Saturday, November 09, 2013

"Never turn your back on the Mael Brothers." Steven Morrissey wrote that in an old issue of THE NEXT BIG THING, and although I must admit I've turned my back on Morrissey around the time of MEAT IS MURDER I never felt that Sparks were a group to dismiss en toto given their...well...bizarroid pop music masterpieces. Tracks that on one hand hearkened back to previous rock accomplishments of the sixties yet set the stage for various musical epiphanies that were a year or two away. In many ways Sparks were yet another one of those acts that was caught between the great rock movements, too late for the early-seventies pop maelstrom that was overtaking AM radio yet too early for the late-seventies pop underground where I'm sure they would have fit comfortably up against all of those Blondie and Ramones albums that were coming out even if a lotta people thought they were of the previous generation, ifyaknowaddamean...

Gotta say that looking at the covers of Sparks albums just wondering what the sounds inside entailed was a big part of my early record shop prowling years, and by the time I could actually afford to buy those wondrous slabs you can bet that I was snatching up all that I could get my handy little grubs on. Y'see, by that time Sparks had pretty much hit the dollar bin flea market circuit and spending a pittance on a used platter sure beat dishing out the six bucks a fresh 'n sealed copy would set me back at the local soon-to-be Cee-Dee emporium.

Yeah I can see why a whole lotta people, both snoots and level headed types, would dismiss Sparks as a cheap shuck. Yeah, I can even see how Ira Robbins would notch 'em a few points for leading the way to Queen (even though I gotta say that next to some of the turdburgers that have come out during the mid/late-seventies and beyond even Queen sound good in comparison!). And yeah, I can also see why people who I thought had some sense would wanna lump Sparks in with the likes of Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the rest of the dinosaur rock brigades given their ascent in popularity around the time progressive rock began making huge inroads into the listening habits of boxboy teenagers nationwide. I can see alla that, but it ain't like I'm buying it one iota.

Dunno about you, but for me Sparks seemed like a bright mid-seventies hope, a smart-pop act that had it not made it big during the pre-punk days woulda been grouped in with those late-seventies "save the world" bands that seemed so tame and commercial in many ways yet were too outre for a public that was numbed by way too much exposure to Southern Californian Sopor sounds. Snat decadent rock that was good enough for England but way above the heads of the average Amerigan teenbo who was either into stoner post-power metal music or fluffoid AM dribble. When I first saw the picture of the Maels on the back of KIMONO MY HOUSE Russell reminded me of Marc Bolan for obvious coiffure-like reasons, and given T. Rex's slide into post-mania ridicule I thought perhaps these were the guys who could pick up the scepter from Marc's ever-chubbying hands and run with it into snazz rock territory yet unconquered. I was right, though unfortunately Sparks never were able to capture the Amerigan market the same way Bolan could even on an underground, FM radio level and we really were the worse for it if you ask me.

This post's more or less a rundown of Sparks in the seventies, a time which saw the group rise from their local SoCal punk rock (in the best 1972 CREEM/JAMZ definition of the term) beginnings to mid-seventies megastardom to their eventual descent into the abyss with a string of albums that more'n a few aficionados of the form tended to loathe with a passion. Just my observations and opinions mind you...nothing more or less. Maybe I'm just bringing out my seventies rockist tendencies and resensifying myself as to some of the music that captured my fancy during that period in time (though really, a whole load of other music from those days that I was stupid enough to listen to better remain buried in the dark corners of my brain for all eternity)...well hey, it is my blog and if I wanna write about seventies art-flash rock acts that most would find tedious and even downright loathsome I got more of a right to do so than you...

                              

Sparks' debut (issued under the group's more grappling original moniker of Halfnelson and changed at the insistence of Bearsville label head and all around industry irritant Albert Grossman) was actually produced by none other'n Todd Rundgren, but don't expect this one to sound anything like the Nazz. Well, heavy British influences do abound from the Kinks and the Who to Tomorrow with the Southern California hub of industry ooze still firmly in place, but the flash and crash of the Nazz is...uh...just not present. Sparks were punkier and more SoCal local group irritable when compared to Rundgren's old act. And really, I can even hear just how none other than Alan Betrock (who seemed to be one of the better arbiters of underground crosscurrents throughout the seventies) could discern a Mothers of Invention vibe on "Biology 2" even if I more or less hear the roots of Devo. A listen or two all the way through and you too will know why this got buried under the weight of too many inferior albums of the day, but like the Sidewinders and Hackamore Brick you also get the idea that it was just too good for an era that showed both AM spark and FM dribble. And really, did anyone expect a group like Sparks to appeal in any way to the same frame of (or should that be lack of) mind that was buying up Jim Croce records with laid back gusto?

But who could fault the original Sparks for not trying? With a look that was total punk snarl (well, at least if you left the Maels outta it) it wasn't like they were going after the Marin County front porch jam band audience that's for sure! But as you'd expect Sparks were only about three or so years ahead of the gang doing what acts like the Quick and Fast would a short time down the rock evolutionary line, and maybe had this one gotten out a little more we woulda had an underground epiphany a few years before the fact. A surprisingly tough record too if you can believe that, perhaps due to Earle Mankey's high fever guitar playing that might have earned him a place in the Stooges had James Williamson's hand remained broken longer than the time it actually did take to heal.

Shouda been single track: "No More Mister Nice Guys," perhaps Sparks at their garagiest and most atonal. But surprisingly enough, the track that was chosen for the single, "Wonder Girl", actually did make it all the way up to #1 in Montgomery Alabama which is why the group was presented with a special award live and on stage during their tenure at Max's Kansas City pictured below:

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I must admit (again and again) that I never really cozied up to the Bearsville version of Sparks than I did the Island one, even to the point where (attempting a change of heart) I bought a used double disc collection of the group's two albums from Bona Fide Records...and returned 'em because not only didn't this particular spin change my mind but because I thought the albums were downright irritating! Time has soothed my nervous system to an extent, even to the point where I can slap on A WOOFER IN TWEETER'S CLOTHING and enjoy the bizzaroid pop even though Ron Mael looks like a fey Charlie Chaplin on the back cover while Russ sounds like a castrati about three performances away from getting the pink slip. However, after repeated listens I did find myself thinking this album really ain't as limp wrist as I originally thought...kinda smooth in a So Cal meets psych England sorta way. Sure you get a bit of the cutesies tossed in (a cover of "Do Re Mi" wasn't exactly gonna put 'em on the cover of HEAVY METAL DIGEST), but numbers like "Moon Over Kentucky" and "Angus Desire" have the right touch of deca-punch that fit in swell with Russ Mael's freaky faksettos which I'm sure took some time to get used to, but then again I'm positive most people didn't quite cozy up to Bob Dylan's vocal cords on first listen!.

Not surprisingly, tracks like "Underground" had that right touch of sleek early-seventies AM pop mixed with the suburban teenage drive to the point where you kinda wonder why it wasn't being played in heavy rotation between the Raspberries and Hollies. Really this is nothing to sneeze at (that'll have to wait for "Atchoo" on PROPAGANDA), and between the aforementioned tracks and the non-LP b-side "I Like Girls" you can see the direction the group was heading in this rat race biz and surprisingly it was "up".
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Of course only a doof'd admit that KIMONO MY HOUSE wasn't the big all-out breakthrough platter for the band which I'm sure surprised a few dongos who thought 'em a total flash in the pan. The Brothers Mael naturally did the right thing when they realized they weren't going places as fast as maybe they shoulda, and since they were trying for an English look, sound and feel the best career move they coulda come up with woulda been to ditch their old band, move to Blighty and start all over again with a new batch of musicians and label,  in this case Island. Being on the cusp of English prog smug and deca-dunce, Island was the perfect label for this new Sparks-concoction, and of course the implementation of a Roxy Music-ish sexy gal cover and attempt to capture the same audience as theirs was about as good a job of tuning in on a post-hippoid glamoid trend as there could have been. Of course the new hopped up music which despite current retro-reports wasn't progressive rock sure did hit some sorta collective chord with a whole load of kids who shot "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both of Us" straight to #2 in England. Kinda heavy metal pop, with hefty references to early-mid-sixties production values from both sides of the ocean. That would figure, since one thing that made me pay attention in the first place as a young turd was some review in ROLLING STONE of all places which dared bring up the sainted name "Shirelles". Who sez that rag was a total waste back then, although it came pretty close most of the time?

                                                                                                                                                                                             
                                                   

I sure wish "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both of Us" woulda shot to the top inna US of Whoa like it did elsewhere onna globe, but I guess this country was too far into denim and pious phony hipsterisms to notice anything even remotely Sparksian. Well, at least KIMONO MY HOUSE was one that was sure prevalent at the time and for years after via flea markets (where I picked up my first vinyl copy [had the cassette for years] at Hartville Ohio along with the first two Soft Machines and maybe that first Roxy Music...someone sure must've needed the moolah to sell 'em all to me for a mere buck!) and spinning this 'un sure brings back teenage memories that, for once, I don't mind shuttering to the darkest reaches of my cranium!

There's not a duff note to be heard here even if Sparks might be (inadvertently) giving fuel to some of the giddier practitioners of what would later be known as "new wave" with their terminal "quirkiness". Couldn't care less actually since Sparks toss it all off with such elan making a good portion of their emulators sound like the eighties "new music" wusses they most certainly were. And of course mucho Mael pts. are added considering that two surviving tracks ("In My Family" and "Barbecutie"---perhaps "Lost and Found" with that raging guitar lead) actually sport a mutated Pink Fairies (Larry Wallis, Russell Hunter and Roxy Music's John Porter) as the backing band!
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PROPAGANDA seemed to be the one that broke Sparks through, somewhat. Well, at least I remember seeing this all over the place back when this 'un hit the bins, and the overseas version (with the photo sticker on the cover because someone forgot to put the group name 'n title front and center) was even charting in the upper reaches of the PLAIN DEALER import top ten trying ever-so-hard to knock Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel's PSYCHOMODO and CAPTAIN LOCKHEED AND THE STARFIGHTERS off the #1 spot. Maybe it eventually did, and come to think of it PROPAGANDA might have even topped the domestic charts considering how on the ball Cleveland may have been at the time before the spirit of Laughner was washed out by the poison of Pantsios (the poison hadn't quite set in yet).

At least for me PROPAGANDA was Sparks' last big bang of the seventies. Really, the followups just couldn't compete with this one and for good reason...PROPAGANDA was a good all-out hard pop jaunt that really seemed to hit a whole number of smart ideas while gauging at just the right emotional tugs without sounding too coy or cute. Quite snappy in fact, and even the plays for your sweet sensitive side doesn't drive you batty either.


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Mael's belladonna vocals fit the post-Kinks neo-Brit material rather swell, and the group wasn't afraid to balls out rock either. Even the four years after they went out of vogue ecological number entitled "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" doesn't drive you batty. In fact, I can easily fantasize making out with a cute Japanese miss (perhaps one of the ladies who popped up on KIMONO MY HOUSE) to the strains of "Bon Voyage,"  a natural tit-rubbin' track what with its strings and Holiday piano lines, in our wooly sweaters next to the fire at the ski lodge. No wonder it was such a popular album back during the mid-seventies Sparks heyday even though I probably could count the number of people I knew who personally owned a copy on my nose.
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Unfortunately a whole lotta the smart deca-smarm of the previous platters seemed to get watered down quite a bit by the time INDISCREET hit the mid-'75 racks. The violins just didn't tug at the ol' heart strings this time but just sounded as klutzy as they did on "Here Comes Bob" offa WOOFER, and overall it seems as if this is the one that disappointed the old fans while failing to find any new ones. There were some bright spots natch, but even those (such as "Tits" which for some odd reason reminds me of some low budge thirties b-comedy then so-prevalent on late-night television!) would've come off as a low point on any of the previous English-era platters. You can hear the brothers just begging for a shard of inspiration and insight here and flopping about miserably. This might have been the beginning of the end of Sparks' seventies megastardom, and given the material and even performance (what happened to those killer guitar leads?) you don't have to scratch your head that much to figure out why.
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'76's BIG BEAT was whatcha'd call as "transitional" album, and the fact that it took 'em over a year to get this 'un out to the public might point to the fact that there was trouble brewing in the Mael camp. By this time the English musicians had been jettisoned and the Maels were in New York, with Russ posing with Cherry Vanilla on the cover of THE NEW YORK ROCKER while a new band was being constructed from the various acts that the brothers were catching via the stage of CBGB. In this new aggregate were local regulars Hilly Michaels (Cherry Vanilla drummer pre-CADDYSHACK), Milk 'n Cookies etc. Sal Maida and Tuff Dart Jeff Salen. The group that toured with the Maels to promote this album also featured El Lay resident Dave Swanson during his Pop days, something which I get the feeling must've irked at least a few people at BACK DOOR MAN who were championing the Pop to the ends of the city limits yet had nothing but pure disdain for Sparks. Eh, but that stuff happens alla time, and you can bet that even I have chewed my lower lip through after seeing the things that me and my name have been attached to without my consent or written permission either!

The Richard Avedon photos were a nice touch even if they
did signal the beginning of reflective superstar narcissism.
BIG BEAT marked not only a change in locale but a change in labels at least in the US of Whoa, with the Maels now enjoying the power and push that Columbia Records were able to give 'em. Funny that Island inna USA woulda given up on 'em so easily considering how successful they were, but I guess that once a group got so big the Amerigan labels with the clout wanted 'em at any cost which is probably why Pink Floyd also ended up on Columbia around the same time, and didn't Alex Harvey and Monty Python even ditch Vertigo and Charisma respectively for Atlantic and Arista once their names became big box office bonanzas over here as well???

Guess Columbia lost out mucho grande with their business move though, because BIG BEAT wasn't the commercial breakthrough that they were betting a whole load of bottom bucks on. Sure the group sounds straightforward, giving the Mael's a sharp edge that reminds me of what any good New York City group coulda whipped out at the time, but there really wasn't anything as strong or as memorable as most of the tracks laid down during the KIMONO MY HOUSE and PROPAGANDA days. In fact, to put it mildly the production (courtesy Rupert Holmes) sure coulda used a beef up of Chesty Morgan proportions.

Lotsa strong material here though...single pick "Big Boy" was a pretty good hard rocker that seemed to have the mid-seventies CBGB sound down even more'n the Stones did when they tried the same schtick a few years later. LP closer "I Like Girls," a song which in its original version was stuck on the b-side of a Bearsville single, might have suffered from the additional horns but still came off like the kinda pop track I would have loved to have heard on the AM 'stead of Peter Frampton and Stevie Nicks. And you'd know that a song like "White Women" where Russ sings about his appreciation for the pulchritude of the Caucasian race would elicit nothing but self-righteous screams from all of the dykes who go to Oberlin, but in this day and age anything that can make the descendents (no sic) of the same "tweedy" college professor types Wayne McGuire warned us about "cackle like indignant hens" is OK by me. Cackle on Brunhilde, cackle on!

Not so surprisingly, I find that the non-LP single that came out shortly before BIG BEAT, the lush "Stereo 99" cover of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" b/w "England" to be Sparks at their mid-seventies post-PROPAGANDA best. It's a wonder why the entire BIG BEAT album didn't have the same sorta swerve to it blah blah and so forth that these numbers had considering just how potent this particular platter was. Originally planned as a duet between Russ and Marianne Faithful, "Hand" is rendered in perfect sudsy glop with the 101 Strings sticking to your speakers like fecal matter to a turdler's behind, and considering the reams of saccharine and beyond-believable Beatles covers that had been coming out around the same time it's a shame that this high-larious if engaging single was ripped off the market by Island because EMI was coming out with a Beatles "greatest hits" collection (again!) and they thought that with the originals out who'd wanna hear a copy! Typical record label logic at work I'll tell ya!

Thankfully both "Hand" and "England" are available on Cee-Dee releases of BIG BEAT (and, come to think of it, INDISCREET as well which really must prove what a top notch record it was!) and worth the effort to track down whether via the originals, these reissues or perhaps even youtube. An interesting aside..."England" was actually produced by former Spark Earl Mankey which is probably why there is a bit of similarity between it an his own "Mau Mau" single, originally released on Bearsville a few years earlier and via Bomp!'s "Exhibit J" around the same time BIG BEAT started hitting the record shops. One you should try to keep more'n a few eyes open for even if I bought a larger than expected stack of 'em when Bomp! was having one of their closeout sales in the eighties.
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Although BIG BEAT was a halfway-there attempt to resuscitate Sparks' career '77's INTRODUCING SPARKS was the guillotine to the brothers' mid-seventies megastardom. You coulda seen it coming, what with the slicko production and bevy of session musicians giving the music all of the dimension and warmth of a Shaun Cassidy or Leif Garrett top ten smash. Of course if you like those Cassidy and Garrett rex INTRODUCING SPARKS would really fit into your collection snug-like. And really, I kinda like it, perhaps just because its slick and down pat like your kid sister's 1978 teenybop tastes, only with some imagination, zest and downright verve.

A keen sense of mid-seventies Sparkdom does make a grand return as well, such as on the snazzy "Ladies" which's got some rather high-larious and (if I dare say it) "witty" lyrics that I get the feeling alla them snobs at the Algonquin woulda been knee-slapping to had Sparks been around in the twenties. And even if "Over the Summer" sounds like a too-hard try for a Summer single in the Beach Boys tradition (which it most certainly was) complete with that seventies production that didn't exactly suit me fine both then and even now, you can't say that it wouldn't have been out of place on The Paley Brothers album which was making its presence known at just about the same second. And given that INTRODUCING also has some pleasing quasi-nostalgia along the lines of "Those Mysteries" maybe a trip to the local flea market to dig this 'un up would be in order. (The bonus tracks "Breathe" and "Fact or Fiction" [which Russ gave to Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick as a possible cover!] are even better'n anything on the album making me wonder...why did they hold them back inna first place?) Given the time, place and general fickleness of the record buying public you'd kinda get the idea that this'd flop worse'n a fish in a PSA for asthma, but then again what were you looking for at the time? I guarantee you that it probably wasn't this!
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For being a group that had gone from Los Angeles deca-punks to the latest mania in England to nadasville, Sparks really know how to revitalize a sagging career at a time when any other act woulda gone into aluminum siding. A good two years after their previous outing and career disaster Sparks were back in '79, this time with the aid of none other'n electronics whiz Giorgio Moroder. And you can just bet that NO. ONE IN HEAVEN had alla 'em college newspaper Parke Puterbaugh wannabes diggin' into their thesauruses looking up new ways to say that this was Sparks going disco (which mighta been the haute thing to have said considering how everyone but the Kitchen Cinq were hopping on the discowagon at the time), but it really was a whole diff. ball of sound altogether as you should have realized all along.

Don't think of it as disco as much as electronopunk drive done up on synths and pretty refreshing at that. Probably nothing that much different than what a few acts were cooking up on the stages of Max's Kansas City and TR3 around the same time, even with all of the rough edges and amateur hour nerves tossed in. If you liked Moroder's work on those Donna Summers records you'll probably go for this. If you liked "Son of my Father" you'll probably also enjoy it. If you tune into this blog for my opines of long-gone metallic opuses or forgotten garage crank well, you probably haven't made it far down this article w/o sweating rivulets of disgust anyway. But for a dance record from the 70s/80s cusp that doesn't come off as saccharine syrupy as the Bee Gees nor as campy as the B52s this really does one good. Quite exhilarating in fact.

 
                               
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Of course Sparks have continued throughout the eighties (releasing some hotcha efforts that hold up with their seventies best) going through them ever-strange permutations and career moves that really stymied more'n a few observers. But as they said in Sodom in the end it all worked out swell. That's all for another post---after all the eighties were a time I'd rather forget about and hey, Sparks and the seventies did go together just as well as high school cafeteria food and salmonella. Who could argue differently?


4 comments:

Rockett Davey said...

Enjoy your blog.
Where else am I going to see a Dick Tracy Review?
This SPARKS post is Outstanding.
-Sam

Robert Cook said...

My first exposure to Sparks came via a 1972 article about them at the time the WOOFER album came out. I was intrigued enough to seek it out and find it and buy it. On first listen...I HATED it! On second listen, it still irritated me. On third listed I was still grumbling. By the fourth or fifth listen, I was over the moon, thinking it the greatest album of the year. I immediately went back to the record store and special ordered their first album, SPARKS. What came in was actually the first release of the first album, HALFNELSON. It was different enough from WOOFER that I had to learn to appreciate it, but I was invested in doing so this time, and I quickly came to love it, too. I bought each new Sparks lp up to and including INTRODUCING SPARKS, after which...no more. I had got into the whole CBGBs/NY underground/punk rock thang by then and Sparks were less necessary as an alternative to the dreary acts of the day, (Aerosmith, Foghat, Beck, Bogert, and Appice, and suchlike).

I've enjoyed some of their more recent songs I've heard in various places, and shocked and impressed that 40 years on Sparks still strides the earth!

I have the opposite regard for their Bearsville albums as you: they're my favorite Sparks albums by 100 miles and I don't think they've ever equaled, much less bettered them. I love the Quick album--which I also had to special order--because it sounds so much like the Bearsville version of Sparks...but with their own song-writing and playing talent to make them more than just a copy band.

(Another little known album from that era that I have always loved is Christopher Milk's SOME PEOPLE WILL DRINK ANYTHING. I perceived a conceptual kinship with Spark, but 'twasn't 'til decades later I learned two of Milk's players--Mendelsohn and Oswald--had been in an early version of Halfnelson.)

Maels said...

Very nice blog indeed. I was wondering whether you're aware of the Halfnelson demo album. If not and you're interested, let me know or mail me at maels@xs4all.nl.

Ruud-Holland

Maels said...

Excellent piece on Sparks, well done. I was wondering whether you're aware of the Halfnelson demo album. If not, and you're interested, just let me know.

Best,
Ruud - Holland
maels@xs4all.nl