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Sweet began their career as reluctant British bubblegum pop puppets who, like the Monkees in the USA before them, insisted on and were eventually given the right to play on and then write their own material. After four hard rocking albums between 1974 and 1977 which were critically well received sold poorly in Britain they changed direction, diversifying into elements of classically-influenced prog rock and even occasionally funk. Once again, a few critics loved and respected what they did as well as the hardcore fan base, but record sales were not forthcoming. It's a shame, because only long after they disbanded in 1982 did the masses realise what an underrated and innovative outfit they really were.
'Level Headed' was recorded in 1977 and issued early the following year. Significantly, lead vocalist Brian Connolly was clearly on the way out, only sang on five of the ten tracks. Having never fully recovered from being attacked and beaten up three years earlier, his growing reliance on alcohol and drugs and increasing marginalisation from the rest of the band resulted in his departure - or sacking, depending on which account you read - a few months after it was released.
From the opening seconds of 'Dream On', a pretty song with an early Elton John ballad-like intro and lush strings, it is clear that here is a very different, radically self-reinvented Sweet. The song was written by guitarist Andy Scott, and unless the others are singing vocal harmonies, I'd guess that this is a more or less solo effort.
It's followed by the full-length version of the song which would be their final British and even worldwide hit, 'Love Is Like Oxygen' (No. 9). Co-written by Scott and studio engineer Trevor Griffin, it starts with some interesting synth work and guitar chords before Brian's lead vocal with the others adding harmonies come in. With the slow, low-key verses, more rousing chorus, and then the adventurous break halfway through that sounds as if inspired by parts of Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells', it's an interesting piece of work. Some have likened this to the work of acts such as Supertramp, ELO and Queen. At nearly seven minutes, it's the longest cut here. By the way, I saw Andy Scott's Sweet live in 1995 when they included keyboard player Ian Gibbons, a former member of The Kinks. He interpolated a snatch of 'Fanfare For The Common Man', as made famous by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, when they played this number.
Bassist Steve Priest took lead vocal on the third track, 'California Nights'. A slightly shorter edit was released as a second single but flopped everywhere. With the title there were bound to be comparisons with the Eagles, and the result is a kind of American rock with slightly disco trimmings at the edges. It's not one of their stronger songs, and as lack of sales showed, not the best choice as a follow-up 45.
'Strong Love' takes a further step into funk territory, with a couple of saxophones to the fore. It's almost jazz-funk, in fact, and similar to some of the stuff Roy Wood was doing with Wizzard in their latter days when they were trying to branch out from their more pop-orientated side.
'Fountain', another Scott lead vocal, combines their ear for a good pop melody with more classical influences. An almost folk-pop beginning with acoustic guitar chords gives way to some superb vocal harmonies, unaccompanied in places (you can see why people made comparisons with Queen), and then a final section led by harpsichord.
'Anthem No I (Lady Of The Lake)' lays those classical influences even more on the line. A few seconds of baroque music, based on a variation of Jeremiah Clarke's 'The Prince of Denmark's March' (sometimes misnamed 'The Trumpet Voluntary') leads into Brian's song and acoustic guitar.
'Lettres D'Amour' is another tasteful, quite slow number with a dramatic synth intro and almost waltz-tempo. It's followed by a one-minute instrumental, 'Anthem No II', which sounds more like the kind of music you would hear introducing 'Antiques Roadshow', or something of that ilk. The final track of what was the original album release comes with 'Air On "A" Loop', which is credited to and just features Scott, Priest (who repeats the words 'Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta' over and over again) and Tucker. It's an almost robotic Eurodisco type piece with heavy bass and drums, and an interesting departure for them, although for me not one of the stronger tracks.
The Repertoire CD reissue (see below) includes the two singles and their B-sides. That therefore also gives you the shortened 7" versions of 'Love Is Like Oxygen', 'California Nights', 'Cover Girl', and 'Show Me The Way'. The two latter are both group compositions, and more commercial pop-rock tunes than the less experimental nature of much of the album.
It's certainly not the same band, musically at least, who charted with songs like 'Fox On The Run' and 'Action'. All credit to them for experimenting and showing they were capable of something different, and on the whole I think it works well. Had it not been for their problems with Connolly, they could have capitalised on it and come back in a big way after dropping out of fashion for a couple of years. I remember a very favourable review at the time in 'Sounds', one of the major weekly music papers alongside 'Melody Maker' and 'NME' which sold in thousands, saying that it was an excellent album which deserved to be very successful. Sadly it wasn't, though it did make a modest chart showing in the USA where they had always outsold their rivals Slade and T. Rex.
If you're curious, give it a try, and I don't think you'll be disappointed. Despite a couple of so-so numbers, the rest are ample compensation.
My copy is the 1991 Repertoire reissue, which includes the lyrics (as did the original vinyl album) and the four bonus tracks. At present Amazon only lists the 2005 Cherry Red CD, which I've never seen but which does not have the four bonus tracks, as being currently on catalogue. As is often the case, shop around. Repertoire copies, which are better value, are not hard to track down.
Scott and Priest both lead rival versions of Sweet, one based largely in the UK and one in the States. Scott's Sweet were one of the best bands I ever saw live. Connolly also led a 'BC's Sweet' as long as his poor health permitted, until shortly before his death in 1997, while Tucker died in 2002.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Level Headed, Sweet, 1978
Glam rock isn't as popular as it once was - for every T-Rex and Queen there was a Chicory Tip or Garry Glitter. Fortunately Sweet were a band that adapted their musical style throughout their 70's tenure and developed into a white hot rock band. I suppose you could describe 'The Sweet' (their original name before dropping 'the') as bugglegum and cheese - pumping out chart busting mega-hits like 'Ballroom Blitz' and 'Block Buster'.
But for anyone who has listened to the excellent 'Sweet Fanny Adams' album (check out my review) you will know that Sweet are more than a Bay City Rollers nonsense group. 'Sweet FA' and 'Set Me Free' are about as hard rocking as you can get, akin almost to the NWOBHM that would develop from bands like Def Leppard and Judas Priest.
By 1978 Sweet had developed into an album orientated rock band. Level Headed saw them moving into a more experimental style of writing with an album of songs inspired by bands like ELO and Led Zeppelin.
Level Headed was the last album to feature the classic Sweet line-up of Brian Connolly, Andy Scott, Mick Tucker and Steve Priest. Shortly after the release of this album, Connolly - the main driving force behind Sweet - left to pursue a solo career.
Sweet weren't your average glam rock band. For a start they were much more concerned about artistic integrity - as opposed to churning out 'pop' music for money over real quality. Level Headed is probably the culmination of their music ability throwing in nearly everything but the kitchen sink into the mix.
Love Is Like Oxygen is often mistaken for an Electric Light Orchestra song and uses the same mix of strings and band and is another decently polished song. I really liked it, and its companion song 'Dream On' which sounded very much like Badfinger (one of my favourite groups).
In fact, there are so many songs on Level Headed that lets say, borrow from other artists its hard to get a feel for what Sweet's sound was. There isn't really the sound of 'Blockbuster' on this album. I think they tried a bit too hard here to develop into an amalgamation of several different acts and that makes it a hard album to analyse.
Level Headed is a really good album, but its lack of consistent recognisable sound lets it down a bit. The standout tracks are for sure 'Love Is Like Oxygen', but then the 'Going to California' steal of 'California Girls' is also impressive. There is also an interesting synthesiser song that closes the album 'Air On 'A' Tape Loop'.
If you want to hear a group at the peak of their creative powers, then Level Headed is it.
1. "Dream On" (Scott) - 2:52
2. "Love Is Like Oxygen" (Scott, Trevor Griffin) - 6:57
3. "California Nights" - 3:42
4. "Strong Love" - 3:27
5. "Fountain" - 4:44
6. "Anthem No. I (Lady of the Lake)" - 4:12
7. "Silverbird" - 3:27
8. "Lettres D'Amour" - 3:28
9. "Anthem No. II" - 1:04
10. "Air On 'A' Tape Loop" (Scott, Tucker, Priest) - 5:54
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 DREAM ON
2 LOVE IS LIKE OXYGEN(Extended Version)
3 CALIFORNIA NIGHTS
4 STRONG LOVE
6 ANTHEM NO. I[LADY OF THE LAKE]
8 LETTRES D?AMOUR
9 ANTHEM NO.II
10 AIR ON ?A? TAPE LOOP