TUNE IN TO
|ROCKWiRED iNTERViEWS STEVE PRiEST OF SWEET
AND THEY ALL STARTED GROOViNG!Having been born in the punk era and raised by oh-so-jazz minded parents, the thunderous sounds of glitter band SWEET's power pop anthems such as 'NO YOU DON'T', 'LITTLE WILLY', 'LOVE IS LIKE OXYGEN' and 'FOX ON THE RUN' where only made known to me through late night infomercials hocking some seventies collection or by any artist who has ever worked with MIKE CHAPMAN (PAT BENATAR's venomous cover of 'NO YOU DON'T'). Hell, I haven't even gotten into how I first heard 'BALLROOM BLITZ' in the 1991 film 'WAYNE'S WORLD'! With a string of hits - penned largely by songwriting team MIKE CHAPMAN and NICKY CHINN up until 1974 - SWEET was glam rock and through their pounding rhythm section, melodic guitar crunches, manic four-part harmonies, and stage presence, the band inspired a generation of future eighties hair bands. Of course, fortune couldn't smile on these lads forever. A couple of bad things happened and SWEET wasn't all that sweet anymore. Former lead singer - the late BRIAN CONNOLLY - was the first to abandon ship. The rest of the band followed suit in 1982 following the release of their final album 'IDENTITY CRISIS'.
STEVE PRiEST OF SWEET TALKS TO ROCKWiRED
ABOUT THE NEWLY REFORMED SWEET
THE 'ARE YOU READY STEVE?' TOUR
AND ROCKiNG OUT THE BAND'S SiGNATURE TUNES
ON HiS TERMS
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
After an infinite number of line ups calling themselves SWEET had toured the world and the untimely deaths of BRIAN CONNOLLY and drummer MICK TUCKER, bassist and co-founder STEVE PRIEST has dusted off the cobwebs on his AMPEG bass and has reformed the band SWEET with new members. This latest line up, consisting of STUART SMITH (guitar), RICHIE ONORI (drums), STEVIE STEWART (keyboards) and vocalist JOE RETTA, has already toured the U.S. and Canada and are on the verge of releasing a live album. There is also talk of a studio album being in the works - the bands first since 1982.
ROCKWIRED spoke with bassist/vocalist STEVE PRIEST over the phone. Here is how it went.
Are you ready STEVE?
Its all right! I get that a couple of times.
Then I apologize. It probably annoys the piss out of you.
So how does it feel going out there with this new line up for SWEET?
It's excellent! They are all very, very good players, and we're having a lot of fun together. It came together very quickly.
You haven't had much to do with SWEET since the break up following the release of 'IDENTITY CRISIS' in 1982. What brought you back?
Watching ERIC CLAPTON on stage and observing the fact that he is a lot older than I am and wondering why I'm not up there. So I decided to redo it and get going again.
Already, you and this latest incarnation of SWEET have toured the U.S. and Canada. What surprised you the most when you went back on the road? What didn't you expect?
Lets see. I expected exactly what we got actually. They recognized the tunes but they really didn't recognize who the band was. That was always our problem on this side of the Atlantic because we didn't tour enough. So, right now we are getting everyone to realize who actually played these songs.
I know what you mean. I have to be honest. The first time I heard 'BALLROOM BLITZ', it was through the movie WAYNE'S WORLD.
I was fourteen years old and I thought that CASSANDRA and CRUCIAL TAUNT sang it. But anyway...
Yeah there you go.
The band has also got a live album in the works.
We've already done it. Right now we're mixing it.
How about original material with this new band?
We'll be doing that too.
Forgive me for going back to the year of the flood, but what drew you to music in the beginning?
Well, I used to sing in the church choir which was whatever that was, but I had a lot of rock n roll inside of me that I had to get out.
Why the bass?
Ah, that's a tough one! Do you remember CLIFF RICHARDS AND THE SHADOWS?
Okay, well he had his own show on a Wednesday night and I was watching them and I really didn't know who THE SHADOWS were and the one standing in the middle had a different looking guitar. It was JET HARRIS on bass and I went 'Oh, I wanna play one of them!' I had no idea why, I just wanted to play one of them. I can play the guitar, but I have a lot more fun playing the bass.
Describe your first meeting with original SWEET members BRIAN CONNOLLY and MICK TUCKER.
We were doing a gig together. I was in a band called THE ARMY and they were in a band called WAINWRIGHT'S GENTLEMEN. We were co-headlining in this place just outside of London. It just so happened that MICK was being fired by their manager that evening and he didn't know anything about it. We were just chatting about how money doesn't go very far in an eight piece band. So after that gig, MICK was fired and BRIAN said to the manager that 'if you fire him, I'm leaving!'. The next day, BRIAN called me at work and said 'Would you like to form a four piece band?' and I said 'yes' because I was into CREAM by then and i liked that kind of bluesy type of stuff. Really basic. So I said 'yes' right away.
Initially, the band was called SWEETSHOP.
Only for a minute. Somebody stole the name and released some songs so we just shortened the name to SWEET.
I'm surprised no one thought of SWEET first.
Yeah, but it was during that time in the sixties and seventies were you had these stupid pretentious names like STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK. It was all just silly.
So what were the initial gigs like with you, MICK and BRIAN?
Some of them were all right but it was hard going because reggae had just come out and skinheads loved reggae for some reason and we weren't playing any. So in the beginning, it was rather difficult getting gigs. A lot of these venues were school halls and youth clubs and what not and it was very hard going until we had some hits in Europe - where reggae wasn't popular - and then we started touring Germany and Sweden and it became a lot easier.
At what point did ANDY SCOTT join the band.
That was 1971. Our first guitarist FRANK TORPEY left to get married and so we went "okay!'. Then we got another guitarist named MICK STEWART who didn't last very long. We didn't think we were getting anywhere and coincidentally that was how we hooked up with NICKY CHINN and MIKE CHAPMAN. Our producer PHIL WAINMAN did not like MICK STEWART and did not get on with him. He knew him and said "I'm not working with him!' This is the same time that MICK STEWART said that he was leaving. And we're like 'okay, bye-bye'. We held some auditions and eventually we decided on ANDY.
Much of SWEET's early work is kind of defined by NICKY CHINN and MIKE CHAPMAN. What were you're initial thoughts on this songwriting team?
Well, they saved us really because for a while we had no guitarist for one thing. PHIL WAINMAN got us a load of session stuff which paid some of the rent. CHINN and CHAPMAN had a good organization around them with MICKIE MOST and SUZIE QUATRO. It's nice to have a hit record. It makes you feel good. We'd go in to the studio and record the A-side which was always a CHINN/CHAPMAN song and the B-side would always be one of our songs. Of course we would record the B-side once CHINN and CHAPMAN had gone home and left WAINMAN in the studio with us.
In a lot of ways, it seems like SWEET's pop leanings mixed with it's rock sensibility predated a lot of the "hair metal" of the eighties. What are your thoughts on that?
Many of the eighties bands have said that we were a big influence on them with the vocals and the thrashing which was what we set out to do. We wanted these heavy back vocals in a three part harmony. Our guitarist didn't sing so it was only the three of us. It wasn't until ANDY joined that we went into four parts, but we still had the hard and driving back track underneath it all.
You, ANDY, BRIAN and MICK are the original members of the band. Talk about each of them and what you thought each of them brought to the table creatively and personality-wise.
Well, BRIAN had a very unique voice and a very unique look as well. He was very cool on stage. He had a good stage presence and had a lot of charisma. MICK was an excellent drummer. He is one of the most underrated drummers out of England. I think when people dismissed us as a pop band, they had decided that we couldn't play but my God was MICK good! Same with ANDY. He was an excellent guitarist. He's got a very high falsetto to top off what the rest of us were doing vocally. So it was a good combination. There was a certain amount of anger between BRIAN and ANDY for some reason. I'll never understand that one, but it seemed to work for some reason. It was always like a chemical reaction on stage that always had us going 'What's going to happen next?'.
A powder keg.
SWEET's first LP was 'FUNNY HOW SWEET COCO CAN BE'. What are your thoughts on that release so many years later?
Some of the songs on it are quite nice. The title is stupid but that was because we were still being controlled. 'REFLECTIONS' (a cover of THE SUPREMES hit) is a good one. It took BRIAN hours to sing it. It was a hard song to sing. But all in all, the album wasn't really us. It was NICKY CHINN's version of what he thought our album should be.
You've already talked about what your initial feelings were regarding CHINN and CHAPMAN, but what did that relationship turn into? Eventually the band broke away from them.
They were such prima donnas. The last single we recorded for them was 'THE SIX TEENS' which was an excellent song actually, but at the time BBC was on strike, so we couldn't get to TOP OF THE POPS and TOP OF THE POPS was the magic ingredient for getting you singles played on BBC. There weren't that many other radio stations around at the time. So consequentially, the song wasn't a hit. So NICKY CHINN and MIKE CHAPMAN had moved out to Los Angeles because CHAPMAN had already bought a house there, so the band was stuck with a miss on our hands. So the band got together and said 'let's do a single.' We had already recorded 'FOX ON THE RUN' which was on 'DESOLATION BOULEVARD' but thee song seven minutes long so we decided to rerecord it on our own. We did and it ended up being a huge hit. I remember MIKE CHAPMAN phoning me and saying 'It doesn't look like you need us anymore!' and I went 'No it doesn't, does it!' and that was the end of that.
Can't imagine anyone telling MIKE CHAPMAN that they don't need him. I've interviewed many people that have worked with him and have heard of all of the fights that would break out.
Oh okay! From what I've heard, he's really mellowed out and has become human again.
Age and blood pressure do that to you.
They do, don't they?
I was reading that a lot of your live shows around that time consisted mostly of B-sides and album tracks. Is that true?
Oh yes. Definitely yes. When we had one song 'COCO' which was a big hit actually, on the reverse side of it was a song we wrote called 'DONE ME WRONG ALL RIGHT' so we had opened the show with it and everyone's mouths fell to the floor. It just wasn't what they expected. That was the fun part. We could play our own stuff and mix it in with the singles.
Had SWEET ever had any contact with rivals bands such as T-REX or QUEEN or even GARY GLITTER?
Only in passing on things like TOP OF THE POPS. SLADE, we used to chat with. They were okay. MARC BOLAN was a bit 'I'm holier than thou!' Who else? Oh, I was sitting next to DAVID BOWIE. I think it was when we had 'BLOCK BUSTER' out and he 'JEAN GENIE' and I think these songs were released like a week apart. The two songs sort of had the same riff. He was sitting next to me and I was putting make up on and of course I was as subtle as a flying brick and DAVID was going"Oh no, no, no, no! You don't need that much!' and I went 'Oh, go away!' or something to that effect. I wasn't trying to be subtle. He didn't get it so there you go.
I've interviewed people that have performed on TOP OF THE POPS but I've never asked them what the experience was like. What was it like?
It was a very long day. You get there at like eight o'clock in the morning, which when you're in a rock n roll band doesn't exist. Anyway, you get ther at eight, you do a run through and they do the camera angles and all of that crap and then you are on your own until like four o'clock and they bring you back for dress rehearsal and then you are on your own again until eight in the evening by which time you have been to the bar a few times which is not good. So for a lot of performances, not just by us, everyone would be slightly under the influence.
Yeah, but for TOP OF THE POPS, all you had to do was lip synch, right?
In the early days, you lip synched but the Musician's Union complained that the musicians that had played on the record weren't getting paid for that session so we had to go in and redo the song with a Musician Union person there. So it wasn't the album itself. It was actually a remake and then you either put the vocals on or sing live. But we used to fiddle all of that anyway. We used to just give them the back track of the record and go 'All right! Here you go!' Then we'd go in and sing to the back track. It cost us a lot of money because we had to rent the studio for three and a half hours. In those days it was quite expensive. You didn't have PRO-TOOLS.
For the album SWEET FANNY ADAMS, the band recorded without CHINN and CHAPMAN. Describe that whole period where it sounded as if the band was taking control of it's sound.
SWEET FANNY ADAMS was a strange album. We did that album with PHIL WAINMAN while CHINN and CHAPMAN had floated off somewhere. So we decided to do it ourselves but unfortunately half away through it, BRIAN was attacked one night by a couple of thugs and they kicked his throat in so he couldn't sing. That's another one where I'll never truly know the why, what and how, but the timing for SWEET FANNY ADAMS must have been a dreadful time for BRIAN. It was awful because PETE TOWNSHEND wanted us on a big festival with him. It would've put us on the map as areal band, but because of what had happened to BRIAN, we couldn't do it. The press got a hold of it and were like 'it sound's like a put-up job! They didn't want to do it really!' We had to finish the album off because it was contractually due and that was why I sang 'NO YOU DON'T' for instance.
Once again, how I know that song is because PAT BENATAR did it.
That's right! That's exactly the point that I was making. I remember this one person trying to tell me that the song 'LOVE IS LIKE OXYGEN' was by ELO and I was like 'No, it wasn't. I was there when I recorded it.' And he wouldn't have it so I gave him the CD and he said 'Oh, I thought that was ELO.' They were similar in sound. JEFF LYNNE is a big fan of ours anyways so I think he ripped us off.
It does. You hear things and then you forget that you've heard them and they come out subliminally sometimes.
When did you see things starting to turn for the worse for SWEET?
When BRIAN was losing his voice. He was drinking much to much. He never really got over the voice thing. His vocal range was very reduced after that but of course we went on and did 'GIVE US A WINK' which I think is one of our best albums and 'LEVEL HEADED'. We recorded 'OFF THE RECORD' and then BRIAN left. We did the album 'CUT ABOVE THE REST' with me and ANDY doing all of the vocals.
What was that like stepping up front?
I was getting used to it actually because on stage BRIAN would keep forgetting lyrics so I would have to keep my eye on him all night and step in when he missed his queues. You had to keep it going which was strain on me because I was doing my own vocals too. It all started to crumble. BRIAN started taking God-knows-what pills and there was one night in Birmingham, Alabama - a place that I never particularly want to go to again - where BRIAN was so far out of it that he didn't even know where he was.
I know, and at the time CAPITOL RECORDS had heard that things were going south so they had decided to come and see how good or bad we were. All of the heads at CAPITOL were there and it was a disaster so we told BRIAN that 'either you're in or you're out, unless you can get yourself together!'. So he got himself together on stage and he was excellent actually. So we got back into the studio and he just couldn't do it. He also decided that he didn't want to scream any more. He just wanted to do Country music. And that was the end of that, really.
What were you're thoughts on his solo work?
Not bad actually. There were some nice songs on there and he sang very well. The songs were in his range and he was relaxed and he didn't have ANDY around him this time.
Describe the time you guys made what would end up being the band's swan song - "IDENTITY CRISIS'.
I was living in New York by then and I would come back to England every now and then because we needed an album. So we'd sit and write it and I'd come over to the States and stay somewhere with a friend and feel like a square peg in a round hole. I'd be there going 'Are we writing today?' and everyone would go 'Oh no, I can't make it!' I had traveled five thousand miles for all of these people not to make it. So we just sort of chucked that album together. It was the last thing we were going to do. At that time, I was staying at the CHELSEA HOTEL which is like an old peoples home because it was so cheap. I'd be getting to the studio by taking the subway. Everyone else was arriving in their Rolls Royces and I would arrive on foot. I just didn't feel very happy about the situation at all and the studio we did it in was rotten. It was horrible. The manger of the studio had these pictures on the wall of all of the employees and by the time we had finished the album, they had all been fired. So one day, I got a black magic marker and I just put crosses through all of there faces , just to make a point. the title of album pretty much said it all. We didn't know where we were going. We didn't have a direction. Punk had just hit and all though we were punks, we weren't punk rockers. That was ten years younger than us.
After the break up, BRIAN had his own version of SWEET and ANDY has his. It was pretty confusing! What were your thoughts on each of them going back and trying to make it work?
I never knew anything about BRIAN's version. I did eventually, but I didn't know it at the time. In 1985 there was a point when ANDY had asked me if he could use the name SWEET. He and MICK were going to be touring Australia and I had figured that that was going to be it. So I said yes. So ANDY and MICK went off as SWEET and then BRIAN was out there as BRIAN CONNOLLY's SWEET and I was sitting there going like 'My God! What is going on! What did I do!' So they kept going and one day around the time MICK started getting ill - he had leukemia - ANDY had fired him. MICK was fired from his own band. So ANDY flew MICK back to England and had another drummer the next day and continued as ANDY SCOTT's SWEET, but of course promoters immediately dropped the ANDY SCOTT bit. So ANDY was going on as SWEET while BRIAN was going on as SWEET and I wasn't.
Yeah, you stayed away from it.
Yeah, I thought it was in poor taste. It was too confusing and then ANDY would get a new singer every couple of weeks. And still is. I think he's got the singer from SAILOR now. Was it SAILOR?
Oh no, it's not SLADE!
The band that did 'Whoa, whoa, whoa it's magic!'.
Okay, I'll GOOGLE it later if I remember.
I wouldn't. That's who he's got at the moment. I think he's had about fifteen singers. He's looking for the ultimate in vocal superiority and he'll never find it. So I figured it was time for me to go out there. I've known STUART SMITH (current SWEET guitarist) ever since I've moved to L.A. so thats been a while and he's a good guitarist. I've put bands together with him in the past just to do a one off shows. We would do three of four SWEET songs for fundraiswers and things like that. So I phoned him and said 'Let's get a band together and since I own the band's name in America - let's just do it!'.
So is there bad blood between you and ANDY right now?
No blood actually. I don't talk to him and he doesn't talk to me and I think that if I go to Europe as SWEET, there is not a whole lot he can do about it.
Yes. Right now, our band is trying to get festivals together this year in the States, and they are slowly coming in because the economy sucks. It's hurt everything. It's hurt the big shows because people can't afford to go.
Exactly, when you can spend eighty bucks on groceries and not on a ticket.
There you go. So right now, they are being a little stingy and they going for the acts tha thave been doing it for the last thirty years. You know, "The Good Ol' Stand-Bys" of whatever the hell their names are. 'We're an American Band!'
Oh them! Great now I forgot their names!
Here we go 'THE AMNESIACS'!
I know and I'm supposed to be this rock trivia expert. Oh well, they're probably worth forgetting.
They are. Believe me, we did one show with them last year and they've got one hit. Or he's got one hit. There are two versions of them and I still can't remember what they're called. Something 'railroad'.
Oh, GRAND FUNK RAILROAD! Talk about the current lineup now. Who are they and what do you think each of them brings to the table that makes it worth going out there again?
STUART SMITH is on guitar and he's an excellent guitarist. We've got RICHIE ONORI on drums and he is excellent. He's on par with MICK. He's got great timing. STEVIE STEWART is on keyboards. Everyone in this band has been around the block a few times so they know the ropes. JOE RETTA is on vocals. He's got a great vocal range and a wonderful voice. I've known STEWART and RICHIE for a while and they knew JOE and STEVIE so I said 'All right , let's go into a rehearsal room and try it.' It worked right away! It just got together really quickly.
What would you like a person to come away with after they've seen this new line up live?
From what I've heard from fans who've seen ANDY's version and ours, they say that we do it like rock n roll and that ANDY does it to perfection or to his idea of perfection anyway. We do it the the way I wanted it to be done in the first place, you see what I mean?
A little more raw.
A lot more rock n roll. We do put on a good show. It goes straight to the point and there is no waffling. Everyone says that it's an excellent show and that now they can see who the real band is.