Sweet’s Steve Priest helped change 1970s attitudes to gender – Aidan Smith
Cara Delevigne has told the world she’s pansexual. “However one defines themselves,” said the model and actress, “whether it’s ‘they’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’, I fall in love with the person and that’s that.”
The world was underwhelmed by the news. It has heard a lot about sexuality and its 742 varieties over the last couple of years and just about the only response I noted was the mild rebuke of Delevigne by a tabloid columnist for attention-seeking.
I’d liked to think, though, that the world even amid all its problems was too busy mourning the sad death of Steve Priest to notice. I know I was.
Priest was the bass guitarist in Sweet, the clompiest, stompiest, glitteriest, most disturbing and therefore most exciting of all the glam-rock acts.
The thunder of Priest’s instrument still sends a thrilling shiver, like several pairs of Doc Marten boots coming over the hill. It’s 1973, the youth club disco is about to be visited by the Young Mental Drylaw, and I must barge the girls out of the way to hide under the tuck-shop trestle table.
Sweet were also the most gender-bending, more so even than David Bowie. On Top of the Pops the previous year, during his song Starman, Bowie draped an arm round Mick Ronson. This was all he did. He would fellate Ronson’s guitar in a notorious photograph from a gig, but all pre-watershed Britain witnessed that July evening was the arm over the shoulder. It’s become an epochal moment. The Seventies not only had the Winter of Discontent but the Summer of Outlandish Homo-erotic Gesturing. It is supposed to have shocked all parents who saw it, while children sat on swirly-patterned carpets merely gasped and giggled.
But Sweet were on the same edition, playing their hit Little Willy. Only Bowie survives the BBC’s wiping, though I found the lost performance on YouTube, borrowed by a German music show. Priest out-camps Bowie easily by dint of his slashed-to-the-navel Bacofoil blouse and matching silver platform boots and tights. Oh, and hot-pants.
Surely more fathers would have looked up from their newspapers and spat out their pipes at this shimmering vision. There was a commercial at that time where two men admiring a succession of pretty young women would speculate: “She must be wearing Harmony hairspray.” The women were invariably blonde, but never more glisteningly golden than Sweet’s singer Brian Connolly. Surely, much more than Bowie and Ronson, the sight of Connolly and Priest would have prompted those dads to utter the immortal words: “Are these blokes or birds?” Indeed some, appalled by the spectacle, might have attempted to storm out of their living-rooms, only to stumble over the pouffes.
That wasn’t even Priest’s first time in hot-pants; he’d worn them for the previous hit Poppa Joe in February, 1972. And who would copy this look six months later? David Bowie, who paid close attention to Sweet, later cautioning the band to go easy on the eyeliner. Recalled drummer Mick Tucker: “We all thought: ‘What a strange young man, taking it so seriously.’ For us [glam] was all a piss-take. We just wanted to look like four old tarts… four dissipated old whores on Top of the Pops and being as flash as arseholes.” Priest meanwhile used to wonder if Bowie nicked the riff of Sweet’s Blockbuster for The Jean Genie.
Pansexuality? I’d moved on from Peter Pan to the Pan Book of Horror Stories, but I didn’t know about that – none of us 1970s teenagers did. What we did know was that pop was better if it was strange and silly and less grey than 1970s streets (and the meat in 1970s boil-in-the-tin steak pies), less beige than 1970s cars and less brown than our dads’ 1970s suits. Bowie ensured this but so too did Priest.
In Sweet’s terrific run of thundering tunes matched with nonsense lyrics – Block Buster, Hell Raiser, The Ballroom Blitz, Teenage Rampage – Priest puckering up to the Top of the Pops cameras became an event and “We haven’t got a clue what to do!”, delivered with Clockwork Orange make-up, was installed as his most mirthful quip – his version of “Shut that door!” or “You are awful but I like you.” Perhaps, though, when he painted a Hitler moustache and donned a swastika for the show’s 1973 Christmas special, he went too far.
There were plenty of reasons for the Scottish glam fan to like Sweet, such as the bonkers early single Alexander Graham Bell. My history teacher liked to sing during lessons, war ditties and anything else relevant, and it was a memorable day indeed when he got round to great Scots inventors and we taught him that song.
Connolly was Scottish, though I confess to not knowing this during his band’s pomp. My sister’s Jackie comic kept quiet about the sensational detail of him being left in hospital as an infant by his teenage waitress mum. Even more sensational was the revelation, much later, that he was Taggart actor Mark McManus’s stepbrother. We can only wonder what the tough telly tec, surely the last man on earth who could have been persuaded to wear hot-pants, would have made of Sweet.
Bowie and Roxy Music used to rave about Scottish audiences of the era. The further north the venues, the heavier the industrial heritage, the more likely the young men were to embrace glam’s flamboyance, eyeliner and all. Sweet’s The Ballroom Blitz was either inspired by a riotous night at Glasgow’s Apollo when the band were jumped by girls wanting to cut off their hair or a show at Kilmarnock’s Palace Theatre, scene of a riot with the gorgeous Steve the chief provocateur.
RIP, you old tart. You were awful but I liked you.
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