Steve Priest: the scandalous Sweet bass player who predicted heavy metal | The music

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IIt’s not an exact science, but British glam rock can be broadly divided into two categories. There was what became known as “high glam”, the creators of the genre and the most astute practitioners: Bowie and his cronies, Roxy Music, T Rex – album artists who could be expected to serious critical consideration and space for interviews to expose their thoughts. on the influence of literature, theater and the visual arts on their work. And there was “low glam”: single artists who squarely targeted teenyboppers, criticized opportunists (as if someone could reasonably be tarred with this brush in a world dominated by Marc Bolan and former David Jones, who both had spent the 1960s). desperately trying to become famous by any means necessary).

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.





The Sweet in 1971 (Priest second from left).

The Sweet in 1971 (Priest second from left). Photography: Rytter / Rex / Shutterstock

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 Sweet: Ballroom Blitz – video

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