Ginger’s Secret History Of Rock’n’Roll (Pt. 16)
This week, Sparks. But not one album, the whole bloody lot of ‘em…
After forming in Los Angeles in 1970, as Halfnelson, the brothers Mael (Ron and Russell – keys and vocals respectively) have notched up a heady 21 albums, yet are still as vibrant today as they were on their debut album.
Initially I had intended to choose just one album in order to further delve into the working of this compelling band/partnership, but with talent as mind blowing as theirs merely picking one album would be as easy as choosing which one of your 21 children gets to celebrate Xmas this year.
So it is with stern resolve and joyous gait that I intend to review every single album here.
Hell, they played all 21 albums in 21 days of UK concerts earlier this year, it’s the least I can do to pay lip service to possibly the most under appreciated musical force in the history of popular music.
Recorded in 1971 on Bearsville Records (and re-released by Warner Bros in 1972 in a double album package along with their 2nd album) their debut album was made as Halfnelson, a name they would change to Sparks soon after its initial release. Blending art house experimentation and almost Germanic music hall influences with a very dark take on The Kinks (via Captain Beefheart), this Todd Rungren produced debut sold modestly. Shame then that the album itself is a twisted classic with styles ranging from Alice Cooper sized rockers, ‘(No More) Mr. Nice Guys’, and brooding pop noir oddities, ‘Fletcher Honorama’. ‘Slow Boat’ is an absolute gem of a ballad, while ‘Biology 2′ (written by guitarist Earle Mankey) is as warped and bizarre as its title would suggest. A definite addition to the collection of anyone who likes their pop colourful and weird. Imagine Tom Waits and They Might Be Giants jamming with The Danielson Family, by way of Dan Deacon, and you’re almost there.
Second offering, ‘A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing’, stayed with the same line up of drummer Harley Feinstein, and brothers Earle Mankey on guitar, and James Mankey (who would later play guitar in the awesome Concrete Blonde) on bass, and marshalled the eccentric musical experimentation of the debut, this time to greater mainstream effect, if not sales. Featuring the wonderfully snappy ‘Girl From Germany’, the heavy rock of ‘Whippings And Apologies’ and the ghostly ‘Moon Over Kentucky’ (as haunting a song as the Maels have ever recorded) the subject matter would remain consistently esoteric while the lyrics would maintain their witty and literate edge, something that would never let Sparks down in their 29 year career. The album also includes a cover version (a rarity for Sparks considering the outstanding songwriting prowess of Ron Mael) of ‘Do Re Mi’ (from the movie The Sound Of Music) which absolutely must be heard to be believed. Incredible.
After gaining considerably more success in UK than in their home country, presumably due to the very English-ness of the humour in their lyrics, the Brothers Mael would relocate to London and recruit an entirely British band to record their 3rd album, 1974′s bona fide classic ‘Kimono My House’, this time for Island records, where they would stay for the next four releases. Featuring smash hit ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ the album is stacked to the heights with amazing songs, astounding musicianship and unique arrangements, while cementing Ron Mael as probably the greatest lyricist in popular music. From the suicide lament of ‘Here In Heaven’, where a lover pines for the girl who bailed out of a suicide pact and the very last second, to ‘Amateur Hour’ which talks of having to endure being crap in bed before you get any good (“It’s a lot like playing the violin, you can not start out and be Yehudi Menuhin”) Sparks songs pack as much literary value as they do musical, which is a hefty promise.
Quickly jumping to capitalise on their new found success Sparks would rush record the follow up to Kimono My House in the same year, delivering the brilliantly off the wall, and devastatingly bass guitar heavy, Propaganda. While not featuring any hit singles the album is every bit the equal to the slightly more commercial Kimono…, with power pop, ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’, rock baroque, ‘Reinforcements’, and giant lush ballads, ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ while all the time keeping the exceptionally unorthodox subject matter a fascinating diversion form the masterful compositions. This album would demonstrate the Mael tradition of hit and miss singles appeal, the albums minus hits often being their most interesting. Ron Mael’s unique take on classic songwriting and Russel Mael’s inhuman vocal range, often operatic and occasionally shrill and effeminate, are hardly prize ingredients to a life of commercial acceptance. Thank God.
1975 would see the release of the brilliantly slow burning ‘Indiscreet’. Housing hit single ‘Get In The Swing’ the album revealed hidden depths that seemingly contradicted the spring and bounce of the single it spawned. Almost revisiting the diversity of styles featured on the first two albums, but this time with the production values of recent commercial successes Kimono… and Propaganda, it is, at first, an uncomfortable listen that unfolds with every play to reveal greater delights. With Queen-like grandeur, the album comes off as the brother of A Day At The Races, albeit the brother with attention-deficit disorder. ‘Tits’ sees a man complaining about the fact that his wife’s breasts are no longer for his own pleasure after the birth of their first child, ‘It Ain’t 1918′ has the titular characters forced to join the present world against their will, while ‘The Lady Is Lingering’ sings of gold digging romantic interests, and features lyrics so amazing that they beg the question why isn’t Ron Mael a major novelist. How about, for example, “every sip is of the smallest quantity which still denotes apparent thirst”. This is not a Bon Jovi album.
If Indiscreet was their Day At The Races then 1976′s Big Beat was their Sheer Heart Attack. Stripped down and raw this is undoubtedly their ‘rock’ album. You may remember the song ‘Big Boy’ being featured in the disaster flick Rollercoaster, a cracking tune with almost Cheap Trick bombast. Although there are hints of Sparks audacity, ‘I Like Girls’ (originally written for their first album), and pop chops, ‘I Want To Be Like Everybody Else’, the band’s choice to record in New York City and tap into its rich punk vein that was being mined at the time leaves the album feeling slightly under whelming and flat. Although a hugely enjoyable collection of songs the overall effect pales when compared to Sparks’ offerings up until this date.
I was never able to find a vinyl version of Introducing Sparks, (1977, Columbia) and instead played the cassette until it was chewed up by a cassette player presumably sick and tired of hearing one solitary cassette for over 12 months. Now available on CD, Introducing Sparks is a return to form of spectacular sorts, after the slightly one dimensional Big Beat. With the Beach Boys swing of ‘Over The Summer’, the majestic sweeping arrangement of ‘Those Mysteries’ and the cool pop of ‘A Big Surprise’ and ‘Forever Young’ (a song about a guy who stays eternally trapped inside his young body, featuring the awesome line “I sit and watch the history books get thicker”) the Maels would discover a love of throwaway pop music that they would revisit in a few albums time, and with the winning formula of intricate musical arrangement and stunning lyricism this would be arguably Sparks most potent, if comparatively unambitious direction so far. Introducing Sparks, along with Kimono My House, is Sparks at their most accessible, and the best place to start if arriving to this band cold.
And possibly the worst place to discover Sparks would be their next album, No. 1 In Heaven, (1979, Virgin) which, unfortunately, is where most people actually did discover the band. Featuring only 6 songs but producing two hit singles Sparks would grace Top Of The Pops with ‘Number One Song In Heaven’ and ‘Beat The Clock’, cementing their image of ‘weird guy with Hitler moustache’ on keyboards, and ‘cute guy with child like energy’ on vocals. In their search for the latest styles currently hip in the world of music 1979 would unfortunately drag them into Studio 54 and the world of disco. And while the songs themselves are still biting commentaries on the kind of subjects no one even mentions let alone sings about, the approach is lackluster and trite, with the only truly essential moment being the secret track from the ‘Number One Song In Heaven’ picture disc, which featured the late, great Peter Cook ranting in fine random fashion to the backing track of the single.
Next album, Terminal Jive (1980, also on Virgin records) would tread the same disco-infused path of the previous release, only this time with a much more song-orientated approach. ‘Noisy Boys’ retains a pure rock ‘n roll heart, while ‘Stereo’ and ‘Young Girls’ explore swoonsome pop with a celestial bent, and ‘When I’m With You’ is simply beautiful pop. So beautiful, in fact, that the bros Mael include an instrumental of this song at the end of side one, making 7 complete songs in all, clocking up a measly 13 tracks over the last two albums. Some might think that the Mael brothers were enjoying the disco heyday a little too much to retain their traditionally superhuman work ethic.
1981′s Whomp That Sucker (Virgin) would readdress the balance with gusto, reverting to the winning formula of bizarre subject matter and awesomely catchy songs, albeit with a more traditional keyboard edge, Ron favouring a less classically-based compositional style. This is no bad thing, however, with songs of such a high standard. ‘Wacky Women’ could be The Tubes at their most explosive, ‘Tips For Teens’ maintains the same, drum heavy drive (this was the early 80s after all) to their sound, while ‘Don’t Shoot Me’ enjoys a dinosaur stomp and ‘That’s Not Nastassia’ and ‘Funny Face’ enjoy the lighter side of Sparks humour while keeping things sweet and catchy. All in all, Whomp That Sucker a very enjoyable preview of the Mael brothers re-discovering the fun in music once again.
If Whomp That Sucker was the sound of Ron and Russell finding their sense of humour again then 1982′s Angst In My Pants (Atlantic Records) was the soundtrack to the party they would subsequently hold in celebration. Funny, light, witty, tuneful and ambitious, this is my probably my favourite Sparks album. The subject matter is as panoramic as that of the average library, ranging from wishing to be more like Sherlock Holmes, falling in love with a cigarette or the joys of having a moustache (“one hundred hairs make a man”) this is a joy from start to finish, and while the production may be guilty of suffering from sell-by-date syndrome the quality of the music blows such minor quibbles clean away. ‘Eaten By The Monster Of Love’ is a fantastically catchy slice of whimsy, as are ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Moustache’, while ‘Sherlock Holmes’, the album’s dreamy ballad, is simply stunning.
Tapping into the source of their original inspiration 1983 would see Sparks deliver another classic slice of twisted pop in the shape of In Outer Space (Atlantic), the sister album to Angst In My Pants. Featuring the Jane Wiedlin (The Go Go’s) duet ‘Cool Places’, which became a big hit in USA, the album is literally teeming with beautiful melodies. ‘Praying For A Party’ is a celebratory anthem with gospel undertones, ‘A Fun Bunch Of Guys From Outer Space’ is pop for the sweet of tooth and ‘Lucky Me, Lucky You’ (again featuring the child like vocals of Jane Wiedlin) is as endearing as it is infectious. Almost revelling in its absurdity and joyous hooks, this would, ironically be Sparks last wilfully melodic album for some time.
Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat (1984, Atlantic), Music That You Can Dance To (1986, Curb Records) and Interior Design (1988, Underdog Records) would all follow a sadly depressingly low-fi, guitar-free blueprint with minimal musical emotion and almost melody-free expression (although ‘The Toughest Girl In Town’, from Interior Design, is an awesomely catchy track), and while Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994, Logic records) admittedly possesses one of the greatest album titles ever, the actual album sounds anything but. With their style employing a progressively minimalist approach, the Sparks vehicle would soon come perilously close to running out of juice. By their seventeenth album they were forced to rely on Faith No More and Erasure to bail them out of their self-made creative black hole in the shape of a Sparks tribute album, performed by Sparks, called Plagiarism (1997). Presumably the brainchild of their current label, this time Roadrunner Records, it would signify the apparent death knell of this fascinating outfit, until 2000′s Balls (Recognition Records), seemed intent on hammering in the nails (although featuring the wonderful ‘The Angels’). Things, it would appear, were in a very distressing state.
In 2002 Sparks would re-enter the world’s musical radar with such a shocking return to form that it’s difficult to believe that the same two guys who made so many uncharacteristically dull albums between 1984 and 2000 could still possess such force. Lil’ Beethoven was the sound of classical music, chamber music, musical theatre and pop all meshed together by someone like, say, Sparks. Finally they were back at the peak of their abilities, with such a truly modern take on their own traditional sound that it sounds simultaneously old fashioned and like the future of modern music. The overall effect of this collection of songs is that of a lucid dream in which the Mael brothers use every instrument known to man in order to transport the listener to a world where rhythm is king and melody rides its slipstream like dolphins in black water. It also contains one of the greatest lines ever, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, son, practice”. Here Sparks are back to their usual lyrical standard and the album is a delight because of it. Record Collector called it “one of the best albums ever made” and it really is difficult to argue with this statement. Dreams come true, and for Sparks fans, who had all but given up on the band throughout the late 80s/90s, having difficulty imagining that they would ever again scale the dizzying heights of creativity that they enjoyed in 70s, this dream-come-true comes with its own firework display. Lil’ Beethoven is simply a career defining masterpiece.
Hello Young Lovers ( 2006, Gut Records) carries on the incredible quality from Lil’ Beethoven, only this time Sparks bring in Dean Menta (Faith No More) and Steve McDonald (Red Kross) and crank up the volume. Opening track ‘Dick Around’ is possibly Sparks most ambitious track to date, and definitely the most unhinged. 6:35 of shifting rhythms, crunching guitars and classic Sparks inventiveness. It makes a mockery of most guitar-based competition. ‘(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country’, Rock, Rock, Rock’ and ‘Waterproof’ all carry the trademark Ron Mael lyrical genius while re-inventing the band as a powerhouse pop movement who seem to have discovered the secret of eternal creativity.
It is with great relief, then, that Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (2008, Lil’ Beethoven Records) sees the brothers complete the circle in fine, movie-ending style, a seamlessly inventive affair that spotlights Sparks as being in complete control of their own musical destiny. With their own label in place surely the future is one of the Mael’s own design?
No band deserve long-lasting success and huge respect more than Sparks. Ours is a much more colourful planet with them inhabiting it and always has been. They represent everything that is uncommon and individual in this industry.
One day someone will write the book on Sparks, and until that day they will remain a unique and fascinating enigma. A mystery in an accessible world, an established career band in a spit-em-out business and a genuine talent is these garageband/myspace times.
There are very few bands/artists whose contribution to the world of music is without any doubt and yet they still continue to enthral and entertain. And with a work ethic that would make bands of a third of their age tremble, Sparks show no signs of using age as an excuse to rest on their glories.
Ron and Russell Mael are an inspiration to anyone hoping for a lifetime of making music and experiencing the myriad of ups and downs that this entails. Their lesson is one of passion and commitment through sheer talent.
Is there any other way to do it? No, not properly.
Sparks, I salute you.