April 28th, 2009 | Interviews

Stream: The Sweet “Wig Wam Bam”


(from Action: The Sweet Anthology out now on Shout Factory)

As bassist and co-vocalist of nonpareil Britrock jesters the Sweet, Steve Priest provided the wobbly floor beneath megabuck Top Ten capers like ‘Little Willie,’ ‘Fox on the Run’ and ‘Ballroom Blitz.’ These rattletrap rides on the Benzedrine Express are part of our general rockist heritage, with Shout Factory’s new two-volume band retrospective Action: The Sweet Anthology providing the extra texture necessary for a radical reevaluation of these 1970s teen titans. After spurning the temptation to take his old band back out on the road until 2006, Priest finally answers ‘Uh-huh’ to the musical question, ‘Are you ready, Steve?’ This interview by Ron Garmon.

You made you own bass guitar?
Steve Priest (bass/vocals): The first one, yes. I based it on a Hofner, which was itself based on the Fender. I just got some plywood and glued it together after cutting it out in the right shape. I dunno how I made the neck. I was fretless to start with until I found out you can actually get some fret wire and then I fretted it. I played it quite a while actually. It sounded fine!
What was your gig when you were recruited into what was then called the Sweet Shop in the late 1960s?
I was in a band called The Army, which was an eight-piece soul band, if you like. It had brass and everything.
Oh, wow. You guys did like Stax and Motown and all?
Yeah. Precisely. It was on the tail end of Stax. We used to clear ballrooms out. It was brilliant! ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ is the best song to clear a dance floor. They just all run for the bar.
A helluva way to treat a Hayes-Porter original!
Strange, innit?
Yes. The Sweet’s early recording history is spotty, with the band going to several different labels recording one single after another.
None of them were written by us and they were all very… poppy.
The procedure was to get you guys to record in-house material and it would invariably bomb, right?
That’s about it, yeah. One was ‘Get on the Line’ which was an Archies song. We played youth clubs, working men’s clubs. There was a whole circuit that all the bands played. We did a Who medley, a rock ‘n’ roll medley.
You eventually signed with RCA and hooked up with Chapman and Chinn. The Sweet wound up with these two pop songwriters glued to it.
Yes—they had a production company and would lease the tapes to whoever wanted them, which was RCA for ten years or so.
They evidently saw you guys as the next Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders.
Well, yeah. They wanted us to be a cabaret act that just sang their songs. Wrong!
The kids could easily tell the real band was on the B-sides. What was the band’s response?
We didn’t have much choice at the time. We were out touring most of the time just to make money. ‘Round the time of the ‘The Six-Teens,’ Chapman and Mick Tucker had an argument in the studio and Chapman said ‘We don’t need you.’ It made me very uncomfortable. Mick Tucker said. ‘All right then, erase what we just played.’ They didn’t, obviously. That’s when they all left us to the far ends of the earth and left us without a single. So we went in and cut a shorter version of ‘Fox on the Run,’ which was poppier.
A sort of throw-out-your-gold-teeth move by the band that worked. It turned out to be one of your biggest songs and your signature tune, ‘Ballroom Blitz’ aside.
Well, ‘Ballroom Blitz’ is definitely its own… thing.
Was the idea on that one to do a complete comic send up of the entire glam genre? A sort of turn-everything-up-to-11?
Yes, it was. Everything but the kitchen sink, yeah. It was clown time.
There was a lot of humor in your records, unlike those of, say, Marc Bolan.
Well, in the real Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bolan wrote some really good folk songs
Oh, yes. My People Were Fair, etc., is a gorgeous album.
Then he decided he wanted to be a rock star. And I don’t think it really worked. It did in England for a while.
‘Wig-Wam Bam’ was the first time you guys even played your own instruments.
Yes, well—they allowed us to. Which is ironic, since we’d done ‘Little Willie’ well, the musicians union had had a rule that if we were going to mime on ‘Top of the Pops’ or any other TV show, you had to re-do the song. In front of a union representative. Well, when we actually went in to play ‘Little Willie,’ Chapman asked ‘Why aren’t they playing on their records? This is the sound I want!’ That was that.
You were lucky. The story goes Badfinger spent most of their career dealing with a big disjuncture between what they sounded like live and on record.
They were a great band! I loved them.
Like Keith Moon and Vivian Stanshall at about this time, you appeared in public wearing a Nazi uniform. Those two were only having a drink at the bar, but you wore yours on ‘Top of the Pops.’
Well, it was during ‘Blockbuster,’ so if you don’t get the humor, you’re a bit slow.
Which was named after an Allied bomb. That song starts with an air-raid siren, for criminy’s sake! A clear WW II reference.
Kinda, yeah. Pretty obvious.
It must’ve been a vindication to have your albums start charting the minute you chuck Chinn and Chapman.
We were embarrassed. Males thought we were a girly band. Sorry, Schwarzenegger. After that, we dropped our poppier sound. Everyone thinks the glam era was like ten years long! It wasn’t. In England, it ran from ’72 until ’74 at the most. When we did ‘Fox on the Run’ we weren’t glam anymore.
No, you weren’t. A song like ‘Love is Like Oxygen,’ especially the full-length version, is commercialized prog of a high order.
It worked, didn’t it?
You used a thirty-piece orchestra at one point.
Yes, on Level Headed. That was quite fun, watching an orchestra work. Lots of studio tricks the engineers do, like miking the French horns from behind, since the horn curls round and the big end of it faces backwards when it’s played. This one guy had a shitload of medieval horns, lyres, sackbuts and whatever. You play ‘em once you have to retune them. Must’ve sounded dreadful.
By the late 1970s, Brian Conolly had quit.
He’d wrecked his voice. That and he was beaten up early in the ‘70s as well. It took him a long time for him to get his voice back to nearly what it was. I never knew what that was about. In ’81, I decided to call it a day. I was living in New York and commuting to England to do nothing but have band meetings where we sorted out what we weren’t gonna do.
It being the Sweet, there were many attempts to revive the band which didn’t take. You didn’t participate in any of them.
None of them. We’d just had a kid and I’d moved even further away in L.A. which was even a bigger commute. I was happy not doing it for a while at least. Until I saw Eric Clapton year before last, that is. I thought, ‘If he could do it, I certainly can.’ I knew some musicians and everyone said OK. Stuart Smith, our guitarist and drummer Richie Onori and then we got Stevie Stewart on keys and Joe Retta on lead vocals and it all just worked.
I just got back from Coachella and you wouldn’t believe the reception accorded Paul McCartney, especially the kids.
Oh, I can imagine! At our own gigs, everyone’s either fifteen or fifty!
The latter is understandable, but what is it about the Sweet’s music that appeals to the former?
They know the lyrics! That’s what’s amazing to me! I wonder what the next lyric is and I look down and they’re lip-synching it!