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Cut Above The Rest

So there were 20 months between the albums Level Headed and Cut Above The Rest, punctuated by two failed singles both released well over a year after ‘Oxygen’. This means that the first point to make is that any momentum generated by ‘Oxygen’s’ success had gone. This delay may have been unavoidable but meant that CATR appeared in an atmosphere where there was little current interest to help in the commercial progress of the album. From the point of view of the band’s career, this was unwise, but more importantly the band’s front man, lead singer and most well known member, Brian – had left. 

There are various rumours over what prompted the break up. Brian claimed that inter band rivalry and jealousy (particularly from Andy directed at him) led to a situation where he was effectively sacked. It’s hard to untangle what actually might have happened. One often heard explanation is that things came to a head during the recording of CATR when Brian wasn’t really upto singing lead any more because his voice had gone. Furthermore (so these stories go) his general heath, as well as his voice had deteriorated to the point where he could just not continue in the band. 

An alternative allegation presumably coming from friends of Brian or even Brian himself is that the rest of Sweet recorded the backing tracks for what was to become CATR in a key that was too high for him. This version of what happened says that this was a symptom of the fact that jealousy, had reached the point where the rest of the band wanted to get rid of him. In support of this, Brian’s voice on ‘Level Headed’ was still in good form. I also remember clearly reports on gigs (Hammersmith and others) just before this period that singled out Brian’s voice as one of the main strengths of the band. So perhaps Brain’s complaint was justified? But wait! I have heard recordings of Brian’s attempts to sing some of the CATR material. It is not the quality of his previous work. The deterioration, if that is what it was, seems very fast from the Level Headed days though, so perhaps there is some truth in the higher key story. I am not enough of a musician or singer to tell. 

One plausible explanations for his departure (presumably this time coming from the other members) say that Brian’s drinking and drug taking had got out of hand. Brian certainly attempted to perform in a gig in Birmingham Alabama after ‘Level Headed’ very much under the influence of various chemicals. He was so out much of it that the band had to come off. To make matters worse, this was the gig where the band were hoping to impress a number of record company executives in the audience. While unprofessional, Brian wasn’t the first and won’t be the last rock star to be in this position, but the rest of the band took this as the last straw. This in itself suggests that things in terms of Brian’s drinking had been getting out of hand for a while. 

It is hard to judge after all this time, but gut feeling tells me that it was a combination of all these things. Perhaps Brian’s voice had changed, though trying to sing lead on CATR was not helped by the other’s choosing a high key. Brian was taking even a rock star lifestyle to the extreme and this was affecting his heath and everyone’s career. Finally jealousy – as I mentioned in my review of Level Headed, I do believe that Andy was jealous of Brian (or it seems to be very plausible). 

I have touched on the jealousy stories in my review of ‘Level Headed’. Since I am instinctively sure that this was part of the problem it is just worth considering again from a different perspective. The very early days (1971) must have been very difficult for the band and I believe that the scars from that time adversely affected the band’s career from then on. To remind everyone, in 1970 Sweet were a talented, but commercially unsuccessful band. Phil Wainman, who had produced their very first (unsuccessful) release Slow Motion was still in touch and had met a pair of unknown song writers (Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman). Chinn and Chapman had written a song called ‘Funny Funny’ which was of course destined to be Sweet’s first hit. Wainman brought everyone together and the rest was history – or was it? Sweet, Wainman and Chinn/Chapman formed a production company Chinnichap. Wainman in the early days was the dominant figure. Over a succession of bubblegum hits in 1971 and the first part of 1972 Wainman imposed a way of working which sowed the seeds of many problems in later years. Wainman would lay down the backing track for each single with session musicians. Sweet would then come in and lay down the vocals in one or two takes. All very practical and professional and you had to admit – it worked. There was a “But” though -Sweet were a real band, not a manufactured entity and they had pride. 

Their role in the Wainman plan was just simply to be singers and to play the hits live for promotional purposes. I intend to post two essays on Norman’s page,one on Chinnichap and one on its legacy on the band’s career on Norman’s page shortly. For now though, let’s just think about the impact on the band in general and on Brian and Andy in particular. 

Firstly, what do we know about Andy? He seems to be the most intense and serious member of the band. He was also a good song writer and a good musician. Arguably he was even the best songwriter in the band. As well as his songs where he takes sole credit, there are a number of demo tapes of famous Sweet songs apparently made by Andy that suggest he played a big part in a lot of songs given joint credit. 

Andy also had vision and drive. This is illustrated by two anecdotes from opposite ends of Sweet’s career. The first from the Chinnichap days was Andy’s realisation that ‘We had something there – Mick an outstanding drummer, Steve driving bass, Brian the frontman” … and Andy with his talent. Andy recognised that Sweet could be so much more than Phil Wainman’s vocalists. At the other end of the band’s career, the record company was refusing to release ‘Identity Crisis’. Andy was quoted as being determined that the album would see the ‘Light of day’. And it did. Andy’s talent and drive were vital to Sweet. But can you think of a personality less likely to be happy in the Chinnichap environment? Andy has also given me the impression of beginning fiercely proud (numerous quotes and interviews have emphasised this). 

In the Wainman approach, beyond question, Brian was the most important member of the band. Andy has said that he managed to do ‘bits and pieces’ on the early singles and obviously sang the high part of the harmonies, but as far as the all important ‘A’ sides were concerned, couldn’t compare to Brian’s role. On TV, the lead singer of a band, particularly a bubblegum band would normally get the main attention, Andy would have been much less prominent. Andy’s role was effectively a bit part player. Obviously he contributed to the ‘B’ sides. The harsh truth in that era though was that ‘B’ sides were irrelevant to the band’s success. What was worse, he was easily replaceable, Brian much less so. Phil Wainman could have found someone else to sing the high notes, or the production team could have adapted. Andy, along with the whole band then had to endure what must have been the ordeal of the press revelation “Chartbusters Sweet don’t play their own instruments”. This story developed deep roots – a personal example is that years later in the mid ’70s that my cousin told me that she had once seen the Sweet and that they had mimed live. Whether this is true or not (and I have never heard that about live performances), the damage was done. Andy, remember seems to have an intense, serious and ambitious personality. He probably socialised a lot with people in the music business and fellow musicians. He must have known that at this stage he was only a small part of the band’s success, and must have been very embarrassed by the press stories. Andy’s ambition and desire to have success kept him in the band, but he must have hated the environment. 

If you work through the above reasoning on Andy, but this time for Brian, it is very different. To a much bigger extent than would be the case ever again, Brian almost was Sweet. His voice helped make the records successful, his blonde haired image was the face of Sweet and he was the frontman. The impression that comes over of Brian’s personality is that he could be arrogant. In any case he was a young man receiving head turning adulation and attention. I think Brian wouldn’t have been very likely to have been sensitive to other people and made sure that Andy knew how important Brian considered himself to be. 

This long aside is simply to show how deep currents and resentments could have been formed years before they came to the surface. Perhaps it affected the others as well, perhaps not if they were more easy going, or perhaps when the balance shifted later it was more forgotten. In Brian’s case the apparent loss of position must have affected him – maybe even encouraging even more drinking. 

One final piece of speculation on the split. In the ’70s, I was a member of a fan club called the Sweet Appreciation Society (SAS). They announced that the split was down to musical differences – Brian wanting a softer, more commercial approach and the others wanting to return to a hard rock sound. Now this might just be a kind of non controversial statement someone released to the fan club or to the press to get them of their back. But what if there is a glimmer of truth in it? The classic Sweet had just released an album with a much softer sound ‘Level Headed’. There is the possibility that Brian was one or even the major driver towards that album. If this is the case (and all this is based on a fanclub letter and a few press reports 20 years or more ago), then perhaps musical differences did play a part in the break up. It is not an explanation often heard now and even if true may just have been an underlying factor, but could still be relevant. Just because it is less dramatic than other explanations such as that Brian had a drink/drug problem, or there was an organised plot to get rid of Brain or Brian was past it, doesn’t mean musical differences weren’t a factor. 

The personal asides are not because I know who did what or to apportion blame, but to remind ourselves that the Sweet were after all only people. People who got into conflicts and upsets as much as any other human being does. But from a safe distance of 20 years later, it is easy to forget the human side of things. Brain’s departure reminds me of the kind of thing that happens when any kind of relationship breaks down. Things can get out of hand very quickly and it is often impossible for an outsider to get to the bottom of it all. But like all human relationships I hate to say it, but they are interesting! It could also be said – how can we know what happened, particularly after all this time? My answers would be a) That it it’s fun to speculate and b) because these events are so important to the history of my favourite band, I’m still fascinated. 

It should be remembered when considering this record that CATR was recorded amongst considerable personal and professional difficulties and disruption. 

So where did Brian’s departure leave the band while they were preparing CATR? Well, they had lost a great frontman, the focal point of the band in the public eye and a key part of their sound. Brian’s voice had been as important as say Mick’s drumming in creating that sound over the years. On the other hand, they still had the musical nucleus of the band and however much or little Brian had contributed to the song writing side of things, there was no doubt that they retained impressive song writing and creative potential. 

But make no mistake, in some ways this was a new band. Whether the others liked it or not, a big part of the image of the Sweet was Brian and his voice was very much part of the sound. To do a quick experiment mention the Sweet to someone around in the ’70s (and even some that weren’t) and they may or may not remember them. If not try saying “The band with the blonde haired singer” and they’ll remember. The first issue to be dealt with was whether or not to replace Brian. In the end this didn’t happen, perhaps no one suitable was available or perhaps the band decided that they didn’t need anyone, Brian after all would be hard to replace. The remaining three members were at least competent on lead and Steve had a strong singing voice. Any replacement would have to be better than the existing members, fit in, and dare I say it – not ruffle any feathers within the original member combo etc, etc… 

Another issue discussed was the very name of the band, apparently they considered changing the name from Sweet to STP (Scott, Tucker, Priest). This shows the depth of the impact on Sweet of Brian leaving, but also to me as a name would have had the advantage of sounding like a serious rock band and a name change might have perhaps helped in a change of image direction. Anyway, either the band or perhaps their record company, decided to keep the name as Sweet. 

STP had then to carve a niche out for themselves. Perhaps in a strange way there was one advantage? Without Brian perhaps they might be seen as an almost new band – one that could be taken seriously? There might be some musical freedom as well – Andy had gone on record as saying that Brian’s voice suited certain types of song. This, of course implies that his voice didn’t suit other stuff that te rest of the band wanted to write. 

One anorak type of observation is that on this album, song writing credits seem to be allocated more exactly. Going right back to the days of the B sides of early singles, most songs written by Sweet had shared the writing credits. 

Before we go any further, I should say that I have never really taken to CATR. In fact I doubt if I have listened to it more than half a dozen times since it was released and one of those was to write this review. It’s not just that I associate the album with Brian leaving, although I am sure that’s part of it, but there is an intense, serious and almost downbeat feel to most tracks. There are also no tracks that jump out and stick in the mind. There are none that would make my personal top Sweet track list. 

The album was preceded by two singles that were included on CATR. Both made no impact, so little in fact that I (a Sweet fan) was unaware of their existence. ‘Big Apple Waltz’ is a ballad about New York sung by Steve. It may have been inspired by Steve’s love of the city. By the time of release, the delay in a follow up to ‘Oxygen’ and Brian’s departure meant the band needed to make a whole new breakthrough. Big Apple Waltz was not the song to do this. Its one of those tracks that I acknowledge as a good song, but don’t really like that much. ‘Call me’ is much more upbeat but achieves the distinction of being the only Sweet single I don’t like at all. It also manages to sound smutty and sordid. It is about a man in a hotel room calling a hooker. I am not prudish – but ‘Call Me’ is the only song that I have ever heard (remembering that I was was a punk rock fan, this is saying something) that I find, well – grubby. In passing, From the point of view of its likely success, I wonder how the band thought it would ever get radio air time, It has a ‘ban me’ sticker all over it, or rather should have. Perhaps they thought being banned would bring it notoriety and attention, but realistically, by this stage of their careers, Sweet were not really the voice of rebellion. 

Moving on, ‘Play all Night’ is probably my favourite track on the album. It is based around a forceful sound and a catchy chant-like chorus. This song does however take a single idea and drag it out for too long. If it had been half the length, the impact would have been much greater. Although not similar as songs, Queen’s ‘We will Rock you’ also is based around one idea, but works because they kept it short and punchy. ‘Play all Night’ needed the same treatment. 

‘Dorian Grey ‘ and ‘Discophony’ are similar in some ways in that they both are based around a good idea and have some good moments. DG is of course the character created by Oscar Wilde and Discophany is about a man who hates disco forced to go to them in order to meet women (should have been an anthem for many young men at the time!). But I don’t like either track that much, I don’t hate them, it’s just that they get boring. 

‘Eye Games’, I do like, however. It is alight hearted little acoustic and tongue firmly in cheek ditty about attraction ‘in the discos and the bars’. It’s tight, doesn’t try and stretch out the idea for too long and is a little breath of fresh air on the album, Actually, the radically different style it displays compared with the rest of CATR makes me wonder if it is a left over from the Level Headed sessions. It has the same sense of innovative enthusiasm that prevailed on LH. 

A contender for my least favourite Sweet track since 1972 is ‘Hold Me’. No native English speakers reading this may be unfamiliar with the word durge. A durge is the kind of slow, depressing and solemn music they play as background music to funeral marches. My view on ‘Hold Me’? It’s a durge, no, wait, it’s an awful durge. ‘Mother Earth’ which was the final track on side one (on the vinyl version) is good stuff. It is one of Sweet’s most musically complex songs (at least that’s how it sounds to a non musician). It’s a good song and vies with ‘Play all Night’ as my favourite track on the album. 

The only track not mentioned so far is ‘Stay with Me’. There is a version on the ‘Platinum Rare’ album which I prefer, but it is still a good track. My only criticism is that for some reason, I always have felt that there was an even better song trapped inside trying to get out.! 

CATR was a big let down to me when first released and still is today. To be fair, although there are some tracks I don’t like at all, there are others which are ok. What there are not, however, are any that move into the category of great songs. The two songs chosen as singles were particularly disappointing. 

The words and phrases that came to mind for me while listening to the album to review are intense, serious, no outstanding tracks, downbeat and introverted.. This to me is the album’s biggest offence, in many ways Sweet were the antidote to what I didn’t like about early and mid ’70s music. This was the age of the Super Group. Bands that basically often forgot that rock music is supposed to be fun and took themselves too seriously. I remember very clearly, for example being introduced to Yes by a friend’s older sister. Being frank, I was willing to listen to anything that this glamorous personage suggested! It turned out that I found that I didn’t like Yes. So – what? I hear you say. Well, she turned my shy unspoken admiration into dust by lecturing us for what seemed hours on what great musicians these guys were. They probably are, I don’t know, as far as I know I have never heard Yes again and have felt much better for it! My point about ‘worthy, serious’ music is that a lot of people aren’t interested in the self indulgences or any band in particular and don’t care, except in a mild “oh, really?” kind of way whether a song is technically difficult to play or not. This might not apply so much to hardcore fans, but by this stage in their career, there weren’t enough of those left or Sweet.

The above diversion into Yes and musical styles is to explain what I had liked about the Sweet – great songs, didn’t take themselves too seriously and fun. CATR runs counter to all of this. Had it been very high quality it could have carried the serious approach of, but it isn’t – the best you can say is “Not bad” and to be honest, I wouldn’t go that far! So what then was the album all about? Where were the band going with it? These are the questions that make me feel that like it or not, they needed a strong management. Consider the situation. At the time, the band considered themselves as a major band. I believe that they wanted to keep that status. It is only human nature to want to be recognised for what you do, after all. But the real situation was that there had been a huge gap in rock terms since their last release, they were effectively not even a new band, but one that was close to being written off and put into the ‘What ever happened to’ category. So what did they do?

Well, they produced the least accessible, least likely to be ‘picked up on’ album that Sweet had ever made. Listening to it, no one would doubt that Sweet were serious musicians, but CATR was always very unlikely to re-establish them as a major force. Rock music is rarely an introspective art form – it is made for other people! 

One point of interest to Sweet fans was what was the impact of Brian’s departure? Well firstly it made the band less accessible. Sweet probably didn’t have enough hard core fans to fall back on at the time and so this was a big negative for the band’s chances of success. A Brian at his best was capable of pulling an average song up. However technically good the others voices were, they did not have this very rare skill! Secondly I feel that there was a slight decline in the quality of the writing (See summary below). I don’t know how much creative input Brian had, but there is definitely a change. In my view the band’s own writing didn’t pick up again until ‘Identity Crisis’ – two albums later. Andy was quoted after the break-up saying that Brian’s voice wasn’t suitable for certain songs. Presumably this freed the band up to write and record different types of song. Perhaps this wasn’t a good thing, from a being successful point of view,, perhaps I just don’t like the style? 

To sum up the album I am going to use an analogy. Some years ago I read a very thoughtful newspaper article written by an athlete. The fact I can’t recall his name is very appropriate as you will see. This guy, compared to the general population was on another planet in terms of athletic ability,, compared to most athletes he was very very good. But the point was that he was good enough to consistently qualify for finals, but never good enough to have a chance of a medal. He pointed out that with a 1 or 2 % improvement he would have been taking gold. This guy finished a couple of times 8th and last in major championship finals. Nobody, except his family, friends and a few people in the closed world of athletics cared. One per cent better and he would have been a star. 

This is very close to how I see CATR, the band lost that vital tiny percentage (the edge, if you like) that makes the difference at the very very highest level. The remaining fans were the equivalent of the athlete’s friends and family, buts as I have said, there were no longer enough to build success upon. I remember feeling at the time that this was the end and that it was a great shame. I was wrong about that, two more albums were to come and both had some superb moments. CATR for me though remains a big, big disappointment.

by Hertz Van Rental

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