Paul Gallagher from Dangerous Minds with another KILTR blog post today. The Sweet’s fateful trip to Kilmarnock in the 1970s, the story behind pop smash, Ballroom Blitz and the demise of the band revisited.
The band had hardly started playing before the riot began. Men spat, shouted abuse, and threw bottles, while women screamed to drown out the music. Not the kind of reception The Sweet expected. Not with a string of million seller hits like “Little Willy”, “Wig-Wag Bam” and the number 1, “Block Buster” to their name. But getting bottled-off the stage at the Grand Hall, Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock in 1973, was to bring the band even greater fame, as it inspired their biggest hit, “Ballroom Blitz”.
It’s often been said the riot started because of The Sweet’s high-camp, low-drag appearance. As apparently men in eye-shadow, glitter and lippy, was all too much for the Killie locals. In particular the come-hither look from the flame-haired bass player Steve Priest.
It’s a possible, and Steve Priest certainly thinks so, having said it in his autobiography Are You Ready Steve? But it does raise the question, as to why would an audience pay money to see a band best known for their outrageously camp image? Especially if these youngsters were such raging homophobes?
Also, this was 1973, when the UK seemed on the verge of revolution, engulfed by money shortages, food shortages, strike action, power cuts and 3-day-weeks. The only glimmer of hope for millions of young things was Thursday night and ‘Top of the Pops’.
It’s probably part of the reason, but there is another possible. At the time, there was a rumor that Sweet didn’t play their instruments, and were little more than a manufactured, something like The Monkees. This story had gained credence as the band’s famous song-writing duo of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, preferred using session musicians to working with bands.
There was a sliver of truth here – in that The Sweet’s main contribution to their first 3 Chinn-Chapman singles was only their voices on “Funny, Funny”, “Co-Co” and “Poppa Joe”. It wasn’t until the fourth, “Little Willy” that Chinn and Chapman realized Sweet were in fact far better group of musicians than any hired hands, and allowed them to do what they did best – play.
True, Chinn and Chapman gave Sweet their Midas touch, but it all came at some cost. The association saw the group dismissed by imperious music critics as sugar-coated pop for teeny-bopper generation. A rather harsh assessment, which may, in part, also explain the audience’s ire. This was Kilmarnock after all, where the locals preferred Heavy Metal and accordion music.
What also may have angered the audience that fateful night, was the band’s choice of songs. In a bold effort to redefine themselves, The Sweet tended to avoid playing their pop hits on tour, instead opting for their own songs – the lesser known album tracks and a selection of popular rock covers. Back then, a band veering from their ‘Here are the Hits Songbook’ was asking for trouble – something Freddie Mercury later proved at Live Aid, when Queen made their come-back, by always giving the audience what they want.
It is more than likely all of these reasons collided that night and ignited the seething unpredictability of a young and unhappy audience into taking their frustration out on a band who weren’t being what they wanted them to be.
Which was a shame, for Glam Rock’s distinct sound owed much to Andy Scott’s guitar playing, which has been favorably compared to Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, and to Steve Priest’s powerful bass, and harmonizing vocals, and Mick Tucker’s inspirational drums (just listen to the way he references Sandy Nelson in “Ballroom Blitz”). Add in Brian Connolly’s vocals, and it is apparent Sweet were a band with talents greater than those limned by their chart success.
If ever there was a tale of a band making a pact with the Devil, then the rise and fall of Sweet could be that story. A tale of talent, excess, fame, money, frustration and then the decline into alcohol, back-taxes, death and disaster. By the mid-1970s, when Sweet were asked to support The Who, Connolly was beaten-up, kicked in the throat and his voice-box damaged. It stopped the band from crossing over into serious rock, and led to their eventual demise.
Sadly, half of the band is now dead: Connolly, who survived 14 heart attacks caused through his alcoholism, ended his days a walking skeleton, touring smaller venues and holiday camps with his version of Sweet; while the hugely under-rated Tucker sadly succumbed to cancer in 2002.
The remaining members Priest and Scott, allegedly don’t speak to each other and perform with their own versions of The Sweet on two different continents.
Priest lives in California, has grown into an orange haired-Orson, while Scott, who always looked like he worked in accounts, is still based in the UK, and recently overcame prostate cancer to present van-hire adverts on TV.
This then is the real world of pop success.
I doubt they would ever change it. And I doubt the fans would ever let them. So great is the pact with celebrity that one is forever defined by the greatest success and worst excesses.
Back to that night, in a theatre in Kilmarnock, when the man at the back said everyone attack, and the room turned into a ballroom blitz. Whatever the cause of the chaos, it gave Glam Rock a work of art, and Sweet, one of their finest songs.
This post was writeen by Paul Gallagher and originally appeared on the superb, Dangerous Minds blog.
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