I used to be ‘Neil Young,’ but I love digital these days!
What a difference a year-and-a-bit can make. When we last encountered veteran glam-rockers Sweet on these pages in December 2019, they were in the midst of a UK tour and discussing the possibility of releasing their first album of new material after a lengthy gap. Then of course, the pestilence struck, all gigs were locked down and it became illegal for bands to meet in the same room to record. To rub salt into the wound, original band member Steve Priest, who had been running his own stateside touring version of the band, passed away during the Californian summer, leaving Wiltshire-based guitarist Andy Scott as the sole surviving member from their glorious heyday.
Nevertheless, the band have not been sitting on their hands all this time, and we caught up with Scott to talk about their new offering Isolation Boulevard, a re-recording of a ton of classic material performed by the current stellar line-up featuring long-time stalwart Bruce Bisland on drums, who has been with the band since original drummer Mick Tucker left in the 1990s, and newcomers Lee Small on bass and Paul Manzi at the front.
Apart from one song, the lead single Still Got The Rock, the rest of the set is a nostalgia-fest of vintage glam and rock numbers from across the band’s recording career, replayed and captured using modern technology. The album title is a pun on the band’s seminal 1975 set Desolation Boulevard, and it features a number of works therefrom. Changing Desolation to Isolation references the COVID-19 restrictions, which has made it a practical impossibility to get the band together. Sadly, this put a damper on Sweet’s plans to get some new material down, and this is where Scott takes up the story.
“We owed an album of new material to Sony, and still do. We have some, but because of lockdown, there was no chance of us all getting together. And with new material, I think you need the band there to kick it about, you know, to work it out. So we decided to go into the archives, back into the hard disks, and see what we’ve got digital-wise – backing tracks, and possible drum tracks.”
This is where 21st century technology comes in, coupled with the engineering skills of a bright youth from Somerset band Novatines, who served as Sweet’s support act on their most recent tour. The most challenging, fundamental step was to gain a decent, fully-charged set of recent drum tracks played by Bisland. “Really, that’s what we were looking for,” continues Scott, “because there was no chance of Bruce re-recording any drums. You know, I can hardly tell the difference between analogue and digital now. I used to be ‘Neil Young,’ but I love digital these days! So we sorted out the tracks that we were going to use, then we started to build from there. Even if we took a drum track from five years ago, and the arrangement is slightly changed, then with digital editing, and bit of stretching, you can make it work. And once we’d found which drum sound we liked the best from all of these tracks, it’s then just a matter of saying, that’s the sound that we want on all the kits on all the album tracks. And I think the drum sound is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. The young lad who did the engineering for me, he is a guitar player in a band that I’m producing called the Novatines. They’re really, really good, and he’s a little genius. And, well, you’ve heard the results, I mean, I think the results are pretty damn good.”
This means that the current band is now a recording entity with a body of work, so no one can say they don’t know what they’re getting. “For instance,” he elaborates, “we hardly had Paul’s voice on anything – now we have him on a lot of the hits, and on the new single Set Me Free. So if anyone ever asks, do you have anything by this band? Well, yes, we have this new album here. They are tracks that are in the set too, so it’s not as if we just picked tracks from the ether. They are songs that we still perform, so this album is very representative of what we do live.”
Although the band is officially a four-piece, like as not there will be five guys on stage, as multi-instrumentalist and Michael Schenker alumnus Steve Mann regularly occupies a slot. I’m keen to know where he stands in relation to the combo, so Scott fills in the blanks. “Well, he was in the band in the late ‘80s through into the ‘90s – then he took a job at Channel 4, so we had to find another guy. He’s been mainly in the studio and doing production for a number of years, but about, I think, eight years ago, Michael Schenker decided to go back on the road. And Schenker doesn’t really want to do it without Steve being there, because Steve understands everything! So when I knew that he was back out there, and we needed a keyboard player/guitarist for some festivals in 2019 before we did the British tour, I said, Why don’t you come along? See if you like it. He had just got back from Japan with Schenker, so he came along and loved it; then he came and did the British tour with us and the Winter’s End festival. We also had a couple of gigs in Denmark before it locked down, and we took the guy from Novatines who is my engineer. So I now have two guys who are potentially able to do the second guitar and keyboards but are not permanent members of the band; it suits them and it suits us.”
Having a keyboard-guitarist to fill out the sound has been part of the Sweet scenario for some time. A dig into the archives reveals that this slot was filled for a time by Paul Manzi, even though he is best known as a singer, having until recently fronted nouveau proggers Arena and retro pop-rockers Cats In Space.
“Yeah, he was our guy to go to go to, for a dep. He almost joined the band in 2005/6, when Pete Lincoln from Sailor actually joined, because Pete was still doing things with a couple of other projects, which he had to finish. So we had three different lineups in 2005; we had a lineup called the Crazy Gang, which had Phil Lanzon from Uriah Heep on keyboards, which was a brilliant setup. It was like a freeform version of Sweet because we were all flying off into tangents, you know, it wasn’t the crisp thing that it should have been. And when Pete joined, it all really came back together. The only reason Paul didn’t join is that Pete was a bit older and was kind of a better fit at that time. Since then, Paul’s done a fair bit of depping with us, and he’s been in Cats In Space. The track that I heard him singing was a track that was partly recorded in my studio, a song called Mr. Heartache, and I’m singing backing vocals and playing the guitar on that track.”
Mr. Heartache was written by the prolific duo of Mick Wilson, a current member of 10cc, and guitarist Greg Hart. The two would eventually collaborate to form the aforementioned Cats In Space, but for now they were touting this song amongst their friends and contacts in the industry, including Andy Scott. “There was no band when Mick and Greg brought it brought it to me; they just thought it might work for Sweet. I said, it’s a great song and I think it’s a hit, but I don’t see Sweet doing it. I think Mick Wilson was thinking, well, it might be a solo album or whatever.”
So they recorded it anyway, with Scott contributing some backing. “Next thing I knew, a few months, maybe a year later, Cats In Space has come out with an album and it’s great! It sounds fantastic, and Paul’s the lead singer! It was just brilliant to hear and see. And then after their third album, which I also did some stuff on, Paul came to me because he knew that Pete was doing another project, with Mick Wilson of all people, so he knew that we might be looking for somebody. I then approached Pete, because if you don’t talk about things, then they build up, don’t they? I’m very open and upfront, and I don’t want a Harry and Meghan situation! I said, I don’t even want to ask you to make a choice, because I think I know what my answer would be, so if I said to you, let’s make the European tour at the beginning of 2019 your last tour – we’ll introduce Paul will we’ll all go on tour together. And he said yeah, great idea. Paul became the singer after that and it was fantastic because I always felt that instead of having a singing bass player, to actually have a frontman again was going to change the dynamic and it has, and it’s been brilliant”.
The cross-pollination between Sweet and Cats In Space goes deeper still, as one of Sweet’s previous bass playing lead singers, Jeff Brown, now plays bass for the Cats and bolsters their extraordinary vocal barrage. The Cats’ guitarist, Greg Hart, has gone on record praising Scott’s use of double-tracked and multi-layered guitars that later became more closely associated with the harmony lead lines of Thin Lizzy or Iron Maiden, or the orchestral onslaught of Queen. For Scott though, it was a pragmatic policy. “I mean, look, I was given four or eight bars to do a little bit of something on those hit singles. If I wasn’t going to try and pull something out of the bag that was a bit more than just playing the melody of the chorus, then I’m an idiot you know; I have to get my little bits in. I remember talking to Richie Blackmore years ago and he said, ‘Look, I’ll borrow from anybody. If I hear another guitar player doing something that I’m not, I’ll have it soon, and I’ll be doing it my way, so you won’t recognise it.’ And I thought to myself, he’s got something there.”
At least we’re no longer with the Chinn and Chapman School of dancing!
Another good thing about re-recording classic numbers, from an interviewer’s point of view, is that you can discuss the band’s latest offering and their vintage output at the same time. For instance, it wasn’t until I started checking out the new album and tracing the hits back to their source, that I realised how many of those massive singles were actually non-album tracks. Block Buster, Hell Raiser, The Ballroom Blitz, Teenage Rampage – they all float in their own little bubbles, unattached to any LPs. Scott nods sagely and explains the circumstances back in the era when The Sweet (with a ‘The’ in those days), were beneficiaries of the songwriting skills of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. Halcyon days in some ways, but of course it’s a two-edged sword, and most serious musicians would choose to write their own material if they have the ability, rather than be at the mercy of their production company.
“When we released Sweet Fanny Adams, this was an album that we were given – ‘this is your album, do it.’ Chinn and Chapman were living in California at the time, and Mike had left demos of the songs AC-DC and No You Don’t for us, so we knew they were going to go on the album. We then wrote something like six songs ourselves, but that album did not have a single on it. We’d had Teenage Rampage, but in the old days, you released your singles, and then you made an album afterwards. So that album was produced by Phil Wainman; it’s gone into the charts, and it’s doing rather well, so Mike Chapman hightails it back from California saying, hang on a minute, I want to do the next album. And he had The Six Teens, that he’d written while he’s been in California, which is a fantastic song. So we knew we had a starting point, and I’d written these couple of odd-ball tracks, of which one was Fox On The Run. So we did Desolation Boulevard with Mike Chapman, which did have singles on it, The Six Teens and Turn It Down. We knew that the end was in sight though, because all of a sudden, you’ve now got Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman getting the swords out against Phil Wainman. But the record company phoned me up and said that they wanted us to go into the studio and redo Fox On The Run; get it from a five minute song down to three and a half minutes, and they thought it would potentially be a hit, slightly reworked. And they weren’t wrong; it was the biggest hit we ever had, and it’s the one we wrote and I produced. So I had to phone Phil and say, well we’ve got something in the can and I think this is the moment when we have to stand on our own two feet. He took it the right way, but I think Nicky and Mike got the arse! Steve Priest had a brilliant phrase with what they were becoming. He said, ‘Well, at least we’re no longer with the Chinn and Chapman School of dancing!’ Because I remember Nikki Chinn saying to us, ‘What about getting a little dance routine together to go with Teenage Rampage?’”
I have a sudden, disturbing mental image of The Sweet all coming down the front of the stage and doing The Shadows dance as the crowd sing along – happily, it’s not a scene that ever made it into real life. From their next album, 1975’s Give Us A Wink, the band were writing their own songs and doing their own production, basically in control of their own destiny. Although the barrage of chart hits dried up for a while, 1978 saw them back on top with the single Love Is Like Oxygen, which made the top 10 in the UK, the USA and all over Europe, and was nominated for an Ivor Novello award alongside all-time classics such as Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street.
Fast forward another 40 years, and time has taken its toll on the band’s original members. Singer Brian Connolly, the eldest of the classic line-up, was the first to shuffle off this mortal coil in 1997; drummer Mick Tucker succumbed to leukaemia in 2002. Flamboyant bassist Steve Priest passed away last year as previously mentioned, leaving Scott as last man standing. Nevertheless, he is still raising the pennant for Sweet and leading the charge with an optimistic swagger. “I think we will be gigging again by September maybe – the vaccine is the key; I want people to be safe. If one person falls ill from coming to a Sweet gig, I would feel terrible. We’ve got this festival that I’m involved with, Rock Against Cancer in Wiltshire, where we’ve had some very stellar acts come and play live; Brian May, Jeff Beck, 10cc, and this year we’ve got Billy Ocean, Steve Harley and Cockney rebel, 10cc are coming back, Sweet are playing and there are many more on the bill. That’s the 4th and 5th of September this year, rock against cancer. The website is Concert At The Kings, www.concertatthekings.co.uk. Really, really keeping our fingers crossed that that works. Even if it doesn’t, I’m pretty sure that by November or December, we’ll be doing that tour of the UK.” Long may they rock, and long may they roll.
November/December 2021 UK Tour with Special Guests Limehouse Lizzy, rescheduled from 2020. Tickets on Sale via www.thegigcartel.com