Sweet. Or ‘The Sweet’ if you prefer. To anyone who was fortunate enough to be growing up in the ‘70s, just the mention of the name evokes such a groundswell of nostalgia as to be almost palpable. Mental images of the band on Top Of The Pops, all glam and glitter, platform boots and Steve Priest mugging to the camera with ‘We just haven’t got a clue what to do’ in the massive hit Block Buster (yes, it is two words!) immediately spring to mind. Those of a more ‘rock’ listening bent at the time, however, will have been well aware that there was a far more serious side to Sweet as, after they managed to extricate themselves from the grip of the Chinn/Chapman hit producing songwriting team (sort of a Stock Aitken Waterman for the ‘70s, they wrote the majority of the familiar hits by Suzi Quatro and Smokie as well), they began showing their true colours as a first-rate hard rock band in the mould of Deep Purple or Uriah Heep.
What people might not know is that, under the leadership of guitarist Andy Scott, Sweet are still active today and, with a brand new line-up having just recently coalesced around him, Andy is champing at the bit with enthusiasm to get out and play as much as possible to show just how good this modern day Sweet can be. It may be a long time ago, but post – ChinniChap (as they were known) singles such as Fox On The Run, The Lies In Your Eyes and Action remain potent slabs of heavy rock attach with a dazzling commercial sheen, and albums like Desolation Boulevard and Give Us A Wink are chock full of ‘deep cuts’ that the pop audience never heard.
On vocals with the new line-up is Arena frontman Paul Manzi, which is a big draw for the prog fans out there for sure, and completing the roll-call are drummer Bruce Bisland and newcomer Lee Small on bass, while Steve Mann, one of the band’s many previous members, will be providing keyboards at least for the current UK tour dates. To say this year has been an upheaval would be to severely understate the facts – Sweet have had a labyrinthine ‘Family Jungle’ of members since Andy reformed the band with Muck Tucker in the ‘80s, but this year they have seen the departure of Pete Lincoln and Tony O’Hora, effectively relieving them of bass, keyboards, vocals and second guitar in one fell swoop. Ouch!
I spoke to Andy about the band’s plans and multi-faceted history, and began, naturally with this year’s seismic shifts. ‘Let me tell you, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, having two prominent members leave like that. First of all Pete left to pursue another project, which is really good, but it did leave us with an issue. Paul Manzi took over lead vocals but even that wasn’t ideal as he couldn’t come in as like for like and play bass as well, so we got Tony to take over the bass duties and get Paul to play guitar and do a bit of keyboards, but even that wasn’t ideal. Luckily, Bruce has been my right hand man for about 27 years now, so we had a bedrock at least. Then, three months later, Tony himself left rather suddenly after there was a bit of a blow-up, and we were really up against it with some gigs to do. My guitar tech stepped in for the shows and we got Steve Mann back in, and Paul just being able to concentrate on the singing was a revelation, and the gigs were a breath of fresh air to Bruce and myself. I got Lee Small in, which I’d wanted to do ever since I first met him about ten years ago, when he was with Mud doing some shows with us, and he has been the perfect final piece. It’s ended up being the best thing that could have happened to us in a funny way. We did one of those cruise things with an Australian band you might remember called the Angels, absolutely killer band by the way, and they came up to us after we played and said how much better it was than the last time they saw us play a few years back. In September Bruce and I had our heads in our hands – we were even joking that the two of us could go out like the White Stripes as a duo – but now it’s just so exciting, it’s like a new beginning’.
With all of this positivity, I wonder whether there might even be some new recordings, with maybe the first new Sweet album since 1982, and the answer is encouraging. ‘Oh, there will be. Especially now because I have Sony on my back wanting it as well, which is great. Since we had the success we’ve had with the reissues and especially the Action: The Ultimate Story collection, they’ve seen that there is still a demand out there, and of course we did the two new songs Defender and Still Got The Rock on that set. Before Pete left I was looking forward to doing some more recordings then, and I was disappointed that we didn’t do it at the time. When he left and Tony took over as frontman again I wasn’t so convinced, but now by Tony leaving our hand has been forced and we’re in a position to do it again, so I’m really looking forward to that’.
In the UK at least it’s as if there was a still photo taken in 1973 or 1974, and that to most people is what Sweet were and always will be
Going back to the heady days of the ‘70s, I have to mention the frustrating difficulty at the time of getting people to look beyond the earlier pop singles and accept Sweet as the excellent hard rock band they were, and Andy is refreshingly honest. ‘Yes, you’re right of course, we did find it difficult, especially in the UK, I mean, oven in Belgium and Germany and places like that in mainland Europe we did get taken a bit more seriously, and when we eventually went to the US we were like a new British hard rock band really, without any baggage. But it was difficult at home, though I suppose in a way you can understand it because of the way we dressed it up and everything. You could even draw a line from us to the hair metal bands that arrived in the ‘80s, Motley Crue and all those bands. But I’ve actually been listening to that old material in order to glean some stuff that we might want to incorporate into the live show for next year, and there are some things there which I’m so excited to try with this new line-up, tracks like Windy City perhaps, or Yesterdays Rain from Give Us A Wink. There’s so much potential to bring those songs to people’s attention again and do them really well’.
One of the events which has been quoted as having hampered the Sweet, certainly in the UK, was an incident when singer Brian Connolly was attacked outside a pub in Surrey and sustained injuries to his throat. He had to take a while out while his voice recovered (many maintain it was never quite the same again), and the band lost valuable momentum with a UK tour and a prestigious gig supporting The Who at Charlton Athletic Football Ground were cancelled. The story was hushed up at the time, with the cancellations attributed to a throat infection, and to this day it is widely assumed that Connolly’s downward spiral, loss of confidence and alcoholism began with the incident. Andy, however, offers a fascinating personal take on the event. ‘Well, I wouldn’t read everything into that incident’, he replies. ‘You see, Brian was having his problems already, going as far back as that time, and I still believe he was stupid going out when he did, it was looking for trouble. He ended up on the ground getting a kicking, and one of those kicks got him in the throat, there was a bruise there, and of course he then had to rest his voice. It was so frustrating as we were just about to go into rehearsals for the UK tour, and even now I still wonder whether even at that time Brian was starting to have self-doubts, a moment of ‘can I really do this’, you know? After it happened, of course he had to rest his voice and the UK tour had to be cancelled, but I was of the mind that we could perhaps have still done the Charlton show with The Who, because that was at the end. Brian might have been ready, and I was so desperate to do that show I even suggested that we could do it as a three piece. It was pointed out to us that we would in all likelihood be crucified by people saying we would play when it was a big show after cancelling the tour, and I could see their point, but I still think Sod It, we should have done it if at all possible. But Brian, if he was having some confidence issues, would obviously have been easy to talk out of it. I still think about a few years later when someone pulled out of the Reading Festival and Slade stepped in – they ended up destroying the place, and it launched a new phase in their career overnight. But it wasn’t to be’.
Going out without Brian was criticised, but carrying on with him would have been terrible musically
The biggest thing which Sweet had going for them at that time was, arguably, their consistent ability to create singles which were simultaneously great rock songs in their own right, but also had just the right amount of commercial appeal to propel them up the charts. A few bands had that ‘golden touch’ as well (Thin Lizzy, Status Quo, Slade, later on perhaps Iron Maiden), but not too many. Rainbow for example were derided for sacrificing their integrity when they made a play for the charts, and the likes of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath were relatively infrequent chart botherers. ‘Yes, I think that’s a valid point’, agrees Andy, ‘but the strange thing is that I couldn’t regard any of it as competition at the time because I knew all of those other bands and we had a good time together. We all got on, us, Thin Lizzy, Status Quo, all of them, and it was such a great time. Queen as well, who were just a massive wake up call for me. I say for me, because I’ll tell you something, Brian regarded them as the most heinous thing ever to come into existence! For him it was a case of here are this band ripping off everything we’ve done and all of that I said to him one day ‘Brian, don’t you think that every band from time immemorial has taken things from others before them and either improved on it, or taken it down their own route? Think of the bands we were listening to, Vanilla Fudge, Three Dog Night, Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, the harmonies that the Beach Boys were doing. We took all of those and moulded them into what we were doing. Along with a damn good smattering of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin’. But he wouldn’t have it. I told him you can’t just go around saying things like that, but of course he did, to the press, and they really picked up on it’.
Of course, when Brian left at the end of the decade the band recorded three more albums without him – to which Andy interjects be saying ‘I wanted to call the first one ‘Devil And The Deep Blue Sea’, because it was a situation we couldn’t win. Going out without Brian was criticised, but carrying on with him would have been terrible musically’. Even today it is obvious how many people scoff at the idea of Sweet without Brian, whereas nobody bats an eyelid at Uriah Heep without David Byron or other such examples, and it seems to be that people have this fixed image of Sweet as they saw them on Top Of The Pops. ‘That’s exactly it, you’re completely right. In the UK at least it’s as if there was a still photo taken in 1973 or 1974, and that to most people is what Sweet were and always will be, whereas other bands don’t have that perpetual ‘glam’ thing attached’. I point out that it’s something that probably wasn’t helped when the band did a couple of those ‘70s ‘package tours’ with names like ‘70s Glitz And Hitz’ and the like, with some questionable acts on the bill. Andy agrees with this, albeit with a caveat: ‘Yes, you do have a good point with that. I remember the first time we were offered one of those, and all the guys were really keen to do it, as it would get us doing a tour of decent sized theatre audiences, and there was a good side when we ended up as headliners because a poll of the theatres and we were voted the most popular – it’s a case of as long as you play well enough – which we did – it can be worth it. I mean, of course we don’t ideally want to appear with bands like Showaddywaddy, because it’s a bad fit, but if you do well enough it can work, and of course there’s the fact that ad it not been for one of those tours we would never have met Pete Lincoln, and who knows whether we’d be here now. We did one with Slade which was really good, that was a great bill. But I know exactly what you mean, and I feel just as uncomfortable about it. I have to say, hand on heart, if we were offered one of those now I can’t say a hundred per cent that I would say no, but we wouldn’t get offered it anyway as we are doing our own shows too regularly at the moment’.
It doesn’t seem to have the same importance now, but people may remember that in the ‘70s, at the time of the Desolation Boulevard album, after marking their territory with Sweet Fanny Adams and with the band starting to take more control of their affairs, the name was changed as credited on records and such from ‘The Sweet’ to just ‘Sweet’, to underline their development, as the definite article seemed to indicate a more ‘pop’ band, and Andy does remember that as being the case. ‘Yes, I think we were noticing that bands were starting to become more common without ‘The’, things like Slade, Supertramp, that sort of thing, and we did change it. At the time, putting ‘The’ in front conjured up things like 1960s pop bands, I suppose, so it was all about being contemporary and serious. Today it’s officially just Sweet, but to be honest it’s not really of any consequence whether people refer to us as The Sweet or not, I think it’s one of those names which just lends itself to it. Like the band we have supporting us, Novatines. Everybody calls them ‘The Novatines’ without thinking. Thankfully we aren’t in the situation of having to be ‘Andy Scott’s Sweet’ any more – that came about when Brian started doing some shows and audiences complained when some cheeky promoters billed it as Sweet, so they had to be ‘BC Sweet’ and all of that, just so people won’t be misled. Nowadays I’m on reasonable terms with Steve (Priest) as well, we email each other asking how we are, that sort of thing. I’m not sure whether he still has his Sweet thing going in America – I know he’s had trouble with his knees, or his hips, and he often plays sitting down, which is a shame. I want him to do all right, you know.’
I’m still amazed that these people show up. I think the day I cease to have that feeling and start to take it for granted is the day I’ll hang it all up
One track which ended up being a defining one for the band’s heavy rock audience was Burning/Someone Else Will, which was immortalised on the Strung Up live disc with its controversial chorus line of ‘If we don’t f**k you then someone else will!’ – but that particular track evolved from a B-side from the Hellraiser single simply entitled Burning, as Andy explains. ‘I’ll tell you the story about that one. It all came from a time when Brian really didn’t put in his ten-pennorth in the studio. At the time when we did our own B-Sides he didn’t do much apart from sing, and me and Steve put together a lot of the riffs and lyrics and melodies and all of that, with Mick giving it the rhythm. Anyhow, we were coming to do Burning for the Hellraiser single, and we told Brian that it was his turn now, and he had to do some lyrics and melody. So the three of us duly went in and recorded the backing track and said ‘okay, we’re off to the pub now’, to which Phil (Wainman, producer) said ‘are you sure?’, to which we replied ‘yeah, Brian has got this covered’ and off we went. And of course, he hadn’t got anything prepared, and Phil was livid! He ended up putting all sorts of things on to fill the gaps – the speaking clock is in there at one point! But, as you rightly say, the riff and the high harmony ‘Aah-aah’ bit were really good, and it became a sort of cult B-Side which had turned into something much better than it actually was, if you see what I mean. So we wanted to play it live, and we had to find another song to go together with it, and to give Brian his due, this time he really came up with the goods on Someone Else Will – and they went together perfectly as the one song. Although the record company had a big problem with that chorus, and of course the BBC were never, ever going to play it. I can’t wait to get that back into the set when we get chance to rehearse new material. Next time, hopefully!’ It must be remembered that Someone Else Will in its original recording before the ‘mash-up’ wasn’t exactly clean, with its tale of groupies with the line ‘If you don’t go down on me someone else will’, but for sheer ‘shock value’ that combined version can’t be beaten!
Finally, I feel I have to bring up the subject of the early pop hits being played, and the answer is interesting: ‘You never know actually. When we did the big metal festival in Wacken we did a medley of Wig Wam Bam and Little Willy, and you’ve never seen anything like these hardcore metalhead bikers going absolutely nuts! What we do when we play those songs is we slow them down, but a heavy bass beat to them and basically play them in a much heavier way, more like the way we would have done them originally left to ourselves. So we’ll have to see, I’m still working some things out. All in all, I’m just overjoyed to have a band so into it and so good that I can’t wait to get on stage. Paul Manzi says that to him, the privilege of playing those songs, and that legacy, to an audience which is still so excited to hear it is enough reward for him. For me, well, we play to maybe a couple of thousand people in Germany and perhaps 750 to a thousand in the UK, and I’m still amazed that these people show up. I think the day I cease to have that feeling and start to take it for granted is the day I’ll hang it all up. But hopefully not for a while yet.’
And there doesn’t seem a better way to close things than that. It sounds as if Sweet are back, at their hard rocking best, and I for one can’t wait to see the result. Go and grab a piece of the ‘Action’ – you’ve got Sweet Fanny Adams to lose!