After five decades of rock music – some forgotten vinyl 45s now gathering dust on the shelves of smalltown radio stations – there’s one unanswered question. What was the perfect single?
For years I’ve thought I’ve known the answer. I remember hearing it in my older brother’s Mustang, on the only cool FM station in the entire state, giving it a teenaged glow that’s never been matched.
We were all lost in the 1970s, and Sweet typified the dilemma – pressured by the last gasps of mainstream pop, and determined to hit their fans with something harder. They burst out with a career-topping fireball in 1973, a song that launches with an extended drum riff of rock urgency. Or is that mock urgency? Over the rhythm, vocalist Brian Connolly casually checks in on the band with glam British coolness.
“You ready, Steve?”
After a full 20 seconds of build-up, Connolly lunges into the song with a histronic yowl
echoing those rock-friendly words — “Let’s go!” The drums never let up, now matched with an ominous bass and guitar pulsating with low-high oscillations. Electric slicing sounds rip through the Fender, a five-note cycle that taunts the bass with
a deliberate rhythm on the offbeat.
It’s a perfect song, with totems of excitement scattered throughout from the very first sound, a cymbal, signaling the fireworks to come. The lyrics scamper quickly through rhyming action words — “lightning,” “fighting” — but what else would you expect in a blitz? Each line adds a new element to the frenzy, like “the man at the back said everyone attack,” all explaining the strange and vaguely sexual mood created by “living with the things you do to me.” And since the entire song is describing a dream, it doesn’t have to make sense.
The near-meaninglessness of “Ballroom Blitz” is its strength, jettisoning relevancy as a boomer relic. (Or, as David Bowie later wrote for glam band Mott the Hoople, “We never got it off on that revolution stuff… too many snags.”) I like to think it’s the same thrill of raw rock passion that led Britain’s most famous deejay, John Peel, to declare that his lifetime favorite song was “Teenage Kicks.” And no less a music philosopher than Homer Simpson once laid out some truth. “Everyone knows rock n’ roll attained perfection in 1974. It’s a scientific fact.”
“Ballroom Blitz” was eventually covered by the Damned, by Blue Oyster Cult, and the Misfits before Krokus got around to their own charmless re-make. Even the Beastie Boys couldn’t resist sampling the supreme irony in the line that “She thinks she’s the passionate one,” for the song “Hey Ladies” on their breakthrough album Paul’s Boutique.
Thirty years later it’s still turning up on movie soundtracks like Bordello of Blood, Wayne’s World, and even Daddy Day Care.
But that’s what happens when you’ve created the perfect single.