Beat My Guest

And so begins a week or so of your Uncle E taking a little break from the blog and letting our friend over the river Thames, Nick, have a go. His first piece is an in depth synopsis of a band I have often wanted to explore, and after reading the following, I shall.

SPARKS: An Eternal Flame
Shakespeare entitled one of his plays ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’
In looking back at Sparks, one of my fave bands of all time, exactly the opposite comes to mind, namely why has So Little Been Made of So Much?

Why haven’t Sparks been deified in the same way as say….now whisper this because it’s slightly controversial…The Velvet Underground?
Sparks, a band who consistently stayed ahead of their time, confusing and amusing as they went; a band who weren’t afraid to tackle perverse and often perverted subject matter in myriad ways that weren’t so much avant garde as “’aven’t a clue where that idea came from!”(To be fully appreciated the preceding quote should ideally be read in a south of England accent!)

In theory a band seeking to mix acid rock with swing, disco with discourse on microbiological matters, and opera with just about anything should be heading for trouble. By all rights and all things holy Sparks should not have worked. Yet somehow they did. They were artful where others would have been dismissed as merely ‘arty’. Sparks were funny and yet deadly serious, and Sparks could Rock! (Groan!)

So good were Sparks at confounding expectations and preconceptions in fact that for a long time the American music press thought the band were English, or at least of European extraction.

After all, the USA just wasn’t capable of coming up with something SO weird and yet SO accessible. Sure, America could do weird…check out the Residents as one example. They sure can do accessible too…The Archies, for instance?

But to have The Archies performing Residents songs takes a very special genius.

Let’s hear it then for Ron and Russell Mael.

I first heard Sparks in early 1974 (I think.) They had just brought out ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough’ as a single and it shone out from every other song being played at the time. From that magnificent lead guitar motif to the pistol shot to Russell’s impossible falsetto it left you breathless and not sure if your ears had deceived you. I remember my first reaction being; “What the hell was that?

Shortly afterwards the band brought out the Kimono My House album and toured the UK to promote it. I was lucky enough to see them live at Bournemouth Winter Gardens on that tour and the rest is, as they say history. What I didn’t realize when I bought Kimono My House was that this ‘overnight sensation’ had actually been around for at least 3 years and had already chalked up two massively unsuccessful albums that were to all intents and purposes unavailable in the UK.

Thankfully Bearsville released them as a double album set in 1975 and so I was able to appreciate the brothers Mael more fully.
So, let’s kick off with Sparks’ first foray into the wacky world of rock ‘n’roll.

Originally of course Sparks weren’t called Sparks. They were called Halfnelson. Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville records released Halfnelson’s first efforts to an uncaring world in 1971.

It bombed.

Unfazed by its lack of success, Bearsville reissued the album in 1972 under the name Sparks and gave it new sleeve artwork.
The most overtly poppy track ‘Wonder Girl’ was released as a single by way of enticement to the public.(Personally I reckon Slowboat, an achingly beautiful little love song would have been a better choice.)
The relaunch/re branding didn’t work however, and the album bombed for a second time.

Halfnelson/Sparks; 1971-72
Russell Mael: Vocals
Ron Mael: Keyboards
Earle Mankey: Guitar, Lead Vocal on ‘Biology 2’
Jim Mankey, Bass, Guitar
Harley Feinstein, Drums

1. “Wonder Girl” Ron Mael 2:15
2. “Fa La Fa Lee” Ron Mael 2:54
3. “Roger” Russell Mael 2:30
4. “High C” Ron Mael 3:03
5. “Fletcher Honorama” Ron Mael 4:01
6. “Simple Ballet” Russell Mael and Ron Mael 3:50
7. “Slowboat” Russell Mael and Ron Mael 3:50
8. “Biology 2” Earle Mankey 3:00
9. “Saccharin and the War” Russell Mael 3:57
10. “Big Bands” Ron Mael and Russell Mael 4:15
11. “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys” Jim Mankey and Ron Mael 5:45

It was a sly and insidious collection of songs ranging from the poppy sing-along of Wonder Girl and Slowboat, the warped almost pomp rock of High C ( a dark tale of a former opera singer) to Biology 2 which is as odd as a box of frogs. Full of weird wibbling sounds it would seem to be a love song where the boy is imploring his partner to dissect herself in the name of love and research into the human genome, or something like that! One track that is often referred to is the closer, No More Mr Nice Guys. It is NOT the Alice Cooper track, so don’t let anyone tell you different. It does however feature one of the most searing, electrifying guitar solos ever… (Think Jeff Beck’s playing on In A Broken Dream by Python Lee Jackson and you’re partly there.)
It’s an album that shows massive potential yet barely hints at what was to come. Check it out with an open mind. If you approach it from a Kimono My House perspective you will probably be bemused at best. Taken on it’s own terms and in its historical context it’s an essential part of any Sparks fan’s collection.

A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing 1972
Russell Mael, vocals
Ron Mael, keyboards
Earle Mankey, guitar
Jim Mankey, bass
Harley Feinstein, drums

1. “Girl From Germany” Russell Mael and Ron Mael 3:26
2. “Beaver O’Lindy” Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Earle Mankey, Jim Mankey and Harley Feinstein
3. “Nothing Is Sacred” Ron Mael 5:31
4. “Here Comes Bob” Ron Mael and Russell Mael 2:09
5. “Moon Over Kentucky” Jim Mankey and Ron Mael 4:08
6. “Do Re Mi” Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II 3:38
7. “Angus Desire” Ron Mael and Russell Mael 3:25
8. “Underground” Earle Mankey 2:59
9. “The Louvre” Ron Mael 5:04
10. “Batteries Not Included” Ron Mael 0:47
11. “Whippings and Apologies” Ron Mael 5:05

The notoriously difficult second album, and far darker than the first.

Where the first album was a bit odd, this was distinctly weird. It’s a bit like ‘ole Uncle Ed being a little strange but not doing anyone any harm to; “Momma, why’s Uncle Ed talking to that tree? Why did Uncle Ed shoot Daddy Momma, why?”

Eccentricity had given way to full blown psychotic episodes, which isn’t to say that the lads couldn’t still come up with good tunes or rock out of course, it’s just that there seemed to be something on their minds, something that maybe wasn’t very pleasant. It’s a little like watching a David Lynch movie where even the funny moments are imbued with a sense of menace.

Obvious highlights are ‘Girl From Germany’, a pretty straightforward pop song that tackles a less commonly broached subject, namely anti-German prejudice in the post war years.

The track was latterly released as a single to little public appreciation although the band did garner some interest from across the pond, and played a series of gigs in London and were even invited to appear on television’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test.’

If the band had a fan base it was thinly spread however, Wonder Girl had apparently been a minor hit in Alabama and some of us Brits adopted the band on the great British principle that “anything this odd has to have some merit, even if we couldn’t quite figure out what it was.”
Track two, Beaver O’Lindy gives the faintest hint at endeavors to follow on later albums with its stomping cheer leader type refrain, after this the Maels descend into madness.

‘Nothing Is Sacred’ kinda starts off fairly normal and ends up with Russell howling the title over and over again until to be honest you wish either he or you were dead!

‘Here Comes Bob’ attempts to lighten the mood, with its whimsical string arrangement and lightness of touch you could imagine it being the title music to some ghastly tv comedy series.

I have no idea what Blue Moon Over Kentucky is about, it’s an overblown sub-operatic Cecil B de Mill exercise in over-the-topness, and totally wonderful.
‘Do-Re-Mi’, well yes it IS that track from Sound of Music and the lads play it pretty straight. Ok, so they rock it up and get progressively faster but it is in essence just a piece of light relief and dare I say filler? The rest of the album ebbs and flows between the spookiness of Angus Desire to the no hold barred rock-out of ‘Whippings & Apologies’. Oh, and a quick bow to one of the most obvious jokes ever told on an album…’Batteries Not Included’. The title kinda gives the punch line away as Russell tells of his rage at a wonderful gift that just won’t work. In his anger he destroys it only to read on the box…..yeah, batteries not included!

‘A Woofer’ flopped as badly as its predecessor and I guess crunch time had come for both Bearsville and the brothers Mael. Maybe both parties could see which way the wind was blowing, and so it was that Ron & Russ departed not only Bearsville but the States too.

They headed off for the United Kingdom where they recruited Martin Gordon, Adrian Fisher and “Dinky” Diamond. These three were a mixture of journeyman session musicians and minor league bit players.

Whereas the original line up was recognizably a band, and whilst Russell and Ron were undoubtedly focal points, the others had had their personalities too, most notably Earle Mankey with his guitar hero posturing. The new guys were to all intents faceless, intentionally one guesses since nothing it seems was to detract or distract attention from the Maels. While Russell had merely refined his image, his hair still Shirley Temple-esque and his manner of dress, the fey dandy, was still recognizable from the old days, it was Ron who had undergone the major transformation. In the days of Halfnelson and Woofer he sported a moustache sure, but not as tightly trimmed as it now became and as for his hair…Old style Ron sported a ‘freaked out Einstein with his finger in the mains supply’ look, this was to be replaced by a new and severe national socialist styling, held down with industrial strength hair cream. His clothes were stripped to a minimalist white shirt, tie and slacks. He was so uncool that he was the epitome of ice cold chic. His eyes and their ability to pierce sheet metal at 20 paces retained and in some ways gained in intensity as other fripperies were removed.
Somehow a deal was brokered with Island records, the largest of the nominally independent labels in Britain and producer Muff Winwood was given production responsibilities.

There followed what is generally thought of as ‘proper’ Sparks, although proper fans will always point you in the direction of those first two albums.

With the three Brit session musicians in place and Muff at the controls, the Maels brought out a succession of highly crafted, brightly burnished pop. It was high on intellect with empathy for the glam sounds going on around them at the time, yet always maintaining their distinctive intelligence and never forsaking wit.
The first album by the new outfit was, of course,

Kimono My House. 1974

1. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” 3:05
2. “Amateur Hour” 3:37
3. “Falling In Love With Myself Again” 3:03
4. “Here In Heaven” 2:48
5. “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” 5:07
Side two
6. “Hasta Mañana, Monsieur” 3:52
7. “Talent Is An Asset” 3:21
8. “Complaints” 2:50
9. “In My Family” 3:48
10. “Equator” 4:42

To the small band of fans who had been drawn to their earlier incarnation, Kimono must have come as a bit of a shock, maybe even a betrayal of sorts. This just wasn’t weird at all! Sure Russell’s falsetto was as challenging as ever and the songs covered a variety of subject matter and were filled with awful puns and weird sexual hintings, but it was all dressed up in a shiny veneer, a garish, glossy coating of paint applied to a piece of Gothic furniture perhaps. Just as well the album was fan-bloody-tastic. To any of you doubters out there, Kurt Cobain pronounced it as one of his favorite albums ever…and if it’s good enough for him well……

There seems little point in dissecting the album, each track is as strong as its predecessor, each a potential single. The singles that were released were ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough’, which reached No2 in the UK charts, and ‘Amateur Hour’ which also broke into the UK top 10.
The only nagging doubts were possibly the same as those felt by Velvets fans listening to the ‘Loaded’ album. Sure it was great in its own right but there was no ‘Venus In Furs’ or ‘European Son’ on it to counterpoint Lou’s pop sensibilities evidenced in say ‘Sweet Jane’. The other concern was just how the hell they were going to follow it up! The next album would have to be anti-climactic surely? Actually no, not a bit of it.

In retrospect whilst not anti-climactic it is possibly a tad…predictable, but hell, the boys had paid their dues, had hit on a rich vein of musical gold. Who could blame them for mining it?

Propaganda 1975
1. “Propaganda” 0:23
2. “At Home, At Work, At Play” 3:06
3. “Reinforcements” (Written by Ron and Russell Mael) 3:55
4. “B.C.” 2:13
5. “Thanks But No Thanks” (Written by Ron and Russell Mael) 4:14
6. “Don’t Leave Me Alone with Her” 3:02
7. “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” 2:28
8. “Something for the Girl with Everything” 2:17
9. “Achoo” 3:34
10. “Who Don’t Like Kids” 3:37
11. “Bon Voyage” (Written by Ron and Russell Mael) 4:52

More songs about songs about sneezing, the loneliness of a soldier on sentry duty and what to buy the girl who has everything.

Propaganda is basically Kimono My House part two. Any of the tracks here could have appeared on the first album and in fact it does sound as if much of the material here was recorded at the same time as the Kimono sessions. The album yielded two medium size hits, ‘Never Turn Your Back’ and ‘Something for the Girl’, both registering in the British charts in the ‘teens. The album has its quirky moments but on the whole has a feeling of a formula having been reached and now being refined. The album was another success but change was coming.
Producer Muff Winwood departed after his work on Propaganda and was replaced by Tony Visconti.

Visconti seemed a safe choice, perhaps too safe it could be argued. Would he have the necessary vision or creative nous to get the best from Ron & Russ? Was he just a bit too mainstream?

Indiscreet 1975
1. “Hospitality On Parade” 4:00
2. “Happy Hunting Ground” 3:44
3. “Without Using Hands” 3:20
4. “Get In The Swing” 4:08
5. “Under The Table With Her” 2:20
6. “How Are You Getting Home?” 2:57
7. “Pineapple” (Written by Russell Mael) 2:45
8. “Tits” 4:57
9. “It Ain’t 1918” 2:08
10. “The Lady Is Lingering” 3:40
11. “In The Future” 2:12
12. “Looks, Looks, Looks” 2:35
13. “Miss The Start, Miss The End”

There’s no doubt that at its best, Indiscreet is very nearly as good as Kimono and Propaganda. The trouble is that only a few of the tracks on the album truly match up to the quality of the previous two albums. Hospitality on Parade, Happy Hunting Ground and Looks Looks Looks have that familiar Sparks magic, as does the latterly included on re-issue version of ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’…a sumptuously orchestrated, slowed down version that only reveals itself gradually, leaving you smiling and realizing that you’ve been hoodwinked. Unfortunately the album is let down by rubbish like Tits where the renowned wit of the Maels seems to have dried up. The pastiches are no longer smart as a whip, they seem tired, labored somehow, and I’m afraid that Visconti’s production doesn’t help. It’s workmanlike for sure but lacks that certain necessary, nay vital….spark?

Indiscreet smacks of a band going through the motions, uncertain about their direction. The sleeve featuring Russ & Ron emerging from a plane crash is oddly and sadly appropriate.

Still, it wasn’t as lousy as…..

Big Beat 1976

1. “Big Boy” 3:30
2. “I Want To Be Like Everybody Else” 2:57
3. “Nothing To Do” 3:09
4. “I Bought The Mississippi River” 2:29
5. “Fill-er-up” 2:20
6. “Everybody’s Stupid” 3:41
7. “Throw Her Away (and Get A New One)” 3:15
8. “Confusion” 3:27
9. “Screwed Up” 4:20
10. “White Women” 3:24
11. I like Girls

Ron & Russell returned to the States, leaving their British backing band behind. Visconti was replaced in the knob twiddling department by Messrs Rupert Holmes…(that Rupert Holmes?) and some bod called Jefferey Lesser.( the lesser said the better to be honest!)

Ok, let’s be fair, let’s be objective. Unfortunately and for maybe the only time in their career, Sparks had got their timing and placing spectacularly wrong.

It is only with the benefit of hindsight I find myself wishing that they had relocated to Cleveland or even Akron Ohio. And if they HAD to go to New York, surely they could have found better, more interesting company…for Chrissakes there was plenty going down at that time in the Big Apple.

The real shame of it was that Sparks were now looking woefully dated in the scowling face of punk.

They allowed a slick adult oriented rock production when all around them it was the opposite, stripped down minimalism, that was in vogue. Talking Heads may have seemed edgy and neurotic to the punters but were mere simpering simpletons compared to what Ron & Russ were capable of conjuring up. Unfortunately they released an unappetising 11 course menu, the sum of which was definitely less than the parts. It’s not actually terrible and a couple of tracks are fine, Throw Her Away, Everybody’s Stupid and the weird (and possibly suspect) White Women are all worthy of mention. Taken as a whole though it marked a low point.

The band continued, mostly out of the public eye and I have to admit to losing interest at this point. The baton that the brothers Mael had picked up and run with in 1971 had passed on to newer bands and whilst I regretted their passing I preferred no Sparks albums to sub-standard ones.

But of course genius has its way of resurfacing, and so it was one day in 1979 I was listening to the radio when a shimmering piece of electro-disco came cascading from the speakers. It had all the hallmarks of someone I knew…but who the hell was it? The dj confirmed what I’d only barely suspected; “That’s Ron & Russell Mael, collectively known as Sparks, back with ‘The No1 Song In Heaven.’ Like the Borg in Star Trek, the Mael’s had been busy assimilating and by God they were back. Albeit briefly.

Number 1 in Heaven. 1979
1. “Tryouts for the Human Race” 6:05
2. “Academy Award Performance” (Written by Ron Mael) 5:00
3. “La Dolce Vita” 5:56
4. “Beat the Clock” (Written by Ron Mael/Russell Mael) 4:23
5. “My Other Voice” (Written by Giorgio Moroder/Ron Mael/Russell Mael) 4:54
6. “The Number One Song in Heaven” 7:26

Produced by Giorgio Moroder (of Donna Summer ‘I Feel Love’ fame) it was a whole new sound for Sparks. Gone were the guitars and plink-plonk keyboards, this was thoroughly modern electro-disco. Utterly shameless, absolutely unselfconscious, and wonderful. It was, however, a one-off. The electro beat too rigid a format to allow a creativity as rich as the Mael’s to function for long within its confines.

And so Sparks moved on yet again.

Sadly this is where I must end, for after this brief reunion Sparks and I went our separate ways. They have released a wealth of material since and I strongly suspect I will be checking it out in the years to come. I think the fault lies with me, not the Maels. They do what comes naturally and don’t seem to really care if the likes of me ‘get them’ or not.

I rate Sparks as one of the most creative, witty and intelligent bands ever. It wouldn’t surprise me if they surprised me again and come up with another chart topper in the future…until then cheers lads.