Britain can be a damn weird place sometimes. You get a band like The Sweet, who are celebrated all over Europe and even in the hipper parts of America as one of the all-time great rock bands, and back home - well, they're just a joke glam band, ain't they? Like guitarist Andy Scott says, in Britain: 'You are not allowed, or very rarely allowed, to change your spots: you're a leopard, mate.'
The spots were first evident in 1971 when The Sweet were persuaded by producer Phil Wainman to sing on 'Funny Funny', a bit of bubblegum fluff written by Chinn & Chapman. They didn't actually play on it, nor did they play on any of the four follow-ups, all of which were hits. But the band themselves knew they were capable of much better. They'd come out of the same live circuit in the 60s as groups like Deep Purple and they always wanted to go the same way: getting the respect of 'serious' rock critics and being recognized as a 'heavy' band.
There was a clear conflict of interests: the group liked having hits - who wouldn't? - but were keen to get them on their own terms. The result was a temporary, but highly successful, compromise. From 'Wig Wam Bam' onwards, The Sweet played on their own records and, although the next six singles were still written by Chinn & Chapman, you could tell that the attitude of the band was having an impact on their development: the records got rapidly heavier and more riff-based and the feel became more in touch with - to call a spade a flat-bladed digging implement - heavy metal.
Three key moments marked the change in the group's status. 'Blockbuster' was released within a couple of weeks of David Bowie's 'The Jean Genie' and featured exactly the same riff. Admittedly both had nicked it off The Yardbirds, but still it became difficult to defend Bowie whilst sneering at The Sweet. Then the band became the first act to turn down a Chinn & Chapman song ('Dyna-Mite', which was then offered to Mud). And finally The Sweet were offered a gig supporting The Who at the Charlton Athletic stadium - a dream endorsement by the self-proclaimed greatest rock & roll band in the world. though unfortunately it turned sour when singer Brian Connelly got mugged and got his throat kicked in.
If that was an unlucky break, it was nothing compared to the emergence of Queen. The Sweet were becoming increasingly interested in the combination of heavy guitar riffs and complex vocal harmonies, and when they left Chinn & Chapman to write their own material, it was this formula that began to reach perfection. 'Fox On The Run' hit #2 in Britain in 1975 and its follow-up 'Action' was even more adventurous in its use of quite distinct sections and tempo-changes.
One Saturday afternoon in late-1975 I turned on the radio midway through a song that I'd never heard before and, in the light of 'Action', I immediately assumed it was the new Sweet single. It turned out to be 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and it proved to be a bigger hit than Sweet had ever dreamed of. Frankly I thought it was a rip-off and I still do. And I'm not the only one; as Andy says, 'it seems we opened the door, but when Queen came along, we were left holding the handle.' There was one more big British hit to come, with the power-pop classic 'Love Is Like Oxygen' in 1978, and there more hits in continental Europe, but any chance that The Sweet had of becoming a long-lived respected rock band effectively disappeared once Queen had taken their place as the albums band who could regularly hit the singles charts. By the end of the decade Brian Connelly had been thrown out and was indulging in the alcohol abuse that would ultimately take his life, whilst the surviving three-piece was struggling to get any attention whatsoever.
Andy Scott still leads a group called The Sweet, and he's still a fine guitarist, but he's the only surviving member and - to be honest - it's not quite the same. So much of the original sound was dependent on the interaction of the vocals that you miss the old familiar voices. But, and this is a but worth considering, the last time I saw them they did a medley of the early bubblegum hits like 'Funny Funny' and 'Co-Co' that was actually inspired - stripped of the toytown productions and rendered with full guitar backing, they sounded fantastic. My advice: see them live and get hold of a copy of Sweet Fanny Adams, their best album even though it had no singles on it.
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click for hit singles
the story of The Sweet
Nicky Chinn on the band in 1971