Original Sweet- Torpey is 2nd from the left there
Frank Torpey interview
by John Wisniewski
If 70's AM radio was a part of your life, you've heard, and hopefully dug, hits like "Blockbuster," "Little Willie," "Ballroom Blitz" (which you also saw in Wayne's Word), "Love Is Like Oxygen" and "Fox On the Run." You might have wondered where all these stomping, shout-along pop confections came from and the answer is UK glam outfit The Sweet. The band actually dates back to the late '60's and one of its co-founders was a guitarist named Frank Torpey. Though he didn't stay in the band long, he helped create a legacy. Here we find out from him about how the group came together, some wild road stories and how they held their own up against some more well-known acts, in addition to his subsequent career, which now includes no less than three projects, including a single, a rock opera and some techno music.
PSF: What were some of your early influences and favorite bands?
FT: Early years, skiffle (Lonnie Donegan in the main). R'n'R, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Presley, Fats Domino and plenty of other greats. Early 60's Shadows, Beatles (hard not to be influenced by them), Animals, Stones, The Who and Small Faces (major influences- Marriott, phenomenal singer). After this period, I got into prog rock- loved Yes, Genesis, Tull etc. Nowadays, I like to listen to James Taylor, Eagles, pretty much easy going stuff.
PSF When did you begin playing music? What were the bands you were in prior to The Sweet?
FT: I started like a lot of kids my age when the skiffle groups started up about 1955-1956. It was Lonnie Donegan, The Vipers, Chas McDevitt etc. I pestered my mother to buy me a cheap Spanish guitar. Fortunately for me, it was playable (many were not). I practiced until I mastered a few chords and managed to play "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor." After a while, the guitar got picked up less and less and ended up at the end of my bed in my bedroom.
Literally, a few years later, a pal came round and saw the guitar. He was amazed I could play "Apache" by The Shadows. My interest was rekindled and as Christmas approached, I begged for an electric guitar. I got my wish and I was given a bright red Futurama 3 guitar. We had other school friends, Mick Tucker (drums), Fred Gillenotti (guitarist) and my pal John (bass) and we had a Shadows instrumental group. No name or gigs, but a good little group which practiced hard (this would have been around 1961).
My next band was a proper semi-pro group with a singer. We were called Dino and the Diamonds and got paid. I was 16 years old, playing in a group. I had a brand new motor bike and a girlfriend- life was good.
A year or so later, I was playing lead guitar with a full blown blues band, The Tribe. We got a record deal with Shel Talmy on his record label Planet (he was the producer of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and "Sunny Afternoon" etc, and he was also responsible for The Who' "My Generation," etc. What a pedigree). The band then went to RCA Records. We got bigger and bigger on the club scene. We had a residency at The Ealing Club, the same period in time as Alexis Korner, The Who and The Birds (Ronnie Wood's first big band). We headlined The Flamingo and secured a residency at the Marquee. Our drummer was being chased by loads of bands and ended up going with Alan Price, our bass player Dennis Cowan (R.I.P) went to the Bonzo Doo-Dah Band and I ended up forming The Sweet.
Original Sweet- Torpey is 3rd from the left there
PSF: When did you join The Sweet?
FT: Truth is, I didn't join The Sweet- I'm a founding member. Myself and Steve Priest are the only two living members of Sweet. I was in a band called Wainwright's Gentlemen with Mick Tucker and Brian Connolly. I got the sack, Mick or Brian was about to get the heave ho. They could see we worked well together. They phoned me and asked what I thought about forming a band together. I said 'good idea' and that was it. We had a couple of beers in The Swan Ruislip to celebrate. We needed a bass player- Steve was our first choice and he agreed. We were now a four piece, so, no, I never joined The Sweet- I formed the band with Mick, Brian and Steve.
(ED NOTE: Frank contacted us later to say that after he went through his diary from the time, he had found even more specific information)
The formation of the band came about due to the fact I was sacked from Wainwright's Gentlemen, of which at the time Mick (Tucker) was on drums, Brian (Connelly) on lead vocals. After my final gig with the Wainwright's (20th February, '68) myself, Mick and Brian were chatting away and it seemed we had the makings of a decent band between ourselves. We decided to have a beer a week later on the Friday the 26th in the Swan Ruislip where we agreed to work together. The lads quit Wainwright's and we recruited Steve (Priest) literally a few days later. We were now a complete four piece band.
PSF: Any stories about being in The Sweet in the early days?
FT: Here goes. We turned up at a college gig, I can't remember where. Another band were there and smoking a bit of weed. They were very friendly and asked if we'd like to partake. As I didn't smoke, that was me ruled out. Mick and Steve didn't seem to be bothered but Brian thought 'well, let's have a go.' Well, he had a couple of tokes and said 'nope, can't feel anything.' He tried again a few times and thought 'nope, this stuff don't work on me.' Next thing, we are on stage, we have a new single just released ("Slow Motion" on Fontana), so we are plugging it. Brian announces 'we would like to do the B-side, called "Lonely Out There."' We finish the song and Brian announces 'we would like to do our B-side, "Lonely Out There."' There was no reasoning with him- we are telling him, 'no, we've just played it.' It becomes apparent that Brian is completely stoned and out of it. There was nothing we could do but play it again. God knows what the crowd thought, but we got away with it.
PSF: When did you leave The Sweet
FT: Last gig with Sweet was July 1969, exactly 18 months after we formed the band. I've got the exact date somewhere. It was The Playhouse in Addlestone (Chertsey area). It was a good gig and went well. I left on good terms with the lads (I was invited several times to return). They had an excellent replacement for me with Mick Stewart- he had a good pedigree as he'd worked with the likes of Johnny Kidd and he seemed to know loads of people in the music biz.
PSF: So why did you actually leave The Sweet?
FT: The reason for my departure from the band was mainly due to the fact I was keen to get into prog rock. The likes of Yes and Spooky Tooth really took my fancy, with that and the fact our manager was sprinkling our date sheet with youth clubs (I had never played youth clubs even when I started out). When he pulled a really good gig so we could do a wedding, that was it. The straw that broke the camel's back. I would like to stress there was no bad feeling between me and the lads. In fact, I went to a couple of gigs and even a Radio One session (they were always great fun to do- arrive, set up and get five, yes FIVE, tracks down in three hours).
PSF: For the material that The Sweet put out after you left, which songs or albums did you particularly like?
FT: A while after I left the band, they recorded "Funny Funny." They came to my place (Mick and Brian) to play it. They invited me back into the band, but I declined as I was due to go on holiday in the next few days (holiday is not strictly true- had an operation and it was more of a convalescence). The next few singles were "Co-Co" and "Poppa Joe," which wasn't my thing. It wasn't till a few years later when they did "Block Buster" ("I'm A man" riff) that I thought 'this is a bit more like it.' "Ballroom Blitz" and "Teenage Rampage" were good tracks but their best work I thought was "Action," "Oxygen" and "Fox on the Run" as I've never heard any of the albums. The reason is because this was the heyday of rock and with so many good bands out there in the '70's, Bad Company, The Faces, Frampton, Doobies, Who, the list is endless.
PSF: What bands were you with afterwards?
FT: After Sweet, my idea was to join or form a progressive rock band. Literally about a week after leaving Sweet, I got a call from Quatermass (their management). They were a new prog rock band and I was on their list as guitarist. This sounded good to me, just what I wanted. But about 3-4 days later, I got a call that they were working so well and didn't need a guitarist after all.
Next, I saw an ad, part of Honeybus and ex-Nashville Teens looking for a guitarist, I went along to the audition- all went well and they liked me, I liked them too. But over the next week or so, someone got a gig and it fell apart.
I auditioned for loads of bands. nothing was right and I decided to form my own band. The singer said he wanted to call the band "Torpey" and I was to be called Frank Loud, I thought 'OK...' We were doing well at rehearsals, but then our bass player said the music was too difficult to play and wanted out. It was when our next bass player said the same that I could see this was not working, time to think again.
More or less at the same time, a drummer name of Carlo Little (if you don't know, Google him) knew about me and [asked if I] would I like to do some gigs with him. The first was in Hayes, about 25 minutes from Kilburn (where I lived). Just threw my Vox AC TB in the boot of my Ford Zephyr 6, turned up at the venue at half seven, plugged my amp in, a couple of beers, got on stage about 9, no rehearsal and played for an hour or so and went well. Our singer was Graham Fenton (if you don't know, Google him) He gave me good money in cash and things were good. I worked with him most weekends, all local cash gigs (no rehearsals, as all 12 bar r'n'r). It was in 1970.
I worked in the same band as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore [were in before]- The Savages (I knew Ritchie as I had met him in The Sweet when we were on with Deep Purple). Screaming Lord Sutch used Carlo as his main drummer over the years and put a word in for me with Dave (Sutch). After doing a bit of recording with him, we did some gigs, all good.
By 1971, I was getting lots of offers for work. I was offered a residency at the Rainbow Room's Manor House. This entailed working Friday and Saturday nights, two twenty-minute spots per night. Well paid, cash in hand, no humping gear, it all stayed in the club under lock and key. Just turn up before the first spot and go home any time after the 2nd set. Probably the easiest gig to date, everything going great. THEN, I fell out with the band leader-Jack, and got the sack.
I found myself gigging around but with no fixed abode. At a gig in Watford , some lads in the audience spotted me, said 'we used to see you in The Sweet, we're looking for a guitarist, are you interested?' 'Yep let's have a look.' They were doing covers of Stones, Free, Bowie etc. This worked for me- easy going and the band were called Easy Virtue. I got on well with the lads, plus the band get new management and a change of name. We're now Crackers and getting decent work- the Top Rank circuit, two to two and a half thousand punters a night, good crowds. We get TV and record interest (well, one single released on the continent- EMI and Decca both looked and said 'thanks, but no thanks'). At the time, we became known as a comedy rock band. We were loud and funny, We get a Jag (XJ6) and life is easy for me- I'm chauffeured to and from gigs (we could get back from Southampton / Brighton to London in an hour in the XJ6). We're only doing one hour spots and most of it is the lads doing gags, impressions, then we finish with a Hendrix or Bowie tribute. Amps flat out to deafen the crowd into submission.
1977 and punk is everywhere and everything (a bit like 1967- overnight everything changed to flower power, peace and love, man, joss sticks, and everybody had to wear a kaftan - I was there). So we set about putting a punk band together- Horrorcomic was the name. Like everything in life, you need a bit of luck. Lightning Records bank-rolled us for our first single. We got a small hit in the alternative charts with "I'm All Hung Up With Pierpoint (Albert the Hangman)." They were happy and put the money up for an album. We recorded it at Surrey Sound Studios. Next single was "England 77," not a bad track, didn't do too much and the album was shelved. I met a lad from B&C records (mainly did imports of reggae.) He talked their MD into releasing "Jesus Crisis." The single sank without trace (it happens).
By the time we got to 1979, I was doing less gigs and about to be married (Honeymoon in Vegas and Palm Springs, it was great). I now had a proper job, working for a living. By the time 1981 arrived, so did my first son. I wasn't really interested in bands by now, but the phone would ring and usually I turned work down, so it slowly came to an end.
PSF: What are you working on currently?
FT: I have three disparate projects that are in the pipeline (delayed through procrastination). First is a single, "New York City," The Frank E. Torpey band on my Frankie Dean record label. This track has Elliott Tuffin, Ryan Chandler and Angela McGrath on vocals. This track is already recorded, it just needs mixing. 2nd Project is a rock opera, as yet the title to be decided. All the songs have been recorded, most mixed and maybe released on CD as well as digital download. The 3rd project is a techno dance type track- several mixes have been made but it needs more work. This will be a virtual band, name as yet to be decided.
PSF: What was your finest moment as a musician?
FT: In 1967, while working in The Tribe, we were getting lots of work with the likes of Jimmie James, Brian Auger and Graham Bond. As youngsters (we were all around twenty years of age), we were learning from the best of the best. We were offered a residency at The Marquee for threemonths, starting July. Our supporting bands included The Groundhogs, Love Affair, Mud, Badfinger and Ten Years After. To our credit, we were NEVER upstaged by some very good bands. Last month in September, we changed our name to The Dream. This was all about flower power- many bands did the same. To headline what I believe to be the most important club in London was a privilege. To have a three-month residency was a brilliant achievement that beat having hit records by a country mile. We were in the company of what I consider to be the most groundbreaking bands of the time- Stones, Who, Yardbirds, Bowie, Zeppelin, the list continues...
Frank Torpey 2020
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