Slade and Sweet
The Grand Opera House, York
6th December 2013
Slade and Sweet visit their spiritual home in the North, well one of them anyway, and idp enjoys a great night in the company of glam rock royalty.
Big hair, spangly tights, gaudy costumes, daft hats, knockabout humour, cross dressing, singalong choruses. The Grand Opera in York has seen its share of all these types of silliness over the years. Opened in 1902 it was one of the leading theatres on the northern music hall variety circuit, playing host to all the big stars of the day and it’s still a spectacular place for a show, one of those venues where you catch your breath as you enter the auditorium. It’s all gold leaf and red velvet with a massively high but narrow stage area, curving balconies and three double layers of boxes next to the proscenium. A more perfect venue for an evening of the best of glam rock (or The Muppets or the legend that is Roy Hudd, it is hard to imagine).
Glam may still be a minor genre today but so long as there is Lady Gaga and a tour by The Darkness and fancy dress hen nights and an annual round up of the nation’s favourite Christmas songs it will never die completely and a the release of a new 5CD compilation called Oh Yes We Can Love: A History Of Glam Rock (see the review on Louder Than War here) suggests that maybe the time is coming for a revival and that we should dust off the high heels and facepaints once more. Having been reviled over the years by bands who eschewed showmanship and exuberance in favour of glum solemnity or cynical detachment it may be time for music to embrace the childish joy of going over the top just for the sake of going over the top.
Intriguingly the Oh Yes We Can Love compilation begins its survey of the roots of glam with Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen but does not take the logical step backwards to the era of music hall where the first germs of glam can surely be found in the affectionate parodies of the traditional working class by the likes of Harry Champion, or the stage toffs of the lions comiques (the original Champagne Charlies) or the androgyny of male and female impersonators such as Vesta Tilley, Malcolm Scott or the Gibson girls.
All of which is to say that while the combination of Slade and Sweet on the stage of the Grand Opera House may sound a little odd at first in actual fact it’s their perfect venue, big enough to get a proper party atmosphere going, intimate enough to allow them to interact with the audience and with a style that is all about bravura, excess and good humour and never bound by the British conventions of reserve and quiet appreciation.
Sweet arrive to a medley of songs around the theme of New York City and launch straight into Back In The New York Groove taken from their recent New York Connection covers album and featuring elements of Jay Z and Alicia Key’s Empire State Of Mind followed by The SixTeens and then it’s the first high point of the night – the Chinn/Chapman masterpiece Wig Wam Bam.
By this time I have finished taking photographs and have taken my seat alongside my wife. Now you need to understand, we are shy and serious people. We do not do karaoke or fancy dress or public displays of drunkenness or emotion. But equally we do not want to be the only ones still sitting like party popers in a theatre full of people jumping around and waving their arms in the air and bellowing about Hiawatha not caring that much about Minnehaha and her tender touch. We have a straight choice – retain our dignity and look stupid and miserable or sacrifice our dignity and just look stupid. We decide on the latter and off we go and from that point we don’t look back as one ridiculously infectious hit follows another.
Little Willy is pure glam nonsense while Teenage Rampage comes with a beat and a bassline that recalls Thin Lizzy and reminds us that Sweet started and ended their careers not as a showband but as a proper hard rock outfit. The current line up boasts only Andy Scott from the original band but Bruce Bisland (percussion), Tony O’Hora (keys) and Peter Lincoln (bass, vocals and generally looking like a pop star) have all the right style and it falls to Scott to wear the long blonde wig without which Sweet really wouldn’t be Sweet. They pay affectionate tributes to former members now no longer with us, lead singer Brian Connolly and Mick Tucker, before launching into a high concept Love Is Like Oxygen which gets the full treatment, light show, plenty of smoke and a segue into Also Sprach Zarathustra. Highlights include Fox On The Run with a swirling organ line that makes the whole song much trippier than I remembered it, Blockbuster (with sirens of course) and the finale, the irresistibly ridiculous Ballroom Blitz.
When Slade take the stage it is to the Thunderbirds theme music and however high the bar may have been set by Sweet they make it clear from the outset that they can match the standard by opening with a raucous Gudbuy T’Jane. Up to now the night has been one of sartorial restraint (for those too young to remember Slade in their heyday the video clip below should only be watched while wearing dark glasses) but Dave Hill looks remarkably fetching as he high kicks and cavorts along the front of the stage in a pair of spangly black and silver leggings like the mad uncle at the wedding reception from your nightmares and on drums fellow original Sladist Don Powell sports gloves and a gum shield and occasionally forms a raised crucifix with the sticks as if warding off a vampire attack from the flies. On bass is John Bury in a Union Jack waistcoat with an Irish tricolor on the reverse and tartan trousers and on lead vocals for much of the night (except when Berry takes over) is Mal McNulty who has been, in the past, the lead singer of Sweet as well, and whose voice is perfectly adapted to the raunchier and rockier sections of the Slade back catalogue.
As with Sweet it’s a set filled with hits and it’s pretty clear that everybody in the theatre knows all of the words (including all the ones that are giving my spellchecker a nervous breakdown right now) so at the prompting of Hill, who acts as mischief maker in chief, a singalong ensues taking in classics like Everyday, Run Run Away performed as a mad hoe down with guitars that sound like bagpipes, and Mama Weer All Crazee Now where the band show what a first rate down and dirty little rock blues band they really are and Hill brings out a bizarre gold resonator that looks as if it was cut by Timpson’s. Cum On And Feel The Noize brings the main set to a close and them Hill disappears into the wings to remerge with Christmas hats for all the band.
It’s that time of the year and that time of the night. Do they still close with this song in their August shows? I suspect they do. Hill turns to the audience and asks “Do you still like it?” with his broadest black country burr and a wonderfully goofy shrug and then we all roar that of course we do still like it and the night ends on the nation,s favourite Christmas song and we leave the opera House with our arms aching from all the waving and our feet sore from stomping (I haven’t stomped in ages) and the feeling that that really should be the Christmas number one every year regardless of what shit Simon Cowell has to hawk and whatever the cool people put up as a rival and that maybe your granny was right when she told you the old songs are the best.