The musicians who had jumped on the bolder aspects of the image and sound of Bolan and Bowie – glitter, satin and tat; crisp, distorted guitars – but were less likely to publish poetry books, or discuss Richard Hamilton, William Burroughs and Japanese kabuki theater in front of reporters.
No group personified low glam like Sweet. Between 1972 and 1975, they made what is arguably the greatest series of glam singles – Block Buster, Hell Raiser, The Ballroom Blitz, Teenage Rampage and Fox on the Run among them, recordings as exciting and powerful as the British charts never welcomed – but they were not art school esthetes or sexually ambiguous mime students. They were musical companions, who had already existed in two iterations before the top of the charts called. First psychedelic pushy guys, originally called Sweetshop; then as purveyors of a British equivalent of American bubblegum, releasing well-designed, featherweight new hits that they weren’t actually playing on, leaving that to the session musicians – the blatant sugar knock-off Sugar Funny Funny; Caribbean cod like Co-Co and Poppa Joe – before their sound unexpectedly hardens, following the band’s request to perform on their own discs.
On the same edition of Top of the Pops which hosted the legendary performance of Starman’s Bowie, the Sweet appeared playing Wig Wam Bam: no more lyrical nonsense, but this time set on beating drums, a distorted guitar and harmonies stacked vocals, the three key elements of their next hits.
And no Sweet member embodies low glam like bassist Steve Priest. Almost all low glam groups had a member whose fate was to push the excesses of their look a little further – Slade’s so-called “super-yob” Dave Hill; Rob Davies of Mud, visibly uncomfortable in his earrings and muslin, but Priest took on the role with surprising enthusiasm. He smeared himself with so many slaps that, in Priest’s tale, Bowie himself felt compelled to intervene behind the scenes of Top of the Pops – “He said, ‘You know you really do your makeup too much?’ “- And camped out his performances with fierce caricature. In the 1974 television documentary All That Glitters, Priest spots the camera as he steps out of a limousine and suddenly begins to chop, one hand on his hip, his wrists slack. The effect was not so androgynous as deeply disconcerting: Priest was, in the memorable assessment of the writer Julie Burchill, “built like a hod wearer” and looked like “a navvy who had stolen all your makeup” .
His costumes, on the other hand, seemed to go beyond entertainment in a very proto-punk desire to shock: during the 1973 TOTP Christmas special, he imitated Block Buster dressed as, in his words, “a gay Nazi », With swastika armband, uniform and full make-up: on another occasion, he went on stage with a sequined jumpsuit with the words“ FUCK YOU ”written on the back. “We are an unpleasant group,” they liked to tell reporters, citing the unrealized idea of an album with the punk title similarly foreshadowing, We’s Revolting.
The character of Priest on stage had an impact not only on the appearance of the Sweet, but also on the way they sounded. Songwriters Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn and producer Phil Wainman packed their singles with special effects – air raid sirens, explosions, timpani, trampling, fans chanting “We want Sweet! – but the most striking were Priest’s hysterical vocal interjections. The most famous is his cry: “We just don’t have a clue what to do!” On Block Buster, which he invariably delivered to the camera with a pout and a finger squarely against his chin, but all their shots had one. The verses of the incredibly exciting Hell Raiser are indeed a duet between singer Brian Connolly and Priest in high camp mode (“Oh mom, you DON’T UNDERSTAND … she took me COMPLETELY!”); Teenage Rampage, perhaps their biggest single, finds him dreaming of the youth rebellion: “Imagine the formation of legislation for teenagers / at 13, they were mistaken, at 16, they will govern. “
The results were extraordinary: from hard rock with an endless supply of pop hooks, Sweet’s singles happily crush the listener in submission. But there were problems. They wanted to be taken seriously as a rock band, a role for which they no doubt had the chops, as evidenced by the 1973 live recording of them playing London Rainbow released two years later under the name from Strung Up: the audience screams teenagers, but the music is surprisingly raw, located somewhere between proto-punk and heavy metal. They could write album songs and B sides well enough to belie their puppet image of the Chinnichap team – Set Me Free, Burning – but they were never quite the match for their hits, and their albums never sold in the same quantities as their single.
The group stopped working with Wainman, then their relationship with Chinn and Chapman was even more strained by the rise of Chinnichap’s last proteges, Mud, whose Tiger Feet – a song that could have been written for Sweet – kept Teenage Crawling out of first place.
The group produced two flatly bright self-funded singles, Fox On the Run and Action, the latter a provocative proclamation of their new independence – “will knock you down because you pushed me, you must recognize my superiority” – but their decline has was exacerbated by the damage to Connolly’s voice during a street fight and his subsequent alcoholism.
After presuming punk, they made the curious decision to become more musically sophisticated at its peak, a decision that gave the impressive success of 1978, Love Is Like Oxygen, and nothing else. Connolly left the following year and the Sweet finally separated. Subsequent attempts to group their classic lineup failed: at one point, there were three different existing versions of the group, each containing an original member, Priest among them.
The Sweet never became the group they really wanted to be, but it didn’t matter: the group they were was more than enough. Their singles still sound incredible almost 50 years later; their TOTP appearances define both the low glamor and the era in which they flourished. By the time the former members of the Sweet toured the oldies circuit, their wider impact had become evident.
British punk was largely made up of people who had grown up in front of the glam era TOTP, as the Damned Cover Ballroom Blitz pointed out. In addition, they had a huge influence on the metal of the 80s: Axl Rose claimed that they were his favorite band, Def Leppard covered Hell Raiser and Action, the new Mötley Crüe tried to seek them for advice from career. You didn’t have to examine the metal of the hair too hard to see the ghost of Sweet, you just have to look at the photos: straight boys covered in makeup, possessed by a desire to shock, each of them metaphorically the offspring of Steve Priest.