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The sweet and sour of The Sweet

It's been a long road of ups and down for the Brit band Sweet (aka The Sweet) — and the last man standing, guitarist Andy Scott, gives Goldmine his thoughts on the matter.
The classic Sweet lineup in London on January 13, 1976 (L-R): bassist Steve Priest (1948-2020), drummer Mick Tucker (1947-2002), singer Brian Connolly (1945-1997) and guitarist Andy Scott. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

The classic Sweet lineup in London on January 13, 1976 (L-R): bassist Steve Priest (1948-2020), drummer Mick Tucker (1947-2002), singer Brian Connolly (1945-1997) and guitarist Andy Scott. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

By Martin Popoff

So says the Sweet guitarist—and at times and in some manner, leader of the band—Andy Scott, upon the death of bassist and vocalist Steve Priest, from pneumonia June 4, 2020. This follows the deaths of lead vocalist Brian Connolly in 1997 and drummer Mick Tucker in 2002. Still, we are not here to be grim, but rather, celebrate the life of Steve and the band that he, Andy, Brian and Mick took to considerable chart and sales success, at least in the U.K. and mainland Europe.

Nor were we immune to the band’s glammy charms in North America either. A compilation version of the band’s third album, Desolation Boulevard, was RIAA-certified gold on May 25, 1976, a little less than a year after “Fox on the Run” and “Ballroom Blitz” became ecstasy-inducing roller-rink hits all over the U.S. and Canada. What followed was arguably more impressive — 1976’s Give Us a Wink is now hailed as a masterpiece in hard rock circles, and it too made a dent in the pop culture fabric, through a hit single called “Action,” an exquisite symphony of sound impossibly crammed into less than four minutes of event after musical event.

“Action,” with its vaulted vocal harmonies and its production sleight of hand, had the band compared favorably to Queen, but of course, in many ways, evidenced by a slew of glam-era hits from ’71 through to ’73, Sweet were there doing this first. A series of career mishaps and miscalculations would ensure that the band’s arc would go in the opposite direction to Queen’s, but that doesn’t mean that an impressive catalog has not been left behind for us to enjoy.

Indeed, we’ve all heard about the big records in the middle, and so along with a reminder of who this band were in a general sense, our Q&A with Andy Scott is going to touch down upon some of the band’s roundly ignored later material, an exercise that hopefully gets across to Goldmine readers the opinion that Sweet could be as thoughtful and artistically daring as their most noted comparative, namely the aforementioned Queen.

GOLDMINE: To begin with, Andy, what could an aspiring 20-year-old rocker learn from what Sweet did?

ANDY SCOTT: We live in a very open world, I think, musically. Everything is available to anybody and that can’t be a bad thing. But what it does is it also gives you immense choice that probably wasn’t there when I was growing up 50, 60 years ago. So the inherent problem with that is that you now have so much, how can you ever listen to it all? And the way that the internet and certain sites are, they push things towards you because of your listening habits. So I mean, I love it when we played — well, we used to perform gigs — and teenagers, 18-year-olds, would come up and say, “Love it, love your band.” You’re just wondering, how did you come by us? And the answers and stories are just wide-ranging. I would say that the legacy that The Sweet have left behind is that we were one of the few bands that jumped across the genres and would not be put in a box. That’s the way I would like to think of us: You’ll get from us whatever you want to get from us, not what you’re told to get from us.

You can’t remember what you’ve learned and that’s why when you look back and you look at bands in their era, you wish that they stayed there, but you realize why they hadn’t, because they were progressing. And some progress in the right way and some don’t. With Sweet, it’s a twisty road. It’s not that obvious. I would have hoped that somebody who likes rock music, but also likes it to be accessible, you couldn’t have found a better band than Sweet. You had a sound that sounded like the heavier rock bands like Deep Purple and Zeppelin, but you had vocals that sounded like Crosby, Stills and Nash or The Hollies, you know, these four-part harmonies and some of them fairly complex.

I mean, the only other band that I can think of that came slightly after us was Queen, obviously. And I’m not saying that it’s completely true that we opened the door for them, but I think it’s a natural kind of progression. If you want to be a chart band but you’re also into rock, then you’re going to start following in that kind of area, doing harmony vocals on top of a backtrack that sounds like it should have been on Led Zeppelin I or Deep Purple In Rock, you know?

Andy Scott performs onstage at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London, December 14, 2016. Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns

Andy Scott performs onstage at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London, December 14, 2016. Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns

GM: You scored a bunch of hits early with these songs written by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. What were the magic ingredients of those early songs?

AS: If I knew that I might have written a few. I always find it difficult to comprehend why somebody, should we say, as talented as Mike could come up with “ho-chi-ka-ka-ho.” I understand that they were… well, somebody is writing all these things to order. They’d had a meeting with (producer) Phil Wainman and I remember Phil telling me, years later, he said, “I loved that record ‘Montego Bay.’” And he said, “Your band was the ideal outlet for me to try and record my ‘Montego Bay.’” And he said, “We almost achieved it with ‘Co-Co’ and ‘Poppa Joe.’” That Caribbean steel band sound. I mean, there were black players on those records. There was a bass player and the steel band and we just had some fantastic arrangements and players in the studios back then. I’m not saying that we couldn’t have done it ourselves, but Phil was definitely a taskmaster who in a three-hour session wanted backtracks for the A and the B-side done.

Look, pop singles back then were very, very finite; it was almost formulaic. I listen back to some of those singles from the late ’60s into the early ’70s, some of them, I’m not even sure whether there’s drums on there. It’s not like what happened a couple of years later where all of a sudden the drums are right in the front, especially with some of the disco songs that came out. But some of the songs from the late ’60s, the vocal is the all-important thing. And I think handclaps kind of carried the rhythm more than drums. And I mean, Phil Wainman was a very, very good and very clever record producer.

GM: And jumping way ahead, you had the golden period, the hard rock period, but then things changed again with 1978’s Level Headed. What got you excited about synthesizers and this sort of prog rock area?

AS: Well, they were extremely new in the early ’70s and me being the guitar player, and me being the one who’s more interested in sounds as it were, of course I’m going to be the one who is going to get his hands on synthesizers. I remember, years ago I spoke to Pete Townshend and he was going down the route of The Avatars, where each string of a guitar was set up to synthesize a different sound. It was very, very complicated and it depended on how hard you hit the string as to what you got and all that stuff. Whereas with me it was a bit more simplistic. I was more than happy when Roland rolls out this and refines that, and then Casio, because it meant that somebody had done all the homework for me. I was able to get to grips with the playing rather than the technology. I mean, I loved my ARPs and you can hear them all over the Sweet
records. But the main thing about all of that is when you’re in the studio and you get a sound, you’ve got to get the tape on the machine and get it recorded now, because it will not be there tomorrow. The sound won’t be there tomorrow no matter how much you think it will. I haven’t touched anything — it won’t be the same.

But it was natural where we were going to go, because once we’d had a couple of hits with “Fox on the Run” and “Action,” you know, the logical step after “Love Is Like Oxygen” is to be a band that is probably going to be more in the Genesis and Yes camp than in the glam rock area of the early ’70s.

GM: Tell us about your last couple of records from that original run of nine albums, Waters Edge in 1980 and then Identity Crisis from 1982.

AS: The band was kind of imploding by the time we got through Identity Crisis, hence the song ‘Identity Crisis.’ There were some good things on both. And you can hear that we are moving back towards Hammond organ and piano rather than synthesizers on both of those albums, because we realized that we were still fantastic live, that we had a great live band. And the last thing we wanted to become embroiled in forever is not being able to possibly reproduce. With Zeppelin, you know, you make a track like “Kashmir,” you want to be able to go onstage to re-create that, and somehow they did. So it’s the same with us — you want to start getting back to your roots.

The disappointment with Identity Crisis was we had management who needed to deliver an album to get the last tranche of money. And this is what it comes down to sometimes. I’m in the studio, I’m not ready to mix, but I’m told you must provide listenable mixes, just so that we can release the money. “You’ll have time to do a proper remix when the album is going to be released properly.” Well, that never happened. The things that I delivered are the ones that got released, and they don’t have all the final overdubs on them and are not the final mix. It’s what I would call… if you had demos like that, you’d be very pleased, you know? And that’s when I realized that I didn’t want a manager ever again, because I’d realize that I’ve had 10 years of lies. Why would I want another 10 years of lies? Plus, as I said, the band was imploding. Steve was moving to America, and we were never going to be the same again.

GM: “Discophony” from 1979’s Cut Above the Rest was a classic, and also, essentially, the last big hit.

AS: Yes, and as I said, I could see that as being where The Sweet were headed for the future. One thing that used to always make me laugh — and I knew that we’d hit a vein — was when Frank Zappa released “Dancin’ Fool” at the same time as we released “Discophony,” and the DJs in America used to start playing them back to back. The radio stations were still trying to promote rock. Remember, there was this rock versus disco thing going on towards the end of the ’70s in America. They hadn’t really had the punk thing. And “Dancin’ Fool” and “Discophony,” they sound like disco tracks, but they’ve got a message in them.

But I would travel to go and see Frank Zappa wherever we were in the world, if he was in, say, Germany and we had a day off; I would make sure that I could go and see one of his gigs. I was starting to move into a different area. I would go and see people like Jean-Luc Ponty and the Brecker Brothers and Return to Forever, the sort of jazz-rock crossover people. It’s difficult to kind of perceive now that that’s where my head was going, especially with a band like Sweet. But you can hear some of the influences in there.

Steve Priest performs with Sweet at Backyard Bash 2018 at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on September 2, 2018, in Los Angeles. Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Steve Priest performs with Sweet at Backyard Bash 2018 at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on September 2, 2018, in Los Angeles. Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

GM: And of course we’ve just lost Steve (Priest). How did he fit in all this?

AS: He was the best. You know, me, Mick and Steve were a bit of a force when I first joined, in that first half of the ’70s. It reminded me of The Who or Led Zeppelin, where you’ve got a bass player, a drummer and a guitar player who kind of knit together well. As time went on, Steve wasn’t enjoying it as much as Mick and I was. So by the time we started to tour in America, Steve wasn’t having the time that Mick and I were having. And some of that maybe shows up in the playing or the fact that you’re not that interested, that you’re quite happy for somebody to tell you what to play.

GM: Steve lived a full life, but more on the tragic end was (singer) Brian (Connolly), who essentially died of the drink, age 51. How was he in the beginning, and did that change over the course of the band’s career? [Note: Brian sings on the first six records, but is absent from the last three, where Sweet work as a trio, splitting the lead vocals among them.]

AS: When I first joined and I first met Brian, he was the obvious guy who did everything. He drove the van, he would go and have a meeting on a back stairs with an agent who would give us some gigs. He would be the guy fronting us and talking to people, doing any kind of interview. He was acting virtually like a manager. And I sometimes think back — he loved all that. He was full-on and he was brilliant at it, really good at it.

Now, could you imagine you’ve now had half a dozen hit records, and you’re no longer the person doing all of that because you can’t? You can’t be seen doing that because you’re the lead singer in a band called Sweet that was starting to tour all over the world. And no, you can’t go and have a pint with the agent and he’s going to give you, you know, the next month’s worth of work that we’ve got at whatever it is, 30 quid, 40 quid a gig. No, you’re now the lead singer. We’ll tell you when an interview is needed, we’ll tell you where you need to be, when we need to get on a plane.

When you get the other end, you’ve got two days to kill of doing nothing except maybe drink. And honestly, I’ve sat there and I’ve tried to work out what might’ve been the best way for Brian. And it probably wouldn’t have been, you know, having loads of hit records. It would have been Brian still being the go-getter, the troubleshooter, the guy dealing with the nuts and bolts.

For me, the music is my part in Sweet. And for Brian it was the organizational skills and the sociability, to be the guy who can talk things up. And I think once you take that away from somebody like that, the whole dynamic changes. Left to your own devices, as I said, you fly to America, you’re not doing anything for the first two days because you fly in, you might do a press conference, but you’re not really needed for at least 48 hours because the gear is going to be at the first rehearsal or gig or whatever. And in that first two days, maybe you sit in your room and you have a couple of bourbons and you quite like it and you carry on. I don’t know. That’s not what I did. I certainly wouldn’t want to make any kind of judgments or excuses for any of it, but it’s a sad story when you break it all down.

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