Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sweet—
Strung Up


Released 1975 on RCA
The Seth Man, October 2004ce
Sweet looked every inch the answer of a drunken record company brainstorming session that asked the rhetorical question: “Where can we find a great looking group that’ll make the little girls understand, play as ballzy as Slade, have the ability to play as heavy as Deep Purple’s live version of “Speed King” on the ‘Encores’ disc of “Made In Japan,” share a diversity of hair coloring ala Josie & The Pussycats AND sell a zillion records?”

Already in existence prior to signing with RCA in 1970, once Sweet’s image and sound was overhauled for optimum teen appeal they became an international superstar band after a year and a half run of successful 45s. Then they got impatient and decided to become a runaway train on hot rails nobody had, or could possibly have, expected.

On reflection, Sweet had many perfect singles but never a perfect album although there are four close contenders: “Sweet Fanny Adams,” “Desolation Boulevard” (both the UK and US versions boast different tracks) and the half-live/half-studio and entirely-rockin’ double “Strung Up” LP. As an eternal singles band coming to grips with the format of the long player, the British and American versions of the “Desolation Boulevard” LP and the studio half of the double “Strung Up” are all comprised by recordings from their peak period of 1973-75 (many of them recent and not-so-recent singles) featuring some of the heaviest tracks of their career. But even these albums were stitched together with a mess of singles (and dammit, but they recorded enough of them: For years, Sweet’s annual release schedule was one in winter, summer and a third in late summer/autumn) and they all have their own individual strengths. However, one thing stands out among all the track-swapping between their LPs from 1974-1975 and that’s the live half of “Strung Up.” Combine this with a second record of hits and other roughhousing, it caps off their most artistically successful period and is chronologically the last Sweet album to really hit the mark squarely in the jaw. During their six-year tenure on RCA, Sweet would release an average of three singles per year, and the era bookended by “Little Willy”1 in 1972 and “Fox On The Run" in 1975 was definitely their wildest run of all.

Sweet’s longevity is mystifying because unlike most teenybopper boys they did not just dutifully dry up and blow away after a handful of hits.2 Nope: they kept on pushing the envelope and despite their popularity with all the newly-menstruating denizens of bopperland and their natural incorrigibility kept rising to the surface until like a swollen pimple burst forth a whole buncha gunk across the rock’n’roll sky that was not only harder, no-frills, leaden-heavy, but most of the time putting the boot in...And weirdly, it did not affect their popularity in the least. Developing at an accelerated rate from churning out sing-along plastic pop right at glam’s onset in 1971, by the following year they had already started to ratchet up the attack and continued this way into the far end of the seventies beyond their sell-by date of 1976. But at their apex they were one of the single most influential touchstones from which both metal and punk from both sides of the Atlantic could draw inspiration from: they were heavy as metal, vulgar as punk, stupid enough for both and then some. Plus, their songs boasted pop-perfect arrangements learned on the run during their period in the studio working up songs newly minted by the songwriter/management team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. They not only learnt firsthand what made a successful pop single tick, but discovered that the more they flaunted their musicianship paired into their strong vocal harmonies and tightly executed arrangements, the energy levels just boosted the tracks through the ceiling with a bad attitude and killer drive to match.

The fold out cover of “Strung Up” depicts the four Sweet guys hovering above a puppeteer’s stage to prove it was not the Chinny-chaps pulling the strings on the smaller Sweet marionettes below but Sweet themselves. Even though at the time of most of these recordings they were still under contract to the Chinn-Chaps (and were until after recording “Fox On The Run” behind their backs) and even though a number of Chinn-Chapman compositions are in attendance on “Strung Up,” it was a defiant stance to highlight their newfound independence and confidence in the wake of “Fox On The Run” becoming a monster charting single in the U.S.A.

The first album of “Strung Up” are excerpts from a live performance at the Rainbow Theatre on December 21, 1973 (Now available on CD in its entirety under the workaday title “Sweet: Live At The Rainbow 1973: The Complete Concert”) and it was a special pre-Xmas present that probably kept their audiences warm until springtime ’74 cos it is a gutsy extravaganza that in many ways is the template for everybody from Motörhead, The Damned, The Runaways and many other champeens of street rock’n’roll played at balls to the walls velocity with no regard for taste or decorum. Unsophisticated, crude and effective, Sweet tear through the first four tracks with no room for error or delicacy with their only finesse their masterfully tight and undiluted tempo changes. Surly, flaxen-haired Brian Connolly shouts down the night with amazing skill in a fevered banshee pitch as it hugs the outer edge of shrillness only when accenting a turn of phrase or to bring to immediate attention yet another lyrical double entendre. Andy Scott burns down on hollow-bodied’n’full-bodied Gibson Les Paul guitar, while caped bassist Steve Priest strums his Rickenbacker bass only stopping to offer goofball vocal responses queered up to hilarious levels and the ever-flash, stick-twirling Mick Tucker never misses a beat throughout the labyrinth of call and response, stop and start, do it/stop-right-there-on-a-dime-and-don’t-bloody-move tumultuous shifts of tempo.

Side one of “Strung Up” is a full-throttle howl at the moon and I consider it to be the best complete album side by Sweet on record. It’s like Slade playing Mk 2 Deep Purple at Mk 4.3 It’s like Ritchie Blackmore shagging your mother. It’s like you shagging your sister, only with a micrometer precision you’d in reality lack during such an encounter half as deliriously fucked. Opening with a hoary old burlesque bump and grind blaring over the P.A. system, an explosion, the entry of Andy Scott’s blazing shorthand “Space Station #5” razor riffing and “Hellraiser” has touched down to raze everything in its path. Connolly walks on, resplendent in golden space sex suit with attached wrist-wings and takes the mike stand, snaps it into a “V” and hurls it down -- just in time for the waiting replacement to be quickly wheeled out. And the primarily young female audience cheering adds bizarrely to the proceedings because these young ladies are about to be treated to a taste of the raunch’n’nroll lash (the luckiest in attendance unchaperoned for the evening) as they witness four leering rock’n’roll hooligans with extreme-fringed haircuts, skin tight threads and double-elevated stack heeled boots blasting out into everyone’s daughter’s ears, rippling through their clothes, ripping through their morals and directly onto their tumescent areolas to make them incandescent and light up their night, their lives and their dreams so they can go to bed that night dreaming of Brian, Andy, Steve, Mick because this is the soundtrack to which teenage hearts burn and break, coo and cry to:


“Look out!
She’s a Hellraiser --
Star chaser --
Trail blazer --
Natural born raver --
Yeah!
Yeah!
Yeah!
Yeah!
Yeah!”


It ain’t Coleridge by any means, but then again who’d ever rock themselves to sleep to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” anyway?

True to Sweet’s undying format, the music instantly gets shoved to back burner during all of the “Summertime Blues” call-and-responses where all music cuts out to lay a spotlight on the vocals delivered either faux-pansy-assed or dumb as hell (as though in match cut of Steve Priest caught butt nekkid just as the shower door swings wide open -- to his bee stung expression and unassuming chagrin, natch.) Right before he finishes the line “Every time I touch your hand....” the band cuts back in drown out “hand” as if to deviously hijack and autosuggest the anatomic part in question. Scaling the upper reaches of the chorus’ constant return are intermittent synthesizer swirls that resound for no reason except to drive the piece sideways. After leering like Big Bopper, Connolly finally shrieks “Ohhh, LOOKOUT!” into the mike one last time to end it all...followed swiftly by a huge pre-recorded explosion that finally does.

The teeny minions continuously cheer throughout as nary a sound can be heard from the now darkened stage until a piercing synthesizer signal cuts through like a laser beam, echoes and then trails off to repeat several more times. With a reckless and feedback creased introductory pile-up of “Someone Else Will” Sweet hitch aboard the same juggernaut that propelled Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” only jammed in with an extra truckload of regimented and highly disciplined riffs until all music stops to make way for the four-part harmony chorus:


“IF

WE

DON”T

FUCK

YOU

THEN

SOME

ONE

ELSE

W-I-I-I-I-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L..!”


Cue disgruntled suburban Dad waving his fist at the four smirking glamboys on stage as he tramps up the aisle dragging his young daughter behind him. Of course, Connolly shoots him a fist back and -- WHAM -- the boys swing directly back into that unyielding King Tiger Tank Mk2-sized “The Immigrant Song” riff-ola. It’s brutal with those banshee wails roaring out over their frothing pounding waves of electric ocean to drown out the manifold waves of virgin female seagulls that wheel and cry around their glittery collective priapi. “Rock & Roll Disgrace” then blasts out with a torrent of grinding guitar, super pumper-thumper bass and Mick Tucker the Motherfucker all over the kit keeping it tightly nailed. The lyrics “Chicks know what you are/A rock’n’roll star/Yes you are” in a weird appropriation of “Instant Karma” with equal time for the ladies in the audience (and mebbe even themselves) with “All you know/You’re a rock’n’roll queen” with Priest the Joker coyly adding “a young man’s dream” with a wink. With a “onetwothrreefour” they then steam into “Need A Lot Of Lovin’” with blood vessel-popping CCR Fogerty-sisin’ vox going at 78rpm all Lil Richard-like as they did on “Travellin’ Band” with Connolly throwing in plenny of eyes-rolled-upward accenting. And in a blaze, the first side has already passed in a rock’n’roll blur.

Side two opens with an introductory blast/warm up and the diamond hard-boogie of “Done Me Wrong Alright.” Since emerging as the B-side to Sweet’s 1971 hit “Co-Co,” this track finally grew up...all wrong and now expanded into an unhinged jam eight minutes in length that highlights Andy Scott’s overboard without a life-preserver guitar mental-technics that culminates into a noise jam like Townshend and Moon mopping up the end of their Woodstock set prior to Pete jettisoning his SG Gibson as an Aquarian sacrifice.

As the only concession to the crowd, Sweet peel off their early B-side “You’re Not Wrong For Lovin’ Me” and do it like the acoustic lovey-dovey summer ballad it always was and probably only thrown in to offset the approaching barnstorming cover of “The Man With The Golden Arm.” Firmly in the musical category of Alice Cooper’s perennial “West Side Story” fetish-worship, it even edges into the “When you’re a Jet/you’re a Jet all the way” melody and is a careening monster until the breakout drum solo (well, it does read ‘WARNING: this is a totally live album’ in the gatefold) that allows Tucker ample opportunity to twirl sticks to his heart content in between a variety of tempos, paradiddles and even taking it all down to let to the kiddies clap along. It builds back up and returns to the main theme before ending the live portion of “Strung Up” (although the expanded CD version saw them roar through four further cuts and a rock’n’roll medley to boot.)

Side three shifts to a composite of studio tracks, all of which had been previously released in one form or another except for the recently recorded “Action” single, here remixed especially for the album. The last Sweet single of its type, “Action” is a thinly-veiled farewell to Chinn-Chapman with its backing vocals chanting, “Liar! Liar! Liar!” in the chorus cos now THEY were writing own their rebellion songs, rebelling in turn against the guys who wrote all their previous teenage rebellion anthems. Without taking a breath comes twittering synthesizer percolations that signal the entry of “Fox On The Run” that expands into a full blown layering twin riff during the bombast intro, signaling it will be pilot fishing the guitar for the duration of this nah-nah-nah-nah-nah schoolyard-baiting anthem. Connolly bays out the lyrics and gives them a life beyond their brick wall scrawled letters, shored up by the high-pitched harmony vocals and worked into a catchy and triumphant call to teenage arms. And those interwoven synthesizer lines buoyed up the track something fierce and into something else (And if Sweet were anything, they were somethin’ else.) “Set Me Free” is a double bass drum/double time gallop ala “Fireball” down that four-lane highway of sweet freedom, as Sweet have just cut loose from the debilitating ball and chain of a weekend’s fling as Messrs Connolly, Scott, Priest and Tucker have already high-tailed it out of town from behind the bolted bathroom door and out the window. The under-recorded “Miss Demeanour” was fine as the B-side to “Fox On The Run,” but coulda been dropped in favour of “Sweet F.A.” and made side three perfection itself, but no. For all its shrill vocal harmonies, sharpened riffs and phased ending burn-out that’s just hitched a ride to nowhere it’s especially brittle -- especially placed right before the huge Phil Wainman production of “Ballroom Blitz” (which you all know and if you don’t, should) that ends the side gloriously.

The final side begins with another single B-side, the OWOBHM “Burn On The Flame” in all its proto-NWOBHM-ness followed by the slow tempo’d “Solid Gold Brass” that is moronically banged out at an elephantine pace as Andy Scott unfurls yards of combination heavy and melodic riffing over stop-and-start-and-then-stop-again arrangements. With a boisterous fanfare enters “The Six Teens,” as over the top an anthem as any Sweet would record, and they recorded many. Chinn-Chapman took behind the studio glass to create this Spectorian rewrite that incorporated the acoustic elements from Ziggy’s “Starman,” his electric ones from “Supermen” and funneled the whole thing into a tearful “Leader Of The Pack” (minus motorcycle effects) rewrite with Beach Boy harmony vocals on helium cradled by tubular bells and over-reverbed tympani. “I Wanna Be Committed” is a Chinn-Chapman composition that almost feels like a Sweet autobiography at once remove. Creepozoid robotic intonations of “Committed....committed....committed” over tolling of bells open this template for every hard rock “Yam I Goin’ Crazee (Radio Rental)” crackin’ up lament. Oddly, for all the harsh turns of guitar phasing layered over everything like inch-deep velvet and dum-dum damaged lyrics, the vocals in the bridge are rapidly double-time, doubly sweet and castrato-high.

The überstomper “Block Buster” blows out the end of the album until you’ve gotten the point that their partnership with Chinn-Chapman was an unbelievably productive one. But after it all dissolved just before the release of “Strung Up”, Sweet’s material began to drop down considerably with their following trio of RCA albums “Give Us A Wink,” “Off The Record” and “Level Headed” charting ever-declining urgency but the curtain truly had rung down with their final three LPs for Polydor minus the staunch Scots pipes of Brian Connolly. But what they accomplished in their heyday by successfully breaking the mould in which they were initially cast and staking out a musical terrain they could truly call their own as a rock band of the most brazen kind is the sort of singularity there just can’t be enough of in rock’n’roll...I think the word for it is ‘fun.’




FOOTNOTES:
  1. “Little Willy” was all over the place when I was first listening to AM radio as a full-time occupation and was even on my older sister’s K-Tel compilation of AM radio hits album, so they seemed instantly important in my pre-pubescent mind at the time and I sensed Sweet was gonna be making a whole lotta noise along the line of a string of hits into the foreseeable future. Of course, Sweet had already been doing just that for the past four years not only in the UK but everywhere else outside my little world of American AM radio. Living on the right-hand side of the Atlantic as a 1975 pre-teen I was only aware of “Little Willy” (which I liked) and “Fox On The Run” (which I loved) up until the late eighties and always reckoned they were merely proto-Rollers and not the least bit Rock until all was revealed when I experienced the scorching title track off their “Sweet Fanny Adams” album and three clips off a fantastic video compilation Virgin issued in 1990 called “Glam Rock” that featured “Blockbuster,” “Teenage Rampage” and the very same version of “Hellraiser” that made it onto “Strung Up.” This latter clip proved to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was not the doing of typical teenybopper merchants because they cut it so powerfully as a live band.

  2. Namely, because Sweet managed to keep pumping them out into the uppermost reaches of the UK charts for years: 1971- “Funny, Funny” and “Co-Co”; 1972 - “Poppa Joe,” “Little Willy” and “Wig Wam Bam”; 1973 saw them hit #1 with “Blockbuster” with two non-too shabby showings at #2 with “Hellraiser” and “Ballroom Blitz” while they graced the charts yet again in 1974 with “Teenage Rampage” and “The Six Teens.”

  3. The Sweet/Deep Purple connection ain’t as tenuous as one might think. Hell, one listen to the tempestuous “Sweet F.A.” would settle it alone, but not only did Sweet record “Fox On The Run” at Roger Glover’s Kingsway studio, but in March 1976 at the Santa Monica Civic Center Sweet jammed on “All Right Now” with Ritchie Blackmore. (Which must have doubled the pleasure for those Purp-Heads in attendance as it was in all certainty a bigger rave up than “Stormbringer” ever was. I mean, “Lady Double Dealer”? Whoa: No wonder Ritchie the B. hitched himself the first ride outta there.)