RIP Bassist Steve Priest: An appreciation of The Sweet

Everyone has a band that they’re inexplicably drawn to when they’re young and just getting into music. For me, that band was The Sweet.

I can’t explain it, but that’s music. There are certain sounds and attitudes and sonics that grab you in a special way. Why would I gravitate to The Sweet during my adolescence and teen years? No clue. But I’m a fan to this day.

For those who know nothing about the band beyond “Ballroom Blitz,” let me fill in a few blanks. They were formed in 1968, morphing out of a band called Wainright’s Gentlemen and Sweetshop into The Sweet. There were pretty run-of-the-mill at the beginning, another band trying to be like Deep Purple. But then the group met the songwriting/production crew team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. Working together with some songs written by The Sweet and others from Chinn/Chapman (henceforth known as “Chinnichap”), the group had a series of lightweight pop-rock songs through the early 70s.

My first exposure to them was a 7-inch single on the Bell label. I was in junior high.

This was kinda glammy, kinda rocky, kinda bubblegummy. They wore makeup, but it was the era of glam, so that was par for the course. “They’re so gay!” some of my friends said. That didn’t bother me, especially after a trip home from hockey practice one January Saturday in 1975, I heard this on the radio of my dad’s Oldsmobile Delta 88, probably on Winnipeg’s CFRW.

After that came this.

From then on, I was hooked.

First up was the purchase of the North American version of Desolation Boulevard, which, as I later found out, was the band’s third album. I still have that slab of vinyl, despite being nearly worn out completely. From grade nine through to the end of university, I played that record from front-to-back at least once while typing out every single essay and assignment. That adds up to more than a hundred plays.

It was during this time that I realized that The Sweet didn’t get a lot of respect from their peers. David Bowie thought their image was a little too much over-the-top. Steve Priest’s infamous “gay Hitler” costume didn’t help. Some people couldn’t stand the group’s wild harmonies that mixed in multiple overdubbed falsettos (mostly from Priest).

That didn’t stop me. I stocked up on whatever Sweet records I could find.

The UK (RCA) version of Desolation Boulevard, which is extraordinarily different from the US (Capitol) version. I’m pretty sure this was my first-ever import purchase. I grabbed Give Us a Wink (1976, featuring the single “Action“), Off the Record (1977, not a favourite), Level Headed (1978, which included the hit “Love is Like Oxygen“), and A Cut Above the Rest (1979; not great). Other records followed, but by that time, the lineup had changed–singer Brian Connolly left at the end of ’78, forcing Priest to take over lead vocals until the group broke up in 1982–and things just weren’t the same anymore. But that didn’t stop me from collecting them.

When I started going to record shows, I looked for Sweet records and acquired a bunch of compilations and greatest hits collections. On trips to used record stores in London, I looked for 7-inch singles. I probably have more Sweet releases than from almost any other band except Rush.

I saw them live just once. It was a Friday night gig at the now-defunct Rock’n’Roll Heaven at the corner of Yonge and Bloor in Toronto. They were terrible.

Maybe the band had an off night, but I remember two things: (1) That it was insanely loud; and (2) the crowd was insanely drunk. The urinals had filled up with vomit by 9 pm that night. It was a bit off-putting.

I’m not even sure which version of the band I saw. By this time (the early 90s, I think), there were three versions of The Sweet, one each headed by Priest, drummer Mick Tucker, and Connolly. When Connolly died in 1997 of liver failure, guitarist Any Scott had the rights to the name in the UK and Australia. By the end of the decade, Priest could only use the name in North America and even then, they had to be branded as Steve Priest’s Sweet.

Between playing with his version of the band, Priest worked as a real estate agent in Los Angeles. His wife, Maureen O’Connor, was in the publicity department of Capitol Records, the band’s American label.

Today, I still pull out those records from the band’s 1970s heyday. Priest and drummer Tucker were an awesome rhythm section. When I was learning to play the drums, I’d do my best to play along with the songs on Desolation Boulevard; I still haven’t mastered the iconic drum pattern of “Ballroom Blitz.”

Mick Tucker died of leukemia in 2002. And now that Steve’s gone–he died June 4–the only surviving member is Andy Scott. For me, this is like the long, slow goodbye of The Ramones. Another piece of my musical youth is gone.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “RIP Bassist Steve Priest: An appreciation of The Sweet

  • June 9, 2020 at 11:56 am
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    Hi Alan. What a sad loss for the music world. This actually happened this past weekend. An old friend of mine had a posting on Facebook asking friends to do the impossible: name their favourite song of all time. He wanted to construct a playlist with the results. An interesting enough experiment. But, as you know, that’s a virtually impossible ask. I have a playlist called “The 1177” which contains songs that I am ALWAYS thrilled to hear. I carefully curated it so that I would never hit skip when doing tasks like driving, golfing, working or writing. I other words, it is a list of my “favourite songs of all time”. It started out with – you guessed it – 1177 songs, and now sits at 1500+. Anyways, cutting to the chase, I wondered how I could contribute to my friend’s request. I thought, what’s perhaps the one song that I always crank to 11, that I always stay in the car for the song to finish, that always makes the hair on my back stand up? I submitted “Fox On The Run” to his list as my favourite song of all-time. I stated that it was the perfect example of Power-Pop, and that the sonic layers go much deeper than what’s on the surface. I was amazed at myself that I was able to submit one song as my favourite (and that it wasn’t a Rush song). The very next day I read that Steve Priest had passed away. Funny how the world works sometimes….

    Reply
    • July 6, 2020 at 11:49 am
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      Not sure if you’ll see this, but I’d love to see that playlist. If on spotify, would you consider sharing?

      Reply

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