pete Townshend personally invited Sweet to open for The Who at an open-air show at The Valley in south London. Alas, in one of those exploits that Scott previously alluded to, Connolly was then beaten up outside an Uxbridge nightclub. Brian had exited the club to find some youths dancing on top of his Mercedes, and upon confronting them received several kicks in the throat. While the rest of the band were sympathetic to his injury, which resulted in them cancelling their big break, they nevertheless felt that one of the most famous faces of 1974 had put himself in an unnecessary position. “Brian had apparently smiled at and been talking to this guy’s girlfriend,” explains Andy.
Some say that Connolly’s voice was never the same again, a possibility that Scott refuses to dismiss. “I’ve never heard a range drop as drastically,” he sighs. “There was no way he could get anywhere near Set Me Free when we began to tour America.” Sweet attempted to crack the States to promote 1976’s Give Us A Wink album with a 50-date US tour, but once on US soil they found themselves promoting material that was 18 months old. Ballroom Blitz, out in 1973 at home, had emerged in the middle of ’75 Stateside and Capitol Records opted to issue an amalgam of Sweet Fanny Adams and Desolation Boulevard, under the latter’s title.
On the US tour’s closing night at Santa Monica Civic, Sweet were joined onstage by Ritchie Blackmore. Back Street Crawler had been the advertised support act, though just 24 hours earlier, Paul Kossoff had died. “I hope that if Paul was watching, he didn’t think it too disrespectful that at the end of the show, a six-foot dick [stage prop] came swinging down from the ceiling, spraying the audience with confetti,” related Priest. “It was a realistic looking affair, with all the attributes of the male appendage. It was huge, with coloured veins and a subtle 1,000-watt bulb inside.”
Sweet were still making great albums and scoring hit singles. Give Us A Wink featured Action, later covered by both Def Leppard and the Scorpions, and The Lies In Your Eyes, though they reached just 15 and 35 respectively. The graffiti on the record’s sleeve also bears the legend: “Queen are a bunch of winkers”. The track Yesterday’s Rain described an encounter with a hooker (“She gave me love for a fiver/Up to my balls inside her”), further proof not only of the quartet’s salacious underbelly, but also that they were leaving the singles market behind.
Sure enough, Fever Of Love and Los Angels both vanished without trace from the next album, Off The Record, and with their attempt to become an album’s band foundering, Sweet were in serious danger of falling apart. “There was a certain indifference in our attitude while we were recording,” admitted Scott in an interview shortly afterwards. “I think what was missing was honesty.”
Perhaps addressing Scott’s admission that “Brian’s vocals were no longer all they could have been”, Andy and Steve shared the singing with Connolly on their band’s first album for new label, Polydor. An incredible 300 bottles of wine were consumed in just a month upon decamping to Clearwell Castle to record the Level Headed album. Their inner circle all knew that Connolly had been drinking too much since the mid-70s. But by the time, his alcoholism had almost completely ostracised him from the rest of the group, and he took up residence in a separate area of the castle.
Brian had been telling anybody who would listen of a plan to jump from his bedroom window, and land fully unscathed some fifty feet below. No attention was paid until a night when the band and crew were eating. After a series of loud bangs and crashes – one of which resulted when he thudded from the roof of the mobile recording studio – Brian limped into the room and proudly boasted: “See, I told you I could fucking do it.” The incident earned Connolly the nickname of Spiderman.
Brian’s depreciation also caused him to return to the sessions from a weekend at home armed with a shotgun. From his window he proceeded to take potshots into the bird sanctuary behind Clearwell – over the heads of his incredulous band-mates who at the time were playing cricket. Describing the band’s stay at Clearwell, Priest later commented: “After downing up to a dozen bottles of wine at dinner, we would rush to the pub and imbibe some of the local brew. The rest of the evening was spent fornicating.”
Against all the odds, Level Headed turned out to be a fine, adventurous album when issued in 1978. Happier still, Love Is Like Oxygen provided Sweet with their first Top Ten hit in three years. “The verses in Oxygen…, the ones that Brian sang, were some of the best he’d done in years,” says Scott.
Buoyed by their return to the charts though sensing the last chance saloon was looming, Sweet undertook another US tour. With hindsight, it said plenty that JJ Cale’s Cocaine had been introduced into the set. Priest and Tucker had discovered the drug while recording Give Us A Wink in Munich, but by the time of Off The Record as Steve admits: “It was beginning to run our lives.”
By this point Sweet had recruited second guitarist Nico Ramsen and keyboard player Gary Moberly, and with Priest and Scott handling more and more of the vocals, Connolly often had nothing to do onstage. However, this was no excuse for his behaviour in America, where the band were supporting labelmate Bob Seger. A deposition from Capitol Records flew to check up on their charges in Birmingham, Alabama, and returned to their bosses with absolute horror.
“Brian had absolutely no idea where or who he was,” related Priest in his book. “It looked like he had taken some serious downers. The show had to go on, but I wished it hadn’t. We struggled through Love Is Like Oxygen, but eventually had to call it a day and left the stage.”
“Being drunk onstage in front of 20,000 people was the final straw,” agrees Scott sadly. “Brian was dragged off after one song, and Ed Leffler [US manager] was still shouting at him an hour later.”
The next couple of shows proceeded well enough, but in Atlanta the same problems emerged. With Scott lobbying the band to sack Connolly and appoint former Rainbow frontman Ronnie James Dio in his place, Brian vowed to behave and somehow scraped through the dates, but invaluable options to extend their touring in the US had to be declined. Bridges with Capitol were unceremoniously burned. Back home, the singer tried and failed to dry out, and after the band tried to begin work on a new studio album he was given the ultimatum of quitting with a semblance of dignity or being dismissed. In February 1979, he accepted the former option, claiming to have been planning a solo career for three years.
Although Andy says he “definitely spoke to Ronnie Dio” about replacing Connolly and received positive interest, Sweet eventually elected to continue with Priest and Scott doubling up on vocals. The trio’s debut offering, Cut Above The Rest, continued their creative growth. More mature than previous albums, songs like Play All Night and the anti-dance music diatribe DiscoPhony retained much of the original group’s charisma, but Polydor showed precious little enthusiasm in promoting them as a trio. Although Steve Priest somewhat uncharitably said that it “sucked”, 1980’s Water’s Edge, was another excellent collection of songs, though again there were neither adverts nor live appearances. And with Steve relocating to live in New York and Mick Tucker attempting to pick himself up after his wife Pauline was found dead in the bath, things looked bleaker still.
Just as their fans were giving up hope, the three-piece Sweet played an incredible comeback gig at London’s Lyceum in January of 1981. An unknown act called Duran Duran were billed as support, though for unknown reasons they pulled out. Besides playing all their hits, two new numbers were previewed. One of these, Identity Crisis, was sung by Priest with all the schizophrenic affectation at his command, and was pure vintage Sweet. Such was the impact generated by the Lyceum show that a dozen more UK shows were quickly arranged, though it was all in vain when Polydor only released the Identity Crisis album in Germany.
The UK tour had sold well, but at a show in Nottingham a disturbance ensued that involved a youth, Andy Scott and an wanted pint of beer, which resulted in the guitarist storming from the stage. Priest later commented: “Mick and myself had to busk for 20 minutes before Her Royal Highness would return. It was not the first time, but it was definitely the last.” “I felt that we made three very creditable albums after Brian left,” Scott reflects. “But of course it was never gonna be the same. The Lyceum show was incredible and we could have turned things around, but because the record company were dragging their heels we never managed to capitalise upon it.”
Sweet finally bowed to the inevitable. Besides releasing several solo singles, Scott moved into production, becoming involved with Iron Maiden in their earliest stages. However, interest in 1984’s Cherry Red Record compilation Sweet 16… It’s It’s… Sweet’s Hits and a 12” Disco Club Megamix of the singles Blockbuster, Fox On The Run, Teenage Rampage, Hell Raiser and Ballroom Blitz almost succeeded in reuniting the classic line-up. The situation had become unworkable.
Kevin Smith, a long-time Sweet fan who ended up becoming their tour manager from between 1983-1996 has his own theory about why they never fulfilled their immense potential. “They had absolutely no qualms in telling people to fuck off, even if things were being done for their benefit,” he says. “In the early days there was a controversy at Top Of The Pops when they turned up wearing jackets with ‘Fuck You’ and ‘Bollocks’ written on the back. The cameras just shot them from the front, but they weren’t invited back onto the show for several weeks, despite their single selling well.”
At around the same time that Connolly resurfaced with his New Sweet, Andy was assembling his own Sweet line-up. According to Kevin Smith, Steve Priest had even “made noises about re-joining” a grouping that featured Tucker, plus former Iron Maiden frontman Paul Mario Day and future Uriah Heep keyboard player Phil Lanzon. Promo photographs were even taken with Priest supposedly featured ‘live from New York’ on a TV screen, though eventually they had to settle for ex-Weapon bassist Mal McNulty instead. But the reunion would not last.
Things reached a nadir when a prime time TV documentary followed Connolly as he played a show at a holiday camp. For those who recalled the band at their peak, it was painfully tragic viewing. Brian hobbled to the stage, seemingly oblivious to the small children that were mocking him in the background. Indeed, the show made such an impression upon Scott that he phoned Connolly afterwards.
“Brian was understandably livid because he’d been ill and his backing band had played a gig as The Sweet without him,” he states. “I told him the only solution to everybody’s problems was for him to come and play some gigs with my band. We’d play the first half of the set and he’d come on for the last part. He was really into the idea.” Scott’s call was made around Christmas of 1996, but by the following February Connolly’s illness had worsened and he died. A stroke had led to liver failure. Members of Queen, Def Leppard and Slade all paid tribute to the singer, with Ritchie Blackmore commenting: “He was a great singer and a fantastic man.”
“I still have great memories of Brian, and without warning sometimes they still make me laugh out loud,” says Andy. “Things like the hotel receptionist calling our tour manager and asking to retrieve him from a corridor, where he’d been found spread-eagled and bollock naked. He’d mistaken a pot-plant for his bathroom door, peed on it, and passed out.”
Equally tragically, Mick Tucker succumbed to complications related to the leukemia he had been suffering from for five years. “Mick had had his own problems with alcohol; generally with the lifestyle,” offers Scott now. “It amazes me, how are Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones are still out there doing it? Compared to bands like those, we were novices.”
Despite the occasional niggle expressed in this article and Steve’s reluctance to tour, don’t be surprised if Scott and Priest work together again someday. Confides Andy: “At Mick’s funeral I told him, ‘The next one of these could be yours or mine, let’s not wait till then’. There’s life in the old dogs yet, and we are working on project together.”
For the moment, Scott has his hands full with his own Sweet activities. Last year, his latest incarnation of the band (bassist/lead singer Jeff Brown, guitarist/keyboard player Steve Grant and drummer Bruce Bisland) released Sweetlife, a marvellous slice of melodic, anthemic pomp rock that somehow managed to slip under the world’s collective radar, and a UK tour beckons in the early part of 2003. The current Sweet are also about to issue Chronology, a re-recorded collection of the band’s best songs. Even with 30 million records sold, and with Ballroom Blitz having re-entered people’s consciousness via Wayne’s World, Andy Scott is aware that there are many brick walls ahead, but he’s determined to overcome them.
“When we go on the road we frighten people. Like the original band, everybody now sings,” he says proudly. “We can re-create all the old stuff as well as the things from Sweetlife. The nostalgia tag simply does not bother us, we’re happy to play music from all eras of the band… even some of the stuff like Funny Funny and Co-Co that we didn’t do for a while. Musically, The Sweet always kept the fans guessing. There definitely aren’t many other bands that have had careers like ours.”
The feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 49.