Pick ‘n’ mix

Who: Sweet

Where: Nell’s Jazz and Blues, Kensington, London

When: 15th December 2017

As we left the venue, some guy stopped us and asked us if the “Sweet – Sold Out” sign outside referred to that band from the seventies. Indeed, it did. But who exactly are Sweet or The Sweet (if you prefer). That would be a question that fans, critics and even the band themselves might have been asking for over 40 years.

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Sweet Live For Today and Tomorrow

By all rights, a concert by the Sweet ought to be a pretty awful experience.

Let’s look at the facts:

·         They are one of those bands from the Seventies that have had two separate line-ups touring under the same name at various times over the last years

·         They are a band who are best remembered by the general public for their hit singles – but they haven’t had a hit single for thirty years.

·         Two of their original members have passed away in recent years including their iconic lead singer, Brian Connolly, one of the most memorable glam-rock figures of the era.

·         Only one member of their most famous line-up is still in the band.

·         They were the band who recorded such bubblegum hits as “Funny Funny”, Co Co”, “Little Willy” and “Wig Wam Bam”.

·         They are occasionally to be spotted on those nostalgia for the Seventies tours with the likes of the Rubettes and Showaddywaddy.

On the face of it then to the uninformed and ill-informed there is little to be excited about when approaching a show like this.

But that expectation couldn’t be further from the truth. On their night, they are one of tightest-organised and exciting rock bands still around from the golden-days of the Seventies. And their recent gig at the Robin 2, Bilston, was one of those nights.

And yes, rock band is the correct designation. As early as 1974 they had outgrown their early lightweight hits. And with the “Sweet Fanny Adams” album, which they are currently revisiting, they had moved out of the Chinn-Chapman songwriting stable and begun to compose their own songs.

The band’s mainstay and heart is Andy Scott who has been in the band since “Funny Funny” and is perhaps one of rock’s great under-rated and sometimes unrecognised lead guitarists. Tonight, he is augmented by Steve Grant on keyboards, guitars and vocals, Bruce Bisland on drums and vocals, and charismatic lead vocalist and bass player, Pete Lincoln. Lincoln is the newest member of the band – his tenure only extending to a few years but the rest of the line-up has been together for well over a decade. This band may not contain all its best known members anymore but it is not either a band that changes its line-up every second minute. They have been working together for a long time and it shows.

If the band has one weakness it is a lack of new material. No new album since 2002’s “SweetLife” so the show is a mixture of album tracks and the later hits with a bubblegum medley thrown in for good measure.

The show opens with “Action”, their 1975 hit. Scott nails the guitar work and Lincoln, whilst being no Connolly, is an excellent choice for front man. Early on in the show, it is already apparent that the backing vocals of Andy Scott and Steve Grant are a very strong part of this show. Sweet and Queen were two UK bands in the mid-Seventies who had soaring rock harmonies. Queen always had difficulty capturing that in their live show as so much of the vocal work on disc relied on Freddie Mercury’s amazing range – and even Freddie could only sing one part in concert. Sweet had no such problems. Their four voices were always equal parts of the overall sound and whilst Brian Connolly, Steve Priest and Mick Tucker are no longer in the band, the guitarist and leader has found veterans who can come pretty close to filling their shoes. Reforming the original band is sadly no longer an option but these guys make a pretty good fist of standing in their stead.

The album tracks, “Burn on the Flame” and “Sweet F.A.” are next. Again, great guitar solos from Scott are the centre of this performance. The audience has gathered from a great distance to see what is an infrequent UK show for the band. They do far better on the continent these days and a tour of Australia is coming up at the end of the year. Consequently, the gathered crowd need little persuading as they enthusiastically and energetically support the band on every number. There are few obscure Sweet songs for diehards like this and the venue resonates to the sound of a triumphant performance.

Andy Scott takes over lead vocals for “Into The Night”. His high-pitched harmonies may not have aged or faded but his lead vocals have matured and deepened. He is more able now to fill this role than he was in the past. Always a good vocalist, he was third choice lead in their heyday after Connolly and Priest. He has grown more suited to this role.

It is also apparent that the band are not going to entirely avoid their Chinn / Chapman hits. Pete Lincoln returns to lead duties as he tells us that the band think that the next song is the ChinniChap song that the band rate the highest. “The Sixteens” wasn’t their highest selling single but in its original form, it was certainly amongst the best and most imaginative arrangements amongst a strong catalogue. Once again, the current line-up has little difficult meeting that blueprint.

Heartbreak Today is from the SFA album and acquits itself well. Live For Today is proto-punk and has energy to spare.

Wig Wam Bam and Little Willy were the first two of the band’s hits to be driven by Andy’s guitar. Tonight they’re joined at the hip in a fun and high energy medley which has all the audience singing along. This is good practice for all the memorable hits that are to follow just a little later in the show.

First it is time to dig a little deeper into the band’s repertoire of album tracks with two more from the aforementioned “Sweet Fanny Adams” album with “Restless” and “No, You Don’t”. For the second of these vocal duties are handled by Steve Grant who doesn’t quite match his namesake Mr Priest for camp-ness but has a damn good go.

The band lead the audience into a chant of “We want Sweet!” which was the audience effect that led into the hit version of “Teenage Rampage”. The chant leads in the same direction tonight and this top ten hit is captured with aplomb and the crowd at the front of the stage are getting more and more strident in their singing along.

It’s time to slow things down for a little while. Andy Scott mentions that the band are trying to respond to the requests that have been made on the band’s messageboard for some songs that are not often performed live. Meanwhile, extra mikes are prepared at the front of stage and drummer, Bruce Bisland makes his way forward to add his harmonies to the next number. Bisland has provided a tight beat all night and his sweat-soaked t-shirt is witness to how hard he works. His solo during the latter part of the evening is a highlight: tasteful, not too self-indulgent, few wasted beats. But now he is called upon for his sweet voice as the band move into “Dream On” the gentle opener from 1978’s “Level Headed” album. Scott once more handles the lead vocal.

The second track on that album was the latter-day hit “Love is Like Oxygen” so it is appropriate that it follows here. On the album the second half of the song opens out into some progressive, tasteful guitar noodling. Tonight this is spliced by a version of the ELP hit “Fanfare for the Common Man” and an impromptu rendering of “Happy Birthday” to mark the 60th year of the band’s sole remaining original.

Back in ’73, the band scored an amazing triumvirate of hits with Blockbuster, The Ballroom Blitz and Hell Raiser that really captured the musical spirit of that glammy era. The first and third of these are next with sirens surrounding the Blockbuster opening carrying you back to the day you first heard it.

It is a sign of how many great hits the band have to choose from that they are next able to turn to their 1975 monster hit “Fox On The Run”.

The band has at least two extra encores tonight as they seek to extend the party atmosphere. First, they cover the Blur hit “Parklife” albeit with all re-tooled lyrics which are seemingly spontaneously made up by Steve Grant who handles lead duties on this one. The chorus is remade into “Sweetlife” for the occasion.

A physical resemblance between the later incarnation of Andy’s 60s band “Elastic Band” and the guys from the Kings of Leon is the only justification needed for the band to next leap into “Sex on Fire”. For my money, the guitar riff gets a little bogged down on this one and they might have been better leaving it alone.

There’s more to come. The 80’s big hair glam revival in the States particularly liked Mr Scott’s composition “Set Me Free” and it’s to that song the band turn next. In an impromptu moment the guitar solo which Andy has been known to perform using a beer can is tonight transformed as he lends a digital camera from an unsuspecting audience member and uses the metal casing up and down the frets. Tony O’Hora who preceded Lincoln as lead vocalist is beckoned from the audience to handle the duties on this one.

“Are you ready, Bruce?” doesn’t quite sound quite the same but there are few other flaws in the final performance of the night as “The Ballroom Blitz” is chosen as the final one of the encores. The band leave the stage to rapturous applause at its conclusion.

Whatever your expectations and whatever you might have heard or decided, Sweet remain one of the greatest British live acts. Overcome your worries and capture this institution next time they come to town.
The Sweet are electric.

Andy Scott on guitar

Pete Lincoln on bass

Steve Grant on keyboards

Bruce Bisland on drums

Sweet Dreams

On Friday I was at a birthday party for Andy Scott, who is the guitarist for English glam rock band, Sweet. Andy has reached that milestone of his 60th birthday. There was a time when it would have seemed impossible that you’d still be treading the boards and recording as a rock musician at that age but Andy made it and 60 of us were invited to help him celebrate. The actual birth day isn’t for a couple of weeks but this was a good date for everyone to get together and a great time was had by all.

It got me thinking…….. Sweet are another one of those bands that I’ve been listening to all my life. It takes me back to when I was a kid growing up in a coal mining town in the north of England. Hard times…. didn’t fit in ….. and music became my escape. Now when did I first hear the music of Sweet?

It would have been about 1972, or even 1971. I would have been at infant school then! My dad took me to visit with my Uncle Colin and Auntie Brenda who lived in a place called Kingstone, near Barnsley. I had a cousin (guess I still have) who seemed to find Barnsley an even harder place than I did. He’d heard a song on the radio called "Co Co" which he went round the house singing. It was by a band called The Sweet. I was 6, he was 5. Long time ago.

Then there was "Top of the Pops". Sweet in Indian get-up for "Wig Wam Bam". Sweet in make-up for "Blockbuster". Sweet sounding vaguely rude on "Little Willy" but I wasn’t sure why. I was 7. I was 8.

My Dad had an old reel-to-reel tape recorder that he used to record the songs from the Top 20. 6 o’clock Sunday night. Number 1 at 7. The Sweet’s songs were always my favourites. Ballroom Blitz. For some reason, he didn’t record "Hell Raiser". I didn’t really understand why. Maybe he didn’t like that one. I was 8.

Holidays in Blackpool. Got my parents to buy me a album on cassette each time we went. 1974. The Sweet’s Biggest Hits. Had all the hits up to and including "Wig Wam Bam". I preferred their newer stuff. I was 9.

By the time I started to follow the charts myself, Sweet had moved on. First there was Teenage Rampage. Then there was The Sixteens which didn’t go as high on the "hit parade", as my Mum insisted on calling it, but I thought it was the best single I’d heard them do. I remember seeing an album in the shops and not buying it because there wasn’t any of the singles on it. It was called "Sweet Fanny Adams". Then I remember them being on a Jimmy Saville-hosted edition of TOTP. He stood in front of the staging and said "Sweet are back with a difference…. And what a difference!". The guys, all dressed in denim, no make-up, glitter all gone, launched into "Fox on the Run". Now that was cool. I was 10.

Sometime around then there was a technician’s strike which stopped Top of the Pops being broadcast. The very visual bands like Sweet began to fade. My new favourite band was the Eagles. It was getting difficult at school to be a fan of Alvin Stardust and Sweet. And nobody else of my age had ever heard of the Eagles. I was beyond criticism. Sweet carried on and there were two more hits…… Action and The Lies in Your Eyes. Great, great stuff. The Lies in Your Eyes only got to number 30 but I saw it on Supersonic on TV and it sounded wonderful to me. Supersonic was to be the glam bands’ last stand. Cue Marc Bolan…… riding on a white swan. I was 11.

Kind of lost sight of the Sweet for a little while after that. I’d checked into the "Hotel California" and everything was so grown up. I was the kid at school who was disparaging of the whole punk thing which seemed to lack seriousness …… and song lyrics needed to be serious. Hey, I was 12.

1978. The local record shop had an album called "Sweet’s Golden Greats" which picked up where "Biggest Hits" had left off. Everything from Blockbuster through to…. through to….. some songs I’d never heard before. It included songs like "Lost Angels", "Fever of Love" and "Stairway to the Stars" which sounded like they’d been great singles but no-one had bought them. I couldn’t understand why no-one had bought them. They should have been hits. Maybe if they’d been hits then the Sweet would still be going I thought……. One morning, it was a Saturday, I was laid in bed, late and my Mum had the radio on. There was a song that caught my attention. Great melody and sad lyrics. Something about Oxygen. The DJ said that’s the new one form Sweet. It was a great song……. but no band should be allowed to hijack another band’s name just because they hadn’t had a hit for a couple of years. I was quite put out. Next time I heard it, close up, and I realised that the voice was the same. Brian Connolly. I went down the record store. A place on the corner of Peel Street in Barnsley. Can’t remember it’s name. They had the album. It was called "Level Headed". Andy Scott had a beard. They looked very mature. Just grown up enough for me. Kind of like the Eagles but from England. "Love is Like Oxygen", indeed. I was 13.

Nothing else from the Sweet the rest of the year and when you’re young six months is an awful long time. I’d moved on. Tubeway Army, David Bowie. If punk was a little too raw for me, then this was articulate, alienated and thoughtful. Just like me. The Eagles also brought out an album called "The Long Run". My English teacher seeing the badges on my jacket told me that you couldn’t like both Gary Numan and the Eagles. I thought he was wrong. I was 14.

I was shopping in Casa Disco in Barnsley. Local record shop. Sometimes I still have dreams about Casa Disco where I fret that it is closing down. When I wake up, it has been closed for years. When I go back to Barnsley, which I seldom do, its not there anymore. This day, they had an album by the Sweet that I hadn’t seen before. Just called "The Sweet", it had a live photo on the cover on which they looked like they did on that Level Headed record. Took it home, the songs were recorded prior to "Wig Wam Bam" and were really not me. Strike one on the Sweet. Another day, shopping in Neales Music in the Arcade. They had a section where you could buy singles that had failed to chart for 60p. The new ones were £1-10. I looked through. Found something called "Call Me" by Sweet. Took it home. Sounded okay. It was like being 11 again. Guilty secret. Found out the "Level Headed" album and tried to persuade myself that the last track sounded like Kraftwerk. In reality it probably sounds more like Pink Floyd. I was 15.

Now life was an endless trawl around the record stores. There was one place on Barnsley Market which had loads of singles and a few albums. It was called "Mary’s". Run by a little woman who always looked dirty which matched the condition of the singles she tried to sell. The albums were always in pretty good condition. Found one called "Cut Above The Rest" by Sweet. The inner sleeve had only three guys on the photo. I’d heard the singles off the album – "Call Me", Big Apple Waltz" – and hadn’t noticed the difference but the album confirmed that Brian, the lead vocalist, was no longer in the band. At least, the other guys had always sung on the other records. Found the next album when I went on holiday (Blackpool, again!). Water’s Edge. A little poppy for my tastes. I was 16.

Sometime around then the three-piece Sweet recorded another album, "Identity Crisis". Good record. I got it on a German import from a shop in Manchester. Sweet went out on tour. I was used to being embarrassed about my musical tastes when my mates who liked the latest hits chided me about them. Even for me, defending something as outmoded as Sweet was a bit of a stretch. Music was moving on, the new Genesis and David Bowie albums sounded poor, Steely Dan and the Eagles had called it a day and I needed to find something that was a little less mainstream. I was 17.

By this time, I’d begun to freelance for NME, Sounds and Melody Maker and was combining that with anything I could write about to keep a decent level of income. I don’t know how you can write a whole magazine about double-glazing but I did it – and on a regular basis. Maybe writing about music wasn’t going to be the only thing I would do. Time to think again and a long time since I’d thought about Sweet. I was 20.

Married man (at least for a while). An article in Sounds. "Sweet getting ready to Blockbuster again". Three guys on the photo. Andy Scott, Mick Tucker and a guy called Paul Mario Day. The article said that Stevie Priest would join them in time for the shows. Got a bootleg from a record fair. Turned out that Steve Priest never made that journey. Sweet were a five-piece and the lead vocalist shouted when he couldn’t make the top notes. Seemed like nostalgia. I was 21.

Something must have kept me checking the "S" rack in the cd stores. 1992. Found an album and a video. Didn’t really recognise anybody on the cover but the sleeve said it was by "Andy Scott’s Sweet". Turned out Mick Tucker had gone the way of Connolly and Priest. But the cd made a good sound and I decided to go to some shows. Sweet still made for a good night out. I was somewhere in my late 20s.

Discovered a messageboard on this new thing called the world wide web. A place called "Home Sweet Home". My name is Darren and I am a Sweet fan. Twelve steps group for those who wished rock music was still a little more glam.

Gig in Shepherd’s Bush. Two venues. Not sure which one the Sweet is playing at. Not the coolest question to ask just anyone. Spotted a guy with long hair and a blue denim jacket. Decided to ask him. He turned around and he happened to be Andy Scott.

Some guy from Peterborough organises a Sweet concert and I get to write a couple of articles for the programme. Hey after all it is one of the things I do.

Invited to attend the filming of the band’s new DVD at a studio in London. Interviews and things. Somewhere along the line it all goes pear-shaped and the band and the studio end up fighting each other in court. I end up on the cutting room floor. I’m not surprised.

After all you learn a lot before you get into your late 30s.

Invited to go to Andy’s birthday party and the band will play live too. All in one weekend.

Not a bad time for a Sweet fan who’ll never see 40 again.

                 Darren Hirst and Andy Scott