In May 1989 I was at a loss as to what to do to make a living. My band life, getting paid for what I loved to do, was coming to an end and I had to think of a way to blag my way back to the real world – a place I had hoped was left behind when I signed a record deal four years earlier. Back on benefits, staring into the void of feeling terminally useless I decided the only option for me was to become a music journalist. I decided to use my own initiative, get some interviews under my belt to build a kind of portfolio, and then offer my services to any paper that would have me. Such stupidity comes from desperation and to be honest, I was old enough to know better, but the rock n roll fairies were still dancing in my head.
My chance to blag it came. Brian Connolly’s Sweet was playing the local Black Cats venue in my resident town of Stockton on Tees. The place had had its glory years – as indeed, had Sweet – when it was called the Fiesta: back in the sixties and early seventies, when hit makers actually played such uncool places. The Kinks had played there. The Walker Brothers. The Hollies. Even Alvin Stardust at the height of his brief fame. The Fiesta was a big money payer back then and one story about the place that was the stuff of urban legend was that Jimi Hendrix was booked to play there in the early days, but pulled out as he became a big star. Another story is of the Shadows who, driving away from the Fiesta after a gig there in 1964, saw a meteorite shower, inspiring the B-side of one of their hits called ‘Stars Fell on Stockton’. With such a roll call of musical luminaries, I was entering a place that had its own legendary status.
Blagging my way in was easy. I phoned the venue, told them I was a freelance journalist and that I wanted to interview Brian Connolly. I could have been an axe wielding ex-roadie with a grudge against Brian, but they let me in anyway.
A person acting as Brian’s protector/manager vetted me. I gushed about how Sweet were essential Top of the Pops viewing back in the day and that I was a fan. I was not lying. I really liked Sweet’s singles from ‘Blockbuster!’ onward. They came across to me like a band who really did not give a shit. They had an almost pre-punk ‘let’s wind up the parents’ attitude about them. Of course, they lacked ‘rock cred’. But hey, 13 year olds don’t even know such a thing exists. And Brian Connolly was a compelling front man – his girly long blonde hair framing his masculine face was a killer combination for the teenyboppers back then. He looked slightly menacing in his catsuits and leather gloves too.
I hung around in the sound check and felt a teenage thrill at hearing the band run through ‘Hellraiser’. Of course, Brian was the only original member; the others hired lackeys, proficient and clinical, pay roll musicians doing a job. What a nasty lot they were though. I went back stage to introduce myself and straight away, two of them sidled up to me to tell me tales of how they were in a proper original material band and that this was just a ‘job’ for them. Thinking I was a journalist who could give them exposure, their crawling around me was astonishing to see. I put them straight and said ‘I’m here for Brian’. They went ashen faced and sullen and did not speak to me again. I felt sorry for Brian. Here he was, manfully trying to be the idol he used to be, having a bunch of wannabe scheming jerks on his pay roll. I noted how he seemed apart from them. He was right to be, too. They were horrible people.
Brian was very gracious. He told one of the roadies to get me a drink and chatted to me as a girl fan sat on his knee. It was like I was not there. She kept pawing him and saying ‘can I see you later Brian?’…’I love your hair Brian’….I thought I was going to witness some strange back stage porn shoot. Brian, a man who obviously had had a lot of female attention was very polite to her. ‘Ok, you go now and see me later…let me talk to this guy ok?’…She obeyed and went back to whatever concubine was waiting for Brian after the show.
As she left, he shrugged and winked: ‘I’m a married man with a daughter! But they just won’t listen!’
Brian was then ushered away by the manager/protector for something to eat. He disappeared back to his hotel – actually more like a cheap traveller’s bed and breakfast place, not a plush five star place – shook my hand and said ‘we’ll speak later…enjoy the show’…
I have so far avoided the terrible truth about Brian. The Wildean ‘portrait in the attic’ aura that surrounded him. His glorious looks had been ravaged by illness and alcohol abuse. He looked ten years older than his age at that time: 45 (as he told me). His hair, actually thinning on top, was combed forward to try and recapture those splendorous goldilocks. His eyes seemed dull and were etched with lines that told a story of pain, of disappointment, of struggle. He had actually died on an operating table for thirty seconds when his alcohol induced illness finally took its toll on him. This was Brian back from the dead I was talking to. He related the tale to me with icy precision. I felt enormous sympathy for him and worse still, felt that Brian could keel over at any moment. He actually shook from time to time and was taking medication to control his spasms.
I came back later with a borrowed tape recorder. I sat in anticipation of the show, already too many drinks down the line. I was nervous, not only for the interview, but for Brian.
The band came onstage to a puny attempt at pyrotechnics. ‘POOOF!’ – a pathetic plume of smoke crawled into the air as the band crashed in with ‘Hellraiser’. It somehow seemed horribly symbolic of a career long having gone up in smoke. Of course, Brian waited for an entrance. He clomped onto the stage from the left side, his cowboy boots making him move with all the grace of a welder at a wedding disco. Like a glam rock Frankenstein, he had an expectant look on his face of demanding adulation. The fat lasses down the front stood up and cheered; their boyfriends just laughed. As Brian sang, his voice was surprisingly strong. But when it came to the ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ screams, his face contorted into a look that seemed to suggest deep pain. It was horrible and at the same time fascinating. The band did some corny cover versions; the kind you would get from a working man’s club band in the 70s: ‘No Matter What’ by Badfinger, ‘Born To Be Wild’ (their ‘we are a real rock band’ gambit I guess). The set was peppered with the thrilling hits: ‘Blockbuster’ – with authentic siren alarms, ‘Wigwam Bam’ – Eddie Cochran gone daft – and of course, saving the best for last: ‘Ballroom Blitz’. Only there was no ‘are you ready Steve?’ spoken intro. It was replaced with ‘are you ready yeah?’ aimed at the crowd. By the end, a throng of about fifty people were up dancing, but in a very pissed nightclub way, not in a rock roll idiot dancing way.
The band came on for an encore. One I had forgotten about: ‘Teenage Rampage’ – it started with some roadies baying into the microphones ’We want Sweet! We want Sweet!’ emulating the record. The audience got the mantra, joined in clapping and stomping. It felt like a Slade gig for about thirty glorious seconds.
‘But they don’t care! No! No! No! No! No!’ Brian’s voice now a knackered strangulated attempt at trying to sound like Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.
The gig over, it was time to meet Brian for the interview. Half an hour later he appeared. He had changed into a T-shirt that stretched over his bloated body and the irony struck me: it was a Jack Daniels T-shirt. He was advertising the very monster that was killing him.
He was very relaxed, ushering away pestering fans – women now in their thirties perhaps – who had adored Brian back in the heady glam rock days. The girl from the dressing room earlier appeared.
‘Do you remember me Brian?’
The question seemed to resonate with a deeper meaning.
My mind flashed back to Brian on Top of the Pops. On top of his game, a blonde male bombshell living the pop star high life that my teenage self dreamed about. I had to pinch myself: this was a bona fide proper pop star sitting across the table from me, pint of orange juice in his hand. In the low light of the back of the gig, he almost looked his former youthful self.
Girl politely put on hold for later, I asked him about those Top of the Pops appearances.
Brian told me how Sweet used to get Pans People to advise them on makeup. A quintessential anecdote that somehow summed up the glorious daftness of pop in the early seventies.
I asked him about other pop stars of the day. He told me how Marc Bolan said ‘you’ll never beat Bolan!’ when he met them at Top of the Pops. Brian liked Marc saying he was a ‘very nice bloke underneath all that ego’. Sweet were good mates with Slade too, and there was a friendly rivalry between them.
I ventured that it must have been great to have been on Top of the Pops in that garish Glam rock era. His eyes lit up. Like Norma Desmond remembering the heyday, the golden time, the plush carpet of success.
Brian was not a fan of Lou Reed. I cannot remember how he came up in the interview but in Brian’s estimation he was a ‘lucky man…it was only because of Bowie that he became known’. I had to admit, there was some truth in this but did not see why it should foster a dislike for old Lou.
‘He can’t sing’. Brian delivered his punch line. I just feebly nodded, wanting to protest but didn’t.
I asked him if he had met other musicians who had been influenced by Sweet.
He told me a story of how he gave an autograph to a girl when she was only about 15; Sweet were playing a gig in Los Angeles. It turned out to be Joan Jett.
I told him that I had read that Def Leppard were huge Sweet fans. He seemed pleased and I was surprised that he didn’t know this.
The interview took a brief nosedive when I said that Sweet were almost like a punk band in their attitude. He fixed me a rather withering stare and said ‘Punk was rubbish wasn’t it? We could play!’ Realising Brian had missed the point, I apologised for some strange reason. He smiled ‘that’s ok’, and I felt a wave of relief come over me. (For a second I thought he might get up and leave)
He then went on to tell me how Sweet had a lot of input on their records and that, far from how they were seen by the ‘serious music press’ they were not pop puppets. In fact, in Germany, they were perceived as a band in the same musical sphere as Deep Purple (a band that Brian was a fan of)
‘We got Hell’s Angels at our gigs. We were a heavy rock band that just happened to have hits’ .
The calibre of Sweet as musicians is not in doubt: they could rock heavily with the best of them.
So Brian – what was it like to be famous, be a regular band on Top of the Pops? was my must ask dumb question.
‘Fantastic…but all the touring, being in demand. Then back in the studio, recording your next hit…it all becomes a blur’ he said.
He told me the first time he realised he had made it was when he went out to the newsagents to buy some cigarettes. ‘Suddenly a crowd of people appeared, they were at me, wanting to touch me, wanting my autograph. It felt strange. Great but strange’.
What was his favourite Sweet single I wondered?
Brian said he liked most of them but his personal favourite was one of the band’s lesser hits ‘The Six Teens’. He told me he could identify with the words on that one. Brian had no problem with the fact that Sweet’s hits were written by Chinn and Chapman.
‘They could write hits and we didn’t learn how to do that until later. We learnt a lot from them’.
He also revealed that not everyone in the band felt this way.
‘Andy (Scott) and Steve (Priest) were always asking for an A side and got frustrated. When we split from Chinn and Chapman we had a hit with our own song and that felt good’. (The song was ‘Fox on the run’ by the way)
Did Brian feel it would all go on forever then?
‘You don’t have time to stop and think. You keep rolling along with it’ he replied
He then told me the sorry tale of how things came to an end for Sweet. Brian admitted that his drinking had long since gotten out of control and that it took a disastrous American Tour in 1978 for things to come to a messy head. It was appalling timing as Sweet had just scored their first big hit there with ‘Love is like oxygen’. He was effectively kicked out of the band as his alcoholism was affecting his performances and the band could not continue with him in it. Brian also blamed bad management and all manner of behind the scenes skulduggery conspiring against him. He told me how he was ‘getting well’ but that being kicked out of the band sent him over the edge.
‘I just didn’t know what to do. The band was my life and then it was gone. I went solo for a while but it wasn’t the same”.
Rock ‘n’ roll can become a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, and Brian’s story could have been written by the great bard. What brought about the downfall? Was it fame? Was it unchecked excessive behaviour? Was it lust for riches? Was it leechy managers plotting to fill their own pockets?
Brian Connolly, it seemed to me, was almost an innocent who entered the gilded palace of rock n roll sin. Like a lot of those 70s pop stars, he doubtlessly gorged himself at the banquet table of fame and his working class background probably ill prepared him for the shock to the system that fame brings. What do you do if you are a going nowhere no hoper (in the real working world I mean) and you wake up one day as a pop star with a million pounds in your bank account? Do you act wisely, seek counsel, invest it, look after it, or do you go gaga ape-shit and party like there’s no tomorrow?
I think we know the answer to that one.
Except the reality is, Brian was never a millionaire. He just spent money as if he was one and then of course, the tax man came knocking at his door when the hits dried up.
Brian told me he was playing to pay off debts. The taxman being one of them. Legal fees being another as he was trying at that point to get royalties he said were owed to him from those 15 million sales of Sweet singles. I don’t think he ever got them. He also claimed that his ex-band members cheated him out of money when he was kicked out of the band. Brian said: ‘They left me high and dry, no pay off, nothing. They stopped returning my calls’.
I suddenly had an impulse to tell Brian I would write some songs for him. He could record them and we would restore him to former glories. Get him the right producer. But even I knew this was delusional and I resisted to tell. I was also drunk and those rock ‘n’ roll fairies mentioned earlier were flirting with my reason.
I felt very sad for Brian. As the interview went on, he opened up to me. I got the feeling he had a lot to get off his chest and he seemed happy that I had not judged him, that I had listened.
It was like the ending of the David Essex film ‘Stardust’, where the pop star played by Essex says ‘It’s not worth it’ as he slips off into a junkie nod and dies.
He shook my hand after the interview and said ‘You’re good! Good luck with it’. I wished him the same, knowing full well that Brian’s luck was rotten.
Brian had been a great subject to interview. I had loads of tape to look forward to listening to.
I got back home, played the tape: nothing. The stupid player had not worked. Why hadn’t I checked it? I felt really bad – almost like I had betrayed Brian, who had given his time to give me a very open talk. I wrote down what I could remember straight away and then tried to hawk my interview to music papers.
Melody Maker: ‘What that singer from Sweet? Nah, don’t think our readers would be interested’…
Sounds: ‘We do not commission unsolicited articles. Sorry’
Kerrang: ‘We only cover current bands. Thanks anyway’.
N.M.E: I admit I didn’t even bother.
Evening Gazette: ‘We don’t use freelance stuff – sorry’.
Brian Connolly: rock ‘n’ roll he gave you the best years of his life…
Thanks for the memories.
(Previously posted at Cultured Bunker.)
Bio: Alan Savage is a Middlesbrough, U.K, born singer and songwriter.
He releases music under his own name and other guises such as Dada Guitars and The Crystaleens.
His previous bands include Basczax and The Flaming Mussolinis.