Sweet + The Novatines
Wednesday 18th December 2019
Islington Assembly Hall, London
Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the city
The people were partying, though the weather was shitty
The Guinness was drunk, plus Bushmills and beer
In the hopes that a good gig would bring us some cheer.
Clement Clarke Moore doesn’t have much to fear there does he? Anyway, it is the week before Christmas and what better way to enjoy the festive season than with some classic live music, very appropriate for the time of year, in one of London’s best live venues. The Grade II listed building is very reminiscent of an old school assembly hall with art deco features and a stage flanked with large red velvet curtains. Memories of old school disco’s come to mind. But with a modern sound system and plentiful bars. And like tonight’s music, is a great combination of old and new.
The new boys in town are the appropriately named Novatines, a young four piece from Bath comprising of Jamie Beale, Tom Cory, Callum Moloney and Tom Turner. It’s no accident that they are here as Sweet’s Andy Scott produced their debut album. Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Beale fronts the band sporting a retro looking red Charvel played through a Fender amp whilst Cory sports a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall. So retro Rock then. Callum takes drums and Tom bass, and a lovely looking Flying V bass it is too. And thoughtfully Tom has wrapped his bass amp up in Christmas wrapping paper. How festive. Dressed in Hawaiian shirts, beards and flowing locks, the boys could be 70’s throwbacks or 2017 hipsters. Either way they nail that Zeppelin Grunge mix with rocking guitar, harmonies, and an intent to party. Tracks include 'Joy Ride' - dedicated to their van which broke down on the way to the venue - 'Hate, Love', their first single and 'Never Enough', a slow Rock track full of attitude. Their new single, 'Come Alive', is an upbeat radio friendly rocker whilst closer 'Silver Screen' is a slow starter that smoulders into life as a hot rocker. A good set from an up and coming band that is doing the touring circuit and getting the attention of both Classic Rock magazine's ‘High Hopes’ feature and Planet Rock magazines.
So on to the other end of the spectrum. If you are of a certain age, you will have danced to this lot at school discos and office parties over five different decades. Hailing from that unflatteringly named Glam Rock era, headliners Sweet are a band of the 70’s who are more well known for glitter and spandex than for the quality Rock music that they created. Which is a shame because bands like Slade and Sweet produced some of the best iconic Rock yet will be remembered more for their Pop hits.
The current line-up is a five piece. I say current because over 50 years the band has seen many line-up changes. As well as founding member Andy Scott on guitar and vocals, there is Bruce Bisland on drums, Pete Lincoln on bass and vocals, Tony OʼHora on guitar, keys and vocals and new boy Paul Manzi on lead vocals. I say new boy, the ex-Cats In Space and Arena frontman has been around a while and has an ongoing role in Frontm3n but has been depping as lead vocalist for the Sweet 2019 tour. Bruce has been playing with the Sweet since 1991, and Pete has been a regular member since 2006 although he is a jobbing musician, composer and frontman for 70’s pop band Sailor. Tony joined in 2003 but it’s the equally white haired Scott that keeps the Sweet name alive. His long white hair is real – "do you think I would buy a wig that looks like this?" he quips – as is his less than svelte figure. But what do you expect of a septuagenarian? Sporting a Strat through a Marshal amp, the power of the guitar riff shines. Andy has had a lot of practice making some simplistic guitar riffs sound remarkably sophisticated. This isn’t cerebral music theory; this is simple but hugely engaging three chord fun. Entering the stage to 'Still Got The Rock', the band launch into one of their many chart songs, 'Action'. Andy and Tony swap riffs and create harmonies whilst Paul shows what a good choice he was to fill the shoes of previous Sweet vocalists - Brian Connolly and Paul Day. And Pete Lincoln too. Before taking the bass, Pete was vocalist with Sweet and he does a fine job of lead vocals on 'New York Groove' which nicely morphs into the Alicia Keys cover of 'New York'. Talented bunch these fellas.
The notch goes up a little further with the raucous 'Hell Raiser', which has the crowd dancing and singing like they did all those years ago. It’s another of those classic Sweet tracks that is instantly recognisable and outrageously catchy. 'Burn On The Flame' gives Tony a chance to show off his guitar skills on his exquisite custom made Nemesis guitar twinning with Andy’s Strat for some fine guitar harmonies. But it’s the singalong Pop rock like 'The Sixteens', 'Wig Wam Bam' and 'Little Willy' that really captures the festive feel-good factor. I’m back in the seventies again with my flares and my acrylic jumpers… It’s one of those sets that you sing along to every song. The lyrics aren’t going to win any literary prizes but who cares? "Wig-wam bam sham-a-lam, Wam bam bam sham-a-lam". Very profound. They don’t write them like that anymore.
There’s the sixties style Rock and Roll that is 'Peppermint Twist' and 80’s style Metal with 'Set Me Free' which could be a Judas Priest or Iron Maiden cover. The crowd chanter 'Teenage Rampage' (We want The Sweet, We want The Sweet…) and of course 'Love Is Like Oxygen', the late seventies pop classic - all keyboard and falsettos - which includes an excellent section of ELP’s 'Fanfare For The Common Man' ably played by O’Hara. What a treat. Signing off with 'Fox On The Run' they return for the mightiest of encores and staples of every partygoers repertoire - 'Blockbuster' and 'The Ballroom Blitz'. 'Blockbuster' was the Sweet’s only UK number 1 but is probably eclipsed by the Blitz, the finest air guitar track in the land, as the track of the night. The crowd dance and roar - the zimmers get a real battering. As the final chords of the Blitz die away, Scott takes a pair of scissors to the strings of his Strat as an almost symbolic end to a great show. Many an event are opened by a pair of scissors cutting a ribbon. Not many end that way.
So what do we say about tonight. One end of the age spectrum to the other. Openers Novatines bring youth and energy and new music. Headliners Sweet bring skills, experience and a damn fine back catalogue of tunes that have serenaded a part of our lives from yesteryear. You can’t make memories like these. You live a Sweet gig rather than experience it. It’s a nostalgic euphoria. Man of the night is Andy Scott, the architect of much of the Sweet back catalogue. Resplendent in his long white hair, and jovial midriff, he reminds me of a certain gentleman seen around this time of year. And, in the words of CC Moore, he leaves us with a festive fairwell:
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"
The Sweet setlist:
Intro (Still Got The Rock)
New York Groove (Hello cover) (included New York (Alicia Keys cover))
Burn on the Flame
The Six Teens
Peppermint Twist (Joey Dee & The Starliters cover)
Turn It Down
Set Me Free
Love Is Like Oxygen / Fanfare for the Common Man
Fox on the Run
The Ballroom Blitz