For God's Sake,
Turn It Down!
Sweet, Action: The
Shout Factory! [4/28/09]
"Are you ready, Steve? Andy? Mick? All right, fellas, let's go!"
-- "Ballroom Blitz"
Between 1968-1973, my favorite songs were the Ohio Express's "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" and Sweet's "Little Willy." Though the latter was a real band, the former was a faceless assemblage of session musicians (I'm sure they had actual faces; they just didn't show them to the public). Granted, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman wrote Sweet's early material, but that makes them no less authentic to me. They weren't auteurs, but the British quartet made each song their own through ace musicianship and a certain indefinable joi de vivre. They always gave the impression they were playing at the world's grooviest party, and you wanted to be there. Fruity drink in hand.
The reason I liked them so much as a grade-schooler isn't just be-
cause of the sticky-sweet hooks, but because a lot of Chinnichap
lyrics sound like nursery rhymes. The faux-calypso "Poppa Joe,"
for instance, consists primarily of the lines, "Poppa rumbo rumbo"
and "Hey Poppa Joe coconut!" which says it all (island twin, "Co-
Co," features steel drums and the chorus, "Ho-chi-ka-ka-ho Co-
Co"). It's as if Harry Nilsson had constructed his entire car-
eer around "Coconut" instead of "Everybody's Talkin'."
(The) Sweet - "Little Willy"
Further, Sweet rocked hard in a glam-glitter style, yet they
shared little of David Bowie or Queen's artistic aspirations (the
press notes also cite ELO, Supertramp, 10CC, and Def Leppard).
Granted, I love '70s Bowie, but as the Ramones would prove,
a complete lack of pretension has its place. It is what it is: no
multi-syllable words, no high-brow references. Just fun.
But with experience, the fun took on some weight—some heft, if
you will—and it comes as little surprise to find that Shout Facto-
ry's excellent two-disc collection leans heavily on the 1974 com-
pilation Desolation Boulevard, a completely amazing album and
not just a smattering of singles surrounded by filler (it adds tracks
from the UK-only Sweet Fanny Adams). That's right, it's up there—
or should be—with Queen and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.
"Ballroom Blitz," in particular, fills me with joy like few other songs
(with the possible exception of "Fox on the Run," the set's other
showstopper). Andy Scott attacks his guitar as if he were Marc
Bolan biting into "Last Train to Clarksville," while Brian Connol-
ly's vocals are simply virtuosic. As for Mick Tucker's drumming,
my vocabulary is insufficient to do it justice. Even Scott's solo
at the end fails to wreck the flow (as Mick Collins might say).
Ironically, I spent more time listening to Sweet in elementary
school and after college than I did in high school, yet many of
their tunes revolve around the teen years. By the time I got to
that point, however, new wave and classic rock ruled the roost.
Queen weren't that much heavier—despite a more imposing
image—but they lacked Sweet's bubblegum/teenybopper bag-
gage. So, by the time I re-discovered the prefab foursome, I'd
spent years in the punk, post-punk, and alternative rock trench-
es, and they came on like a breath of fresh air and a nostalgia
trip at the same time, always a heady combination for me.
(The) Sweet - "Ballroom Blitz"
I feel the same way today, and my view of their discography also
remains unchanged: they peaked with Desolation, and everything
that came after seems anti-climactic. Consequently, the second
disc pales in comparison to the first, but it's still better than the
Shondell-free portion of the new Tommy James collection. After
scaling similar teenybopper heights with "Hanky Panky" and the
like, James made the mistake of growing up, but Sweet never
really did, so even their weakest tracks retain a youthful vigor
Plus, the second disc features "Love Is Like Oxygen," where they
leave their glam-rock roots behind for a foray into the prog-pop
of ELO and 10CC. Connolly, who always had a fine falsetto, aban-
dons any suggestion of masculinity, and gives in to his feminine
side. The single even incorporates a Ren Fair-meets-pastoral Led
Zep passage, a total 180 from the Sweet of old. Yet, it works. And
it was their last hurrah. In the years to come, the less sexually am-
biguous Cheap Trick would pick up where they left off, but no one
has ever been able to recapture Sweet's special alchemy circa
Desolation Boulevard, that unique mixture of experience and
innocence, aggression and sensitivity: all the agony and the
ecstasy of the teen years poured into one pretty package.
Endnote: Image from Wikipedia, words from Lyrics Download.