We’re now in 1973, one of the peak years for glam rock, and one of the biggest bands of the era were London quartet The Sweet, who combined a nascent metal sound with the sugary pop stylings of hitmakers Chapman and Chinn. After several dire, strange number 1s in the latter half of 1972, they get the year off to a brilliant start with their classic, Block Buster !.
The Sweet’s origins lie in 60s London soul band Wainwright’s Gentlemen. Originally formed as Unit 4 in 1962, the line-up changed several times, and included from 1964 to 1965, future Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan. Around the time Gillan joined, Mick Tucker from Ruislip became their drummer. In 1966, a Scotsman named Brian Connolly became their singer.
By January 1968 the band split, and Connolly and Tucker opted to form a new group. Hiring Steve Priest, a bass player from Hayes, Middlesex (who had previously worked with Joe Meek) and former Wainwright’s Gentlemen guitarist Frank Torpey, they called themselves The Sweetshop. They gained a following on the pub circuit and soon signed to Fontana Records, but upon hearing there was another band with the same name, they shortened theirs to The Sweet. Debut single Slow Motion was a failure, Fontana quickly washed their hands of the band, and so did Torpey. Mick Stewart, who had worked with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, took his place in 1969.
The Sweet signed with EMI’s Parlophone and released three further singles, which also failed, so Stewart left. Around this time the remaining trio were put in touch with songwriting duo Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. Australian Chapman was working as a waiter when he first met struggling songwriter Chinn in 1970. They were looking for an outlet for bubblegum pop songs they’d worked on, and with session musicians performing, The Sweet recorded vocals for a track called Funny Funny. They auditioned for a new guitarist, hiring Welsh-born Andy Scott, who had worked with The Scaffold. The classic line-up had arrived, and they signed with Chapman and Chinn to RCA Records.
Funny Funny became a hit, climbing to number 13 in 1971, quickly followed by Co-Co, which did even better, stalling at number two behind Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep that July. An LP was quickly cobbled together – the unimaginatively titled Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be, released that November.
1972 saw further hits for The Sweet, including the seedy but infectious Little Willy and follow-up Wig-Wam Bam, which was still a staple in family holiday resorts in the early- to-mid 80s. The latter was also the first single to feature the band playing their own actual instruments, and it’s no coincidence the sound was a little heavier as a result. With both these songs reaching number four, the top spot was within reach.
With those sirens blaring, backing vocals wailing and an incredibly catchy Bo Diddley-style riff, Block Buster ! remains one of the great glam number 1s. Of course, no coverage of this song would be complete without mentioning the similarity to David Bowie’s The Jean Genie, in the charts at the same time and just missing out on the 1972 Christmas number 1 spot. Both acts always maintained that this was nothing more than an incredible coincidence. Chinn later recalled meeting Bowie, who stared at him deadpan and called him a cunt, before bursting into laughter and embracing him.
So, which is best? It’s incredibly close to call. The Jean Genie‘s surreal lyrics are smarter and edgier – Block Buster !‘s wordplay revolves around the nefarious sex pest Buster, who, well, needs to be blocked, because he’ll ‘come from behind’ and steal your woman out from under your nose’, especially if she has long dark hair. Over the years, the wordplay has been largely forgotten and it’s more commonly known as Blockbuster now, and used on countless TV shows, adverts, films etc to put across, well, blockbusters!
Where Block Buster ! does win out though is in it’s polished production with effects to keep you interested, and special mention must go to the late Steve Priest, the recently deceased bassist, responsible for the camp interjection ‘We just haven’t got a clue what to do!’. I’ll never tire of that, in particular the footage of the band on the Christmas special of Top of the Pops, in which Priest is dressed as a Nazi, who looks to have his arse pinched by Scott. This caused many complaints at the time and would probably be even less popular now. I’m going to go with a preference for The Jean Genie though, just because, David Bowie.
The Sweet were one of the hottest acts of that year and into 1974, with Hell Raiser, The Ballroom Blitz and Teenage Rampage all reaching number two. The second of those in particular is another classic, and almost as good as their sole chart-topper.
By the time of Teenage Rampage, the band were calling themselves simply, Sweet. Change was in the air, as despite all they had done for them, the group were tiring of Chapman and Chinn’s control. They ditched the outlandish outfits and decided to record an album (mostly) without them, appropriately titled Sweet Fanny Adams, which showcased a harder sound. During the sessions, Connolly injured his throat in a fight, and apparently his voice was never the same again.
Next LP, Desolation Boulevard, followed six months later, and Sweet proved they could cope fine on their own with self-penned hit single Fox on the Run. They couldn’t maintain the success though, and despite moving on from glam, which was dying out by the mid-70s, their career suffered too, and The Lies In Your Eyes, the first single from self-produced 1976 album Give Us a Wink was their last chart action for two years.
By the time Sweet made their comeback, they had switched to Polydor and began experimenting with classical and the new disco style. Sounds potentially awful, yet Love Is Like Oxygen, released in January 1978, is actually pretty good. It would be their last hit. Connolly’s drinking was getting out of hand, and he became increasingly estranged from the rest of the band during support slots for Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band and Alice Cooper. By the time 1979 album Cut Above the Rest was released in 1979, he had quit.
A three-piece Sweet (get it?) soldiered on, with Priest taking the lion’s share of vocal duties. They made one last album, Identity Crisis, but it didn’t even get a UK release until 1982, the year after they had split.
The former bandmates spent much of the 80s forming their own new versions of Sweet and touring the nostalgia circuit. Connolly sparked fears for his health whenever he appeared publicly, and in 1997 he died of liver failure and repeated heart attacks, aged only 51. Mick Tucker died in 2002 of leukaemia, aged 54. Priest passed away in June 2020, aged 72, leaving only Scott from the classic line-up, who still tours with Andy Scott’s Sweet.
With their outrageous dress sense, raucous riffs and high camp, The Sweet certainly helped to liven up the early-70s, and it’s great to have had a classic to review once more. Chinnichap’ were to be responsible for plenty more chart-toppers.
Written by: Nicky Chinn & Mike Chapman
Producer: Phil Wainman
Weeks at number 1: 5 (27 January-2 March)
TV presenter Kate Thornton – 7 February
Presenter Sonia Deol – 8 February
Singer Peter Andre – 27 February
Cricketer Francis Romney – 28 January
Cricketer Harold Gibbons – 16 February
Novelist Elizabeth Bowen – 22 February
27 February: Civil servants and rail workers went on strike.
1 March: Prog-rockers Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon, which went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time.