Monday, January 3, 2011

Sweet - Off The Record


Things aren’t always what they seem.

After racking up a series of lightweight, bubblegum glam hits like “Little Willy,” “Ballroom Blitz,” and the “Sixteens,” The Sweet had had enough.  Originally called The Sweetshop, in 1970 the band shortened their name and were placed under the tutelage of songwriting team Chin and Chapman.  International success and massive hits followed.

But things aren’t always what they seem. 

In their hearts, despite the way-glammed, feathered hairdos, massive bell-bottom pants, sequins, and high-heeled boots, Sweet were rock and rollers.  They wanted nothing to do with the bubblegum and teeny-bopper songs-- they wanted to rock.  And nowhere is this seen more vividly than on their vastly under-rated album, Off The Record.

The move began with the prior album, Sweet Fanny Adams (not officially released in the US, but half of which became side 2 of Desolation Boulevard).  Breaking away from the Chin/Chapman dictatorship, the men of Sweet wanted to prove three things; 1) they could write their own songs, 2) they could actually play their damn instruments, and 3) they knew how to rock, motherfucker.  The success of the self-penned “Fox on the Run” and “Sweet FA” from Sweet Fanny Adams fueled the fire.  Off the Record gasoline-torched the whole bubblegum building down.  This record is a monster of hard-edged, shiny produced glam rock, that should rank up there with the best of the genre.

“Fever of Love,” kicks things off.  A big hit in Europe, it never really caught on here, and that’s a shame.  Employing the sharpest pop hooks on the album, it’s the closet thing here to a bridge to the old days.  That’s not to say it’s bubblegum, mind you, just slickly produced, tightly crafted, and catchy as hell.   Starting off with some lightweight synth flourishes over a steady beat, Brian Connolly sings “You took the apple from the tree/and gave the fruit of love to me/but love is blind I couldn’t see.”  The big, Queen-esque, high-pitched, harmony vocals pop in right away, defining the signature Sweet sound, and that chorus is just pure sticky-sugar sweet.  But if you listen closely, there’s a hint of something rougher laying underneath.  Check out Connolly’s voice as he jumps into the verse.  Thick and rough, tangled and ready for a streetfight.  That’s not a bubblegum voice, that’s rock, baby.  Pure and raw, hard rock.

 In fact, it’s an amazing voice, one that fuels the passion of the entire album, acting in stark contrast to the thick production and constant group harmonies.  In my opinion, Connolly was one of the most under-rated lead vocalists in rock.   Not only did he have a helluva range--dropping down to the guttural lows of rock, or scaling to the Everest highs of the bubblegum harmonies-- but his voice was just laden with texture.  A roughened, soulful voice, one that just screamed out for hard rock, mean-spirited and nasty.  Definitely not one to be contained in bubble gum.  Never is this more apparent than on Off the Record where Connolly is basically cut loose, and damn if the Scot doesn’t let it all go.  It’s a voice I could listen to indefinitely.  Sadly, Connolly passed away in 1997, depriving us of those magic vocal chords forevermore.

But Sweet wasn’t just about Connolly.  In Andy Priest they had a studly, unheralded guitarist and songwriter.  Steve Priest was a jewel on bass, never over-playing, therefore easily overlooked, but solid as the Rock of Gibraltar (with a few tricky flourishes up his sleeves as well.) And Mick Tucker owns his drum set, displaying chops that could never be utilized in “Little Willy.”  The whole attitude of the band coalesced here.  Just check out the period photos on the CD booklet.  Gone are the sequins, the heels, and the bell bottoms.  Bring on the sleeveless t-shirts and jeans.  Forget the hairspray.  Let it fall.  Let it tussle, let it be messy.  Let it be Rock.

This attitude change pops up front and center on the very next cut “Lost Angels.”  Ignore that beginning, poppy synth intro.  Just 8 seconds in, the synths cut out, leaving behind a decidedly heavy guitar, chugging away, ominous and foreboding.  Forget the “apple of love” lyrics.  Suddenly we got “Infinity/Like time without a friend/who’ll sing the song if melody should end/you’re dead my friend.”  Whoa!  This ain’t kiddy-bopper music anymore!  But it’s still Sweet.  We still got the big vocal harmonies and a drill-it-into-my-head chorus.  But check out Connolly’s voice as he sings “Insanity/I can feel the knives inside my brain.”  Damn, if his vocal emphasis isn’t just drop-dead spot on.  That part kills me every time.  Followed up by that big chunky guitar-riff.  Then just wait for the 2 minute mark, when wheels fall off the bubblegum cart completely.  This is charging, straight-ahead rock and roll, and it’s awesome.

“Midnight to Daylight” keeps the savagery going, from the first second of the drum solo intro to the stuttering guitar riff.  The band drops into a comfortable groove that has plenty of chunk and muscle to it.   And suddenly . . . what was that?  Andy Scott finally busts out on guitar, dropping in lead fills, scattering chords, and counter melodies that positively sear.  Where’d those come from?  Not “Little Willy,” that’s for sure.  Just listen to the last minute of guitar-work, pulling harmonies, then battling with the harmonica.  Solid.  Toss in some nice harmonica work, some neo-progressive time-changes, a hand full of melody changes, and suddenly you realize that Sweet means business.  And that business is bruising, and business is good.

But for me the whole album leads up to the next track.  “Windy City” is a terror.  By far, the heaviest song Sweet ever recorded.  So far away from “Fox on the Run” that you might never think it’s the same band if it wasn’t for the signature, high harmony vocals.   Starting off with a bare-naked guitar busting out one nasty, dirty riff, this is their “Smoke on the Water” moment.  Sure it's a "borrowed" riff, but it's a killer.  Thick and full-on, street level sleaze.  Drums kick in (ok, here they could’ve gone for a bigger drum sound) followed by Steve Priest laying down some killer counter bass lines.  Connolly is possessed here, scratching his vocals chords to shreds as he lets it out, “Your dad’s in the slam/Your mama’s a whore.”  Again, a far-cry from "Little Willy."  And then there’s that ever present groove, that hard n’ heavy riff and bass tearing the mutha to pieces.   Mid-song, Tucker drops down into one-mind blowing drum part underneath a near-jazzy guitar break, before locking back in with Priest's bass, as Scott goes off on a tear of a solo.  Then seamlessly, it all locks back down into that riff.  That freaking awesome riff-- a riff so powerful that I used to blast this song at volume 11 before soccer games to get me revved up, locked into the proper state of mind to tear the crap out of the opposing team’s forwards.  I pitied any fool who tried to carry the ball into my defensive zone after I’d been playing this song.   With that riff still blaring in my head, he’d be separated from the ball and left bruised and muddied on the turf in a matter of seconds.  Red cards be damned!

“Live for Today,” is pure 1977 proto-punk.  Fast paced, snot-nosed, and middle-fingered up into the air.  “Live for today/don’t need no politician/live for today/don’t want no inquisition/you gotta throw the rules away.”  Why this song hasn’t been covered by some hardcore band is beyond me.  Maybe I can get Woody and Mighty High to try it, they’d tear it up.  “She Gimme Lovin’” is another punky, rock outburst, which moves us right on to “Laura Lee.”  Breaking out the acoustic, Scott dazzles with some simply beautiful neo-classical guitar and a melody that can only be described as gorgeous.  This is a path he’d explore more on the next album, “Level Headed,” with sumptuous songs like “Silver Bird.”  “Laura Lee,” is simply a gem, a delicate ode to love with some gentle quasi-psychedelic flourishes, and that stellar acoustic work.  This is also the song where Sweet’s classic harmony vocal style finally made sense to me.  Stripped of the synths and heavy production, (about 2 minutes into the song), the band (all of which sing) drop into a stunning accapella, four-part, chamber orchestra vocal section that is sublime in it’s beauty.  Here you can really here the timbre of their voices.  No production necessary.  Just pure singing.  That moment passes quickly, just a few seconds, but it may be the single best vocal harmony passage I’ve ever heard in a rock record. 

“Hard Times,” rounds the record out (forgetting the slight misstep stab at disco “Funk It Up.”)  And “Hard Times” is just that, a blistering hard-rock track with some prog-worthy off-time riffing, the dual vocal singing of Connolly and Priest, breaking down into another classic Connolly throat-shredding outburst.   Another glorious stab at serious hard rock.  Play this for the Sweet doubters.  See if you don’t’ turn a few heads.

Off the Record is definitely considered the lost album of the “classic-era” Sweet catalog, and it’s no wonder the album couldn’t find an audience.  Those who grew up listening to “Little Willy” and “Ballroom Blitz” must’ve been mildly traumatized by this, wondering if the band hadn’t lost their minds.  Yet those who loved to rock mostly ignored the album figuring it to be another piece of bubblegum fluff.  Both groups couldn’t have been more wrong.   Simply put, Off the Record is a great rock album, a glam mini-masterpiece that should’ve gotten way more accolades than it ever did.

In the liner notes of my deluxe-CD reissue, Andy Scott writes that upon reflection, Off the Record probably fits into his top 3 all-time favorite Sweet records. 

It’s number 1 for me, Andy.  Number 1

--Racer

Buy here: Off the Record

 Windy City



Hard Times


Lost Angles


12 comments:

Mighty High said...

I LOVE Sweet, and yet I have never heard of this record until now. Thank you, Dr. Rock!

Anonymous said...

Same here. And that cover is FREAKING ME OUT, man...

Lucy said...

You have a way with words and your comments on Brian's fantatic voice really resonate. Thanks for giving it the respect it always deserved.

Thomas said...

Great review, thank you!

The Ripple Effect said...

Thanks Lucy and Thomas! Thanks for dropping in with us at the Ripple!

Anonymous said...

Firstly let me state I am a Sweet fan and always admired the songs although they had peaked long before I got into rock music. So when I heard Brian Connolly was to tour Australian around 1990 I jumped at the chance to see him.

I saw Brian Connolly formerly of the Sweet in around 1990 on a tour of Australia. It was quite sad really. He was man who had been to the top and then came all the way back down.

He seemed good natured and somewhat happy when he stumbled onto stage. Even though he was 'totally out of it'. In front of a crowd of around maybe 150 rock fans at Billboard club, Melbourne.

Mid way through his set he fell over and had to be helped up. He seem to forget the words to the song and sort of stumbled back stage.

The backing band looked at each other and went to plan B. Play a few ZZ Top cover song until Brian Connolly returned.

About 3 ZZ Top songs later Brian was helped back to stage and a bar stool was provided for him to sit on. He started singing the song to the exact point he got to before he had left the stage previously.The band looked a little confused and reverted back to plan A.

By this stage he was smoking a joint and then tried to blow a condom up. Only really managing to smoke the joint properly. It was as amazing as it was sad. He looked almost dead.

He was by this stage getting a few jeers but he seemed to take this well. I remember standing there thinking this guy had it all why , why was he doing this to himself ?. I guessed all the Sweet money had long gone on this 25 year party.

He finished the show with Fox on the Run and the smallish crowd gave him a warm hand knowing they had just witnessed a rock n roll train wreck. And that they would probably never see Brian Connolly alive again.

But after all these years I think he did pretty well to get out there in his condition and still entertain. And alot of bands seemed influenced by them during this era - Motley Crue, KIss Poison. One feels had his health not been so bad the Sweet could have made some decent money again during the metal golden years (1986-91).

RIP Brian

The Ripple Effect said...

Man, that's a story that could bring tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing.

Dean said...

Thanks for calling attention to this underrated album. But let me point that between Sweet Fanny Adams and Off the Record was the even more hard rocking Give Us a Wink.

The Ripple Effect said...

Thanks Dean. Yeah, that's a great album. I gotta review that one sometime! Thanks for bringing that back to my attention

Mighty High said...

SWEET ROCKS!!!!

Unknown said...

I saw him in Newcastle NSW, on the same tour. It was heartbreaking to see. A mere shadow of his former self. He looked like a sick old man. He wasn't that old at the time. Very sad.

Unknown said...

Wow am in tears that f#$%s me up why oh why they had to shove him out so brutally. Unfortunate at birth, grew to fame and crashed love me a sad wounded babe. Have a hard time believing they really had to kick him out...

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