If you’re a fan of ’70s glam rock, you know and love the work of Sweet. They racked up an impressive string of hit singles in Europe as well as a few noteworthy chart hits in the U.S. Along the way, they pioneered a mixture of pop, heavy metal and surprise progressive tendencies that was massively influential on the ’80s hard rock brigade, inspiring covers by bands like Krokus, Saxon and Heathen. They were even sampled by the Beastie Boys a few times on their legendary Paul’s Boutique album. Despite all of this, rock’s critical establishment seems singularly uninterested in the band’s history.
Thankfully, this status quo has been challenged by a recent publication from the ever-prolific Martin Popoff. Said tome is entitled Rebel Rouser: A Sweet User’s Manual and it offers a detailed chronicle of the band’s glory era. If you’ve had to rely on CD reissue liner notes to get your Sweet history, this book will take you deeper into both the catalog and the complex forces that shaped the band’s surprisingly varied (and sometimes eccentric) output. Popoff had extensive interviews with members Andy Scott and Steve Priest to draw from so the results have the ring of authenticity.
The early chapters establish how Sweet came together in a way that ensured the ire of the rock critic establishment: in other words, they were willing to play the game and record material by teenybopper song specialists to get into the business. Once they hook up with Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, they begin charting hits that gradually mutate from pure bubblegum pop to the glam rock that became beloved in the U.K. with the rise of T-Rex and David Bowie. All the while, the band is establishing their own identity via a series of tough, self-penned b-sides that trend more towards heavy metal and earning the ire of concert promoters with a sometimes sleazy stage show that is different from their radio-friendly hits.
Scott and Priest’s recollections of this era split the difference between appreciation for learning the craft in the studio with experienced veterans and the frustration of having to deal with an always skeptical music press hung up on the concept of credibility. Popoff analyzes each song and compilation-style album released during this era, finding moments of interest in the band’s pure pop releases as he charts their development into a kind of secret hard rock band. In the process, he makes a great case for The Sweet, a 1973 American comp, being the first long-player to make the case for a band as a rock band rather than a pop singles act.
When Chinn and Chapman are too busy enjoying the spoils of their success to produce a new album for the band, Sweet takes control of their recording career with the classic Sweet Fanny Adams. Chinn and Chapman fade out of the picture as the band trades a waning U.K. following for an attempt to break big in the U.S. via a contract with Capitol Records. There are a couple of transatlantic hits via “Fox On The Run” and “Love Is Like Oxygen” but the band can’t make its strengths sync up with their chosen market – and the result is a string of albums that are cult items rather than breakout hits. This period also sees Connolly become estranged from the rest of the band until he is finally forced out.
Scott and Priest are open about Connolly’s problems, the biggest being alcoholism, as well as their own drug issues and the times when they allowed ambition to override the wellbeing of the definitive lineup. Such darkness is counteracted by Popoff’s analyses of the albums from this era, including major favorites like the U.S. edition of Desolation Boulevard and the band’s shining hard rock moment, Give Us A Wink. There are some fun stories here, Schlockmania’s favorite being how drummer Mick Tucker’s extracurricular activities on tour inspired the title of Give Us A Wink. There’s also a thoughtful exploration of Level Headed, an album that tends to be underrated by the rockers in the Sweet fanbase due to its progressive and pop-friendly elements.
Connolly departed during the session for 1979’s Cut Above The Rest and this sets up the final phase of the band’s golden era, a time when their recorded output piles on the quirks and experimentation to create a kind of pop-inflected mixture of rock and progressive elements. The band drifts apart here, with Priest making a marriage-motivated decision to move to the U.S. They’re also bedeviled by issues with management and record labels losing interest: most notably, the band’s final Polydor album Identity Crisis was taken from them in rough mix form and initially only given a belated release in Canada and Mexico.
Despite their tormented backgrounds, these albums have worthwhile moments for fans and Popoff gives them a thorough going-over that reveals some overlooked gems among their track listings. There is also some interesting commentary from keyboardist Gary Moberly, who was an important collaborator during the band’s Polydor days. He supplies some fun stories about the band touring the U.S. and his friendship with Tucker, who could be arrogant but was good to his friends.
The final chapter deals with the variation reformations of the band: Scott, Priest and Connolly all had their own version of Sweet for touring and/or recording purposes at various points. Albums released by these various outfits aren’t given the track-by-track analysis as this chapter is essentially a postscript but they do get briefly touched on. The heart of this chapter lies in the musings of Scott and Priest about what kept the idea of pursuing the band’s music relevant for them.
All in all, Rebel Rouser is well worth hunting down for ’70s hard rock fans. It’s the best overview of the band’s work to date and the input of Scott and Priest give it a real credibility. It’s unlikely that anyone else will give such an in-depth treatment to a band roundly ignored by the rock press so if you’re a Sweet fan, you owe it to yourself to snap this up.
Click here to purchase Rebel Rouser at Martin Popoff’s website – and be sure to check out his other worthwhile books and e-publications.