AT HOME, AT WORK, AT PLAY: A listener’s guide to Sparks’ first 20 albums by Ned Raggett (Arthur No. 29/May 2008)

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…

SPARKS (1972)
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.

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.

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. Continue reading

SERIOUS FUN: Sparks, interviewed by Chris Ziegler and Kevin Ferguson (Arthur No. 29/May 2008)

Originally published in Arthur No. 29 (May 2008) (which also featured a massive Sparksography by Ned Raggett), available from the Arthur Store

Chris Ziegler and Kevin Ferguson visit veteran sui generis pop duo SPARKS in L.A. as they prepare to perform their 240-song oeuvre in a single month-long London engagement in May. “We’re actually better than we thought,” say the brothers Mael…

Sparks have about 60 days to finish learning the five million notes necessary to reproduce live their entire 38-year discography—20 old albums, select b-sides, one new album, and a special song for anyone willing to buy tickets for the entire month-long event in London—but brothers Russell and Ron Mael remain relaxed and ready in Russell’s home studio, where a portrait of Elvis watches over rehearsals so intense that Russell can’t stop singing his songs even in his dreams. Brand-new album Exotic Creatures Of The Deep will debut live this summer in London after prior nights each dedicated to an existing Sparks album—a marathon physically and psychologically and an occasion to revisit a band almost totally untangled from the industry music mess just miles away from Russell’s Los Angeles home…

Arthur: Ron said that you’ll be playing 4,825,623 notes during the complete 21-show run. That works out to about 230,000 notes per album and maybe 34 notes per second. Does that seem accurate?
Russell: On some of the early albums it’s probably true—the Island albums are probably 64 notes per second. Those were really hyper.

Did doing that kind of statistical analysis on your lifetime of work reveal any greater truths?
Ron: It’s actually a leveling. A lot of the ones we had maybe less love for are kind of good in retrospect. It would have been sad to go back and realize they weren’t very good.
Russell: Fortunately that wasn’t the case.
Ron: But we are prejudiced.
Russell: We’re actually better than we thought.

So you’re not nervous.
Ron: We’re still nervous. It’s awesome.

Awesome in the sense that building a pyramid is awesome?
Ron: On all kinds of levels. It’s like going back to school. We haven’t even heard most of the songs for 20 or 30 years, and most of them we never played live anyway, so part of the process was figuring out how to do that. We couldn’t cut any corners—we’re doing everything, including a lot of b-sides as well. We’re figuring out how to be true to the original records and doing it live. It’s a good concert experience.

Are you offering any kind of Sparks Value Pack for the entire run?
Russell: The golden ticket! For that you also get—we’re gonna record one song and give a CD of this one song to the people that choose to dedicate an entire month of their lives to Sparks. That warrants receiving a song that no one else will get.
Ron: And there’s gonna be at least one book or maybe two about the whole experience afterward, and we’re thinking if we can get up the energy, we’ll try to keep a journal.

Why no hometown show in Los Angeles?
Ron: We have a larger following in London. It’s so expensive to put this on that the only viable way was to do it in London.

Will you be including any Sparks alumni in the live bands?
Russell: Each of the bands had a certain character to them—someone even suggested it’d be great if we had each of those bands. In a conceptual way, that’s good. In a practical way, I don’t know if it would work. It’s a real test to find people—the fans who are going to spend a month of their lives with us, and then for the band, musicians who want to stick it out for three-and-a-half months of preparation, which is unheard of. When you prepare for tour, you have maybe 20 songs, and this is 240. And you might say, ‘Oh, that’s not so hard,’ but when you think of songs on the albums that fade out and you have to have an ending for that song now. To figure things like that out times 240 is so time-consuming. Just the sheer volume you have to digest.

Are you dreaming Sparks songs yet?
Russell: I’m singing songs when I wake up—I swear. And it’s not a happy dream. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t even shut them off!’
Continue reading

ENDARKENMENT MANIFESTO by Peter Lamborn Wilson aka Hakim Bey

From ARTHUR MAGAZINE No. 29 (May 2008): Peter Lamborn Wilson’s half-serious proposal for a political movement to uphold and propagate the ideals of Green Hermeticism. Wilson sometimes uses the pen name ‘Hakim Bey.’ He is the author of the Temporary Autonomous Zone concept and manifesto, which, for better or worse, was the original inspiration for the Burning Man festival..


At least half the year belongs to Endarkenment. Enlightenment is only a special case of Endarkenment—and it has nights of its own.


During the day democracy waxes, indiscriminately illuminating all and sundry. But shadowless noon belongs to Pan. And night imposes a “radical aristocracy” in which things shine solely by their own luminescence, or not at all.


Obfuscatory, reactionary and superstitious, Endarkenment offers jobs for trolls and sylphs, witches and warlocks. Perhaps only superstition can re-enchant Nature. People who fear and desire nymphs and fauns will think twice before polluting streams or clear-cutting forests.


Electricity banished shadows—but shadows are “shades,” souls, the souls of light itself. Even divine light, when it loses its organic and secret darkness, becomes a form of pollution. In prison cells electric lights are never doused; light becomes oppression and source of disease.


Superstitions may be untrue but based on deeper truth—that earth is a living being. Science may be true, i.e. effective, while based on a deeper untruth—that matter is dead.


The peasants attacking Dr. Frankenstein’s tower with their torches and scythes were the shock troops of Endarkenment, our luddite militia. The original historical Luddites smashed mechanical looms, ancestors of the computer.


“Neolithic conservatism” (Paul Goodman’s definition of anarchism) positions itself outside the ponderous inevitability of separation and sameness. Every caveman a Prince Kropotkin, every cavewoman Mrs. Nietzsche. Our Phalanstery would be lit by candles and our Passions avowed via messenger pigeons and hot-air balloons.


Imagine what science might be like to day if the State and Kapital had never emerged. Romantic Science proposes an empiricism devoid of disastrous splits between consciousness and Nature; thus it prolongates Neolithic alchemy as if separation and alienation had never occurred: science for life not money, health not war, pleasure not efficiency; Novalis’s “poeticization of science.”


Of course technology itself is haunted—a ghost for every machine. The myth of Progress stars its own cast of ghouls and efreets. Consciously or unconsciously (what difference would it make?) we all know we live in techno-dystopia, but we accept it with the deterministic fatalism of beaten serfs, as if it were virtual Natural Law.


Technology mimics and thus belittles the miracles of magic. Rationalism has its own Popes and droning litanies, but the spell they cast is one of disenchantment. Or rather: all magic has migrated into money, all power into a technology of titanic totality, a violence against life that stuns and disheartens.


Hence the universal fear/desire for the End of the World (or for some world anyway). For the poor Christian Moslem Jewish saps duped by fundamentalist nihilism the Last Day is both horrorshow and Rapture, just as for secular Yuppies global warming is a symbol of terror and meaninglessness and simultaneously a rapturous vision of post-Catastrophe Hobbit-like local-sustainable solar-powered gemutlichkeit. Thus the technopathocracy comes equipped with its own built-in escape-valve fantasy: the Ragnarok of technology itself and the sudden catastrophic restoration of meaning. In fact Capital can capitalize on its own huge unpopularity by commoditizing hope for its End. That’s what the smug shits call a win/win situation.


Winter Solstice (Chaos Day in Chinese folklore) is one of Endarkenment’s official holidays, along with Samhain or Halloween, Winter’s first day.


Endarkenment stands socially for the Cro-Magnon or “Atlantaean” complex—anarchist because prior to the State—for horticulture and gathering against agriculture and industry—for the right to hunt as against the usurpation of commons by lord or State. Electricity and internal combustion should be turned off along with all States and corporations and their cult of Mammon and Moloch.


Despite our ultimate aim we’re willing to step back bit by bit. We might be willing to accept steam power or hydraulics. The last agreeable year for us was 1941, the ideal is about 10,000 BC, but we’re not purists. Endarkenment is a form of impurism, of mixture and shadow.


Endarkenment envisages a medicine advanced as it might have been if money and the State had never appeared, medicine for earth, animals and humans, based on Nature, not on promethean technology. Endarkenment is not impressed by medicine that prolongs “life span” by adding several years in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes and glued to daytime TV, all at the expense of every penny ever saved by the patient (lit. “sufferer”) plus huge debts for children and heirs. We’re not impressed by gene therapy and plastic surgery for obscene superrich post humans. We prefer an empirical extension of “medieval superstitions” of Old Wives and herbalists, a rectified Paracelsan peoples’ medicine as proposed by Ivan Illich in his book on demedicalization of society. (Illich as Catholic anarchist we consider an Endarkenment saint of some sort.) (Endarkenment is somewhat like “Tory anarchism,” a phrase I’ve seen used earliest in Max Beehbohm and most lately by John Mitchell.) (Other saints: William Blake, William Morris, A.K. Coomaraswamy, John Cowper Powys, Marie Laveau, King Farouk…)


Politically Endarkenment proposes anarcho-monarchism, in effect somewhat like Scandinavian monarcho-socialism but more radical, with highly symbolic but powerless monarchs and lots of good ritual, combined with Proudhonian anarcho-federalism and Mutualism. Georges Sorel (author of Reflections on Violence) had some anarcho-monarchist disciples in the Cercle Proudhon (1910-1914) with whom we feel a certain affinity. Endarkenment favors most separatisms and secessions; many small states are better than a few big ones. We’re especially interested in the break-up of the American Empire.


Endarkenment also feels some critical admiration for Col. Qadhaffi’s Green Book, and for the Bonnot Gang (Stirnerite Nietzschean bank robbers). In Islamdom it favors “medieval accretions” like sufism and Ismailism against all crypto-modernist hyperorthodoxy and politics of resentment. We also admire the martyred Iranian Shiite/Sufi socialist Ali Shariati, who was praised by Massignon and Foucault.


Culturally Endarkenment aims at extreme neo-Romanticism and will therefore be accused of fascism by its enemies on the Left. The answer to this is that (1) we’re anarchists and federalists adamantly opposed to all authoritarian centralisms whether Left or Right. (2) We favor all races, we love both difference and solidarity, not sameness and separation. (3) We reject the myth of Progress and technology—all cultural Futurism—all plans no matter their ideological origin—all uniformity—all conformity whether to organized religion or secular rationalism with its market democracy and endless war.


Endarkenists “believe in magic” and so must wage their guerrilla through magic rather than compete with the State’s monopoly of techno-violence. Giordano Bruno’s Image Magic is our secret weapon. Projective hieroglyphic hermeneutics. Action at a distance through manipulation of symbols carried out dramaturgically via acts of Poetic Terrorism, surrealist sabotage, Bakunin’s “creative destruction”—but also destructive creativity, invention of hermetico-critical objects, heiroglyphic projections of word/image “spells”—by which more is meant (always) than mere “political art”—rather a magical art with actual dire or beneficial results. Our enemies on the Right might call this political pornography and they’d be (as usual) right. Porn has a measurable physiopsychological effect. We’re looking for something like it, definitely, only bigger, and more like Artaud than Brecht—but not to be mistaken for “Absolute Art” or any other platonic purism—rather an empirical strategic “situationist” art, outside all mass media, truly underground, as befits Endarkenment, like a loosely structured “rhizomatic” Tong or freemasonic conspiracy.


The Dark has its own lights or “photisms” as Henry Corbin called them, literally as entoptic/hypnagogic phosphene-like phenomena, and figuratively (or imaginally) as Paracelsan Nature spirits, or in Blakean terms, inner lights. Enlightenment has its shadows, Endarkenment has its Illuminati; and there are no ideas but in persons (in theologic terms, angels). According to legend the Byzantines were busy discussing “the sex of angels” while the Ottomans were besieging the walls of Constantinople. Was this the height of Endarkenment? We share that obsession.

Jan. 1, 2008