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Sweet were a quartet known initially for putting their name to bouncy pop singles tailor-made for the teenage market on which they sang but did not play, until they insisted on taking greater control. This coincided with the heyday of glam rock in 1972-73, and 'Top Of The Pops' was never complete without them camping it up in outrageous make-up, platform boots, feather boas, and even the odd bit of Nazi regalia as they pouted, preened and pretended to blow kisses at each other. After one chart-topping single and five which peaked at No. 2, record sales fell until they made a brief comeback in 1978, and they disbanded in 1982. Vocalist Brian Connolly, who never recovered from a vicious physical attack which left his vocal chords damaged, lost confidence, had quit (or was fired) in 1979, and died after years of alcoholism in 1997, while drummer Mick Tucker succumbed to leukaemia in 2002. Guitarist (plus occasional synth and cello player) Andy Scott and bassist Steve Priest still lead rival Sweets onstage on opposite sides of the Atlantic. (I saw Andy Scott's Sweet live in 1995, and it was one of the best, most fun gigs I'd ever been to in my life).
They were often the butt of critics in their day, scorned as teen fodder, but much loved and respected by the discerning, and also by fellow musicians who could appreciate them at their true worth. Ironically, it was only long after they split that they were given their due as an influence on many later punk and metal bands.
THE MUSIC AND THE RECORD
Sweet's early material was on the Parlophone label. Their hit-making streak started as soon as they joined RCA Records in 1971, and as the Music Club label licensed everything on this double CD from the latter, it contains all their successes apart from their final chart entry, 'Love Is Like Oxygen', which came after they signed to Polydor.
CD1 features all 15 hits, all in chronological order, plus three album tracks. We can trace their development from the early bubblegum, 'we-didn't-play-the-instruments but only did vocals' fare of 'Funny Funny' (No 13), and 'Co-co' (No 2), to the heavier 'Little Willy' (No 4), the first A-side on which they played everything themselves.
If you only remember them for one record, it is almost certainly the immortal 'Blockbuster'. Cue a wailing siren, pounding beat broken up briefly part of the way through by some nifty stuff on the kettledrums, an infectious guitar riff (coincidentally, the same one as Bowie had appropriated for his contemporary hit 'Jean Genie'), and shared lead vocals. All together now, folks -
'We just haven't got a clooooooo WHAT to do!'
No.1 for five weeks, it was a hard single to follow, but the equally uncompromising-yet-catchy 'Hellraiser' did it with those atomic explosions and opening cry of 'Look out! The great appeal of these classic Sweet singles was that on one hand they sounded pretty damn fierce, intense, even threatening, with guitar licks and a drum beat that could take your head off at ten paces, yet they were laden with hooks, breathtaking vocal harmonies as well as shared vocals with them taking turns on singing different lines, and that irresistible je ne sais quoi which would have a dancefloor packed within seconds. Remember 'Ballroom Blitz' with that rousing intro on the drums, and 'Teenage Rampage', too, with those massed cries of 'We want Sweet! We want Sweet' and that killer guitar phrase? Oh, how we partied.
In mid-1974 glam rock was sidelined somewhat in the charts by the rise of disco, and Sweet's automatic peak of No 2 for each single took a dent. The slower, more reflective 'The Six Teens' was less successful, and when they followed it up with perhaps their most ferocious blast on 45, 'Turn It Down', a pitiful No 41 hit was the result. A certain amount of near-the-knuckle lyrical content (you see, you weren't meant to sing 'degenerate bum' or 'For God's sakes turn it down!' on a pop record in 1974) resulted in restricted Radio 1 airplay.
Up to that point, all their A-sides had been written by songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, also responsible for hits by Suzi Quatro and Mud. They now cut the ties and wrote everything themselves. The first result was 'Fox On The Run', another amazingly infectious number topped and tailed with some interesting shimmering synthesiser work, peaking yet again at No 2. Two lesser hits, 'Action' (there was an almost identical remake some years later by by Def Leppard), and 'The Lies In Your Eyes' followed, before a lull and a brief comeback with 'Oxygen', as mentioned above. Except for this last, all the hits (15) are on this set, in chronological order.
The remaining three tracks on CD1, and all 18 on CD2, are a mix of cover versions (doubtless under record company pressure), B-sides, and self-penned album tracks which showed their true potential. The covers are OKish but nothing spectacular, from Diana Ross and the Supremes' 'Reflections' and the cheery bubblegum 'Chop Chop', about a woodcutter (also recorded as a single by DJ Tony Blackburn - they were for a while his uncredited backing group during his recording career), to the Lovin' Spoonful's 'Daydream', and The Who's 'My Generation' which ends in what sounds like half-hearted anarchy on various percussion instruments and a piano that threatens to break into 'Chopsticks'.
It's the original material which really grabs you. First, take 'Done Me Wrong Alright'. If you turned over your 45 rpm copy of 'Co-Co' and played your friends this, they would not believe that this frantic blast of almost-heavy metal, which sounded more like Deep Purple's 'Black Night', was the same group. Several of these tracks might have made good A-sides in their own right, especially the equally fast and furious 'Set Me Free', 'AC/DC', and 'Rebel Rouser', which sounds like a cross between their own 'Hellraiser' and Eddie Cochran's 'Something Else'. The more ambitious 'Sweet FA', six minutes long, with its changes in pace and subtle guitar and synth work, alone demonstrates that they could have held their own with other heavy-cum-prog rockers of the day.
On the other hand, the magnificent six-minute epic 'Sweet FA' has the lot, from the Zeppelinesque opening riff, some funky Doobie brothers-like guitar chords, huge vocal harmonies, and slower passages with synthesiser. A special mention also for 'Burn On The Flame'. If you can find a better combination than this of powerhouse guitars, drums, vocal harmonies (I'd swear that Queen, whose first two albums were a similar mix of melody and hard rock, were influenced by Sweet), and unexpected changes in tempo, then lead me to it. The final track 'Fever Of Love' was a woefully ignored single from 1977. Listen to this on a good set of headphones and it is simply awesome - a massive mix of guitar and synths, pounding drums, and those breathtaking layered vocal harmonies. Going back to Queen, they were certainly savvy enough to enlist the services of Sweet's German engineer/producer Reinhold Mack in order to get a similar sound.
The 36-track selection could have been slightly improved. I'd trade at least one of the cover versions for their unsuccessful 1977 single 'Stairway To The Stars', for instance. But at a budget price of £3.99 (which I paid Amazon) or so, less than five stars would be churlish.
The eight-side foldout insert includes a picture of them on TV with Andy Scott in Red Indian regalia, presumably promoting 'Wig Wam Bam', a page of old album and single sleeves, and a short biographical note. The jewel case comes in a card slipcase.
If you would like to know more, particularly on the most recent news, see here. Warning - it is a rather sad story.
There have been other Sweet compilations, but this is the most comprehensive available. Polygram TV issued 'Ballroom Hitz' in 1996, a 22-track set which included all the RCA hits (and misses) and Polydor singles. Ironically their only UK Top 20 album to date, it is now deleted but copies are not hard to find.
For me, Sweet were undoubtedly one of the best glam rock bands, yet they had the potential to be so much more, had bad luck not intervened. If you're tempted by this collection, what are you waiting for - and if not, why not? It IS that good, honestly!
(Exit to strains of 'Teenage Rampage', - 'We want Sweet! We want Sweet!'...)
[Revised version of a review posted on ciao]