Hellraiser: 10 Reasons Why Steve Priest of The Sweet Totally Ruled
The bass player passed away yesterday at the age of 72.
The Sweet (or just plain Sweet, as they were known in the US) were one of the greatest bands to emerge from the original British glam era of the early 1970s, and bassist Steve Priest was their not-so-secret weapon.
The telepathic musical bond Priest shared with drummer Mick Tucker gave The Sweet an absolutely murderous rhythm section; his high-pitched backing vocals were a key component of the band’s signature four-part harmonies; his campy spoken-word interjections lent just the right amount of comic relief to boot-stomping anthems like “Ballroom Blitz” and “Blockbuster”; and his cheerful willingness to don any costume—no matter how flamboyant or absurd—made him a true glam icon. He may not have been the best bass player to ever wear a cape, but no bass player ever wore a cape better than Steve Priest did.
“We were doing ‘Blockbuster!’ on Top of the Pops,” recalled Priest—who passed away yesterday at the age of 72—in a 2000 interview. “I was sitting in the dressing room putting my makeup on, and a voice came from beside me going, ‘You know, you really are putting much too much makeup on.’ And I looked around, and it was David Bowie!”
Though they were a massive influence on bands like The Damned, Mötley Crüe, and Redd Kross, Sweet never enjoyed another big hit after 1978’s “Love Is Like Oxygen,” and—save for an aborted demo session in 1988—the band never fully reunited, so the legend of Steve Priest has been largely (and unfairly) obscured by the mists of time. In an attempt to right that wrong, then, here are ten examples of why the late, great Steve Priest totally ruled.
1. “Ballroom Blitz”
The Sweet were much bigger in their native U.K. than they were here in the U.S., but 1973’s “Ballroom Blitz” was one of a handful of their singles that hit big on both sides of the pond. Priest’s drowsy “Uh huh” response to lead singer Brian Connolly’s opening query of “Are you ready, Steve?” would be a magical moment in and of itself, but his completely unhinged pre-chorus recitations about “the man in the back” and “the girl in the corner” drop-kicked the already-awesome song deep into the realms of sheer ridiculousness—and then he capped it all by busting out a diaphanous, high-collared fairy godmother cape to wear over his spacesuit in the song’s video. Even if he’d done nothing else, Priest deserves a throne in Rock and Roll Valhalla for “Ballroom Blitz” alone.
2. “Little Willy”
The A-sides of The Sweet’s first five U.K. chart singles were all recorded by studio musicians, with the band members adding their vocals over the backing tracks. 1972’s “Little Willy,” the first Sweet single to go Top 5 in both the U.K. and the U.S., was the last of these, but no matter—Priest still went out in front of the television cameras and acted like he’d been playing it all along, completely owning the stage in hot pants and silver stack heels, with a silver lamé blouse to match.
3. “Wig-Wam Bam”
1972’s “Wig-Wam Bam” (written, as were many of the band’s hits, by managers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman) was the first hit that the band was allowed to actually play on—and it was also the first Sweet recording to include one of Steve Priest’s bug-eyed vocal interjections. The song’s cartoonish Native American imagery wouldn’t fly now, but back then it was pretty much showbiz convention that someone in the band would have to wear a chief’s headdress to promote it…and that someone, of course, was Steve Priest.
Speaking of controversial costumes, Priest caused a bit of an uproar when he appeared on the Christmas ’73 episode of Britain’s Top of the Pops by delivering the song’s campy “We haven’t got a clue what to do!” line while wearing a WWI Pickelhaube helmet, a Hitler moustache and an SS tunic complete with a Nazi swastika—all of which he’d snagged from the BBC wardrobe department—heavy eye-shadow and purple lipstick. Priest was no Nazi, though; his getup was simply part of a long British comedic tradition of making fun of the Third Reich. “It’s amazing how everyone still talks about the Nazi uniform,” Priest laughed in a 2010 interview. “I mean, a gay Hitler. Hello?!”
Though their early hits were aimed at the teen/bubblegum market, The Sweet were actually a fearsome, road-hardened live act with a far more forceful attack than their singles indicated. The band is utterly on fire in this live performance of their 1973 UK hit “Hellraiser”—and Priest stalking the stage in a purple cape and knee-high boots while waiting for his chance to yell “But mama, you don’t understand!” is just the star-spangled cherry atop this glam-rock sundae.
6. “Teenage Rampage”
A massive hit in the U.K. and Europe that sadly missed the charts entirely here, this Chinn-Chapman ode to youthful rebellion—complete with sly Priest utterances like, “Imagine the formation of teenage legislation!”—still stands as one of The Sweet’s greatest anthems, fully distilling all the intensity and insanity of “Sweetmania” into a three-minute single. Germany was a huge market for Sweet, and Priest gave Musikladen viewers a treat in this promotional, donning a purple satin biker’s outfit emblazoned with black skull-and-crossbones insignias.
7. “No You Don’t”
Brian Connolly was kicked in his throat during a street fight while on a break from sessions for 1974’s Desolation Boulevard, an injury that rendered him unable to finish the lead vocals on several tracks, and would sadly impact his singing range for the rest of his life. But as this smoking live version of that album’s “No You Don’t” proves, Steve Priest was more than up to the task of filling in for his fallen comrade.
8. “Turn It Down”
A harder-rocking single more in line with what the band actually sounded like live, 1974’s “Turn It Down” was The Sweet’s first flop after seven straight U.K. Top-Ten hits. This performance of the song from the British TV show Geordie Scene is highlighted by Priest’s outburst beginning at 2:05, where the sunglassed bassist caps his tongue-twisting lines with a deliciously vitriolic “Listen here, ya punk!”
9. “Fox on the Run”
The first Sweet hit written by the band members themselves, “Fox on the Run” was a deservedly massive smash on both sides of the Atlantic in 1975, and the song experienced a welcome revival in 2016 when it was featured in the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Though Priest’s presence in the song (and its promotional video) was considerably more low-key than on previous Sweet singles, his chorus refrain of “Foxy on the run!” truly puts it over the top.
10. “California Nights”
Left to their own devices in a pop music landscape where glam rock was rapidly becoming old news, The Sweet were determined to prove themselves a “serious” rock band—a move that met with diminishing commercial returns. 1975’s “Action” and 1978’s “Love Is Like Oxygen” were their last two huge international hits, but “California Nights”—the follow-up to “Love Is Like Oxygen”—marked the last time a new Sweet song would even vaguely trouble the charts. Though “California Nights” is more laid-back than typical Sweet fare (and contains the possibly cringe-inducing call to “Boogie through to morning”), it’s nonetheless kind of heartwarming to watch the King Tut–emblazoned Priest sing it in this promo clip, especially knowing that he would settle in LA just a few years later, and happily raise a family there. Boogie on, Steve! FL