The music business is full of rags-to-riches stories. It's also an incredibly difficult and destructive environment to operate in. Brian Connolly, the blond lead singer with the Seventies glam-rockers Sweet, saw both sides of the coin. His band sold over 50 million records, but he fell from grace and ultimately couldn't capitalise on the recent renewed interest in all things glitter.
Born in Hamilton, near Glasgow, in 1949, Connolly was probably the half- brother of the actor Mark McManus (who played the Scottish television detective Taggart). The young Brian was fostered by the McManus family, having been abandoned by his mother as a baby; however, when he moved to Middlesex in his teens, he dropped the surname McManus in favour of Connolly. (Rumours persisted that his father was "Mark's dad. I think Mark was my half-brother." Whatever the truth behind their common lineage, he and Mark McManus both later admitted their resemblance to each other was uncanny.) Connolly studied to become an engineer but music was more of an attraction for a youngster keen to make his mark on the world.
The Home Counties were a hotbed of musical talent and Connolly soon replaced Ian Gillan (later with Deep Purple) in a Harrow-based cover band called Wainwright's Gentlemen. In 1968, along with the drummer Mick Tucker and bass-player Steve Priest, Connolly formed the psychedically named Sweetshop. The group shortened its name, changed guitarists as often as it swapped record labels (Fontana, Parlophone) and only stabilised with the arrival of Andy Scott in 1970.
Signing with RCA the following year, the band hooked up with the producer Phil Wainman and songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who immediately came up with a poppy, lightweight formula not dissimilar to Mungo Jerry and Middle of the Road. Pretty soon, "Funny Funny", "Co-Co" and "Poppa Joe" were nudging into the British charts. Soon, with Sweet making numerous television appearances covered in glitter, make-up and warpaint, the rest of Europe and the United States fell for simplistic ditties like "Little Willy" and "Wig Wam Bam". But the group already felt trapped in a gimmicky image which didn't quite match their musical ambitions. In a bid to bridge the gap between the successful hits and the hard- rocking B-sides the band had always written, Chinn and Chapman came up with the riotous "Blockbuster". Based on a wailing siren and a classic guitar riff (very similar to David Bowie's "Jean Genie", which also came out on RCA in January 1973), the song reached No 1.
The similarly raucous intros to "Hellraiser", "Ballroom Blitz" (complete with Brian enquiring "Are you ready, Steve, Mick, Andy?") and "Teenage Rampage" provoked many a stampede towards crowded dancefloors and Sweet's saucy stage antics earned them a ban from the Mecca night-club circuit. After the anthemic "Six Teens", the group decided to distance themselves from their Svengali songwriters, who were now also penning material for Suzi Quatro and Smokie.
The Sweet Fanny Adams (1974) and Desolation Boulevard (1974) albums were full of the band's own compositions (the infectious "Fox on the Run" - a million-seller in the United States - and the catchy "Action" later covered by Def Leppard) and heralded a rather successful change of style. Sweet missed out on a support slot with The Who at Charlton Football Ground in the mid-Seventies which could have confirmed their move towards a more credible status. American success also came at a price; Kiss virtually borrowed Sweet's sound and look wholesale, adding even more gimmicks and eventually stealing the British group's thunder.
Just as punk was discovering its glitter roots (the Damned toured with Marc Bolan and T-Rex and later recorded "Ballroom Blitz"), Sweet were playing the tax exiles, taking drugs and drinking while recording in France and Germany ("Give us a Wink" proved the double entendres were starting to wear thin).
In early 1978, a switch from RCA to Polydor saw the band back in the charts with the progressive "Love is Like Oxygen". Unfortunately, both the Level Headed (1978) and Cut Above the Rest (1979) albums flopped and the musicians argued more than ever. The guitarist Andy Scott and Connolly were at loggerheads, with the singer convinced that the rest of the band had recorded backing tracks in a key he patently couldn't reach. In 1979, Connolly left to attempt a solo career (his single "Hypnotised" didn't set the charts alight) and the others soldiered on for three years without ever recovering their former status. By the late Eighties, Andy Scott and Connolly were both touring with rival versions of Sweet and couldn't bury the hatchet to take advantage of the lucrative reformation offers which came to them from Germany and Japan. Tia Carrera's version of "Ballroom Blitz" became one of the highlights of the soundtrack of the 1992 film Wayne's World.
Two years ago, Don't Leave Me This Way, a Channel 4 documentary, highlighted the plight of Brian Connolly, who had suffered several heart attacks in 1981. Still clinging to his memorabilia and his dyed blond hair, the vocalist appeared as a shadow of his former self, shaking constantly and walking with a limp. He only came to life when appearing on stage at Butlin's to sing "Blockbuster".
Brian Connolly, singer and songwriter: born Hamilton, Lanarkshire 5 October 1945; married (two daughters; marriage dissolved; one son by Jean Dibble); died Slough 10 February 1997.
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