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The True Story Of The Sweet
By Dave Thompson
Cherry Red BooksCopyright © 2010 Dave Thompson
All rights reserved.
THE SWEET WERE ALREADY off and running when glam rock hit. Five hit singles since the spring of 1971 had established them as one of the key chart acts of the age. Indeed, in the same week that Marc Bolan and T. Rex's 'Metal Guru' left the Top 5, and Slade's 'Take Me Bak 'Ome' went to Number 1; Glitter's 'Rock'n'Roll' hit Number 2 and Bowie's 'Starman' made its Top 50 debut, the fifth in that sequence, the playground innuendo of 'Little Willy', was sitting pretty at its own chart peak of Number 4.
Elsewhere in the Top 10, Don McLean, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Donny Osmond, Paul McCartney and the Drifters clung on with increasingly irrelevant tenacity. All were destined to maintain their own success throughout the years to come, but simply glancing at their faces on the Top Of The Pops chart countdown it was clear that they had next-to-nothing to do with what was really happening, either at the top of the charts or the top of the high street.
The odd thing was, neither did the Sweet. Not that week. Turning out on Top Of The Pops, they were a blaze of colour, but so was every band at the time. Colour television itself was still something of a novelty; just two years earlier, Top Of The Pops itself was still being broadcast in monochrome, and a lot of groups were still coming to terms with that shift, appreciating the importance of imagery but uncertain as to what it actually meant. So they looked to the rainbow for inspiration and, when you watch some of those early Top Of The Pops recordings today, you can burn your eyes out on the performances.
So the Sweet were bright and kind of beautiful, then, but all that had really happened since the last time they were on the show was that singer Brian Connolly and guitarist Andy Scott had split a canary yellow suit between them (although Connolly's tank-top remained regulation Woolworth's). And, if Steve Priest's sleeves were wider than they needed to be, the studio audience was scarcely more restrained in the fashion department. They had no illusions about looking good, though, or appearing cool or even trendy. So far as the Sweet were concerned, they were simply playing dress-up – and the more absurd they looked, the better.
That motivation came home hard as they got ready to take the stage. A recently reborn one-hit wonder named David Bowie was appearing on the same broadcast, all carroty hair and custom-crafted costuming and, hanging out backstage while the make-up girls made the final adjustments to the Sweet's appearance, was growing ever more indignant as the Sweet's stage wear came to life. The clothes, the hair, the make-up – especially the make-up.
Sweet drummer Mick Tucker recalled, 'Bowie kept on saying, "No, no, no – the eyes aren't right," and we all thought, 'What a strange young man, taking it so seriously.' But then, perhaps, for Bowie, it was just the excuse he needed to wear make-up in public. As far as Sweet were concerned, it was all a piss-take. We just wanted to look like four old tarts, but nobody ever sussed that out – not even the chicks in the audience.'
And he was calling Bowie the strange one?
Tucker continued. 'Four dissipated old whores mincing about on Top Of The Pops and being as flash as arseholes. Everybody thought we were a bunch of poofs, and that Brian and I were bum chums. Even the birds thought we were a bit sexually suspect.' And it was that assumption, Tucker and his bandmates realised, that was going to raise them out of the pop swamp and into glam rock. The next time the Sweet were seen on the scene they had undergone the most extreme makeover of all.
The Sweet were scarcely a new band, even when they scored their first hit. Under their own name, the group were veterans of more than three years of underachievement; before that, the four members had been in and out of a stream of underachieving acts, of whom even the best-known were remembered either for the presence of another newborn superstar – vocalist Brian Connolly replaced future Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan in soulful sextet Wainwright's Gentlemen – or for their persistence; Andy Scott was a former member of the Elastic Band, a much-touted but seldom noticed rock group that surfaced on Decca during the psychedelic era.
That was nothing unusual. Few of the artists who broke through in the early Seventies, at least among those that had a degree of staying power, were what could be even generously described as total newcomers, and most had been stabbing fruitless fingers towards the chart since at least the mid Sixties.
Slade and Marc Bolan had been recording since 1965, David Bowie since 1964 and Gary Glitter since the end of the Fifties. Alvin Stardust had already been a superstar once, with four hits in the year before the Beatles burst his bubble, and even such relatively fresh-faced newcomers as David Essex and Mud had been around the block at least a couple of times before they scored their first hits. By their standards, in fact, maybe the Sweet were newcomers. (See Note 1)
Like Brian Connolly, Mick Tucker was a graduate of west London's Wainwright's Gentlemen; like him, he had tired of the band constantly beating its head against the wall. The group had been around since the early Sixties, staking a firm place on the local club circuit with their energetic recreations of a travelling Stax/Tamla R&B-style show, and occasionally venturing further afield as guests of the various army and air force bases that littered the south of England.
Regular dances at such venues had long since become bread and butter to a number of bands that might not otherwise have survived; and though the typical audience scarcely demanded creativity from the evening's performers – a good grip on current dance songs was enough – proficiency and professionalism were a must. The scene in Spinal Tap, where the band wind up at one such venue and have the plugs pulled on them a couple of songs into their set is not an exaggeration.
By late 1967, however, Wainwright's Gentlemen were losing interest in such audiences – or, at least, some of them were. 'I'd been with Wainwright's for well over a year,' Tucker explained, 'and it was a great band; tight and we knew our stuff, very professional. But that seemed to be all they cared about, being professional. There was never any real ambition; we'd play our show and if there was somebody from a record company there then we'd still play our show. Nobody ever tried to push us ahead – we just played on and on and on and finally it got too much for me.'
Connolly was Tucker's one true ally in the band, the person who seemed to share his belief that there was more to being in a live rock'n'roll group than playing the same circuit of clubs and halls to the same crowds of pimpled teenaged dancers. The singer had joined the group in mid 1966, about six months after Tucker, and for a time there were hopes that Wainwright's Gentlemen might be out to emulate Steampacket, a similarly unwieldy band whose membership was equally adept at playing all genres of music and whose frontal attack was an equally striking male/female duo.
But co-vocalist Ann Cully quit not long after Connolly joined and, quite coincidentally, around the same time as Steampacket themselves broke up to afford Julie Driscoll and Rod Stewart their own stabs at solo fame. The era of the all-purpose live revue bands was coming to an end, at least so far as home-grown stock was concerned; if that contributed to the Gentlemen's lack of ambition nobody could be surprised.
Connolly himself had a less than distinguished musical background. Born in Glasgow, at the Royal Samaritan Hospital for Women on 5 October 1945, his teenaged mother Frances Connolly put him up for adoption a year after he was born. He was taken in by Jim and Helen McManus, a brother to their son, 13-year-old Mark (the future star of TV's Taggart), and daughters Cathy and Marilyn.
The family moved to Hillingdon, north London, in 1956, when Brian was around 11, and it was there that he received his first guitar, a gift from brother Mark, and formed his first 'band,' the Kentucky Kids with schoolfriend Mike Jerome. 'It was a bit of a novelty,' Connolly later recalled. A short kid, just five feet tall, he described himself as 'such a midget' and remembered wrestling to even appear visible behind his instrument. But it was clear that he could sing; he made his first trip down to London at the age of six to take part in a talent contest being held at the Nestlé chocolate factory in Hayes.
'I won, and Max Bygraves' son came second.' Friends joked that he hadn't really grown much since then, but his diminutive proportions were soon a thing of the past. A sudden and totally unexpected growth spurt as he hit his mid-teens saw Connolly blossom overnight to a respectable five foot eight.
Upon leaving school in 1960, Connolly entered the Merchant Navy College, training to become a Third Officer. With several years in the Uxbridge Sea Cadets behind him, he said, 'I just fancied it. I always wanted to go to sea. I did trainee runs to Canada and Hong Kong and then I was on cargo training.'
After a little over a year, however, a routine medical revealed him to be colour blind and he was discharged. He returned to civvy street and whatever jobs he could find, and returned to music too, eventually landing a job as a singer/entertainer at Gibson's Holiday Camp in Bracklesham Bay, near Chichester, in the summer of 1964.
Back in London that autumn, he took a technical engineering course at college and joined a new band, the So-and-Sos. This was followed by a stint in the League of Gentlemen, a band that was formed by future King Crimson mainstay Robert Fripp but was now struggling to get on without him.
'We really weren't very good by the time I joined,' Connolly grimaced, just a competent club band 'who lucked into a few gigs around the provinces, backing up various visiting Americans. We used to play in the north a lot, for some reason. My memories of that band all seem to involve driving up to Manchester, playing a show and then driving back to London again because we couldn't afford to stay overnight.'
He finally left the band in late 1965, he explained, when they landed a booking for a tour of German clubs. 'I just didn't want to go.'
His recalcitrance was not mere hubris. Aside from his eyesight problems, the Merchant Navy had also diagnosed the regular stomach pains he suffered as being chronic ulcers, 'and being on the road really didn't help them, I had to watch what I ate – of course I didn't. And drinking didn't help either, but sometimes I had really bad flare-ups and that always put me on my back.' It was his ulcers, he said, that also forced him out of his next band, Generation, in early 1966. But, just weeks later, a friend suggested he audition for 'this great harmony band he knew of who were looking for a singer. So I went along, had a jam and that was it, really.'
He was now one of Wainwright's Gentlemen.
Mick Tucker was two years Connolly's junior, born on 17 July 1947 in Kingsbury, north London, and growing up in Harlesden. As a child of the mid Fifties he also fancied himself as a guitarist, although it took a meeting with another would-be guitar player to inform him that everything he thought he knew about the instrument was wrong.
'I had no tuition, so I just tuned it by ear to an open chord and played with one finger (of the) left hand, 'til I met an older boy who told me I was all wrong and tuned it right. I couldn't get on with that, it was all Chinese to me, so I put it back the way I knew (and) lost interest – it looked so complicated that I just drifted away from it.'
Rock'n'roll, the mutant American import that had taken the country by storm in the mid Fifties, was on its last legs by now. A few years of wild frenzy had given way, as they always do, to the calculated sounds of the music industry regaining control of its output. And where once Elvis had simmered, Little Richard had yelped, Jerry Lee Lewis had pounded and even Bill Haley seemed to know how to rock, now the temperature was falling fast.
Then it rocketed back up again with the arrival of the Shadows, an all-instrumental guitar-led band that might have been best known for backing up Cliff Richard – himself, the most adept of all Britain's rock-into-pop performers – but would soon be striking out on its own as well, with a string of nifty hit singles. 'Apache' in 1960, was the first; 'Man Of Mystery' and 'FBI' followed. An entire generation of would-be British guitar players learned everything they knew from listening to the Shadows, but it wasn't only the guitarists who were hooked.
Mick Tucker was 14 when he bought his first drum kit, one of the flood of youngsters who realised that Hank Marvin was not the only star in the Shadows and turned their emulative attentions to either bassist Jet Harris or drummer Tony Meehan.
That flood became a deluge after Harris and Meehan quit for their own career in 1962 and promptly scored a massive hit with the instrumental 'Diamonds'. 'Scarlett O'Hara' and 'Applejack' were next on the agenda, and many more would doubtless have accompanied them had Harris not been seriously injured in a car crash. His career effectively halted there, but for the kids who'd followed Harris and Meehan so far the game was only just beginning.
Tucker started taking drum lessons from Tony Carlaw, a local semi-celebrity who had played alongside Johnny Kidd when the swashbuckling rocker still fronted his eponymous Freddie Heath Five back in the late Fifties. His first drum kit set him back £65, saved up from the wages from his part-time job at a local garage, and Tucker was still coming to grips with his kit when he formed his first band, teaming up with guitarist Frank Torpey in an instrumental band modelled on the Shadows but with an eye for finding their own Cliff Richard as well. Tucker later recalled one potential applicant being a singer named Stewart Brown, who was in fact forming his own group, Bluesology, with his piano-playing mate Reg Dwight. Apparently, Brown took one look at Tucker's group, then a second look at Tucker himself, and promptly invited him to join his own band. Tucker turned him down 'and Elton John's first group had to find another drummer.'
Leaving school, Tucker ranged through a variety of jobs, none of which lasted long and none of which could compete with his musical ambitions. Although he later insisted he didn't take drumming seriously until he was 17, he certainly allowed it to stand in the way of any number of potential careers. He once admitted he paid so little attention to anything else that, by that same tender age, he was over £1,000 in debt – a colossal amount of money at a time when the average wage was around £10 a week. It would take him the next five years to pay it off.
Meanwhile, the music scene was changing, and Tucker's tastes with it. By 1964, with the Beatles having broken through and completely cleansed the club circuit of the Shadows-like instrumental bands that once dominated, Tucker joined a new band, the Fortune Tellers – named for the Benny Spellman B-side that almost every beat band of the day included in their repertoire.
'We did a few gigs. We weren't bad, actually. You know, it was quite a good band for what it was,' Tucker reminisced years later, in an interview with Record Mirror's Val Mabbs. But he was also aware of their deficiencies, especially after one particular show at the Clay Pigeon Hotel in Eastcote, Middlesex. 'We were as green as grass. But when I was with them, we worked at the Clay Pigeon with Wainwright's Gentlemen. They were a seven-piece group with Ian Gillan. They were so good. I remember someone saying "follow that", and I felt awful.'
Talking with Danish writer Karsten Boriths, Tucker continued, 'I thought I'd die to be in that band. And they were gonna ask me to join them, but I didn't notice until three months later and I eventually ended up joining them – I was about 17 by this time. We were like the interval band, they were on then we went on. And I remember thinking "What a great band. I'd love to be in that band." And they were thinking of getting rid of their drummer (Phil Kenton). And their decision was, 'He's probably happy with his own band' and they never asked me and, you know, I'd have died to be in that band, but by the time I did get into the band, Ian had left. They were down to a four-piece with (two) guitarists (Gordon Fairminer and Jimmy Searle), the same girl singer (Ann Cully), the same bass player (Jan Frewer) – that was it.'
Gillan would go on to form Episode Six with bassist Roger Glover, the duo's first steps towards the leviathan that was Deep Purple. Wainwright's Gentlemen, meanwhile, spent the next six months searching for a new singer and finally found one in the form of a 21-year-old carpet salesman named Brian Connolly.
Over the next year or so, Wainwright's Gentlemen continued playing the same circuit they had always plied, residencies at the Clay Pigeon and the Café des Artistes in the hinterland between Earls Court and Fulham, the Starlight Ballroom in Greenford and the Blue Moon in Hayes, air force bases and colleges and any other venues they could find favour with. But they never seemed to climb any higher up the ladder.
Excerpted from Blockbuster! by Dave Thompson. Copyright © 2010 Dave Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Cherry Red Books.
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