The Sweet, Blockbuster! (1973)

SweetBlockbuster.jpeg

Artist: The Sweet
Title: Blockbuster!
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1973

W-w-w-wuh-we just haven’t got a c-c-c-aargh-huh!

I hate the sound of sirens. The ghostly wail is actually the sound of air being pumped through a rotor, but there’s no way of boxing it off as practical mechanics when it pierces the everyday order of things and injects a note, or two notes, of alarm. In the case of the intro of Block Buster – also written as Blockbuster!, and Block Buster! – it warns of one of the most exciting glam rock singles of the era. I was seven when it was released in January 1973. The band’s classic line-up – Brian Connolly (vocals), Andy Scott (guitar), Steve Priest (bass), Mick Tucker (drums) – had been stomping around the pub/club circuits of Greater London and North Wales individually and in various configurations since the early 60s, playing R&B and bubblegum pop longer than I had been alive. In August 1970, they coalesced. And I started Abington Vale Primary School.

Painlessly guided into Bacofoil jump suits and winched aboard heels to match the age and destined for greatness under the industrial songwriting aegis of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and producer Phil Wainman, the lads were only heard vocally on the first Sweet records until their musicianship was recognised and they were allowed to take over from the session players and even write their own b-sides.

To call these androgynous, pouting, stack-heeled, spaniel-haired hod-carriers of legend a “singles band” is an understatement. Between late 1971 and early 1974 they had eight consecutive UK hits, six of which went Top 5, one of which was number one, and not one of these hits was on an album. The Sweet were a band who knew that if you couldn’t suck it in three minutes and 13 seconds, it wasn’t worth a fuck. (Most of their UK hits throughout this golden run also busted the block in Australia, Europe, North America, South Africa and Canada; in total, they had 15 smashes in the Top 40, their last post the spooky, self-penned Love is like Oxygen in 1978.)

What’s strange about The Sweet, and their sweet-smelling success, is that while glam-racket contemporaries Slade and Wizzard are still hailed as a national treasures, with Noddy Holder, Dave Hill and Roy Wood cast as bona fide Queen Mums, David Bowie is an immortal, and even Marc Bolan is an impish icon whose legend was sealed in arboreal tragedy, the Sweet seem to have slipped into a nostalgic vacuum where ridicule in snarky captions on Top of the Pops compilations is their legacy. This must be rectified.

As a child on the edge of my first breakthrough, I favoured the Sweet and Slade equally, and held Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter in the same pin-up regard, but it was Steve Priest who captured my heart one Thursday night when Nan Mabel was round to hit her mark and ask me if the pancaked bassist was a man or a woman. (In truth, I wasn’t 100% certain myself, but it’s amazing how liberal you can be at seven because I knew that he was smashing.) I must have seen Little Willy and Wig-Wam Bam performed on the Pops before Blockbuster! summitted and remained at the toppermost for five weeks in the first months of ’73, but neither is stamped on my memory. I won’t have been philosophically and politically nuanced enough at that age to appreciate the proto-punk provocation of Priest wearing a Nazi uniform from the BBC costume department for one of the Blockbuster! recordings, but it helped to nail them to the post of posterity.

Out of that siren comes the song: a percussive guitar signature into a trucker’s beat, with handclaps, a thumping bass, celestial harmonies (“Ah-ahhhhhh“), and a duality of rock’n’roll riffs, one acoustic, the other electric. Then, a warning.

You’d better beware, you’d better take care, you’d better watch out if you’ve got long, black hair

I never really took it this literally at the time, but the lyrical thrust is that an “evil” gentleman called Buster needs to caught, taught and most pertiently blocked from “stealing your woman out from under your nose.” We’re advised not to look into his eyes, as there’s something “going on behind his disguise,” and the police have been called (“they’re running about”). He sounds like a bad hombre. And although “nobody knows where Buster goes,” (no wonder Steve hasn’t got a clue what to do), the chorus is more optimistic:

There’s got to be a way
To Block Buster!

As if to confirm Chinn, Chapman and Wainman’s combined debt to Phil Spector, the bridge at two minutes is engorged by timpani. While there is a compartmental cleanliness to the arrangement of each element in this gold blend of perfect pop, it has definite dirt under its fingernails, the perfect blend of spotless and spotty for your blooming generation.

The Sweet story ends sourly, with the decline of singer Brian Connolly after being beaten up, a cancelled support at the Who’s Charlton gig in ’74, an internal power struggle just as the band took control of their own songs and production, and the inevitable split in ’79. Andy Scott and Steve Priest both lead the inevitable dual incarnations of the Sweet (prosaically, Andy Scott’s Sweet and Steve Priest’s Sweet), with Connolly and Tucker no longer with us. If they’d only recorded Blockbuster!, their place in pop’s Valhalla would be assured. They got too much, they got too high.

Blockbuster! was the first single I ever bought.

Advertisements

Killing Joke, Love Like Blood (1985)

love_like_blood_12_1985

Artist: Killing Joke
Title: Love Like Blood
Description: single; track Night Time
Label: E.G.
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

In 1990, Killing Joke, or Killing Joke’s record company, or Killing Joke’s record company’s PR company, came up with the wheeze of promoting their new record by sending a female stripper to the offices of various music publications. Just doing the job she was hired to do, the stripper was led into the middle of the NME shopfloor where she proceeded to disrobe to the sounds of the new Killing Joke single emanating from a ghetto blaster. I am, in retrospect, deeply proud of what happened next. Male staff members (who outnumbered female staff members by around 10 to one) evacuated the main office, en masse, and gathered in the production room rather than be a party to the degrading display. Our feminist credentials intact, and the exotic dancer’s clothes still on, she was gently guided into the adjoining offices of Shoot, the then-weekly football magazine, where her work was unironically appreciated by young men lacking our snowflake tendencies. I’m pretty sure the magazine reviewed the Killing Joke single.

In many ways, as well as a fun anecdote about the late-80s pre-Loaded male identity crisis (the future founding editor of Loaded was among the embarrassed new men – although it was he who brilliantly came up with the Shoot wheeze), this story illustrates the core difficulty of Killing Joke. One of the keystone British post-punk bands, still crazy after all these years under the stewardship of Jaz Coleman, they are, like Steven Seagal, hard to kill. Like many disaffected aficionados of the blunt-instrument force of much British rock made in the crucible of punk, I flocked to their percussive musical message around 1980, gritting my teeth to Wardance, Change and Requiem via John Peel. (Coleman was furious in a way that only a well-educated former chorister and classically-trained musician who studied international banking for three years in Switzerland can be.) They’ve dabbled in death disco, and been heavily remixed, but Killing Joke remain a racket, as influential as the Beatles to bands too young to have been into the Beatles. But they act as if they don’t want you to like them.

Love Like Blood is, for me, the high watermark of their collective genius. I remember buying the 12-inch in 1985 and playing it continually in my study cell in Battersea, all the while slightly bothered by the cover photo of a ripped warrior wielding a Samurai sword, and the elemental viscera of the lyrics. “We must play our lives like soldiers in the field,” Coleman strains, with feeling. “The life is short, I’m running faster all the time.” There is an existential panic at the centre of this thundering anthem to strength and beauty destined to decay. Is it, like one of Leni Riefenstahl’s mountaineering films, a supremacist paean to human excellence? If so, is that a problem? We are certainly seem to be urged down a quasi-fascistic, Wagnerian path, where “legends live and man is god again.” Paging Mr Nietzsche!

The blood, the rose “cut in full bloom”, the burning hearts, the frustration and despair, love and hate, promised lands and fields; and the refrain:

’Til the fearless come and the act is done

A call to arms, driven by Paul Raven’s stomach-ache bass, Geordie Walker’s mountaintop guitar fanfares and Paul Ferguson’s precision analogue drumbeat over that twilight synth wash, Love Like Blood is a recruitment as much as a pop or rock song, a sincere promise of immortality “as we move towards no end.” Coleman’s lyrics dare us to get onboard. Are we up to the task ahead? Though a gifted man of letters, he is also a man of action. And it’s that sheer physicality that rises up out of these six minutes and 44 seconds of meat beat manifesto. It’s super, man.

The band produced it, and the album, with Chris Kimsey, who cannot go unheralded, a veteran in both engineering and co-production on several key Rolling Stones records and Led Zeppelin III (he also recorded Frampton Comes Alive!) – his marshalling of the Joke’s individual contributions to the overall signature matches that of a drill sergeant. I will always hold a candle for the early Killing Joke triumphs, the likes of Follow The Leader, Unspeakable and The Fall of Because, but it’s no coincidence that the radio version of Love Like Blood became their first Top 20 hit (and, at time of writing, their last). It is, simply, impeccable; fearless; peerless; the deep-rooted sound of a band in full bloom. And yet, queasy listening. Not a relaxation record. But that which does not destroy Killing Joke makes them stronger.

Now put your shirt back on.