The Sweet, Blockbuster! (1973)

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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.

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Tubeway Army, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? (1979)

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Artist: Tubeway Army
Title: Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
Description: single; album track, Replicas
Label: Beggars Banquet
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

It’s cold outside
And the paint’s peeling off of my walls

But not the face. I never painted my face. I never wore rouge or eyeliner, not even during my peacock Goth phase in the early 80s, when my genuflections to androgeny happened strictly above the forehead and below the neck. Hence the high esteem in which I held those gentlemen who did turn it up to No.7 during that first flush of male empowerment in the first decade of gender realignment. I was called a “poof” by rugby players on a number of occasions for my effete style choices (neckerchief, cavalry shirt, velveteen boots, even a bow tie), but the only time I wore actual makeup was for a sixth form production of Macbeth.

Gary Numan rocked the full slap. In line with his bid to appear alien, remote and “other”, he did what a number of prominent public men did during what, in 1979, had not yet emerged as New Romanticism, and that was to colour himself in. Or, in actual fact, rub the colour out. He claims it was to mask his acne, but it masked more than that. (It’s important to remember that Tubeway Army preceded the Blitz kid movement and never felt a part of it, or any sect, although whiteface was worn by plenty of rockers before Numan, not least Japan and Kiss and all those Glam Rock fops.) To mangle a line, What a piece of work was this man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? seemed to beam down, fully formed (“Please sit down”). Just as we provincials were getting comfortable with our binary system for identifying which records were and weren’t “punk”, here came some new jets, with their Philip K Dicks out and their Minimoog synthesisers in flight cases. It was a revolution, nothing short of. In the wake of Kraftwerk and Roxy and Moroder and Jarre, Tubeway Army took the discordant spirit of punk and remodelled it to look like an Auton. On this demonstration disc for what machines could do, the music pulsed and klaxoned, but it was driven by a skin-and-stick beat courtesy of Numan’s uncle. An important human factor. Rather, an important Numan factor. For it was Gary’s dispassionate, prosaic, borderline-frigid vocal that drew you into the noir. Part serial-killer, part sentient onboard computer, this pale, paranoid, panda-eyed android was sure fine looking, man, he was something else.

I was too ill-versed aged 14 to join the dots to his musical ancestors and felt instead as if something illegal had landed: contraband from another planet, smuggled onto Top Of The Pops and to the top of the pops – for four weeks, bean counters. Once deconstructed in Smash Hits – and willingly – Numan was more of a pop star than he at first seemed, playing Ziggy left-handed and constantly threatening retirement to spend more time with his pilot’s licence. It took the edge off his 2000AD horror-show style (Down In The Park, I Nearly Married A Human, The Machman, “There’s a man outside … a candlelit shadow on a wall near the bed”) and made him somewhat approachable, for all the trussed-up jumpsuit stylings.

Most sci-fi ages badly. Even Blade Runner, which was still in the future in 1979. But this single, like the faster Cars, still sounds ahead of the curve. If Numan became a figure of fun, it was because he put himself out there without fear of dying: flying his plane, making Groundhog Day comebacks, advertising hair transplants, marrying his biggest fan. When I finally met and interviewed him on 6 Music in the early 2000s, he told me he’d been only recently diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger’s. This may go some way to explaining his direct manner, his remote stance, his perceived arrogance, the speechmarks around ‘friends’ and his utter focus.

You see this means everything to me …