Big, Dumb Bubblegum
Big. Dumb. Trashy. Crunchy. Those are words commonly used to describe the music of the UK pop/rock band Sweet. And Action: The Sweet Anthology, the most comprehensive chronicle of the band to date, shows those adjectives to be right on target. However, these descriptors apply in two very different senses, depending on which of Action‘s discs/halves you’re talking about. The 16 tracks on Disc One are big, dumb, and trashy in the best possible way, the “crunch” coming into play gradually. Presented here is some of the most shamelessly fun, horny, catchy, enjoyable music of the 1970s. And, as it would turn out, some of the most influential. Then Disc Two comes along to spoil the party—big, dumb, trashy, and crunchy in all the worst ways, without the fun or much of the sass. In the early ‘70s, Sweet only looked like a blueprint for Spinal Tap. By the end of their career in the ‘80s, they had become the blueprint for Spinal Tap.
The not-so-secret ingredient that made Sweet so unique and irresistible was that they were a bastardized bubblegum-pop band. As part of a longstanding tradition, especially in the UK, the band served as a conduit for a producer (Phil Wainmann), a songwriting team (Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn), and a record company (RCA, later Capitol). Unlike, say, the Monkees, though, they were a proper band. In addition to vocalist Brian Connolly, they featured guitarist Andy Scott, bassist Steve Priest, and drummer Mick Tucker. The musicians—the rhythm section in particular—were fairly accomplished. However, they were substituted for session players on most of the early records. While Chapman and Chinn handled the singles, the band were given some freedom on b-sides and album tracks.
Sweet the band were always heavier, harder, and more ragged than Sweet the hit machine. The strain shows on early singles “Funny Funny”, “Co-Co”, and “Poppa Joe”. They’re catchy as hell, sure, and they’re fun. But they’re also musically disjointed, with lyrics that are literally nonsense. Connolly would evolve into a great rock vocalist, but here he mostly sounds like he can’t believe what he’s just sung. The cod-Caribbean touches on “Co-Co” and “Poppa Joe” are indefensible. B-side “You’re Not Wrong for Loving Me”, a harmonious folk-pop tune written by the band, is shoehorned in, just to let you know Sweet weren’t completely taking the piss at this point.
Anyhow, the sugar-and-adrenaline rush is set to begin. “Alexander Graham Bell” reveals the motivation for the great man’s invention of the telephone to be a booty call, providing a nice teaser for what’s to come. And come it does, the rhythmic punch, brilliant double-entendre, and unstoppable, harmony-filled chorus of “Little Willy”. And “Wig-Wam Bam”. The sirens, glam stomp, and Bo-Diddley-meets-“Paperback Writer” pastiche of “Blockbuster”. This is the sound of Wainmann, Chapman, and Chinn throwing all their tricks and hooks into a bowl, pulling out handfuls of rock, glitter, and well-groomed sweat, and the band not just going along with it, but rather running with it, eventually playing on the backing tracks even! If some of the songs seem forced together out of disparate parts, the parts bin is so reliable that this only provides more thrills.
For many, the pinnacle of the Sweet/Wainmann/Chapman/Chinn hit machine is the stomping “Ballroom Blitz”. Built on a shuffle rhythm and surprisingly malicious guitar riffing, it finds Connolly hitting his stride, alternating seductively-mumbled verses with a melodramatic bridge. It’s tough to decide which is a more delectable, iconic rock’n'roll moment: Connolly’s unforgettable band intro to open the song, or his histrionic “She thinks she’s the passionate one!” not quite a minute later. The chorus is almost an afterthought, such is the power of what precedes it. Appropriately enough, “Ballroom Blitz” helped inject Sweet into the 1990s, via a hit cover version by the actress Tia Carrere for the Wayne’s World movie soundtrack.
It’s somehow fitting, though, that the song where the entirety of what Sweet were about comes together best was penned not by Chapman and Chinn, but the band themselves. Finally taking creative control, Sweet celebrated with “Fox on the Run”, the perfect combination of glam, glitz, cheesy synths, and buzzing guitars. Connolly adds a determined yell to his repertoire, a convincing blend of punk and metal. The song almost literally smothers you with ‘70s rock’n'roll goodness, letting you up only for the exuberant chorus full of the band’s now-trademark rich harmonies.
And so ends Disc One. And so should end Action—but there’s still another disc and another 16 tracks waiting. It’s as if, having shown they could write a classic song and score a big hit on their own, Sweet were so self-satisfied that they didn’t bother to write anything else that even began to measure up. Sure, self-penned numbers like “Action” and “4th of July” bring the crunch and attitude, but lack the fun and character. The sad irony is that the more free Sweet were to be whatever they wanted to be, the more they flailed around in search of a sonic identity. The majority of Disc Two is wrought with cock-rock posturing, lame ballads, prog rock noodling, and an unconvincing stab at the Southern California pop sound. There’s even a disco tune and, yes, it’s horrible. Some apologists hear “minor masterpieces” in some of Sweet’s later work. The evidence here, though, places them firmly between Toto and Foreigner. Not the way you’d prefer to remember Sweet.
In Disc One you have a perfect Sweet compilation. Throw in Disc Two and the average drops considerably. There are some fine single-disc Sweet anthologies out there. Still, the sympathetic remastering and detailed liner notes work in Action‘s favor. It’s the perfect introduction for those who want the entire Sweet story, inglorious ending and all. But this is rock’n'roll, after all. What’s wrong with a little selective memory?
Despite the slide into mediocrity and worse, Sweet’s legacy had endured. Their core sound inspired countless bands, not least among them Cheap Trick and Queen. Without them, the words “power” and “pop” might still be mutually exclusive.