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Art from Chaos: The Sweet and the story behind ‘Ballroom Blitz’

It was art out of chaos. Pop art. The Sweet‘s “Ballrooom Blitz”, Glam Rock’s catchiest, trashiest, most lovable song, came from a riot that saw the band bottled off the stage, at the Grand Hall, Palace Theater, Kilmarnock, Scotland, in 1973. Men spat, while women screamed to drown out the music. Not the response expected for a group famous for their string of million sellers hits, “Little Willy”, “Wig-Wag Bam” and the number 1, “Block Buster”.

Why it happened has since led to suggestions that the band’s appearance in eye-shadow, glitter and lippy (in particular the once gorgeous bass player Steve Priest) was all too much for the hard lads and lassies o’ Killie.

It’s a possible. Priest thinks so, and said as much in his autobiography Are You Ready Steve?. But it does raise the question, why would an audience pay money to see a band best known through their numerous TV appearances for their outrageously camp image? Especially if these youngsters were such apparent homophobes? Moreover, this was 1973, when the UK seemed on the verge of revolution, engulfed by money shortages, food shortages, strike action,  power cuts and 3-day-weeks, and the only glimmer of hope for millions was Thursday night and Top of the Pops.

Another possible was the rumor that Sweet didn’t play their instruments, and were a manufactured band like The Monkees. A story which may have gained credence as the band’s famous song-writing duo of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, preferred using session musicians to working with artists.

The sliver of truth in this rumor was that Sweet only sang on the first 3 Chinn-Chapman singles (“Funny, Funny”, “Co-Co” and “Poppa Joe”). It wasn’t until the fourth, “Little Willy” that Chinn and Chapman realized Sweet were in fact far better musicians than any hired hands, and allowed the band to do what they did best - play.

True, Chinn and Chapman gave Sweet their Midas touch, but it came at a cost. The group was dismissed by self-righteous music critics as sugar-coated pop for the saccharine generation. A harsh and unfair assessment. But in part it may also explain the audience’s ire.

In an effort to redefine themselves, Sweet tended to avoid playing their pop hits on tour, instead performing their own songs, the lesser known album tracks and rock covers. A band veering from the songbook of hits (no matter how great the material) was asking for trouble. As Freddie Mercury proved at Live Aid, when Queen made their come-back, always give the audience what they want.

Still, Glam Rock’s distinct sound owes much to Andy Scott’s guitar playing (which has been favorably compared to Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck), Steve Priest’s powerful bass, and harmonizing vocals, and Mick Tucker’s inspirational drums (just listen to the way he references Sandy Nelson in “Ballroom Blitz”). Add in Brian Connolly’s vocals, and it is apparent Sweet were a band with talents greater than those limned by their chart success.

So what went wrong?

If ever there was a tale of a band making a pact with the Devil, then the rise and fall of Sweet could be that story. A tale of talent, excess, fame, money, frustration and then the decline into alcohol, back-taxes, death and disaster. Half of the band is now tragically dead: Connolly, who survived 14 heart attacks caused through his alcoholism, ended his days a walking skeleton, touring smaller venues and holiday camps with his version of Sweet; while the hugely under-rated Tucker sadly succumbed to cancer in 2002.

The remaining members Priest and Scott, allegedly don’t speak to each other and perform with their own versions of The Sweet on 2 different continents. Priest lives in California, has grown into an orange haired-Orson, while Scott, who always looked like he worked in accounts, is still based in the UK, and recently overcame prostate cancer to present van-hire adverts on the tube.

This then is the real world of pop success.

I doubt they would ever change it. And I doubt the fans would ever let them. So great is the pact with the devil of celebrity that once made, one is forever defined by the greatest success.

Back to that night, in a theater in Kilmarnock, when the man at the back said everyone attack, and the room turned into a ballroom blitz. Whatever the cause of the chaos, it gave Glam Rock a work of art, and Sweet, one of their finest songs.

Bonus ‘Block Buster’ plus documentary on Brian Connolly, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Anti-alcohol posters from Soviet propaganda-era
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The Museum of Anti-Alcohol Posters showcases an array of posters from the Soviet-era. From a design standpoint, these illustrations are really cool, but I wonder if they were truly effective with getting their message across to Friends of Bill???

See more images after the jump…

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
Buckfast the ‘Commotion Lotion’ of Scotland’s Working Class
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Pop Culture

The author Evelyn Waugh once described New Year’s Eve as ‘‘drunk men being sick on a pavement in Glasgow,” which is probably true, for part of the great Scottish tradition of Hogmanay is to get drunk, though being sick is non-obligatory. Amongst the fine selection of alcohol chosen by Scots to celebrate the arrival of 2011 (especially for Glaswegians, or Weedgees), is a tipple made by Benedictine monks at Buckfast Abbey in Devon.

Buckfast is a fortified wine first produced by the monks in 1890 from a French recipe. It was first sold in small quantities as a medicinal tonic under the advertising slogan:

“Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood.”

In 1927, the monks lost their license to sell this medicinal plonk, so the Abbot negotiated a deal with a wine merchant to distribute their booze the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Its recipe was changed to make it more palatable, and Buckfast, or Buckie as it is known colloquially, became the drink of choice amongst the working class, low-rent bohemians, NEDs (non-educated delinquents) and soccer fans.

Buckie is cheap, potent and effective for inebriation. It is also sweet-tasting and is highly caffeinated - one bottle contains the equivalent to eight cups of instant coffee. Recently, various politicians have called for a ban on Buckfast in Scotland, as it was claimed the “Commotion Lotion” has been responsible for anti-social behavior, as the New York Times reported:

..a survey last year of 172 prisoners at a young offenders’ institution, 43 percent of the 117 people who drank alcohol before committing their crimes said they had drunk Buckfast. In a study of litter in a typical housing project, 35 percent of the items identified were Buckfast bottles.

A BBC TV investigation into Police figures revealed:

...the drink was mentioned in 5,638 crime reports in Strathclyde from 2006-2009, equating to three a day on average.

One in 10 of those offences were violent and the bottle was used as a weapon 114 times in that period.

Against this goes the argument from the wine merchants, who say Buckfast is but one of many alcoholic drinks available, of which Buckie represents only 0.58% of total alcohol sales - which is, to be fair, but a piss in the Ocean.

Back in the early 1990s, writer and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove produced an excellent arts magazine series for Channel 4, called Halfway to Paradise. It was launching pad for many talents including Hollywood director, Jim Gillespie and producer, Nicola Black. In this short clip, Cosgrove examines the history of the famed drink and its culture. Since then, and with the advent of YouTube and camera ‘phones, fans of Buckfast have developed a new trend - the Buckfast Challenge, where devotees to the “Coatbridge Table Wine” down a bottle in seconds. The record, for those interested, is seven seconds. Happy Hogmanay.

Buckfast drunk in seven seconds, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Report claims Alcohol more harmful than Heroin or Crack Cocaine

The Guardian today reports that alcohol is the most dangerous drug in the U.K., beating heroin and crack cocaine into 2nd and 3rd place. This according to a study published by former government drugs adviser, David Nutt, and his colleagues from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. The Guardian goes on to say:

Today’s paper, published by the respected Lancet medical journal, will be seen as a challenge to the government to take on the fraught issue of the relative harms of legal and illegal drugs, which proved politically damaging to Labour.

Nutt was sacked last year by the home secretary at the time, Alan Johnson, for challenging ministers’ refusal to take the advice of the official Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which he chaired. The committee wanted cannabis to remain a class C drug and for ecstasy to be downgraded from class A, arguing that these were less harmful than other drugs. Nutt claimed scientific evidence was overruled for political reasons.

The new paper updates a study carried out by Nutt and others in 2007, which was also published by the Lancet and triggered debate for suggesting that legally available alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous than cannabis and LSD.

Today’s study offers a more complex analysis that seeks to address the 2007 criticisms. It examines nine categories of harm that drugs can do to the individual “from death to damage to mental functioning and loss of relationships” and seven types of harm to others. The maximum possible harm score was 100 and the minimum zero.

Overall, alcohol scored 72 – against 55 for heroin and 54 for crack. The most dangerous drugs to their individual users were ranked as heroin, crack and then crystal meth. The most harmful to others were alcohol, heroin and crack in that order.

Nutt told the Guardian the drug classification system needed radical change. “The Misuse of Drugs Act is past its sell-by date and needs to be redone,” he said. “We need to rethink how we deal with drugs in the light of these new findings.”

For overall harm, the other drugs examined ranked as follows: crystal meth (33), cocaine (27), tobacco (26), amphetamine/speed (23), cannabis (20), GHB (18), benzodiazepines (15), ketamine (15), methadone (13), butane (10), qat (9), ecstasy (9), anabolic steroids (9), LSD (7), buprenorphine (6) and magic mushrooms (5).

The authors write: “Our findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm. They also accord with the conclusions of previous expert reports that aggressively targeting alcohol harm is a valid and necessary public health strategy.”

Nutt told the Lancet a new classification system “would depend on what set of harms ‘to self or others’ you are trying to reduce”. He added: “But if you take overall harm, then alcohol, heroin and crack are clearly more harmful than all others, so perhaps drugs with a score of 40 or more could be class A; 39 to 20 class B; 19-10 class C and 10 or under class D.” This would result in tobacco being labelled a class B drug alongside cocaine. Cannabis would also just make class B, rather than class C. Ecstasy and LSD would end up in the lowest drug category, D.

The text of the full report can be read here.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
British Parents Told to Get Kids Drunk at Home
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From one of the most notoriously alcoholic cultures on Earth comes this hilarious effort to curb binge drinking:


Posted by Jason Louv | Leave a comment