The genre we call Classic Rock has earned its name by virtue of two main characteristics, namely, its quality and its age. With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back over the decades and focus on recordings that seemed to capture the zeitgeist and epitomise the music of their time. Often it seems that, if only those songs could be re-recorded and captured on modern equipment, we could relive the glory days of rock with the benefit of up-to-date recording techniques, and in fact many veteran bands are doing this now. In most cases, the band line-up has changed, and in all cases, the members will have aged. One thing they all have in common though, is the juxtaposition of bleary-eyed nostalgia with the sheer joy of hearing the stuff recorded and produced with pin-sharp clarity – and Sweet’s newest offering Isolation Boulevard is one such, offered as a digital download and as limited-edition vinyl.
It has been 40 years since the original Sweet broke up, with the various members taking up various projects with varying levels of success. Original members Brian Connolly, Andy Scott and Steve Priest all flew the flag with their own versions of the band, Scott’s version also including drummer Mick Tucker. Sadly, three of the four members of the classic lineup have gone to meet their maker, with bassist Steve Priest being the most recent casualty, succumbing during 2020, leaving septuagenarian guitarist Andy Scott to carry the pennant alone. Scott and long-serving drummer Bruce Bisland, who has been with the band since the 1980s, have now recruited Lee Small on bass, last seen with fellow glam-rockers Mud, and front man extraordinaire Paul Manzi, long-time vocalist for prog band Arena and, more recently, retro-rockers Cats In Space.
The new line-up have not elected to re-record a single classic album, but have taken the best of their back catalogue from across the decades and re-recorded twelve songs that do justice to their huge chart success and astounding influence on any number of modern rock bands – massive, familiar hits are presented alongside lesser known album tracks, all of which feature in their current or recent live sets. The name Isolation Boulevard is itself a reference to their high watermark album Desolation Boulevard in 1974.
Wisely, they choose to start with their most commercially-successful single, Fox On The Run from 1974, the song that effectively marked their migration from the Chinn/Chapman school of pop into their own identity. It’s a great version too, benefitting from pin-sharp modern production techniques and up-to-date instrumentation. But to be honest, the main talking point of this intro to the new band is not how much better it is, but really, how much the same it is. They clearly haven’t made any attempt to heavy it up or rearrange it for a new generation; it’s simply the case that if you liked the original then you’ll like this, because the copy is as faithful as it can be, given the change of personnel.
The same can’t quite be said of track 2 Still Got The Rock, being a new song, the only number on the album not to be culled from their back catalogue. It is also the lead single from the album, whetting the appetite for the new material the band have already promised, and perhaps would be with us already were it not for the Covid lockdown putting a crimp in their plans. Then we are back on familiar territory with (Piece Of The) Action from 1976’s Give Us A Wink, and Love Is Like Oxygen, which many may recall as a comeback single of sorts in 1978. The song was not as overtly rock-heavy as some of their earlier hits, but the production on this version is superb, with stereo-panned keyboard backing on the quiet bits, trumpeting Final Countdown-style keyboards (courtesy of guest artist Steve Mann), absolutely gorgeous drum tones and multiple, varied guitar sounds. The backing vocals are superb too, with tweeter-frying high notes juxtaposed against baritone spoken word sections.
Then we’re into the seriously nostalgic stuff, with Hell Raiser, The Six Teens and Block Buster recalling the glory years of their glam-rock heyday. Again, these are faithful reproductions, which surely goes to underline just how great the songs were in the first place. Now I find myself having to make a confession. I remember the hits well enough, and even the ones that didn’t make a massive impression on my youthful psyche in the ‘70s are familiar from any number of TV retreads and vintage pop compilations. But never having been an owner of any Sweet albums back in the day, I find myself sadly and inexcusably unfamiliar with the next number, Set Me Free. Originally the opener to Sweet Fanny Adams, their other 1974 album, it’s a full on hard-rocking juggernaut which could have come straight from the Ian Gillan Deep Purple songbook, notably Flight Of The Rat, Fireball or Speed King. It rocks like the blazes, and although it was not released as a single at the time, this version marks the second single from the current album. Another highlight for sure! This is followed by the catchy Teenage Rampage, another non-album classic single. Turn It Down may not be as familiar to veteran listeners; it was released as a single in 1974 but was banned by the BBC for its use of mildly expletive language. The Russ Ballard-penned New York Groove is another less-familiar number, taken from their 2012 album New York Connection, and interpolating a couple of sections from Empire State Of Mind, made famous by rapper Jay-Z, his rendition including soaring chorus vocals from Alicia Keys. The addition of a bit of extra reverb on these phrases serves to set them apart from the rest of the song, underlining the partial cover.
So there’s only one major classic still unmentioned, and wisely they choose to finish with the unstoppable Ballroom Blitz. Fans may remember original singer Brian Connolly starting with the words, “Are you ready Steve? Andy? Mick?” name-checking the original members of the band. Paul Manzi does the same with this version, the band electing to retain the original names as a tribute to their fallen comrades. Andy Scott covers the manic vocal sections originally voiced by Steve Priest, but again, this is a faithful cover – they could have elected to rock out on a heavy metal monster of a piece, but fans of the original single will not find this one substantially different. It’s another highlight to be sure, to close the 46-minute album in fine style.
Greybeards such as myself generally remember Sweet (or THE Sweet as they were known in the 1970s) as a pop band, characterised along with Slade and T-Rex as front-runners of the glam rock movement. Some more clued-up veterans delved a little deeper and found that they were actually top-ranking rockers under the skin, often touting self-penned hard-rocking numbers as the B-sides to their chart-friendly 45s. OK, so I’m a bit behind the curve – but I’m converted at last!
November/December 2021 UK Tour with Special Guests Limehouse Lizzy, rescheduled from 2020. Tickets on Sale via www.thegigcartel.com