Andy Scott of Sweet Discusses Isolation Boulevard
The legendary glam rock band reworks 12 well-known songs on new release.
Hello, and thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. For this issue of MRC, I had the honor of interviewing Sweet guitarist Andy Scott, who is still playing and recording with the band at age 71. Sweet burst onto the scene in the late 1960s with a few non-album singles before releasing the band’s first LP, Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be, in November of 1971. The band had a string of international hits through the 1970s, dealt with the departure of singer Brian Connolly — in the midst of some alcohol issues — in 1979, continued on as a three-piece for a while, broke up in 1982, went through various reunion attempts, and eventually even had two touring bands at the same time. Andy continues to fly the Sweet flag and hopes to have his band back on stages as COVID-19 vaccination percentages rise around the world. I spoke to Andy about his band’s latest release, Isolation Boulevard, which in many ways isn’t new at all. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed talking to Andy about it.
I don’t normally like when bands re-record their own material. In fact, I’m on record on the subject as having called them “just cover songs.” But a new release by the legendary glam rock band Sweet (or “The Sweet” to those from the UK) has me rethinking my position, at least in this case.
The band has released Isolation Boulevard, a re-recording of a dozen Sweet concert standards, including several well-known classic songs. The album title calls back to the band’s iconic Desolation Boulevard (1974) release, which included such amazing Sweet songs as “Fox on the Run,” “The Six Teens,” and “Turn It Down.” All three of those songs and nine others have been reworked for Isolation Boulevard, an album that was recorded in between pandemic lockdowns in the UK, by the current members of Sweet: Andy Scott (guitars, keyboards, backing vocals), Paul Manzi (lead vocals), Bruce Bisland (drums, backing vocals), Lee Small (bass, backing vocals), and touring band member Steve Mann (keyboards, guitars, backing vocals).
Scott is the band’s lone surviving member from Sweet’s classic era in the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Other classic lineup members Brian Connolly (vocals), Steve Priest (bass), and Mick Tucker (drums) have all passed away — Priest just last year. Scott has soldiered on, keeping the music alive for many years. His new lineup now brings these classic songs to both new audiences and existing fans, who will be able to hear Isolation Boulevard and recognize it as the sound they hear at live Sweet shows.
Progressive rock fans may know Manzi as the voice of Arena for 10 years. He was the replacement for Rob Sowden and appeared on Arena’s The Seventh Degree of Separation (2011), The Unquiet Sky (2015), and Double Vision (2018) albums.
“When we needed a singer about almost 20 years ago, Paul was quite young then, and he came along because someone had highly recommended him,” Scott said. “I think it was Rick Wakeman, because (Manzi) had been working with his son, Oliver. He sent me some stuff. And when we started doing some backing vocals together, we realized how much louder we sang than him. And the only reason he didn’t really get the gig that time is because he was a bit young. He was a great singer but the guy who had been in the heavy rock band Praying Mantis (Tony O’Hora) was available, and it was just a matter of slotting him in. But he didn’t last, so maybe we should have got Paul in back then and we’d have had 20 years with him instead of Arena having some of it.”
Isolation Boulevard was born out of an obligation that needed to be fulfilled and a shrinking window in which to do it, but the band dove into the project wholeheartedly.
“We owed Sony an album of new material and it’s been kicked down the road a couple of times because of work commitments and the fact that Sony in Germany moved a lot of what they did from Munich to Berlin,” Scott said. “It’s one of those situations that, however much I would like to deliver a new album, during the pandemic I don’t think is the right time to be doing that.
“However, the band wanted to do something and what better than the songs that we perform live — the majority of the set? We might as well attack that. Plus, also, we have a new singer who’s only been in the band a couple of years. He’s been ‘depping’ for the lead singer, who eventually left, for about seven or eight years. So, it’s not as if he’s new to the fans or the band or anything.”
The track list reads like a Sweet greatest hits album:
Fox on the Run
Still Got the Rock
Love Is Like Oxygen
The Six Teens
Set Me Free
Turn It Down
New York Groove
In addition to recording the Sweet classics with Manzi’s vocals, Scott said the band reworked the songs a bit so that they’re not strict copies of those revered tracks, but a new thing for fans to enjoy.
“We did a re-record quite a few years ago where they sound like the original recordings. We fooled a lot of people with that set of re-records, but this time we wanted to do something slightly different,” he said. “I said, ‘If we’re going to be recording things that we do live, then we don’t need any more than 12,’ but it took some finding to put 12 together, never mind any more than that. The tracks just automatically chose themselves.”
Even though these songs have been somewhat reworked, the band didn’t completely deviate from the originals. They’re close enough to the originals to sound familiar without alienating listeners who are used to the classics. “Set Me Free,” originally on Desolation Boulevard, was a no-brainer choice for a single, Scott said.
“Because of the pandemic, and we called it Isolation Boulevard, for me it was obvious,” he said. “’Set Me Free’ had to be one of the singles. Sweet have never released that song. I wrote it in 1973 and we’ve never released it as a single before. And over here (in England) it went in the charts. We were getting airplay on major radio like the BBC. It was great. We also released ‘Still Got the Rock,’ which also did rather well. It set the scene for ‘Set Me Free,’ basically.”
The songs rock and they sound great. Manzi does a great job on lead vocals, sounding like himself rather than copying Connolly, but his voice isn’t such a stark contrast to throw listeners for a loop. And the trademark excellent Sweet harmony backing vocals are present, of course. The band plays well on the album, including some excellent lead guitar flourishes on “Action.” “Love is Like Oxygen” has its well-known crunchy guitar riff, memorable bassline, and requisite keyboard parts.
Fans can enjoy the songs as a document of the current lineup, and they can live alongside the classic versions rather than take their place. The album was put together in 2020, with drum recording being an issue due to the limitations of Scott’s home studio. Some previously recorded drum tracks were used.
“There was a gap in the summer last year between lockdowns, where I was able to get some of the guys down to my studio one at a time,” Scott said. “And it’s not faking, but the only (studio trick) that we’ve done on a couple of the tracks is we’ve found some fantastic outtake drum tracks that we have edited, and you’d never know. You’d think that we’d all been in the studio together. But everything that you hear was put together in a very, very quick, short space of time and it seems the fans love it, so it seems it wasn’t a bad choice in the end, was it?”
One of the album’s true highlights for me is a spectacular version of “New York Groove,” written by Russ Ballard and originally recorded by Hello in 1975 and made popular in the United States by Ace Frehley in 1978. Sweet’s new version incorporates sections of the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys song "Empire State of Mind.” Small sings the “Empire State of Mind” lines beautifully and they slot into “New York Groove” seamlessly. The track was a reworked version of the song on the 2012 Sweet album, New York Connection.
“I wanted our latest incarnation of ‘New York Groove’ with a little bit of ‘Empire State of Mind,’ the Alicia Keys thing, in there,” Scott said. “I wanted that to go in there because that gives a solo spot to Lee Small as a vocalist as well. And also I wanted things that maybe weren’t obvious hits in America but should have been, like ‘Blockbuster’ and ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Teenage Rampage.’ We purposely did not want to recreate — like we did 25 years ago — the hits as people would remember them because we had already done that.”
Interestingly, the intro to “Ballroom Blitz” features Manzi doing the original Connolly intro asking Priest, Scott, and Tucker (in that order) if they’re ready, rather than incorporating the newer band members’ names in the intro.
For fans who have the original Sweet albums, Isolation Boulevard isn’t essential, strictly speaking. But the songs are good and the re-recordings in this case give them a fresh perspective. They’re representative of the band as it is now without being so different as to be off-putting. I could see some fans not liking the new recordings, being conditioned to all of the nuances of the originals. But the response so far has generally been positive and the band has been back on the radio. Scott said ultimately the arbiter of whether Isolation Boulevard is a success in his mind is how it’s received by those who love the band.
“You want the fans to be happy and they seem to be happy,” Scott said. “Especially now. The main complaint was that there weren’t any hard copies around like CDs or vinyl. It was download only when it was first released. Well now, we have an American company producing some vinyl for us in some different packaging with a purple vinyl inside and it’s really fantastic to see that and there will be some CDs soon.
“I think they’re just happy for us to still be capable of producing an album like that. To do a reworking and a rethinking of 12 of the major songs that we’ve had, and to have it accepted the way that it’s been accepted, I can think of nothing better. My job is done.”
Isolation Boulevard is available digitally at all the usual outlets and on vinyl on Amazon. The CD will be available soon. Sign up for updates at thesweet.com to get notification as soon as it’s available.
You can see the entire video interview with Andy Scott below. Andy discussed a lot of topics besides the new album, including: working with Suzy Quatro and (Slade drummer) Don Powell; producing for other artists; Brian Connolly’s health preventing a classic lineup reunion; how Ronnie James Dio was in consideration for joining Sweet (really!) at one point; trying to unite a version of Sweet with Steve Priest in the 2000s; his concern with post-pandemic attitudes toward live gigs; and more.