Sweeney Todd was a short-lived mid-Seventies glam band formed in Vancouver, Canada’s response, perhaps, to T Rex.
The group’s origins are traced to 1973, when Nick Gilder, an English-born singer who grew up in Vancouver, paired with guitarist Jim McCullough to form a band called Rasputin. When bassist Budd Marr, keyboardist Dan Gaudin and drummer John Booth joined in 1975, Rasputin became Sweeney Todd, a name inspired the eponymous Stephen Sondheim play.
Sweeney Todd scored a massive national hit with this, its third single. “Roxy Roller” was a #1 hit in Canada, topping the RPM national singles chart for three weeks in 1976 and netting the band a Juno Award. It was enough to warrant attention from Chrysalis Records in the US, although the label was more interested in Gilder and McCulloch’s songwriting than the band itself. The two founders defected to LA, with Gilder ultimately scoring a #1 hit in Canada and the US with “Hot Child in the City” in addition to carving a successful songwriting career.
Meanwhile, Clark Perry and Skip Prest joined, respectively, as replacement singer and guitarist. Perry didn’t work out, but a 15-year-old Bryan Adams impressed the band with his ability to replicate Gilder’s androgynous sound, and with him at the mic the band recorded its second album, If Wishes Were Horses. This included a third (!) version of “Roxy Roller,” with Adams replicating Gilder’s original melody line. The band received the 1977 Juno for best new group, and although it was “Roxy Roller” 1.0 that propelled the band to the stratosphere, it was Adams who went on stage to accept the award. If Wishes Were Horses was a bust, and Adams departed after less than a year with the band, and went on to a massive solo career of his own.
Sweeney Todd regrouped on Adams’ departure, again bringing in replacement members, but the magic wasn’t there. They disbanded in 1978, without having entered the studio. They re-united for The Sweeney Todd LP in 2000, though, and occasionally perform, with Gilder at the helm.
To friends who were there at the time, Sweeney Todd seems seminal, and certainly there aren’t many Canadian glam bands to have reached the level of recognition they have. Now, I love glam for both the music and the style, but personally find that the sound of Gilder’s voice makes me want to put a fork into my ear. That’s just my preference, and makes him no less an exceptional singer; and he is, indeed, good. Although effectively a one-hit-wonder, “Roxy Roller” delivers enough artistry and commercial impact that they likely deserve a spot amongst the best.