Graded on a Curve:
Sweet,
Desolation Boulevard

We live in complicated times. This was brought home to me years ago, when I TWICE found myself on board flights from Frankfurt to Berlin with the band Sweet. They were flying peon class just like me, and looked haggard, hungover, and very thick in the middle. But what complicated matters was this: while I knew they were Sweet (I chatted up the drummer, who was sitting morosely beside me) I had no idea whether they were Steve Priest’s Sweet, Andy Scott’s Sweet, or Brian Connolly’s Sweet.

That’s right. During those years there were three different bands calling themselves the Sweet out there, keeping themselves alive primarily by playing glam oldies shows in Finland, Denmark, Norway, etc., with the likes of Suzi Quatro. Now you might think three Sweets is four too many, and I would be inclined to agree with you, that is if I hadn’t just spent days listening to the band’s 1974 classic, Desolation Boulevard. Opened my eyes, it did. Sweet is primarily known for two songs, at least in the United States, but Desolation Boulevard has a slew of tasty tracks, even if some of them sound like uncanny copies of other bands’ sounds.

Recorded before Sweet exploded into multiple Sweets, Desolation Boulevard included original members lead vocalist Brian Connolly, bassist Steve Priest, guitarist Andy Scott, and drummer Mick Tucker. Formed in 1968, they quickly teamed up with the pop songwriting machine that was Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, with whom they produced bubblegum hits with titles like “Funny Funny,” “Co-Co,” “Wig-Wam Bam,” and the horrifying, “Little Willy.”

But by 1974 Sweet wanted to be taken seriously, and in so doing parted ways with Chinn-Chapman, although Desolation Boulevard, or at least the U.S. version (which differed drastically from the English release), consisted of a Side One consisting solely of Chinn-Chapman contributions. As for their new, tougher, rougher sound, it won them some real critical respect; indeed, Pete Townshend asked Sweet to open for The Who, an offer Sweet had to turn down due to severe throat injuries suffered by Connolly in a fight. It also resulted in his not handling lead vocals on a pair of tunes on Desolation Boulevard.

Hits “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox on the Run” were strange enough to American ears to qualify as novelty tunes, but there was much more to Desolation Boulevard than those two songs. “The Six Teens” is a bona fide lost glam classic, what with its echoes of both T. Rex and Queen, while “Sweet F.A.” is a totally contagious tune that links an “Immigrant Song” guitar riff with Queen-school vocals, with some cool synth lines tossed in. They take the tough guy thing too far with the very politically incorrect lines, “If she don’t spread/I’m gonna bust her head,” then threaten to kick some heads while they’re at it, but damn the song rocks balls. Meanwhile, the very fast “Set Me Free” lays on the chukka-chukka guitar and multi-layered vocals in service of a melody that remind me of, well, lots of bands, including Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and the Who. But the guitar solo is blazing, and the tune is hard to beat in terms of sheer sonic propulsion.

Chapman and Chinn’s “A.C.D.C.” is reminiscent of the earlier, more pop-oriented Sweet, or Slade even, but boasts some funny lyrics about a girl who swings from both chandeliers, much to the chagrin of the band, who sing, “A.C.D.C./She got some other woman as well as me.” It’s a catchy tune, as is the oddball Chapman-Chinn trifle “I Wanna Be Committed,” which boasts a title that prefigures the Ramones (and which the latter band was no doubt aware of) and features some very strange verses with catching and very high-pitched, Queen-like vocals on the chorus. This is one strange song, no doubt about it, and comes complete with lots of ringing, echoing sound effects before going out in a cool blaze of guitar feedback.

“No You Don’t” combines punch with some really cool lead vocals by Steve Priest. Lots of Who-strength power chords give the tune heft, and the acoustic guitar interlude has Townshend and Company written all over it. This is Sweet’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and it’s a great number right down to the sizzling guitars that slither through the tune. “Into the Night” opens with a shuffling beat, and then proceeds to boogie your socks off. Andy Scott does a great job on lead vocals, the multi-layered vocals are tremendous, and Scott’s guitar solo is as cool as they come. And you can hear the Who in this one too.

As for the mid-tempo “Solid Gold Brass,” it boasts a guitar with “a mean streak,” as they say right in the song. Connolly sings the verses in a high-pitched voice that makes you think power ballad, but the chorus comes at you like a pair of brass knuckles, and includes the odd lines, “Hey, just watch what you say/Don’t talk about her that way/You know I said I’m a man not a mother,” which makes the tune a cousin of Mott the Hoople’s great “I Wish I Was Your Mother.” Throw in a rip-roaring solo by Priest, and some more guitar pyrotechnics later on, and what you have here is a winner, people.

I don’t know what to say about “Ballroom Blitz” other than it boasts one of the greatest openings of a song ever (“You ready Steve?” “Uh huh,” etc.), has a high glam quotient, and there’s no beating Connolly’s lead vocals or the fey guy who sings, “And she thinks she’s the passionate one,” which is so fantastic the Beastie Boys swiped it for “Hey Ladies.” Great handclaps and lots of vocals piled atop one another, to say nothing of Priest’s cool guitar riff—this one is a powerhouse and pure fun. “Fox on the Run” is fun, too; that whistling synth that opens the tune, the guitar that joins it, and the fantastic vocal harmonies that follow make for one addictive listening experience. Priest plays a short but excellent solo, and those group vocals just keep coming, and once again we’re looking at a glamtastic song of momentous import.

Three sorta Sweets may still be three too many sorta Sweets, but Desolation Boulevard has converted me to a band I always thought of as something of a joke, because it’s a truly fun listening experience from beginning to end. And it wasn’t the total summation of Sweet’s greatness. The saddest thing about Desolation Boulevard is that it doesn’t have “Blockbuster,” “Teenage Rampage,” or “Action” on it. The best thing about Desolation Boulevard? It doesn’t have “Little Willy” or “Love Is Like Oxygen” on it. Terrible songs, those. I run every time I hear them coming.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • spinetingler

    Pretty spot on, except for the LILO diss. I don’t know your age, so you may not have experienced it, but LILO was a blast of fresh air blazing out of the radio in the miasma of the late 70s.

    • Michael Little

      Oh, I remember it. But no biggie. I’m glad you like it. We all have our own inexplicable loves and hatreds when it comes to music. Thanks for commenting, my friend!

  • wait50more

    Thanks for a nice piece on the criminally-underrated Sweet. So much great music and so much influence on bands from Queen, to Guns and Roses, and many more in between.

    One big correction, though: Andy Scott was the guitarist, not Steve Priest (who played bass).

  • Peach Kay

    “The fey guy who sings” on Ballroom Blitz is Steve Priest. 😉

    • http://www.thevinyldistrict.com/ Jon Meyers

      We LOVE Sweet!

      • Peach Kay

        Same!! In a big way.

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