Graded on a Curve:
Sweet, Hits

I have had the dubious good fortune of finding myself on board an airplane with the Sweet–twice. And in coach class no less!

On both occasions I was red-eyeing it to Berlin while they were on their way–or so the gone-to-seed rocker shoehorned uncomfortably into the narrow seat next to mine informed me–to play some god-forsaken Glam Festival in the hinterlands of Scandinavia. And he wasn’t an outlier; the whole lot of them were fat, bleary-eyed and looked seriously hungover, and carried with them a demoralizing air of utter defeat. Flying the red-eye econo class to play a nostalgia fest with a bunch of other ready-for-the-knackers-yard has beens (The Glitter Band anybody?) will do that to a person.

‘Tis better to burn out, indeed; these guys struck me as mushrooms sprouting in the fetid soil atop the corpse of the rock’n’roll dream. I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t be better for them if the plane went down, then realized it was too late; their sell-by date had come and gone years before, and even the posthumous glory that accrues to the victims of tragedy would be denied them. Honestly? I wanted to hug them the way you would a kicked dog.

I had to remind myself–and I’m sure it hurt them to remember–that once upon a time the Sweet was a very big deal indeed. The toppermost of the bands on the bubblegum end of the English Glam spectrum during the seventies, Sweet (thanks in very large part to the outrageously fecund songwriting combine that was Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman) first gained prominence with a small handful of chewy chewy pre-teen crowd pleasers along the lines of “Little Willy,” “Wig-Wam Bam,” and “Co-Co,” before aiming for pop immortality with such zany (and very hard rocking) crowd pleasers as “Blockbuster,” “Ballroom Blitz,” and “Fox on the Run.”

2014 compilation Hits (which comes to you straight from Mother Russia!) offers but a taste of the strictly-for-the-kiddies early stuff (which can be found on the 1972 best-of The Sweet’s Biggest Hits) and focuses primarily on Sweet’s golden age from 1973-75, and underscores just what a great band Sweet was in its prime. The best of their songs are intricately staged set pieces, silly but packing a visceral sonic punch; Sweet mated molten metallic riffs to euphoric pop rock hooks then tossed in lots of sophisticated harmonies and mock-effeminate vocal twitches to produce some of the most giddy-making (and glorious) anthems of the Glam era.

Sure, the epicures of Glam dismissed ‘em as low-brow pop fodder, but you know what? When push comes to shove I enjoy the blustering “Blockbuster” (first you hear an air raid siren, then the guitars come in!) every bit as much as I do “Bang a Gong” or “Rebel Rebel.” And “Ballroom Blitz” is the most outrageous teenage symphony to God this side of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As for “Fox on the Run,” its metallic crunch and swooping synth make me shout “Glam bam thank you ma’am!” And reveal the studio wizards in ELO to be the boring frauds I always thought they were.

And those are just the songs everybody knows. “The Six Teens,” a musically mesmerizing but lyrically depressing tale of teen hard times on Desolation Boulevard, could almost be an outtake from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; the angry dad of muscle-rocker “Turn It Down” (move over Bad Company!) clearly anticipates the pissed-off Pops in the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).” And not only is the maniacal scream at the beginning of the tres catchy “Hellraiser” a helluva lot scarier than the one that opens Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” “Hellraiser’s guitars got more bite.

“Action” is all guitar zoom and layered vocals and would fit proudly into the Queen canon; 1978’s “Love Is Like Oxygen” was Sweet’s swan song but pretty damn primo as far as Hail Marys go–three years after their last decent single, Sweet once again put ELO, 10cc and their pop prog ilk to shame–without even trying!

Throw in a trio of early ones–“Little Willy,” “Wig Wam Bam,” and the nifty “Co-Co/Funny Funny/Poppa Joe (Medley)”–and the dubious outlier “Peppermint Twist” (which tanked everywhere but Australia, where it inexplicably went to No. 1!), and what you have in Hits is an indispensable LP that deserves a place of honor in every proud Glitter Kid’s Golden Glam Record Library.

The Sweet turned Glam androgyny into a parody of itself with their swishy, limp-wrested vocal antics, injected a note of bona fide hard rock into the Glitter mix (Barney Hoskyns, author of the definitive Glam!, labeled ‘em “glitterpunk”!), and in general rode the Glam era’s trash-camp zeitgeist and put it away wet. The zany high humor of their best songs, on which voices leap deliriously out of nowhere, would even inspire the Beastie Boys, who went on to sample “Ballroom Blitz”’s “And she thinks she’s the passionate one!” on “Hey Ladies.”

In short you dismiss the Sweet at your peril. The overweight and sullen bunch who accompanied me on those air flights were a sobering sight indeed. But once upon a time, in a world that now seems so, so far away, they mattered. They mattered a whole lot.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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