Sweet – The 1970s Band That Should Have Been As Big As Anyone. They Released Their Final Hit In January 1978 – Love Is Like Oxygen
A Story of Sweet Success And Missed Opportunities
If you were to name a rock band that should have had long-lasting, international success and made a major musical impact but didn’t, one of the top contenders would have to be Sweet.
In the pantheon of great rock bands, Sweet has been forgotten.
There are many reasons for this amnesiac neglect. Possibly the reasons add up like this: a series of bad breaks; not being taken seriously by a dismissive, indifferent critical press; an insufficient amount of American touring and radio exposure; and unsure musical direction. But certainly not because of a lack of producing great rock music.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Sweet’s final hit Love Is Like Oxygen which was released in January 1978. We’ll discuss the song at the end of this article, but here is an abbreviated version from the TV program Top of The Pops.
A very similar band from the same time, Queen, became, a juggernaut, filling arenas and stadiums, having tens of millions of album sales and critical acclaim – all things Sweet seemed destined to achieve, but didn’t.
And if you don’t think Queen was heavily influenced by Sweet, then maybe you should have a listen.
Despite over 35 million album sales and moderate touring success around Europe, Sweet never lived up to their potential. With the exception of a handful of songs, Sweet was rarely played on American radio, hampering whatever breakthrough success they deserved.
Today, younger listeners unfamiliar with Sweet during their heyday, will rarely be able to name the band when they hear them. They recognize the songs, but often mistake the band’s music for that of E.L.O., the Bee Gees, Queen or some other band.
In the 1970s, Sweet, an English glam pop band, morphed into a serious hard rock band with a long list of hits in the United States and England. Originally they recorded songs written by others, primarily their managers and main songwriters Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn.
But Sweet was more than just a Three Dog Night, Grass Roots or Monkees sort of band. Those bands could barely get by playing an instrument live and never or rarely wrote any of their own songs.
Sweet’s bass player Steve Priest, drummer Mick Tucker, guitarist Andy Scott and lead vocalist Brian Connolly were all accomplished musicians who could write and play their own music and do it damn well.
What made Sweet stand out was their vocal harmonies.
Frequently featured on the weekly British music show Top of the Pops, Sweet would, as the custom was at the time, go on stage and lip synch what they had done on record. Their disdain for lip synching was apparent and they would often make a mockery of their own performances.
Their early “hits,” all written by Chapman and Chinn, were simple but immensely catchy ditties, in the genre known as “bubblegum rock.” Innocent lyrics with just a bit of double entendre intended for a teen audience.
Blockbuster, Wig Wam Bam, Funny Funny, and the American crossover hit Little Willy were just a few of their early chart successes. These were followed by more hits Hell Raiser, No You Don’t, AC-DC, Turn It Down and Sweet’s most famous song The Ballroom Blitz.
But it was apparent that Sweet could be much more given some musical latitude. All four members had great singing voices and were capable of singing lead.
In the early part of their success with Chapman and Chinn, Sweet had been writing hard rock songs placed on the B-sides to all of their A-side hit releases. Over time, the band became less content with their pop musical direction and were ready to try and make a go of it without Chapman and Chinn’s hits.
More than half the songs on the album Sweet Fanny Adams (1974) were written by the band. When released, rock fans were shocked by the change in complexity and tone of Sweet’s music.
With songs like Sweet F.A., Rebel Rouser, Restless, Teenage Rampage, and Into The Night, Sweet sounded very different from their previous releases.
1975’s Desolation Boulevard album (which had separate UK and US releases with different tracks) contained the first major international hit written by the band, Fox on the Run. Other hard rock hits included, Solid Gold Brass, Burn on the Flame and the blazing pre-heavy metal anthem Set Me Free.
Though some fans liked the new direction for Sweet, the band was unsure if they had to re-establish or find a new connection to a fan base, both musically and image-wise.
When given the opportunity to show off their chops live, Sweet could blow many bands of the era off the stage. Looking back today, Sweet compares very favorably to any contemporary hard rock band. And listen to those harmonies!
Here are three prime examples of live performances from 1974.
So where did Sweet go wrong?
The audience split was the big problem. Just who was the audience for this band?
Sweet had alienated some of their teenybop base and confounded fans of bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple with their heaviness.
12 and 13 year-old girls who liked Sweet’s early 70s bubblegum music weren’t necessarily fans of the new Sweet. Hard rock fans had a hard time getting past Sweet’s previous pop songs. Sweet’s old image with their outrageous glam stage show, wearing gaudy metallic outfits with high heels and make-up didn’t help cross them over to the heavier rock fan base.
On the other hand many of Sweet’s live shows now featured unheard of debauchery popular to the hard rock set of fans. Topless women parading on stage, lyrical switch-ups “If we don’t fuck you then someone else will.” Steve Priest once going so far as dressing in German military regalia on Top of the Pops. For others, it was just too much to be taken seriously.
In 1974 Sweet was asked to be the opening tour band for The Who. This would have been the exposure that would have ensured a much wider audience for their hard rock music. Unfortunately singer Brian Connolly was attacked and savagely beaten outside a bar with his throat being severely damaged. Connolly could not sing for a while. Sweet had to pull out of the tour with The Who and Connolly’s voice was now a shadow of its former glory.
While Sweet’s band members had always been party animals taking advantage of the rock star status, and indulging in copious amounts of sex, drugs and alcohol, Connolly’s drinking had gotten out of hand and his performances began to suffer. The rest of the band was feeling discord and though they recorded some stellar music from 1976-1978 they could not generate the sort of record sales or attendance at live venues with their hard rock edge to push them over the top.
Despite putting out great songs such as Action, The Lies In Your Eyes, Fever Of Love, Lost Angels, and Live For Today, Sweet could not get any radio airplay in America, another key to breakthrough success.
In late 1977 the band recorded the album Level Headed and Andy Scott with musician Trevor Griffin wrote one of the most catchy and well arranged songs Sweet ever recorded. The mainstream Love is Like Oxygen was released in January 1978 and entered the Billboard Hot 100 charts at #81 during the week of February 18, 1978. At this point of the band’s musical output Brian Connolly was no longer the featured lead singer on many of Level Headed’s songs. But It is Connolly’s heartfelt performance, along with the very catchy riff that shot this song to a chart topper all around the world.
With strong radio airplay and Sweet touring America with Bob Seger, the song gained momentum, reaching #8 on June 24, 1978. It was the last time Sweet would ever have a top 40 hit.
There are two versions of this song: the more played edited under four minute version which was heard on most AM and FM radio stations at the time, and the more complex and layered seven minute album version. Here is the original long version.
Brian Connolly left Sweet after Level Headed, and the band trekked on, recording three more decent albums. By 1982 the Sweet had disbanded.
Connolly’s health rapidly declined from a variety of ailments. Over the intervening years he suffered multiple heart attacks and passed away from liver failure at the young age of 51. Mick Tucker battled leukemia and died at age 52 in 2002.
Andy Scott reformed a version of Sweet and still tours with his band in Europe. In the 1980s Steve Priest settled in the United States where he has his own band, performing Sweet’s music.
For many musicians Sweet remains one of the most influential and covered early hard rock bands.
For the few fans in the know, Sweet’s musical output remains a treasured high point of 1970s rock music.