by Tom Hallett
Ever get the feeling that the game is rigged? OK, folks, this is it. Round The Dial will now commence to start shovelin’ out the heapin’ piles of CD and DVD reviews that have stacked up over the past couple of election-tainted weeks. Yessir, it’s time to open up some windows in this here joint an’ let some air in. Jes’ ’cause the whole brick shit-house is fixin’ to go up in flames don’t mean we cain’t put the boogie to the woogie an’ the ting tang to the walla walla bing bang, does it? Ahhh, how about that breeze? I feel better already. Time to hop in the old Way Back Machine again and kick out the ever-lovin’ jams with ...
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “GLBBBBGRRGGLEEACKKKK!!” — Sid
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?” —
Glitz, Blitz, And Hitz
(Wienerworld Presentations, 2004)
Although they may have long since—at least in the mind of your average
FM rock radio listener—been incorporated into the rotting ranks of the
much-reviled “classic rock” category, English glam rockers Sweet
were, in reality, musical ground-breakers of their day. This recent “definitive”
DVD does a fairly decent job of tracing the history, tracking down footage of,
and presenting a balanced viewpoint on the chameleon-like quartet.
Though they initially began as a vehicle for the bubble-gum pop song-writing/production
team of Nicky Chinn, Mike Chapman and Phil Wainman, the band ended up forging
an identity and sound all their own.
Guitarist/vocalist Andy Scott, lead singer Brian Connelly, bassist/vocalist
Steve Priest, and drummer/vocalist Mick Tucker (Come on, you remember the roll
call from the kick-off of “Ballroom Blitz!” “Are you ready
Steve?” “Uh-huh ...” “Andy? “Yeah ...” “Mick?”
“Okay.” “Alright, fellas, let’s goooooo!!”) eventually
mastered their instruments, took a cue from the crack pop song-smiths they were
surrounded by, and became masters of their own destinies. For about three years—and
then it all began to go downhill. The old standard rock ’n’ roll
rags-to-riches tale is recounted here in equal parts by Chinn, Wainman and Scott,
giving viewers an inside look at the some of the major players involved in the
band’s rise and fall, and those players a chance to give their sides of
Unfortunately, the puzzle might never be complete, since vocalist Brian Connelly
and drummer Mick Tucker have both passed on (Connelly in 1997 of liver failure
after years of alcohol abuse, Mick on Valentine’s Day of 2002 after a
long battle with leukemia) and Chapman is mysteriously absent from the proceedings
(there’s no mention in the film of his current whereabouts—or whether
he’s even still alive—but the internet trail I followed took him
as far as America in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, where he produced
records for Blondie, Patti Smith, The Divinyls and The Knack). Minus those key
characters and the equally silent Steve Priest (who’s also reportedly
living in the United States) we’re left with a few questions about events
surrounding the break-up of the band and beyond, but the early years are well
band started out as The Sweet Shop (most notable in those days for incorporating
all four member’s eerily similar, operatic tenors into their sound) in
the late ‘60s, and after a few misguided attempts at joining the pop revolution,
dropped the “Shop” and turned their fortunes over to Chinn/Chapman.
The songwriting team penned a string of hit singles, including “Funny,
Funny,” “Co-Co,” “Poppa Joe,” and the more familiar
“Little Willy,” “Wig Wam Bam” and “Blockbuster”
for the quartet. Meanwhile, the band honed their songwriting chops by filling
the B-sides of those singles, eventually morphing into a much harder-edged outfit
than the Chinnichap team had ever imagined. They did—rather surprisingly,
considering their predilection for crafting sugary fluff-pop—rise to the
challenge, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
As those initial singles hit higher and higher and the group began to experience
a meteoric rise to fame, they took to wearing shocking (for the day) outfits,
creating mini-movements (“Wig Wam Bam,” a silly ditty about two
Native Americans gettin’ it on, found the band and fans wearing feather
head-dresses, sporting rubber tomahawks, the whole nine yards), and, eventually,
wearing make-up. Scott (still touring with a modern version of the band, called
A.S. Sweet), who’s clearly a bit physically worse for the wear after his
years of rock ’n’ roll excess, says that the band’s wearing
make-up and contributing to the early glam movement in England was actually
a bit of an accident. They’d gotten a gig on the music television program
Top Of The Pops and wanted to meet the cute female dancers employed by the show.
Their bright idea? Head right into Make-Up and hang out with the birds. Eventually,
they began using the make-up full-time. What began as a silly sexual lark became
a trademark stage act, and, a few years later, a genuine musical movement.
Keep in mind that this was the very early ‘70s, around the time T. Rex’s
Marc Bolan was switching from flower-power foo-fa-ra to glitzy rock-a-rolla,
but well before most of America had the slightest clue what “glam rock”
was. Who really came up with the idea first? Bowie? T. Rex? Sweet? Slade? Suzi
Quatro? Iggy Pop? (For my money, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Little Richard
were among the first real “Glam Rockers” and everybody else was
just paying homage, but that’s neither here nor there.) Or was it all
actually the sly doings of the band’s devilishly spot-on production/writing/promo
team? Nobody really knows anymore. Scott recounts a tale of meeting Bolan backstage
before a gig and loaning him some mascara—all hearsay rock ’n’
roll lore that’s sure to be disputed, but interesting nonetheless.
For either the rabid fan or the curious rocker, this collection warrants extra
merit for including full versions of over a dozen live and video performances
from the band, a practice many other music filmmakers seem to eschew more and
more. There’s nothing worse than just getting into your fave track from
a tune, especially with a visual that’s completely new to you, and having
the bastards edit it down to a fingernail clip. No worries about that here—you
get most every song you want to see and hear performed in its entirety. From
hilarious early efforts like the marimba-enhanced island rocker, “Co-Co,”
right on through to harmless but embarrassing lip-synching moments on various
music television shows, to the snarling, almost-vicious stage attacks of the
band’s latter era, visual eye-candy abounds.
interesting to note that the band was actually snubbed by most hard rock fans
in their early days, not just because their music was so silly at the time,
but also because many considered the band members to be homosexuals. Scott says
they laughed it off, and actually amplified their homo-erotic behavior to cause
even more of a furor. Watching footage of Brian Jones look-alike Connelly as
he prances around the stage in tights and silver lipstick, and wild-eyed, mascara-laden
bassist Steve Priest (who, with his outlandish costumes and warbling, Rocky
Horror-ish lyrical asides, certainly deserves credit as the dark, humorous soul
of glam-era Sweet) vamping for the cameras, it’s not hard to imagine a
couple of tough London sods getting all their knickers all in a bundy and planning
a right proper arse-kicking in an alley after the show. Fortunately for the
band, they were soon out of the clubs and playing large arenas where security
was a bit tighter.
The real meat of this tale is, however, the story of the band members outgrowing
their writing and production team and attempting to strike out on their own.
That’s what made Sweet such a great outfit for a brief slot of time in
the mid-to-late ‘70s, and that’s what will ensure their continued
survival in the annals of pop/rock history. Scott’s descriptions of their
early attempts to out-write, out-wit and out-maneuver their “handlers”
provides not only a handful of chuckles and head-shakes for the average music
fan, but also what could be some highly useful lessons for today’s budding,
Svengali-molded pop acts.
The quartet actually managed to write a few killer, chart-topping cuts and shock
the shit out of the by-then quite wealthy and cock-sure team of Chinn/Chapman/Wainman
(all of whom they distanced themselves from eventually), a feat that would seem
highly unlikely for a modern artist in the same situation to accomplish. To
be fair, Chinn seems to have learned a few lessons from the whole affair, and
Wainman is an undeniably great record producer (one of my favorite moments in
the film comes when, as he describes nailing “Ballroom Blitz” in
one take, a great, grand grin spreads over his ruddy, ample cheeks and he brags:
“... we put the faders up, and it was THERE! You know when you hear magic
...”), but as a champion of genuine artists over shady management, I got
a big kick out of watching the pair squirm as they described the events leading
up to the band slipping out from under their thumbs.
And that’s actually where I come in, as a fan of Sweet. Like most kids
living out in the sticks of the upper Midwest during the ‘70s, I completely
missed the band’s bubble-gum phase. My first exposure to Sweet was from
the American version of their break-through effort, Sweet Fanny Adams.
Desolation Boulevard was a bad-ass album, right from the cover art (a
sleazy shot of the group hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard) on through to the
guitar-blitz attack of the songs themselves. I was on the school bus, staring
out the window and dreading my after-school chores as we droned along through
the sleepy country-side of Northern Minnesota on our daily two-hour run home.
town kid by the name o’ Danny Rabbit (I swear), who’d always brought
the coolest eight-tracks to school, forgot his copy of the album on the bus—giving
me, the dork who lived at the very end of the bus line, ample time to become
thoroughly addicted to the band and reason enough to order D.B. through
RCA or Columbia House Record & Tape Club—and probably never pay for
it. I do know I drove my parents crazy playing it full-blast at home in my room
and over and over in my ‘49 Chevy King Cab pickup truck, which I’d
received as a birthday present to fix up and never managed to do more to than
restore the interior, install a stereo, and hook up a battery. It made a great
hide-out to drink, smoke and rock out in, though.
Though Desolation Boulevard included Chinn/Chapman’s finest contribution
to the group yet in the smash single “Ballroom Blitz” (“...
and the man in the back is ready to crack as he raises his hands to the sky
...”) —not to mention killer album fillers like “No You Don’t,”
later covered by Joan Jett, and “I Wanna Be Committed”—it
was also to be their last. While on tour in America, the band had decided to
slip into a recording studio minus their management team and record a song they’d
been working on in secret. Featuring synthesized whistles, absolutely scathing
guitar and the band’s trademark operatic harmonies, “Fox On The
Run” firmly established them as a creative force to be reckoned with.
Other original highlights on the album (but not performed live in the film,
dammit) were “Sweet F.A.,” “Set Me Free,” “Into
The Night,” and one of my all-time Sweet faves, “Solid Gold Brass.”
Free from Chinn/Chapman, the band soldiered on for a few more albums. Connelly
continued laying waste to his own body at an alarming rate, bloating out terribly
and becoming a parody of his former self. After he’d missed innumerable
gigs and began costing the band money and image, they let him go. But not before
they had their last gasp, the over-the-top FM anthem, “Love Is Like Oxygen,”
in 1978. That song kept the remaining members of the band touring and making
sporadic albums for a few more years, but by the early ‘80s they’d
pretty much gone their separate ways. Various line-ups reformed from time to
time, most notably Scott and Tucker for an album, but they never again saw the
heights of success they’d enjoyed in previous years.
While Connelly and Tucker’s untimely deaths are certainly tragic, and
it’s plain from the film that Chinn, Chapman, Scott and Wainman are all
still holding varied degrees of grudges (although Chinn makes a valiant attempt
to sound somewhat older and wiser, Wainman is still clearly pissed and Scott
probably never quite got over the business practices of the other three), Glitz,
Blitz, & Hitz proves that, for awhile at least, rock and roll was a
breath-taking, life-affirming roller-coaster ride for the four campy cats in
Sweet. Thanks for lettin’ us tag along, boys!
NEXT WEEK!! We get back into CD reviews with a look at a stack o’ local
and national discs. Until we meet again—make yer own damn news. ||
If you have local music news, gigs, CDs you’d like to see mentioned
in this column, or you’d just like to share your own special Sweet Moment,
send replies to: (temporary e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org.