325. The Sweet – Block Buster ! (1973)

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)

Births:

TV presenter Kate Thornton – 7 February
Presenter Sonia Deol – 8 February
Singer Peter Andre – 27 February

Deaths:

Cricketer Francis Romney – 28 January
Cricketer Harold Gibbons – 16 February
Novelist Elizabeth Bowen – 22 February

Meanwhile…

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.

303. Diana Ross – I'm Still Waiting (1971)

How much power did Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn have in 1971? Quite a lot it seems, as it’s thanks to him that Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep topped the charts, and only a few months later he persuaded EMI (who distributed for Motown in the UK) to release this album track by the former Supremes singer as a single. It went on to become Diana Ross’s first solo number 1.

I covered The Supremes when I reviewed their 1964 number 1 Baby Love, but Ross’s life deserves a closer look. She was born in Detroit, Michigan on 26 March 1944. Her mother actually named her Diane, but a clerical error resulted in ‘Diana’ appearing on her birth certificate. She was billed as Diane Ross on early Supremes records. Growing up, Ross had Smokey Robinson and Aretha Frankin among her neighbours.

On the day she turned 14 in 1958, the Ross’s moved to the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. She had ambitions to be a fashion designer and took several classes, in addition to modelling and hairdressing for neighbours. A year later, she joined Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown in The Primettes, the sister group of The Primes.

Thanks to Robinson, The Primettes auditioned for Motown in 1960. Berry Gordy Jr recalled being blown away by Ross’s voice in his autobiography, but he felt they were too young. In these early years, Ross would be responsible for the group’s look, serving as hair stylist, costume design and make-up artist.

In 1961, with McGlown gone and Barbara Martin in, Gordy signed The Primettes on the condition they change their name. Ballard chose ‘The Supremes’, and Ross was worried it made them sound like a male group, but as we know, The Supremes they became, and from 1963 onwards, reduced to a trio without Martin, they became one of the most successful groups in history. They scored their sole UK number 1 with Baby Love, but had many more in the US.

From around 1966 and for the next few years Gordy began pushing for Ross to take centre stage. He had considered getting her to go solo, but deciding the timing was wrong he settled on renaming them Diana Ross & the Supremes instead. Ballard was fired and replaced with Cindy Birdsong, and Ross would often be the only Supreme to actually feature on recordings, backed by session singers like The Andantes. The pressure resulted in Ross developing anorexia, and she collapsed on stage during a 1967 performance, and had to be hospitalised for exhaustion.

Nevertheless, Gordy continued to shine the spotlight on Ross, having her perform solo in 1968 TV specials by The Supremes. The following year he decided the time was right, and it was announced she was leaving the group. Someday We’ll Be Together became Ross’s swansong, and the single was the final US number 1 of the 60s. She made her final appearance as a Supreme in January 1970.

It was only four months later that her eponymous debut solo LP was released, and it featured her cover of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (originally recorded by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell), which climbed to number six in the UK and was number 1 in the US.

November 1970 saw the rush-release of her second album, Everything Is Everything. Deke Richards was commissioned to make the LP more pop than her debut, and it featured two Beatles covers (Come Together and The Long and Winding Road), as well as a sad ballad by Richards himself – I’m Still Waiting. No singles were released from it, initially, with Motown choosing to mine her next album, Surrender, released in the summer of 1971. Unusually, both Remember Me and the title track performed better on these shores than America, both reaching the top 10.

Blackburn, then in charge of the Radio 1 breakfast show, was a huge fan of Ross, and he loved I’m Still Waiting. He promised Motown/EMI that if it was made a single, he would make it his ‘Record of the Week’ and play it every morning for five days. Both sides kept their end of the arrangement, and the hype saw it reach number 1. It was Motown’s biggest-selling single in the UK until Three Times a Lady by the Commodores in 1978.

I’m baffled as to why this is the case. For me, I’m Still Waiting should have remained an album track. It’s dated, melodramatic and rather unmemorable.

Ross sings from the point of view of a woman who met the love of her life when she was five and he was 10. He would tease her, as boys do, but she loved him. Then he had to move away, and told her not to wait for him, but for love. But Ross couldn’t forget him, and nobody else compares.

Nice sentiment, but it could have been so much better. It has a slick production, but the tune is certainly not up there with the classics of The Supremes. Ross isn’t known for displaying too much emotion in her singing, which is probably a good thing in such a sentimental song, but I find it hard to believe in the performance. I much prefer her next number 1, Chain Reaction, which came 15 years later in 1986.

Written & produced by: Deke Richards

Weeks at number 1: 4 (21 August-17 September)

Births:

Actress Gaynor Faye – 26 August
Business executive Nicola Mendelsohn – 29 August
TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp – 31 August
Conservative MP Daniel Hannan – 1 September
TV presenter Lisa Snowdon – 2 September
Actress Louise Lombard – 13 September
Fashion designer Stella McCartney – 13 September
Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda – 17 September

Deaths:

Travel writer Peter Fleming – 30 August

Meanwhile…

1 September: The end of an era, as the pre-decimal penny and three-pence ceased to be legal tender.

3 September: Qatar became independent from the UK.

7 September: Three years after the beginnings of The Troubles, the death toll reached 100 with the death of 14-year-old Annette McGavigan, who was fatally wounded by a gunshot in crossfire between British soldiers and the IRA. There would be many more deaths still to come.

9 September: British Ambassador Geoffrey Jackson was freed after being held captive for eight months by extreme left-wing guerrillas Tupamaros in Uruguay.

301. Middle of the Road – Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep (1971)

You can be the greatest lyricist in the world but unfortunately, the bottom line is, millions of people don’t care about words in pop songs. To them, if the tune is good, they’ll sing anything. And if you want proof, listen to Middle of the Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. An upbeat song about either a baby bird or infant boy called Don being abandoned with a gibberish chorus, but an incredibly infectious one. Five weeks at number 1 in the summer of 1971 and fondly remembered even now.

Chirpy Chirpy, Cheep Cheep had been written and originally recorded by Lancashire singer Lally Stott in 1970. It reached the top 15 in France and was a minor hit in the US. His record company Philips was reluctant to release his version worldwide, and instead it was offered to brother-and-sister duo Mac and Katie Kissoon from Trinidad, who released their quicker-paced version first, and Scottish folk-pop quartet Middle of the Road, based in Italy.

Middle of the Road consisted of lead singer Sally Carr, drummer Ken Andrew, guitarist Ian McCredie and his brother Eric on bass. They had first worked together as Part Four in 1967 and then became the Latin American-style group Los Caracas. They won a series of ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks, but failed to gain momentum afterwards and decided to find fame in Italy instead. Opportunity knocked once more when they met producer Giacomo Tosti and recorded Stott’s tune.

Middle of the Road’s debut single did well in Europe, but flopped in the US and nearly did the same in the UK, coming so soon after the Kissoon’s version, which had flopped here. However, Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn took a shine to Middle of the Road’s recording, and it became a summer anthem.

The incredibly catchy drumbeat that opens the song means this is already a step up from Knock Three Times, and the chanting is certainly attention-grabbing… but what the hell was Stott actually on about? Sadly, he died many years ago so we’ll never know. The song’s title obviously suggests it’s a bird that’s been abandoned, but then there’s the lyric ‘Little baby Don’, which implies a boy without any parents. Which is really messed up, when you consider the answer to such a terrible event is ‘Ooh wee, chirpy chirpy cheep cheep’. Some people online seem to think the song is about the Vietnam War… this seems a bit of a stretch.

Of the three versions of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, Middle of the Road’s is the worst, and that’s down to the vocals, which are really grating. I could forgive the weirdness of it all but Carr’s strange style is just too much to bear for me, especially combined with the way the backing vocals chirrup the song’s title. The Kissoon version is nicer, but a bit too lightweight, so if I had to pick one, it’d be Stott’s original. As the song fades out and Carr is really getting into it, telling everyone to join in, I just feel confused and queasy with it all. But as I’ve said before, what do I know?! Children in particular love this song, (and I confess I remember enjoying it in my schooldays), and Middle of the Road’s version has more youthful energy than the rest.

The group’s hits continued for the rest of 1971, with follow-up Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum climbing to number two and Soley Soley reaching number five. Going off the titles alone, I’d put money on these being more of the same, nonsensical but catchy novelty songs that went down a storm around Europe. 1972 saw their fortunes fade and Samson and Delilah/Talk of All the USA was their last top 30 entry in the UK, but they continued to do well elsewhere for a few years, particularly in Germany.

In 1974, early Bay City Rollers member Neil Henderson had joined the band on guitar, but Middle of the Road split in 1976. What chance did a band with such a name stand in the punk years ahead?

They have reformed with different line-ups since then for the nostalgia circuit, but Eric McCredie died in his sleep in 2007, aged 62. His brother is the only original band member still in the line-up.

Written by: Lally Stott

Producer: Giacomo Tosti

Weeks at number 1: 5 (19 June-23 July)

Births:

Conservative MP Brandon Lewis – 20 June
Rugby player Gary Connolly – 22 June
Northern Irish footballer Neil Lennon – 25 June
Football referee Howard Webb – 14 July

Deaths:

Scottish Nobel Prize physician John Boyd Orr – 25 June
Nobel Prize physicist William Lawrence Bragg – 1 July

Meanwhile…

21 June: Britain began new negotiations for EEC membership in Luxembourg.

24 June: The EEC finally agreed terms for Britain’s proposed membership. It was hoped that the nation would join the EEC next year. Ah, heady days…

1 July: The film Sunday Bloody Sunday is released, becoming one of the first mainstream British films with a bisexual theme.

6 July: Police launched a murder investigation when three French tourists were found shot dead in Cheshire.

8 July: Two rioters were shot dead by British troops in Derry, Northern Ireland.

13 July: Michael Bassett, 24, from Barlaston was found dead in his fume-filled car. Police identified him as their prime suspect in the triple French tourist murder case in Cheshire.

23 July: The final section of the London Underground’s Victoria line, from Victoria to Brixton, was opened by Princess Alexandra.