‘Bricklayers in leotards!’
Blockbuster – The Sweet
RCA 2305 (UK) / Bell 45-361 (USA)
Recorded at Audio International Studios, London
Released January 1973
Writers Nicky Chinn & Mike Chapman
Producer Phil Wainman
UK #1 27/1/73 5 weeks USA #73 7/73
The Sweet were one of the most successful pop groups in Britain during the so called ‘glam-rock’ period of the early 1970’s – an umbrella which also embraced David Bowie, T.Rex, Slade, Mott The Hoople and Gary Glitter. In point of fact they were copiers rather than innovators, their early hits such as ‘Funny Funny’ and ‘Poppa Joe’ owing more to the American bubblegum-pop of the late 1960s, while their enormous success was undoubtedly due to their association with two of the 1970s most successful pop writer/producers, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. This point is only emphasised by the fact that when the Sweet left Chinn and Chapman in 1975 to take command of their own career, the hits soon dried up. (Much the same happened to other Chinn-Chapman associated acts Mud and Smokie) Formed as ‘Sweetshop’ in 1968, the band recorded one single for Fontana (‘Slow Motion’) and 3 for EMI’s Parlophone label without success, before abbreviating their name and signing to RCA in 1971.
It was at this point that they began recording the commercial pop compositions of Chinn and Chapman, produced by Phil Wainman. In addition to writing 10 of the Sweet’s 13 Top 20 hits, Chinn And Chapman (or ‘Chinnichap’ as they became known) dominated the early to mid-1970s UK charts writing and/or producing most of the hits for Mud, Suzi Quatro and Smokie in addition to other less successful acts such as New World and Racey. (The Sweet also recorded New World’s hit ‘Tom Tom Turnaround’ while New World were first to record the later Smokie hit ‘Living Next Door To Alice’) Aside from the Sweet, these acts were all signed to Mickie Most’s RAK label, and with the notable exception of Hot Chocolate who wrote their own hits, Chinn and Chapman were responsible for a major part of RAK’s 1970s output. Later in the decade the duo wrote and produced Exile’s American #1 ‘Kiss You All Over’ while Mike Chapman produced a number of hits for Blondie and the 1979 US #1 ‘My Sharona’ by the Knack. Between the two of them Chinn and Chapman were responsible for 8 #1’s and dozens of Top 20 hits in Britain during the 1970s, as writers, producers or both.
The Sweet’s first Chinnichap hit was ‘Funny Funny’ in March 1971 (also the very first song Chinn & Chapman composed together), and this was swiftly followed by ‘Co-Co, ‘Poppa Joe’, ‘Little Willy’ and ‘Wig-Wam Bam’ all of which were major hits both in Britain and on the Continent. The Sweet didn’t actually play on their first five A-sides, producer Phil Wainman preferring to use session musicians with himself on drums. These songs with their highly contrived titles and lyrics allowed Chinn and Chapman to perfect their songwriting skills, and the Sweet to progress to a heavier ‘rock’ sound. Indeed, while Chinnichap controlled their commercial output, the group had always composed and performed their own rockier B-sides, and gradually perfected a sexually orientated somewhat ‘camp’ stage image that ultimately got them banned from the English Mecca Ballroom circuit and also arrested in Belgium for an ‘obscene’ stage show’!
Meanwhile, Chinn and Chapman adapted their songwriting to suit the Sweet’s preferred direction, and the ultimate result of this was ‘Blockbuster’, the Sweet’s only British #1, in January 1973. It was also Chinnichaps first #1, and according to Nicky Chinn, their first ‘glam’ record, though he describes ‘glam’ as a combination of both the music and the look, rather than a simple musical phenomenon. Their music a hybrid of bubblegum pop and heavy metal, Sweet took glam to its’ outer limits outdoing Slade, Bowie and Bolan with their outrageous and androgynous outfits, hair, make-up and jewellery and were once described by a music journalist as “bricklayers in leotards!”
‘Blockbuster’ was undoubtedly one of the most commercial pop records of the period with its attention grabbing siren intro. At the same time, it also utilised one of the most common chord progressions in pop music history, and having recorded the song, Chinn and Chapman were horrified in December 1972 when they heard David Bowie’s new single, ‘The Jean Genie’ – it was almost identical to their own ‘Blockbuster’! This was something of which the general record-buying public at large appeared to be happily unaware – when ‘Blockbuster’ rose to #1 one place below it sat Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ at #2.
The Sweet continued to enjoy further success with ever more bombastic productions like ‘Hell Raiser’, ‘Ballroom Blitz’, ‘Teenage Rampage’ (all UK #2’s) and ‘The Six Teens’ (it becomes fairly obvious that Chinnichap began most of their compositions with a catchy title) before growing tired of Chinn and Chapman’s excesses and opting to write their own material. For their next single, the group recorded and released ‘Fox On The Run’ in 1975 while Chinn and Chapman were conveniently out of the country. The songwriting duo were not amused by this coup d’etat and immediately severed all connections with the group. The Sweet’s only other notable self-composed post Chinnichap hit was ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’ a UK #9 in 1978. Though they never really conquered America, they made a surprising appearance on the US charts when the 2-year old ‘Ballroom Blitz’ reached #5 in America in 1975, due to a lengthy American tour. While many of the Sweet’s 1970s singles were overtly commercial and over-produced, ‘Blockbuster’ is one of the finest examples of ‘glam-rock’, and together with ‘Ballroom Blitz’, as era-defining records, still sound pretty powerful some 40 plus years down the road.
Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton