Steve Priest, bass player with Sweet, giants of glam rock – obituary
Steve Priest, who has died aged 72, was bass guitarist with Sweet, the glam rockers who were loved by many and despised by many others as they cut a swathe through the 1970s pop scene, selling 50 million records.
Priest was a talented bass-player, as well as a singer whose falsetto screams on backing vocals were a defining feature of the band’s sound – alongside his camp inserts such as “We just haven’t got a clue what to do” in Block Buster.
He was also the glammest of the glam rockers. He recalled talking to David Bowie backstage on Top of the Pops: “I was plastering this make-up on, and Bowie’s going: ‘Oh no, no, no. You’ve got to be subtle.’ He just didn’t get it. It isn’t supposed to be subtle. I’m supposed to look like an old tart.”
Stephen Norman Priest was born on February 23 1948 at Hayes in Middlesex. Having built his own bass guitar, he began playing with local bands, and in 1968 he was invited to join singer Brian Connolly, drummer Mick Tucker and guitarist Frank Torpey (who was soon replaced by Mick Stewart, and then, in the classic line-up, Andy Scott).
They named themselves Sweetshop, becoming the Sweet and then just “Sweet” – and were initially managed by the actor Paul Nicholas. Their first few singles failed to trouble the charts, but when they teamed up with the songwriters, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, they took off.
In 1971 they had their first chart hit, Funny Funny, followed by Coco, which went to No 2. More hits came in 1972 – Poppa Joe, Wig Wam Bam and Little Willy – and the year after, retaining the bubblegum sensibility of Chinn and Chapman, but fusing it with crunchy power chords, they embarked on a string of stomping anthems that defined glam rock: Block Buster (a No 1 hit), Hell Raiser, The Ballroom Blitz and Teenage Rampage (all No 2s).
Though piling on the make-up and glitter, they craved musical respectability. Their self-written B-sides were essentially heavy metal, and in 1974 The Who invited them to play a support slot at The Valley in South London, though throat problems sustained by Connolly in a fight prevented them. But with their trashy, high camp aesthetic they could not satisfy critics looking for something weightier.
Though they were never to invite favourable comparison with more serious rockers, they certainly embraced the lifestyle. They drank 300 bottles of wine in a month recording one album, Priest recalled: “After downing up to a dozen bottles at dinner, we would rush to the pub and imbibe some of the local brew. The rest of the evening was spent fornicating.”
In 1974 they ditched Chinn and Chapman, but struggled without a steady supply of chart-friendly tunes, and the hits dried up. They had their last Top Ten entry in 1978 with Love is Like Oxygen, but all around them punk was taking over.
Connolly quit in search of solo success (which never came), Priest taking over lead-vocal duties. But the band split in 1981, Scott, Connolly and Priest going on to play in various “Sweet” permutations (Connolly died in 1997).
In the 1980s Priest moved to Los Angeles, where he played sessions and did some production work; in 2008 he formed his own version of Sweet, and had toured regularly since.
In 1994 he published a scabrous memoir, Are You Ready, Steve?, taking its title from the beginning of Ballroom Blitz. “The Seventies were magical,” he recalled. “They were like the Sixties, only crazier. God knows how we got away with it.”
Steve Priest was married, first, to Pat. They divorced, and he is survived by his second wife, Maureen, who he married in 1981, and by three daughters.
Steve Priest, born February 23 1948, died June 4 2020