Cult Heroes No. 41: Sweet
You know all about Sweet, right? And you’re undoubtedly familiar with their hits – from Little Willy to Blockbuster; from Co-Co to Teenage Rampage; from Poppa Joe to Fox On The Run. So, you’re probably asking youself: why the hell are we featuring the band as our latest Cult Heroes? Well, the reason is that we’re about to explore an underappreciated era of theirs. Cast your minds back to the year 1978, if you can, and Sweet’s album Level Headed. The hits had (almost) dried up by this point, and it was the last record they made before the classic Brian Connolly/Andy Scott/Steve Priest/Mick Tucker line-up split…
Words: Geoff Barton
On the final occasion I met Sweet singer Brian Connolly, he was anything but level headed.
It was some time in the early 80s. I remember sitting with Brian on the grass in the small park in the middle of London’s Soho Square. It was a glorious summer’s day, so we’d decided to conduct our interview outside in the fresh air.
Brian had been out of Sweet for some considerable while, and he was getting set to tell me about his latest solo venture… or then again, he might have just formed an act called New Sweet, minus his old mates Andy Scott (guitar), Steve Priest (bass) and Mick Tucker (drums). To be honest, I can’t remember the exact details.
But as soon as I shook Brian’s trembling hand, I knew I was in trouble. The bright sunshine didn’t do him any favours. The harsh light accentuated his damaged features: he looked old and lined, and his skin had the texture of parchment. His once-glossy mane of blond hair was brittle and straw-like. His whole body was shaking, and he couldn’t even speak properly. He made Ozzy sound like a loose-lipped motormouth.
It was a distressing experience. I never wrote up the interview.
My encounters with Sweet in general, and Connolly in particular, were always somewhat problematic. As I write this, I’m reminded of my first trip to see the band in December 1974.
At this time, Sweet were still struggling to peel off the sticky bubblegum from the soles of their platforms; the happy-go-lucky heritage of chart-friendly songs such as Co-Co, Funny Funny and Poppa Joe was weighing heavily on them.
As a writer on Sounds music weekly, I had been invited over to see Sweet play live in Hamburg, Germany. The aim was for me to produce an article that would inject some momentum into the band’s campaign to be regarded as a serious heavy rock outfit, right up there with the likes of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep.
Sweet had just released the mighty fine Desolation Boulevard album to back up their masterplan. As well as the hits Fox On The Run and The Six Teens, the record contained a track called Turn It Down and a cover of The Who’s My Generation that clearly signalled their rocked-up intentions.
But someone had screwed up my trip to Deutschland mightily. It turned out that Sweet weren’t booked to play live. No, not at all. They were actually over there to mime to two songs – Fox… and Action – on a pre-recorded New Year’s Eve edition of Germany’s equivalent to Top Of The Pops.
Sweet didn’t wanna be there. Connolly, his normally impeccably shaped hairstyle in disarray, began to complain about trivial things, like the horizontal creases in the knees of his sparkling white trousers. Apparently, they’d been folded over a cheap metal clothes-hanger for far too long.
Bassist Steve ‘The Passionate One’ Priest bemoaned the fact that The Rubettes were appearing on the selfsame TV show. “I can nearly rock, o-o-o-oh I can nearly do it,” he hummed sarcastically.
Meanwhile, guitarist Andy Scott and drummer Mick Tucker, both immersed in massive fur coats that threatened to smother them like attacking grizzly bears, were slumped in the corner of the dressing room, bored shitless.
And all the while the thin, muffled cries of teenage-girl fans could be heard filtering in from outside.
It took five takes of Fox… and four of Action before the TV producer was satisfied.
Afterward, we retired to an illicit Hamburg marijuana den where Connolly – after one toke too many – broke down in tears in front of me. His grandmother was seriously ill, he sobbed, and he desperately wanted to be back home with her, “and not stranded here in fucking-shithole Germany”.
Then Andy Scott reared up out of the smoke, and insisted on talking about Sweet’s cheesy past: “People in Britain are just not ready for us yet. To most, we’re still some stupid band that wears feather boas and headdresses on stage, that mimes atrociously and pouts effeminately. Like, um, we did earlier tonight, in fact…” he choked.
I offer the above anecdotes as an insight into the craziness and turmoil that always surrounded Sweet. To this day I regard them as one of the greatest bands Britain has ever produced, but the self-destruct button was never far from their impeccably manicured fingernails.
In his famous article published in the January 2003 edition of Classic Rock, fellow scribe Dave Ling was entirely accurate when he said: ‘Though unmissable, Sweet’s exploits on Top Of The Pops and suchlike branded them damaged, novelty goods.’
Or as drummer Mick Tucker said, after the band’s glitz- and glamour-packed, mouth-imperfect parody inside that German TV studio: “Sorry about all this, Geoff. You weren’t supposed to see us like that.”
Sweet’s Level Headed album represents the final chapter in the four-pronged Connolly-Scott-Priest-Tucker saga. It was the last album Brian would make with the other guys, and it marks the all-too-brief ‘phase three’ of the band’s career.
After finally wresting themselves free of the songwriting team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, Sweet made a highly successful stab at rock integrity with the aforementioned Desolation Boulevard record. Following that up with two more studio albums – Give Us A Wink (1976) and Off The Record (1977) – Sweet were making considerable headway in their efforts to break away from their pouting, preening past. But credibility among the headbangers wasn’t enough. The group also craved musical respect. So, for 1978’s Level Headed, they made the decision to turn the volume down to a subtle scream.
The transformation is plain with the lilting softness of California Nights, which is reminiscent of The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac – even Poco.
The killer riff to Silverbird briefly recalls Sweet of old, but it’s atypical. The majority of Level Headed sees the band pouring extra syrup over their glucose crunch. Note the subtle psychedelic touches, drifting melodies and easy harmonies, all gift-wrapped in a lush production sound.
Dream On – no relation to the Aerosmith track – is adorned with sumptuous string work, and classically inspired harpsichords gush through Anthem No.1 (Lady Of The Lake). Anthem No.2 continues in much the same vein, while Lettres D’Amour dares to waft into Europop territory.
Strong Love, meanwhile, is a horny disco tune, and Air On ‘A’ Tape Loop might just be an outtake from a hitherto undiscovered Alan Parsons Project… er, project. Fountain again shows the growing maturity of the band’s songwriting.
The rich and dreamy Love Is Like Oxygen was Sweet’s last big hit – it was a Top 10 single on both sides of the Atlantic. …Oxygen adds a deliriously trippy slant to the band’s pop-rock sensibilities, and is naturally the standout track.
The classic Sweet line-up may not have bowed out in all-Action style on Level Headed, but as Andy Scott once told Classic Rock:
“The verses in …Oxygen, the ones that Brian sang, were some of the best he’d done in years. And it was pure coincidence, considering what happened next, that the bridge he sang went: ‘There’s a rumour going round the town/That you don’t want me around.’ Honestly, it’s true. That song patched us up and got us moving again.”
But it didn’t last for long. On tour in the States, the alcoholic Connolly staggered drunkenly on stage in Birmingham, Alabama, in front of 20,000 people. He was dragged off after one song, and the seeds of Sweet’s final destruction were sown.
Connolly died of a stroke in February 1997 and, tragically, Mick Tucker succumbed to leukaemia five years later.
One-half of the band is still with us, of course. But really, after the release of Level Headed, the Sweet candy store effectively closed for business forever.