Originally published in Arthur No. 29 (May 2008) (which also featured a lengthy interview with the Maels), available from the Arthur Store…
At Home, At Work, At Play
A listener’s guide to Sparks’ first 20 albums by Ned Raggett
There aren’t many recording artists in their fourth decade of recorded work whose new albums consistently merit not only attention but, more often than not, a round of applause. But Sparks were an unusual band from the start, so perhaps, perversely, their virtually unprecedented no-fade career arc is to be expected. The full story of the musical partnership of brothers Ron and Russell Mael is worthy of a thick book or two (or at least a really good documentary), but the basic body of their musical work—20 studio albums preceding their newest, the forthcoming Exotic Creatures of the Deep—can at least be talked about here. Not all are front-to-back classics, some may not even be keepers, but the standard of excellence is so high, the continuous artistic risk-taking so audacious, and the number and range of artists they’ve inspired in the last 35 years so vast—from Queen to Morrissey to Pet Shop Boys to Faith No More to Bjork to Franz Ferdinand—that even the rare misstep deserves examination. Onward, then…
Though L.A. performances and a number of demos helped get the initial word out about their distinctly unusual take on pop and rock—the demos still for the most part unreleased, though noted Sparks freak Morrissey has showcased a couple here and there over the years via compilations and show intro tapes—it was the self-titled debut album that first brought the Maels and company into the public eye.
Getting Todd Rundgren as producer was key. Probably no one else in America had both the relatively high profile to get the recording ball rolling and the artistic appreciation for the curious yet compellingly catchy pop the Maels and their band were creating. Balanced between a whimsical fragility and a dramatic rock punch that stacks up to any proto-metal group of the era, it’s not merely the tension between the sides that makes Sparks’ first album so memorable, it’s the fact that it’s so instantly enjoyable.
If, as the story goes, opening track “Wonder Girl” was a hit in Montgomery Alabama and nowhere else, it wasn’t because it couldn’t be hummed. It can. The band’s whole approach can be heard in this single song: the intentional use of a cliché in the title, Russell’s sweet-with-a-twist-of-sour singing (then and now, one of the most uniquely beautiful vocals in modern pop), Ron’s sprightly keyboards and lyrics which are sunny only if you’re not listening closely. But it’s also a tour de force of production—listen to the crisp hits of Harvey Feinstein’s cymbals and the almost electronic smack of the beats. On the rest of Sparks, songs change tempo on a dime, harmonies swirl in and out of nowhere, strutting rock snarling melts into boulevardier swing, with the monstrous album closer “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys” rocking just as hard as the similarly-titled song by Alice Cooper that it predates. The sense of theatricality so integral to Sparks is already present, but this is as far away from the inanities of such ‘rock’ Broadway efforts as Rent as you can get—and thank heavens for it. The whole shebang really is art rock without apology.
Note: This album was released under the original band name of Halfnelson, with the brothers then switching to Sparks after the prompting of their then-manager/label head Albert Grossman, who was convinced this was the key to success. There have been stranger solutions.
A WOOFER IN TWEETER’S CLOTHING (1973)
In some ways A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing is the first album redux. Unchanged lineup, same number of songs, and the first song on the album is, again, about a girl. But this time the stakes were a little higher:
Oh, no! Bring her home and the folks look ill
My word, they can’t forget, they never will
They can hear the stormtroops on our lawn
When I show her in…
Imagine that being sung by Russell with an almost sweetly diffident air over a chugging rhythm, with a chorus that soars down to the backing pseudo-Col. Bogey whistles and you’ve got “Girl From Germany,” one of the wickedest songs ever. From there Woofer’s could do whatever it damn well pleased, and did. Beergarden polka singalongs crossed with minimal drones that transmute into a rapid roll of drums, frenetic high-speed instrumentation and a mock Mickey Mouse-style letter-by-letter cheerleader/gangshout for the titular character, “Beaver O’Lindy.” A tune called “The Louvre” sung, but of course, in French, sounding—at least initially—like a random 1968 Beach Boys number drop-kicked across the Atlantic, trailing sparkling keyboards in its wake. A concluding song, “Whippings and Apologies,” begins like Stereolab warming up for a 20-minute freakout and then keeps stop-starting—including a great fake ending —so Russell can discuss the situations a tender-hearted sadist must face. “Do-Re-Mi”—yes, THAT “Do-Re-Mi,” from The Sound of Music, not one of the lyrics changed, turns into a high-speed gallop halfway through the second repetition of the words and gets even more over the top after that point. Nearly the whole album is so insanely fractured, and once again, so astonishingly catchy, that it’s hard to know what to highlight.
At the heart of the album lies “Moon Over Kentucky,” the only song bassist Jim Mankey wrote for the band (with Ron sharing the credit), and arguably the landmark of the first incarnation of Sparks. It’s all five members at their most dramatic, with the opening piano and wordless vocals given a steady, darker counterpoint with Mankey’s bass. This gets contrasted with verses shot through with a nervous keyboard rhythm, Feinstein’s rolling drums and a snarling riff that sounds like a Tony Iommi line delivered in two seconds. Russell yodels like a lost ghost somewhere in the woods and the end result feels like what Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald would have done if James Whale had directed one of their films, down to the horror-movie organ final flourish.
KIMONO MY HOUSE (1974)
What to say about an album that endless amounts of musicians openly refer to as a touchstone? The one that was Bjork’s first record she bought with her own money (“My mum and my stepdad didn’t like it and I did, so that was my statement.”), the album that turned Morrissey into the massive fan he is (“Ron Mael’s lyrical take on sex cries out like prison cell carvings. It is only the laughing that stops the crying. Russell sings his words in what appear to be French italics, and has less facial hair than Josephine Baker.”), the album with the cabaret-rock-opera sound that Queen, who were opening for Sparks at the time, would appropriate immediately? Where to begin? Easy—the beginning.
It starts, not like a thunderclap, but like a gentle shimmer of spring rain, a keyboard figure easing up in volume step by step. Then a voice zooms in, almost but never once tripping over itself at high speed, building up to the briefest pause, and then: “This town ain’t big enough for both of us!” A massive pistol shot rockets across the speaker range. “AND IT AIN’T ME WHO’S GONNA LEAVE!” The full band kicks in and it is all OVER. And it’s only just begun.
Kimono My House shouldn’t have been; had Ron and Russell decided not to take the chance they did in moving to London and signing to Island Records after initial UK appearances before the release of Woofer turned out splendidly, it wouldn’t have been. They did, and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” crashed into the UK Top Five in early 1974 and what had been a low-key pleasure for some turned into pop star mania. Tales of suicides happily singing down to girlfriends in the still-living world, celebrations of the most exclusive genealogical background ever (concluding with “Gonna hang myself from my family tree”) and specifically uncelebratory non-holiday carols were suddenly all the rage. The lunatics hadn’t taken over the asylum, but their observers were genii at portraying their foibles in entertaining form.
The new backing band—guitarist Adrian Fisher, bassist Martin Gordon and drummer Dinky Diamond—weren’t necessarily as outré as the first, but as a crackerjack combo, perfectly in tune with the over-the-top glam hysteria of the day, they were essential. “This Town” is just one example of many songs displaying Ron’s ever-increasing compositional talents—consider other smash U.K. singles like “Amateur Hour,” with its quick, ascending main guitar line completely working against the typical descending rock melodies of the time and place, or “Talent Is an Asset,” a music-box riff accompanied by hand-clapping and foot-stomping rhythms celebrating the young life of one Albert Einstein. If Ron’s keyboards often times seemed drowned in the mix of the songs that he himself wrote, they weren’t absent—the organ adding further beef to the mix of “Here in Heaven,” the combination barrelhouse R&B swing and cabaret glow on the concluding “Equator.” Perhaps the album’s most emblematic song was “Hasta Manana, Monsieur,” with its lovely piano melody at the start and Russell’s bravura extended vocal break towards the end … oh, and the words too:
Leaving my syntax back at school
I was thrown for a loss over gender and simple rules
You mentioned Kant and I was shocked
You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues.
And that was just one verse.
Propaganda—featuring the band’s first outright classic album cover, showing the Maels as bound and gagged kidnap victims—was a logical follow-on from Kimono, much as Woofer’s had continued onward from the debut. The producer remained the same. The backing band jiggled a bit, with Ian Hampton replacing Martin Gordon on bass and Trevor White starting to handle the guitar. (Queen’s Brian May alleges the Maels tried to persuade him to join them by proclaiming his band were “washed up”—which makes that group’s Sparks-like breakthrough hit “Killer Queen” all the more eyebrow-raising.) Otherwise Sparks kept up the same glam-rampage approach. But here, everything was more in sync then ever.
The album begins with something new—an a cappela performance from Russell, his overdubbed singing providing wordless melody and rhythm as well as words, packing wartime slogans, militaristic imagery and that thing called love into about 20 seconds. Then a stentorian delivery from the full band heralds “At Home At Work At Play,” whose combination of volume, giddiness, hyperspeed melodies and Sparks-trademarked tempo shifts and pauses is clear evidence that by this time Sparks had come pretty close to being sui generis. Even songs like “BC,” which on this album feels just a touch like a “typical” Sparks number, would be utterly atypical for practically anyone else.
There’s a winsome jauntiness on Propaganda at points, musically if not necessarily lyrically, almost as if Ron and Russell were creating World War II vaudeville singalongs for their temporarily adopted home country. “Reinforcements,” playing around again with ideas of love and/as war, almost begs a high-kicking chorus line to back Russell on stage. In a different vein entirely is a power ballad of the most arch sort, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” which has it all: strings, heroic guitar solo, a lot of background echo (check out the drums at the end!), Ron on what must be harpsichord, and a beautifully alien mid-song break where Russell sings in fragile tones over heavily flanged violins. On the lyrical front, Ron’s eye for the knowing cliché in the title again reigned supreme—besides “At Home At Work At Play,” we get “Thanks But No Thanks,” “Something For the Girl With Everything” and the concluding “Bon Voyage.” And then there’s “Achoo,” probably the only song in existence with a sneeze as its title. And even if it isn’t, it’s definitely the only one that starts, “Who knows what the wind’s gonna bring when the invalids sing.”
Indiscreet ended up being the conclusion of Ron and Russell’s first run of hit UK albums, as well as their English residency. If nothing else, they wrapped it up in style, working with an emblematic producer of the era—fellow US expatriate Tony Visconti, whose collaborations with T. Rex and David Bowie helped define the times as much as anything. It turned out to be an inspired combination as Visconti’s ear for orchestral arrangements, familiar from T. Rex’s many singles, was in top form. The result is a rich sounding album, a big-budget effort that doesn’t sound overblown.
The band personnel remains essentially the same from Propaganda, though songs like the opening “Hospitality on Parade”—part neo-Gilbert and Sullivan triumph, part hypnotic proto-Suicide drone—suggest that the Maels were starting to feel that their band was holding them back creatively as much as they were crucial to their success. That tension shoots through the entire album, with more conventional rock-band compositions contrasting sharply to such songs as the merry 1930s kick of “Without Using Hands” or the wonderfully energetic big-band recreation of “Looks, Looks, Looks.” “Under the Table With Her” is that tendency in excelsis, with string and flute accompaniment as the sole musical element to match one of Russell’s most elfin vocals.
That said, the Sparks instinct for pop smashes in their own particular vein remains strong. There’s the careening blast of “Happy Hunting Ground”—the mid-song dropout to just drums and vocals is sheer pleasure and opening single “Get In the Swing” is an everything-and-the-kitchen sink affair with a marching band strut, band majorette whistles, a message from God to his creations and the memorable line “Well I ain’t no Freud, I’m from LA.”
The sleeper hit, though, has to be “Tits”—a thematic sequel of sorts to the previous album’s “Who Don’t Like Kids,” but which, in its slow unfolding musical drama, resembles the epochal “Moon Over Kentucky,” shot full of sequins. For all the celebrations of the female bosom in pop music before and since, this is probably the only one narrated by a married man complaining over an increasing number of “drinks that are something warm and watered down” about how the presence of a kid alters a certain dynamic in their household:
For months, for years
Tits were once a source of fun and games at home
And now she says, tits are only there to feed our little Joe
So that he’ll grow.
THE BIG BEAT (1976)
The final album the Maels did for Island has a straight-up brilliant cover, created by famed portrait photographer Richard Avedon. Russell is bare-chested but vulnerable behind folded arms and tousled hair; Ron looks to the side, his face in shadow. If only the music on the album were as striking as that image.
The Maels had returned to Los Angeles just as their star began to fade in the UK, where the punk and New Wave soon-to-be stars they’d inspired were only beginning to gear up. In L.A., Ron and Russell recruited drummer Hilly Boy Michaels, bassist Sal Maida and guitarist Jeffrey Salen from local bands and made a punk/power-pop album, featuring sharp Rupert Holmes production, tight arrangements, generally quick running times and a neo-’50s bite (“Fill ‘Er Up).” It was a new approach, but opening song “Big Boy” captures the problem of The Big Beat in general —it’s strident and forced where earlier rock-out efforts had felt nearly effortless, the emphasis placed on Salen’s competent but fairly earthbound riff instead of Ron’s piano. There’s still much to recommend The Big Beat: “I Bought The Mississippi,” “White Women” and “Everybody’s Stupid” show that the Maels’ just-off-center view of the universe remained intact, and “Nothing To Do,” certainly The Big Beat’s highlight in its catchy portrayal of random boredom, is so good that Joey Ramone later claimed that he wanted his group cover it. Still, there’s a sense of compromised horizons, of narrowing scope and less ambition, especially in the wake of the Technicolor widescreen impact of Indiscreet. Thus, it’s no surprise that “I Like Girls,” the album’s grandiose cover, actually dates from the first incarnation of the group.
INTRODUCING SPARKS (1977)
After six albums of often avant garde pop, the bizarrely titled, hilariously packaged Introducing Sparks kept the band’s wit but removed the musical edge. The whole thing was recorded with very capable L.A. session musicians (Lee Ritenhour and Mike Porcaro among them) but their airbrushed professionalism is deflating and pointless; flashes like the merry Russian Cossack kick of “Goofing Off” aside, this is an album of occasionally inspired songs struggling to break through—and failing. The opening “A Big Surprise” features smoothed-out, tame pseudo-Spectorisms and the slightly revolting presence of generic backing singers cloyingly adding their unwelcome voices to Russell’s. These backing singers would stick around for the whole album. And so it goes. With Ron’s piano pounding and Russell’s unique vocals, you’re never gonna get a bland-sounding, anonymous Sparks album. But Introducing comes close.
Introducing Sparks does have its defenders, and perhaps the live performance of its songs as part of the upcoming London residency/retrospective will help bring it more positive qualities to the fore. Yet in the end Introducing can be summed up by this simple fact: until the band finally re-released it themselves in 2007, it was the only Sparks studio album for years and years that had never officially appeared on CD. But they say it’s darkest before the dawn, and the follow-up to Introducing would be one of the most amazing albums ever made.
NO. 1 IN HEAVEN (1978)
There’s a story that David Bowie tells that goes like this: During the recording of one of his late ’70s Berlin albums with Brian Eno, he was in the studio when Eno burst in with a copy of a new single, excited as all hell. “This is it, this is the future of music for the next 15 years,” Eno allegedly said. The record, “I Feel Love,” would indeed become an epochal, era-defining smash for Donna Summer, part of her continuing collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder and drummer Keith Forsey.
Ron and Russell heard it as well. Rather than imitate Moroder and Forsey’s sound, they decided to work with them directly.
Just hearing the start of No. 1 in Heaven is like a message from the future still, but hearing it in 1978? It must have caused jaws to collectively drop around the world. “Tryouts for the Human Race” was unlike anything that Sparks had done before—no keyboards, no guitar, just gentle space tones and a bit of synth glimmer, a hint of motorik starting to speed up and up and up until a trademark Moroder synth-bass line comes in, Forsey’s beat suddenly moving into a massive propulsive push (his fills and breaks later are pure drama in the space of seconds), topped off by Russell’s voice materializing:
We’re just gleams in lovers’ eyes
Steam on sweaty bodies in the night
One of us might make it through
All the rest will disappear like dew.
The four-way collaboration at work throughout No. 1 is just perfect—the frenetic melodies from Ron, with Russell’s beautiful voice, suddenly seeming so much more freer than before, set against the relentless electronic hyperactivity Moroder conjures up along with Forsey’s just plain monstrous drums. Even the non-singles on the album—out of six songs, three were hits—have all the pieces in place, but man, those singles. Besides “Tryouts,” there was “Beat the Clock,” another bona fide classic, Russell semi-whispering the title like a mantra and breaking into glorious falsetto on the chorus, Ron’s melodies riding on top of a rhythm so clean and strong you could run transit systems off of it—dig Forsey’s breakdown on the mid-song break—and lyrics saying, among other things, “Entered school when I was two/PhD’d that afternoon.”
And then there’s the close, “The No. 1 Song in Heaven,” all seven and a half minutes of it. In a career of perfect songs, this might be the most perfect song Sparks ever did—and it’s one of Moroder’s best as well—a moment of pure sonic celebration and exaltation, its vocal overdub intro sounding like (but of course) angels singing down from on high, a stately first half transforming into an explosive concluding section: dance fueled by atomic energy.
In cars it becomes a hit
In your homes it becomes advertisements
And in the streets it becomes the children singing
No. 1 In Heaven marked the beginning of Sparks’ ongoing association with dance and electronic music scenes, it’s the album that showed that Sparks were keeping their ears open to what was around them, and it holds up (and then some) today. In short, it is one of the greatest records ever made.
TERMINAL JIVE (1979)
The artistic and commercial success of No. 1 in Heaven bode well for the follow-up next year, Terminal Jive. The Maels had demonstrated that their combination of pop ears and lyrical invention could appealed to a mass audience in more than one musical setting. Working again with Moroder (assisted this time by Harold Faltermeyer), Sparks seemed to be primed for a run of records capturing a time and place like the Island/glam-era releases did, perhaps with similar amounts of fame and fortune.
That didn’t turn out to be the case, though. Going back to guitar heavily on a number of too-strident songs—the title “Rock’n’Roll People in a Disco World” says it all—just didn’t work much of the time. Terminal Jive really is the proverbial album that would make a good EP. There’s one big highlight, though: “When I’m With You,” a beautiful love song with a gorgeous chorus, just a bit of guitar snarl to add to the beats, and another example, like “The Number One Song in Heaven,” where a bit of self-conscious referencing proves a perfect touch: “It’s the break on the song/When I should say something special.” “When I’m With You” was literally, as they say, big in France, and further added to Sparks’ reputation as genre innovators; here they helped kick-start the entire ’80s synth-pop era without intending to. The fact, however, that the band had to fill out the album’s length with an alternate instrumental version of said hit gives an idea as to how inspiration was sadly running a bit low again.
(Note: Some fans give a bit of love to “Young Girls,” though to be perfectly honest it’s actually just a touch creepy—and given some of the songs Sparks had written up until then, that’s saying something!)
WHOMP THAT SUCKER (1980)
Sparks’ first album of the 1980s found them back with a three-piece LA-based rock band as collaborators—essentially the same set-up they had at the beginning of their career. This time around, the Maels recruited most of an entire group, Bates Motel, namely guitarist Bob Haag, bassist Leslie Bohem and drummer David Kendrick (the latter two also continued to record separately as Gleaming Spires). With Ron now playing his complex melodic runs on a bank of early digital synthesizers, and Giorgio Moroder partner Mack handling production, the crisp Whomp That Sucker placed Sparks firmly in the New Wave movement that they had no small part in inspiring.
This ’80s rock and roll version of Sparks was a much simpler and direct one than those of earlier years—instead of frenetic performances and instant stop-start changes, the feeling here is steady riffing and straightforward rhythms, immediate but less astonishingly unique (though if anything, songs like “The Willys” indicated how Sparks were listening to bands that had followed in their wake, like Devo and XTC). Even compared to the Big Beat-era band, everything here is pretty easy to get one’s head around—not a criticism in this case, since the arrangements can often be fun, but the feeling is still quite basic. In ways, this is the sound of a new group still finding its feet, and the end result is a bit uneven. Still, plenty of songs have the sensibility of Sparks at its most theatrical, such as “Where’s My Girl” and “That’s Not Natassia,” while Russell’s voice is as vividly dramatic as ever, especially in the choral overdubs.
But it’s the in-your-face numbers that score the most here, such as the hyperactive smack of “Upstairs,” the absolutely hilarious “Tips for Teens” (“Don’t eat that burger/Has it got mayonnaise/GIVE IT TO ME!”) and especially “Funny Face,” with a gorgeous “When I’m With You”-style chorus anchoring the tale of a man so perfect in appearance he despairs of never being left alone by admirers. He tries and fails to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge and lives a happy life from there, after his appearance is permanently marred. This was one of the album’s singles, by the way.
ANGST IN MY PANTS (1982)
Angst in My Pants consolidated the strengths of Sparks’ early ’80s incarnation into a smash commercial success—at least within a certain context. While they’d long had a strong cult following in the area since they started, at this point Sparks were near-gods in their hometown of Los Angeles at long last, establishing themselves as favorites on local radio powerhouse KROQ. But this didn’t translate into national success—a pity, since in many ways Angst is one of the group’s most playfully daring releases, hinted at by one of their best album covers, featuring Russell dressed as a groom in a spangled suit and Ron the blushing bride.
With keyboardist James Goodwin added to the group and Mack following up on his Whomp production duties, Angst starts out with one of the Maels’ all-time winners, the title track. Russell sounds downright sad and desperate in the opening words of each verse as well as the chorus, and the bite of the lyrics (“You can be smart as hell, know how to add/Know how to figure things on yellow pads”), as well as the pun of the title, doesn’t hide the sheer frustration he slyly captures, the sharp, stripped-down arrangement shot through with low synth moans. It’s a striking starting point and the rest of the album lives up to it, ranging from the proto-industrial stomp of “I Predict”—deep electronic bass lines set against psychic parody lines like “Somebody’s going to die/But I can’t reveal who”—to the John Barry/Ennio Morricone tribute of “Nicotina,” which makes the simple act of smoking a cigarette seem like apocalypse. (Why longtime Sparks nut Mike Patton hasn’t covered this yet is a mystery.)
The giddy, almost epic “let’s go out and hit the town” spirit of “Sextown USA” and the explosive (and deeply hilarious) “Moustache” are also among the winners, while the murky melodies and rolling drums of “Sherlock Holmes” and “Tarzan and Jane” demonstrate that the stage-show musical heart of the Maels was still strong, if somewhat de-emphasized. If there’s an established Sparks fan favorite beyond the singles, though, it might well be “Mickey Mouse,” the Maels’ long-running Disney fascination made manifest. It’s a bit surprising that the Disney monolith didn’t try and sue the song out of existence for copyright violations, but such is the weird nature of multinationals.
IN OUTER SPACE (1983)
Sparks finally got their first—and so far, their only—American Top 40 success with the lead song on this album, “Cool Places,” a duet between Russell and Jane Wiedlin, then riding the peak of her own fame as one of the Go-Gos. Wiedlin was herself a Sparks fan since the ’70s—she also appears later on the album with “Lucky Me Lucky You”—and the resultant single, although one of the Maels’ most straightforward compositions (especially lyrically), is a fun kick. It’s also one of the most straight-up synth-pop style numbers the band had ever recorded—drummer David Kendrick sounds more like a drum machine than Keith Forsey had done back on the late ’70s albums—and reflects In Outer Space as a whole, with a number of songs being practically guitarless, though the core backing quartet remained unchanged from Angst. (Note that Bob Haag is credited with playing guitar synthesizers as well as his chosen instrument.) Perhaps the Maels, producing themselves for the first time since the debut album, wanted to experiment a bit more with other electronic approaches, rather than replicating their successful work with Moroder. Whatever the motivation, a new slew of Sparks highlights are the result: “Popularity,” a dryly hilarious portrayal of hip young things out on the town, and its brilliant lyrical flipside “I Wish I Looked a Little Better” are both winningly sung and performed electronic pop at its best, an enjoyable tip of the hat to groups like Depeche Mode and Bronski Beat, among others, who had worn out their copies of No. 1 in Heaven long before.
That said, In Outer Space can be a bit too stiff for its own good—a song like “Prayin’ for a Party” tries to replicate the monster stomp of “I Predict” without much success. Add in some more uninspired lyrics and arrangements at points—“Please, Baby, Please,” despite a few good lines, sounds scarily MOR towards the end—and this isn’t a start-to-finish winner like Angst. But it’s still one of the band’s finer efforts, and any album with songs (and titles) like “All You Ever Think About Is Sex” (“All right with me!”) and “A Fun Bunch of Guys From Outer Space” has its snarky heart in the right place.
PULLING RABBITS OUT OF A HAT (1984)
Though In Outer Space had its moments and even a top 40 hit single, the Maels clearly felt a little change was needed for their next album. They switched back to using an outside producer, in this case Ian Little, while concert keyboardist James Goodwin departed to be replaced by John Thomas, who would eventually become the Maels’ studio mixer and engineer, and the group’s longest regular collaborator. Also, they reversed their recent tendency toward lyrical simplicity, amping up their continuing amused critique of the human species out in the field instead of relying on the performance to imply it, admittedly “Cool Places” had admittedly done so well.
The resultant Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat—featuring another classic Sparks cover, this time a none-more-’80s style painting showing a typically stone-faced Ron operating Russell as a hand puppet—made less of a commercial mark but feels much more cohesive all around. It also includes that relatively rarest of Sparks efforts: a straightforward love song. “The gentle, warm chorus and sprightly arrangement of “With All My Might” recalls “When I’m With You” in its winningly romantic spirit, this time minus any self-conscious verse. That latter sentiment, however, appears in full on another one of the album’s high points, “A Song That Sings Itself.” Even if it doesn’t capture the outrageous heights of “The Number One Song in Heaven,” Ron’s sparkling keyboard loop, the great full-band performance, and Russell’s calm but still almost heroic vocals, make the song a fan favorite that has endured.
If Pulling Rabbits is Sparks starting to sound less like its own distinct take on New Wave and synth-pop and a touch more like what the ’80s mainstream did with it—check the already-starting-to-be-overused orchestral synth-hits on the otherwise great title track, opening the album with an energetic bang —it’s still more varied than In Outer Space and more intent on showing that the clever brain lurking deep inside Sparks is still operational. Squelchy keyboard break aside, “Pretending to Be Drunk,” with the narrator arguing that his plan was to try and impress an unnamed love with his behavior, is an absolute highwater mark on this album, while “Everybody Move,” the most basic song on the face of it, has this great take on exercise/aerobics culture: “Unwanted pounds will disappear/You’ll have a itty bitty rear/Better lay off of the beer.”
MUSIC YOU CAN DANCE TO (1986)
It may be pushing the parallels a bit, but Music You Can Dance To is most nearly equivalent to The Big Beat in terms of Sparks’ ’80s versus ’70s career—namely, the point where returns on a recording strategy are definitely diminishing. The core band remained on board and inspired moments aren’t absent by any means, but compared to the ’80s incarnation’s previous albums, this, its fifth and final one as a fully operating band, feels more like a collection of songs that filled out an album, with low points outstripping the best efforts.
Those high points are enjoyable enough. “Change” is a huge-sounding, epically lovelorn yet ultimately positive ballad. It’s the first recorded instance of Russell speaking verses rather than singing them, something he’s done on almost every album since. And “Modesty Plays,” originally conceived as a theme song for a proposed Modesty Blaise TV series and re-recorded here from its first 1982 single version, is fun too. But generally the band is starting to sound a little stranded. What had previously been energetic and modern sound has become shopworn and clichéd. Missteps abound. The execution of “The Scene” is flawed, but in its multipart structure there’s at least some ambition, especially compared to the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips,” which sounds far too much like the dull horrors of so many other washed-out Motown remakes from any number of ’60s burnouts during the Reagan years. Sparks were starting to show their age—a state of mind that they weren’t yet going to escape for a little while, though calling the most trudging song on the album “Let’s Get Funky” demonstrated their sense of humor was still present.
As a weird final note, the album was later re-released on CD as The Best of Sparks, a thoroughly inaccurate take on the contents and as appropriate a name as Introducing Sparks was a decade earlier. Caveat emptor, and then some.
INTERIOR DESIGN (1988)
If Music You Can Dance To was the decline, Interior Design is the fall, equaling Introducing Sparks as a well-meaning but ultimately troubled career low. In retrospect, it’s clear that this is an album that’s not important for what it is but for how it was made—that is, this it’s the first effort fully created by Ron and Russell in the comfort of their newly completed studio, built in Russell’s Hollywood Hills house. Initially nicknamed the Pentagon, this is where all their subsequent albums have been recorded.
The fact that this is the most notable thing about Interior Design, though, tends to indicate the quality of the album as a whole. No longer working with their ’80s backing band of Bob Haag, Leslie Bohem and David Kendrick—keyboardist John Thomas had begun the transition to being the group’s regular engineer, while guitarist Spencer Secombe completed the ad-hoc line-up—the Maels have a few flashes of their trademark wit and melodic gift at play, but it’s just not enough here. At best Interior Design should be seen as a home demo record that didn’t deserve release —it’s there, but for most listeners it’s not needed.
GRATUITOUS SAX AND SENSELESS VIOLINS (1994)
After Interior Design Sparks seemed to hibernate for six years, quietly but steadily working on other still-unreleased projects and a one-off single or two. When the Maels focused their attention back on a straight-up album, presumably they hoped at the least just to reestablish themselves a bit in a musical environment that had radically changed in their absence. But Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins did more than just that: it kicked off their third great period of extended commercial success, this time starting in Germany. Far from being out of it, Sparks ended up back in the thick of things, in Europe at least, seemingly without effort.
The key to success lay in Ron and Russell keeping their ears open to what was going on around them, much more than they had done in the late ’80s. In the same way that hearing “I Feel Love” led them to work with Moroder, they realized that electronic Europop offered a set of musical approaches that, as Ron remarked in one interview, hadn’t yet become clichés. Sparks took to techno like ducks to water—it didn’t hurt at all, certainly, that the music’s fast temp perfectly suited Ron and Russell’s predilection for swift-as-heck melodies. Another clear inspiration was the splashy, theatrical disco that the Pet Shop Boys had cooked up on Very. The Pets’ had borrowed much from Sparks’ overall approach in the Moroder years, down to Chris Lowe’s near-perfect impersonation of Ron’s unemotive appearances at the keyboards. The song titles on Gratuitous Sax— “I Thought I Told You To Wait in the Car,” “Now That I Own the BBC”— have the air of barbed homage.
This isn’t a perfect album but there’s so much to enjoy, from the surging conclusion in “Let’s Go Surfing” to “Tsui Hark,” one of the all-time oddest Sparks numbers, featuring the legendary Hong Kong director talking briefly about his body of work. And that’s about it. Other highlights are “When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing),” which features Russell doing his best version of rapping—not too surprising given his own abilities with rapid-fire tongue-twisting vocals—and the gorgeous “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?”, the tale of someone waiting for his chance, whatever it might be, which ends up referencing both Sinatra and Sid Vicious. Sleek and winning, Gratuitous was just the recharge that Sparks needed – and it wouldn’t be the last.
The Sparks’ 17th release was their most unusual yet. The initial idea was for Ron and Russell to curate a tribute album of other artists covering Sparks songs. But, at some point, they decided to pay tribute to themselves instead, revisiting their now massive back catalog and rerecording the selections in new or different styles. The perfect extra ingredient for this was their old collaborator Tony Visconti, who had done such a stunning job with his production on 1975’s Indiscreet.
With Visconti handling full orchestral arrangements throughout the album, plus an eight-person choir to boot, Plagiarism showcases a variety of approaches: some featured Sparks’ more recent techno-influenced style, while others, like the dramatic opening take on “Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat,” see the Maels adding relatively little to the string-swept settings Visconti was creating— a strategy that foreshadows where they’d be going in the near future. A further example of the depth of Plagiarism’s inspiration lies in its choice of songs: relative obscurities like “Big Brass Ring,” from the misbegotten Interior Design period, and In Outer Space’s “Popularity,” receive wonderful makeovers, the latter turned into a lovely high-speed gallop, while recent hit “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?” becomes a Visconti-scored epic, toning down but not removing the strong beat of the original. Hearing Russell ably tackling the challenging “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” 23 years on, is a further treat.
The original plan for a tribute album wasn’t forgotten, however, and a variety of tracks also appear that turn out to be full-on collaborations, including an absolutely mindblowing dance/rock take on “Angst In My Pants” by Eskimos and Egypt. Faith No More, whose fractured, spazzed-out art-metal is clearly in retrospect derived from Sparks’ own maniacal exercises in the early ’70s, prove to be perfect partners on “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and “Something For the Girl With Everything.” Mike Patton’s yelping bark is a particularly fine contrast to Russell’s sweetness. Erasure takes a bow on “Amateur Hour,” while one of the few singers to sound even more angelic than Russell, Jimmy Somerville, knocks the ball out of the park with his stately take on “The No. 1 Song in Heaven.” The end result is unique—a tribute album that’s actually worth listening to more than once.
In the same way that Gratuitous Sax and the more electronic reworkings on Plagiarism drew on fluid techno pulses, Balls incorporates ideas from harsher hip-hop and dance influences. The brawling, drum-heavy attack of the title track, which opens the album on a fierce note, is more than a little touched by the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” though Russell’s gleeful singing is hardly Keith Flint’s rasp—and a good thing too, since that idea is pretty hard to imagine —while the core melody remains a pleasant affair, in spite of all the air-raid siren noises. “Aeroflot” and “It’s Educational” also ride the electro-riffs hard. Russell’s voice is as supple as ever and memorable melodies abound, along with Ron’s usual dry wit. The Mael gift for cliché-reworking song titles is in full effect—the horn/string-tinged and very Gratuitous-like “The Calm Before the Storm,” “More Than a Sex Machine”—while “How to Get Your Ass Kicked” is, naturally, one of the gentlest songs on the album. Meanwhile, the concluding “The Angels” makes for a sweet, lush end not merely to the album but to a lifecycle of the group—and not only that, it gets away with lines like “I saw the angels cry/They feel ashamed/Because you look so fucking good.”
In retrospect Balls can be seen as the farewell to an era, with the Maels seeing out their dance-influenced ’90s on their own terms rather than clinging to an exhausted approach as they had done at similar points earlier in their career. Like Gratuitous Sax, Balls falls short, but it’s a stronger album than others in the band’s extensive history.
LI’L BEETHOVEN (2002)
Each new decade seems to find Sparks introducing a new set of musical ideas or tones that they will then work for the duration of the decade. Li’l Beethoven continued the pattern. Indiscreet’s “Under the Table With Her” showed what a combination of Russell’s vocals and Tony Visconti’s strings (and nothing else) would sound like, but Li’l Beethoven pushed the idea to the limit. Working again with Tammy Glover on drums (she’d joined the band ahead of Balls) while completely jettisoning their previous dance-beat approach, Sparks created a series of lush, orchestrated numbers that, in a way, finally brought the theatrical aspect of their work completely to the fore.
All this would be conceit if the songs didn’t live up to the inspiration, but the band was on a total creative roll. “The Rhythm Thief” is a statement of purpose for the whole thing (“Say goodbye to the beat”), while the hilarious trashing of the nü-metal hangover with “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” and the equally funny “I Married Myself” (“I’m very happy together”) are high up there too. “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” though lyrically one of the simplest songs the band had ever done—the words are the title, and one spoken word break from Russell aside, that’s about it—is a masterpiece, as close to a Steve Reich tribute as can be imagined in a pop format, topped off with some slamming drums from Glover.
But it’s the final two songs that are the best. “Suburban Homeboy,” a witty-as-hell rip on upper-class fake gangbangers that allows them to once again indulge a fondness for the show tune style, is flawless. And “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls,” with muscular guitar riffs suddenly exploding into the mix as Russell ponders the mystery in the song title, is even more notable, forming as it does a bridge back to a crucial element of early Sparks: loud electric guitar. There was more to come.
HELLO YOUNG LOVERS (2006)
After Li’l Beethoven’s, the band not only recruited a new full-time guitarist in that album’s guest player—Dean Menta, from the Maels’ Plagiarism partners Faith No More—but played the entirety of Kimono My House back-to-back with Li’l Beethoven at a memorable 2004 date in London as part of a Morrissey-curated festival. It’d be easy enough to say that Hello Young Lovers is a combination of Kimono and Beethoven, but it would also be inaccurate. Rather, as Sparks weaved more rock instrumentation into still predominantly classical orchestrations, they also returned a bit to the world of dance music, making Hello Young Lovers not only one of Sparks’ greatest albums but perhaps also their most truly wide-ranging.
The opening “Dick Around,” introduced with multiple Russells singing “All I do now is dick around,” moves from sweeping flourishes to loud-as-hell guitar/bass/drum rampages, Russell tackling everything from soft crooning to insanely quick and precise deliveries matched by equally high-speed performing from Ron, all the while singing lines like:
Through with you, through with you, through with you, through with you
Yes I think I got the point and bam there goes my motivation
What to do, what to do, what to do, what to do
All that I could think of is that I’m tendering my resignation.
If Queen had ever swiped anything from Sparks—and they did—then not only had the Maels taken it back, they had completely upped the ante.
And that’s just the start. Touching on everything from more straight-up orchestral numbers (“Rock, Rock, Rock”) to sly, finger-snapping grooves (“Perfume,” the lead single and yet another example of the Maels’ knack for pop at its best and most immediate) to a multipart concluding epic, “When I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral,” at once a Parisian song of romance and a paranoid tale of work jitters. Highlights come fast and furious, but two of their most outrageous numbers ever will serve as examples—“Baby Baby (Can I Invade Your Country?),” which takes the words to the US national anthem and goes from there into uncharted but appropriately martial waters, is one of the few post-9/11 songs worth a damn, while “Waterproof,” like “Dick Around” a perfect fusion of classical strings and rock epic moves, details the story of a lover’s heart crushed by a heartless bastard—told from the point of view of the bastard, naturally.
While not a perfect song-for-song album, Hello Young Lovers comes so very close. Astonishing.
A NOTE ON VARIOUS SPARKS COMPILATIONS, RARITIES AND VIDEOS
The number of compilations released over Sparks’ career has been extensive, ranging from repackagings of the first two albums as a full set to any number of “greatest hits” sources on a variety of labels—the perhaps inevitable end result of the Maels’ label-hopping over the years. Rhino’s 1992 two-disc Profile compilation remains the best starting point but even that is incomplete, stopping as it does with “So Important.” Meantime, rarities, b-sides and remixes abound, some collected on re-releases (the four Island albums got a much improved series of CD remasters last year, augmenting some previous bonus cuts with even more extras), many others still floating free. (Track down 1993’s “National Crime Awareness Week” if you can.) To top that off, the amount of wonderful TV one-offs and appearances over the years, not to mention a stream of underappreciated videos, deserves a serious study of its own—for now, search for their original Top of the Pops appearances for “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” and “Looks Looks Looks,” as well as their Saturday Night Live performances of “I Predict” and “Mickey Mouse.”
Until the day of the ultimate Sparks box set—or if that day ever even arrives, given technological and music business trends both—have fun out on the happy (musical) hunting ground.