The renowned glam rocker and Sweet survivor gone at age 72
Steve Priest, who passed away on June 4, was nothing less than a dedicated rock and roller.
Granted, there are tens of thousands of musicians who could claim that distinction over the course of the past several decades, but Priest’s commitment to the form elevated his singular standing, not only through his ongoing efforts anchoring the British band The Sweet, but also through the outlandish imagery he embraced as well. At the height of the band’s popularity in the early ‘70s, they were among the foremost proponents of Glam, a pre-punk style that emphasized an extravagant and eccentric image — complete with stacked heels, garish make-up, costuming that looked as if it was designed on the set of a sci-fi movie circa the 1950s, and blow-dried hair styles carefully coiffed to sync with the rest of their campy costuming.
Priest himself took the imagery to an extreme, not only finding by finding a fit with other auteurs of the era — Marc Bolan and T-Rex, David Bowie, Hanoi Rocks, Cockney Rebel and the like — but also going to such an extreme that Bowie himself, then in the full thrush of his own Ziggy Stardust phase, told Priest during one backstage encounter that he was a bit over the top. And that’s from the original Starman himself!
Priest got the music bug early on. He began by building his own bass as a youngster and then, in 1968, just prior to his 20th birthday, he left one of his early bands, The Army, to join another outfit that consisted of singer Brian Connolly, drummer Mick Tucker and later, guitarist Andy Scott. Shortly thereafter, the group would change their name and evolve as The Sweet. Their early hits were decidedly in the teenybopper vein, courtesy of songs that were penned for them by the songwriting team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. The songs soon swept The Sweet to the top of the charts, courtesy of such songs as “Little Willy,” “Wig-Wam Bam,” “Fox on the Run,” “Blockbuster,” and, most famously, “Ballroom Blitz.” The latter kicked off with the famous entreaty “Are you ready, Steve…?,” while providing an immortal shoutout to the bassist himself. Not surprisingly, that became the title of Priest’s 1994 autobiography as well.
After The Sweet signed with Capitol Records in the U.S., their sound slowly became more sophisticated as they gradually shed their glam rock image and embarked upon a pair of carefully crafted, more produced albums, Desolation Boulevard and Level Headed. The latter marked a decided change of pace as evidenced by its massive chart-topper “Love Is Like Oxygen,” a song that seemed inspired by the prog rock approach of Electric Light Orchestra in particular.
VIDEO: Sweet “Ballroom Blitz”
By the late ‘70s, Priest found himself taking on more of the band’s vocal duties, first by backing up Connolly — he sang the immortal lyric “there’s a girl in the corner that no-one ignores, ‘cos she thinks she’s the passionate one,” in the song “Ballroom Blitz” — and then later becoming the band’s lead singer when, in 1979, Connolly left the band due to his struggles with alcoholism and the internal dissension that had increased within their ranks. What remained of The Sweet broke up in 1982, at which time Priest moved to New York, and later, L.A. Occasional attempts were made to reform The Sweet at different times, but none succeeded, and as a result, various versions of the group — one headed by Andy Scott, and later, an incarnation that found Priest at the helm — recorded and went out on the road, each billing themselves as The Sweet. Priest also released a solo album, Priest’s Precious Poems, in 2006.
When news of Priest’s passing was posted on The Sweet website, no cause of his death was given. Scott, who’s now the only living survivor of the group’s iconic incarnation, was moved to pay tribute on Twitter. He called Priest the best bassist he had ever worked with and then went on to say, ”From that moment in the summer of 1970 when we set off on our musical odyssey the world opened up and the roller coaster ride started.”
Credit Steve Priest with helping to ensure that the ballroom blitz they launched then would always remain a bright, bombastic encounter.