Originally published in Arthur No. 29 (May 2008) (which also featured a lengthy interview with the Maels)
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: