Islington Assembly Hall, London
17 December 2019
It’s panto season and what better time to see The Sweet celebrate their 51st anniversary? A hit-filled show stirs schoolboy memories for a packed audience including Tim Cooper.
As a kid in the early Seventies, you were either into Albums Bands (Zeppelin, Purple, Yes, Genesis, ELP) or Singles Bands (Slade, Sweet, T.Rex, Gary Glitter, Mud). At my school the demarcation lines were strict: only Bowie really managed to bridge the gap between the “serious” stuff like prog and metal and those “trivial” acts who abased themselves in lipstick and eyeliner on Top of the Pops every week.
I liked Singles Bands, which put me in a minority of approximately one and made me a laughing stock among my peers. It was a bit like being the lone Brexiteer in North London.
So here I am, a lifetime later, waiting to see my childhood heroes for the very first time. I’m in a room full of people who look even older than me. Which makes a nice change. There are men with huge bellies (there are women, but it’s mostly men) and men with wizened faces who look as if all their teeth have fallen out. There are men with long grey hair in styles that were last seen in the Seventies and men with no hair at all. Being panto season, there are even some men with long blond hair that is clearly not their own.
The latter category includes guitarist Andy Scott, the lone surviving member of the Sweet that I remember from my school days. He seems to be wearing the hair of Brian Connolly, the singer who sang all those great hits – Ballroom Blitz, Blockbuster, Hell Raiser, Teenage Rampage – but left in 1979, long after the hits dried up, and died in 1997.
Meanwhile, the other original member, bassist Steve Priest (drummer Mick Tuckert died in 2002), moved to Los Angeles. A long scroll through Wikipedia while waiting for a drink at the bar – and wondering whether they might have been better off serving Ovaltine and Horlicks tonight – reveals that since the Seventies there have been two Sweets operating in parallel on either side of the Atlantic, with a rotating cast of about 20 musicians.
This one boasts Andy Scott as its paterfamilias and features four other men with varying pedigrees in the world of heavy rock (and indeed The Sweet), some of whom have only just joined – or rejoined – for this tour. “It’s not easy losing two members from a four-piece band,” says Scott. “Unless you’re Slade.”
Tonight’s lead singer is Paul Manzi, who has operated as a sort of super-sub over the past five years and seems to have returned for his third or fourth stint as lead vocalist only a month ago, with Lee Small on bass, Bruce Bisland on drums and late addition Steve Mann (from the Michael Schenker Group) on guitar and keyboards.
The funny thing about Glam Rock in its heyday is that the people who sneered and jeered at it and mooched about in cheesecloth shirts and greatcoats mocked our dressed-up idols as “poofs” in their glittery outfits and make-up. But while Bolan and Bowie rocked a gender-bending look, and had the whiff of art school about them, Sweet, Slade and Mud looked more like builders at a fancy dress party. Even in platform heels and shoulder pads made of tinfoil, with eyeliner and lipstick, they still looked like working-class blokes who lived on council estates and went to football matches.
There was nothing fancy or middle-class about the songs either. They may have been churned out conveyor-belt style by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn (along with their other hits for Mud, Suzi Quatro and Smokie) but these were timeless anthems of disaffected youth. What could be more proletarian than Teenage Rampage, a song that Scott tells us tonight, in slightly bitter tones that suggest he still hasn’t got over it half a century later, Mary Whitehouse once wanted to be banned by the BBC?
She failed on that occasion, although she would almost certainly have succeeded had Scott gone ahead with the version he sings tonight (“Imagine the sensation / Of teenage masturbation”). On reflection, it was always implicit, if we had only been old enough to understand. She did manage to get its follow-up, Turn It Down, banned from the airwaves for blasphemy (“I can’t take no more of that Godawful sound / So for God’s sake turn it down”).
The band play both of them tonight, along with pretty much every other hit, from the opening Action through Little Willy, Hellraiser and the largely forgotten highlight that was The Six Teens (sometimes The Sixteens), rightly introduced by Manzi as “probably the best song that Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman ever wrote” and definitely the most poignant, with its coming-of-age lyric encapsulating the death of the hippie dream.
In between the stream of hits comes a change of pace with the bubbling synths of late hit Love Is Like Oxygen which merges cleverly into a rock reinterpretation of Jean-Michel Jarre’s original Oxygen, which works surprisingly well and provides exactly the required calm before the gathering storm of the finale. Before long the joint is jumping, and the joints are creaking, as police sirens begin to wail introducing the inevitable double-whammy of Blockbuster and Ballroom Blitz, making this particular trip down memory lane a night to remember.