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.
“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.
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!
“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
Buy here: Off the Record