Nobody knows who Sweet were or what they were doing.
Sorry, I can’t look at pictures of Sweet without thinking of Spinal Tap.
In discussing the interchange between hard rock and heavy metal, there are a ton of bands that get mentioned. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Jethro Tull, MC5, Rush, Alice Cooper… you know the names. There are also a few that rarely get mentioned, but deserve mentioning. Pat Travers Band, Blackfoot and Molly Hatchet, Foghat, Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac—why, there is a list as long as the… list of bands that released hard rock albums in the early to mid 70s, I guess.
One name that may or may not, but usually does not get mentioned is Sweet. Perhaps because they had a streak of bubbleglam about them, or perhaps because, like Foghat, they somehow became a part of the mid to late 70s disco fiasco, Sweet seem to be easily dismissed as a 70s teenage pop band.
They were glam, to be sure, and their career did take them well into the disco era. And yeah, they even contributed a couple of songs that are… questionably disco-ish. And like so many other bands, they were certainly playing with an ironic childishness and teen oriented sexuality which renders them a little hard to take seriously all these years later.
In fact I would go so far as to say that the LA hair metal scene owed almost everything to Sweet and Kiss in equal parts. The best Mötley Crüe material could easily have been Sweet material. The reason I was initially a giant Crüe fan was their first album, which managed to combine Sweet’s sensibilities with the heavier sounds of Riot and Priest. They were “feisty” on that record, and it suited them. That feistiness was shared with Sweet.
Sweet were an odd bunch, actually. They started out as something about like what I mentioned above: a teen oriented pop band, coming out of the late 60s, post-Summer of Love giddiness that record companies had learned to cash in upon. They mainly played other people’s songs—still not all that uncommon, despite the Beatles, Stones, and Who dismantling the top-down hand-fed pop music methodology.
And then something happened. The actual band took over the band. Suddenly their output got harder, faster, ironic-er. They kept the trappings of teen glam idols, but they started to play with the formula, inserting themselves as actual rock fans into it. In short, they grew up. Wrote their own songs, produced their own records and, in the process, made some of the weirdest, catchiest hard rock you can find from that time.
At the height of their creative power the band was comprised of lead vocalist Brian Connolly, bass player/vocalist Steve Priest, guitarist Andy Scott, and drummer Mick Tucker. Together they had a knack for finding the catchy in any situation, and while they were never going to give Zep or Purple a serious run for their money as musicians, they were surprisingly adept at their chosen instruments. But their main importance for metal were the songs they created.
We all know at least two Sweet songs: “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox on the Run.” The former does the impossible task of being inanely stupid and playfully powerful at the same time. I have no idea why bassist/part time lead vocalist Steve Priest chose to emote like an upper class English fancy lad during the breakdowns, but it somehow doesn’t ruin the song. It somehow enhances the song. There is something wrong here in the ballroom, and that dandy fellow paying for his drinks with gold doubloons seems to be up on it.
As far as “Fox on the Run”, it could not be more straightforward. It’s just a Chuck Berry riff in A and then a happy hour singalong chorus. Nothing to hate if you can get past the Rockford Files synth accents. In fact, pretty damned catchy. I can’t tell you for sure who came up with idea for compressed falsetto chorus vocals first, Queen or Sweet, but they both use them very liberally and yet very tastefully.
What we may not know about are some other standout cuts from their deeper catalog. I first heard Raven and then Black and Blue cover the murderous “Action,” but once I heard Sweet’s version the other two fell to the sidelines pretty quick. In fact, Raven’s version only barely out-heavies Sweet’s. If you know heyday Raven, you know that is saying something.
“Action” is a ripper, a fantastic study in proto-metal in just about every respect, including dive-bomber whammy drops and snarling lyrics. Depending on the version, it either never lets up or lets up slightly for the rhythm section to show off a little, but whichever version you hear you are hearing the kind of songs Riot and UFO would turn into their brand of heavy metal in short order.
Another stand out track is “No You Don’t,” a song that never quite finds its true nature but goes forth bravely never the less. Beginning with warning shot power chords, the main lyric is composed of Andy Scott’s chugging and bass player/other lead vocalist Steve Priest only. It’s Priest’s ornery, had-it-up-to-here-with-this-shit scratch that tips this one early. He just sounds fed up, and his run-on ranting, filled with echo and whiskey, gets one’s attention and holds it. The chorus feels a little out of place, like being scolded by a bunch of Catholic school nuns or something, but Priest never lets up and that covers a lot of cracks.
The middle eight does a weird 180, becoming a wondrous Hobbit trek through a wizardly landscape—and again with those Rockford File keys… but this is a band exploring sounds. They are not all going to work. And the song still kills despite the Focus-ness.
This, and the first two tracks I mentioned come from Sweet’s best known and possibly best overall American release, Desolation Boulevard, which was a combination of the UK album and a few singles. British records from that period released in America are confusing. And Boulevard is confusing as well, as it hops from the post hippy “Six-Teens” to pure Bowie cheekiness in “AC/DC” and everywhere in between. But I can tell you it gets under your skin pretty fucking quick.
Take “Into the Night.” A drunken swagger through the pissier side of London after dark, the hammering chords are as Crüe as Crüe could get, while the chorus suddenly ups tempo and gets all Roger Taylor on you. Or “Sweet F.A.,” an ode to being a long haired tough guy, with a Judas Priestly main riff and a marching lyric… and trippy synthed breakdowns that do not fucking fit at all. (The synth thing…I want to believe everyone in the early 70s was just very very into Who’s Next. That’s what I want to believe. But what I know is that the lame-assed synth sound that only ever worked for Pete Townshend on one fucking record sure got around…)
Of course, as metalheads we may dismiss a lot of this as just hard rock, but as hard rock it is hard to get more drunkenly macho swaggery than “Solid Gold Brass,” a monumentally catchy exercise in manly-mannyness draped across a thrusting crawl of boogie. Is it ridiculous? You bet your platform-heeled ass. But it is also infectious as hell.
As the band moved through the 70s, either the world caught up to them or they to the world. Either way, one of their biggest hits, “Love is Like Oxygen,” was released at the height of the aforementioned discotastrophy, and gets lumped in with that style, even though it really has little to do with it. In fact it has some fine off-time bridgework and somewhat chunky chord phrasing. It is not quite as inspired as the Desolation material, but it is hardly disco.
(Incidentally, this was a serious issue for several rock artists at that time. Whether knowingly or not, their material was presented as disco-friendly, often with added production that lent it a commercial feel. For a great example, see “Ebony Eyes” by Bob Welch—a killer riff that gets washed in a soapy, sudsy bath of disco vocals and orchestral backdrops.)
In breaking down this band’s most noteworthy material it can get lost that this was all of a specific time when there was not really heavy metal. Bands were not as single minded, and were constantly referring back to their music heroes, as is always the case. The first Bloodbath is nothing less than a bunch of fans of Swedeath having the means and opportunity to make the kind of music they fell in love with as teens. Something purely forward looking is a rarity in music in general, let alone in heavy metal where everyone refers back to Sabbath in some way or other.
Once a style or niche becomes established the forerunners are forgotten or dismissed. No one reveling in Godflesh’s first couple of records was thinking very intently about Head Of David, but Head of David informed Godflesh. And Sweet informed mid and late 70s hard rock and metal just as did Jethro Tull, The Stooges, and MC5. Along with Slade and T-Rex and all the other early 70s UK glam rock bands, that scene was chock full of fun and interesting, if not particularly consistent, material waiting for modern day metalheads to rediscover.
Take a chance on Desolation Boulevard, or one of the many collections of “best of” Sweet on offer. Dismiss your expectations for massive production and blood-strewn lyrics, try to set your mind to mirror that early 70s, radio-dominated world and have some fun. Because one thing that is true regardless of whether you want to call Sweet metal, rock, pop or a Robert Ingersol Lecture Series on the Importance of Agnosticism in the Face of Unwarranted Claims: Sweet made some fun, and furious music.