Tuesday, December 05, 2017


Island Records' Marketing Director Tim Clark fashioned his promotional strategy for Sparks after the one he had implemented with Roxy Music. "The very name Sparks meant to us that the music would lend itself to a very glossy and arty feel."  The photographer of Roxy's glamorous album covers, Karl Stoecker and art director Nicholas de Ville were recruited to create the iconic cover of Kimono My House, though the concept of the goofy geishas was completely Ron Mael's idea.

 Ron made a mock-up of his Japanese-themed idea for the album cover. He chose a vintage wartime propaganda photo of two geishas disdainfully pinching their noses while displaying Sparks' second album cover, A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing. The flippant spirit of the photo was retained for the actual Kimono My House album cover. The original propaganda photo appeared in an old 1940s issue of LIFE magazine, intended to ridicule Japanese culture. The geishas were holding a photograph of Winston Churchill, and scornfully pinching their noses. The caption explained, "Churchill's initials also stand for 'toilet' (water closet) in Asia and Europe." Most Japanese would not have understood this photo, with its English caption and the rarity of water closets prior to World War II.

Russell: "We were very happy that Island Records allowed us not to have the name of the band, nor the album title on the front cover.
We thought the image alone would speak loudly enough.
Try to get a company to go along with that concept today."

Karl Stoecker, now a renowned photographic artist, was known for his glamour shots on Roxy Music's album covers in the 1970s, with stylist Nicholas de Ville. Roxy were Sparks' label mates on Island Records. Most notable was their 1972 debut album featuring cover-girl model Kari-Ann, Mick Jagger's sister-in-law. Then came Roxy's For Your Pleasure (1973) with Salvador Dali's muse Amanda Lear and a panther, then of course Playboy's Playmate of the Year, Marilyn Cole on Stranded. London's swinging '60s designer Ossie Clark's favorite model, Gala Mitchell was shot by Stoecker for the back cover of Lou Reed's Transformer album. Within six months of shooting the Kimono cover, Stoecker shot Roxy Music's Country Life, released in October 1974, featuring two cover girls in nothing but sheer underwear, later airbrushed due to censorship.

Roxy's singer, Bryan Ferry was a student of Pop-art painter (and, some say, the actual progenitor of Pop-art) Richard Hamilton at Newcastle University. Hamilton created the stark, minimalist cover of The Beatles (White Album). It followed up and contrasted Sgt. Pepper's psychedelic cover bursting with color. Hamilton's philosophy was, "Pop Art should be popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business."  According to Bryan Ferry, "Most LP covers of the time had the group standing in an alleyway, looking very sullen and moody". Karl Stoecker's Roxy Music covers changed all of that.

The two garish geishas on the cover of Kimono My House with smeared makeup and disheveled hair were the antithesis of Roxy's classy covers. They laughed in the face of cover art, while at the same time making history as one of its greatest examples! One of them seems to foresee this – with a wink! The chosen cover photo was actually an outtake, shot near the end of the photo session. It has been voted among the best album covers of all time in almost every poll taken. Beck named it again in the November 2001 issue of Vanity Fair. The models, Michi Hirota and Kuniko Okamura were from Japan's Red Buddha Theatre, performing in London at the time. The geisha on the right is Michi Hirota, who also provides the memorable abrasive spoken Japanese vocals on the song 'It's No Game (Part 1)' on David Bowie's Scary Monsters album, 1980.

Michi: "We were not told much, they just let us move freely.
We didn't know how to arrange our hair properly or how to fix our kimono. There was nobody to dress us.  The session took 4 or 5 hours."

Sunday, December 03, 2017

SPARKS - Lil’ Beethoven

By Madeline Bocaro

The mischievous baton-wielding, sneaker-wearing character on the cover of Lil' Beethoven could very well be Ron Mael's inner child. Devious in his operatic presentation, our maestro lashes out at hip-hop hypocrisy, popular culture, and at life in general. The bitter bard conducts the proceedings, 'scratching' and 'sampling' behind the synth, with brother Russell 'on the mic' rapturously rapping 'the message'. Move over Grandmaster Flash!

Lil' Beethoven is not only Sparks' Sgt. Pepper – in fact, it could more likely be their Never Mind The Bollocks! It has more balls than Balls, more angst than Angst In My Pants, and Plagiarism only touched upon the plethora of musical genres emulated here. Each song is a strange, smartass symphony that so eloquently and elegantly ridicules everything that is wrong with music and with life today. Never mind Pet Sounds…this is Sparks' 'Pet Peeves'! The classy presentation undermines the rebellious nature of the lyrics. Sparks don't mind making public enemies because they so much admire Public Enemy! Once again, to their credit, no one except for their fans will appreciate this masterpiece for many, many years.

Lil' Beethoven commences with "The Rhythm Thief". We hear the words, "I am the rhythm thief – say goodbye to the beat." We envision the Mael brothers in burglar masks, unplugging drum machines world-wide from disco to disco like a pair of sinister Robin Hoods!

Drummer Tammy Glover and former Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta both round out the album with guitar and the use of kettle drums adding lots of drama to the grandeur of the new classic Sparks sound.

The album's second selection, "How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?" answers its own rhetorical question many times before the song is over. Vaudeville is alive and well in this tune. Russell seems possessed by the ghost of Henny Youngman as he endlessly repeats the question (almost as maddening as Abbot & Costello's Who's On First? routine!) However, his golden voice returns to lament, "Still there is no sign of you."

Yes, real-life affairs should really take precedence over some bands' hissy-fits as stated in "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?"

The romantic "I Married Myself" is simply beautiful. Congratulations to Russell! He is a much better match for himself than that old Jacqueline Kennedy! This song maintains a certain theatricality despite its simple arrangement. Ron is still grappling with the traditional concept of the 'love song'. He can out-write anyone with his beautiful melodies, but always throws in a curse word (as in "The Angels") or an odd situation as his signature mark.

"Ride 'Em Cowboy" wavered from Victorian to Wagnerian. The song is simultaneously complex and minimalist.

"My Baby's Taking Me Home" begins with simple piano, and an old-fashioned megaphone affect on the vocals, but becomes more lavish and ultra-modern as the song progresses. The multi layering of Russell's voice seems infinite.

"Your Call Is Very Important To Us. Please Hold" (who else would start a second sentence within a song title but Sparks?!) picks up where Kraftwerk's "The Telephone Call" left off. Rather than making weird computerized noises, Sparks allow us re-live the frustration of that cold familiar teasing phrase repeated ad-nauseum over a strangely beautiful yet angry classical piano trill amidst more orchestrations.

"Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" is a humourous headbanger (disguised by a sweet sounding intro and outro) about a preposterous topic that has dumbfounded many since the phenomenon became prominent in music videos in the 80s. Sparks have cleverly deduced that "It ain't done with smoke and mirrors." Dean Menta's guitar makes this song rock out!

Any Broadway show-tune composer would envy "Suburban Homeboy". He's a modern-day "Yankee Doodle Dandy"!  Now That's Entertainment!

Roll over Beethoven – tell Sid Vicious the news!


by Madeline Bocaro

Now tired of England, Ron and Russell spent some time in New York City. 1976 yielded their sixth album, Big Beat. This was Sparks' American rock n' roll album, again with a completely different band. It was their final record for Island in Europe. (It was released by Columbia Records in America). Some considered Big Beat to be Sparks' stab at punk rock, however, it's sleekness and crisp, clean production by Rupert Holmes (of Barbra Streisand fame) was far too pretty for punk. All of the songs rocked, and provided fantastic live material. Ronald traded his Roland for a grand piano on the album and tour.

The new songs were rehearsed with David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, guitarist, the legendary Mick Ronson. A 90-minute cassette tape was filled with almost every song on the Big Beat album. Ron Mael & Russell Mael first met Mick Ronson via Bowie producer Tony Visconti. Ronson could not commit to being a full-time Sparks member, so unfortunately, the collaboration never materialized. Mick Ronson was also to produce the album. He declined when he got an offer join Bob Dylan's tour band.

"…We still have the cassettes of the really rough demos of Mick Ronson playing a lot of the songs and they sound really great because he plays with a lot of abandon."
- Ron Mael to Jim Wilson, 2003

Ron and Russell recruited Roxy Music's touring bassist Sal Maida, who brought in Tuff Darts guitarist Jeff Salen and drummer Hilly Michaels. Sal and Hilly were already major Sparks fans. Big Beat was produced by Rupert Holmes and Jeffrey Lesser, with Bob Clearmountain, Harvey Goldberg & Michael Barbiero as engineers.

Sparks' sixth album, Big Beat – their fourth and final album for Island Records, was recorded at Mediasound studio in New York City in August 1976. Mediasound was regarded by many artists as the place to make the best-sounding records in the business. Sparks had yet again produced something delightfully unexpected.


Russell: "The Big Beat album cover was shot in 15 minutes by Richard Avedon at his New York assembly-line style photo studio, in by 9, out by 5."

In 1967, American photographer Richard Avedon shot iconic pop art portraits of the Beatles. The Maels had always wanted to work with the renowned photographer and they finally got the opportunity for the cover of Big Beat.

An Avedon glamour shot. Were you happy with the results? (You both look dapper!)
Russell: We had always wanted to work with the renowned photographer Avedon and finally got the opportunity. Our only disappointment however was that the process was more like a factory where you are shot for 20 minutes, are handed your proof sheets, and sent merrily on your way. Photographically, we were very happy with the results.
– Sparks News Vol. 19 No. 6

The Songs of Big Beat

The album's lyrics were clever, and some were politically incorrect – but in the nicest way possible! Big Beat starts with 'Big Boy' - the only single release - with Hilly Michaels' enormous drum sound. We can picture the burger restaurant mascot stomping all over the city. 'I Want to Be Like Everybody Else' mocked the sameness of everything popular.

The exciting start of 'Nothing To Do', a popular rock chord gradation, comes from 'Twist and Shout' (and is later used by David Bowie at the start of 'Let's Dance'). There are also some nice Chuck Berry licks.
Russell: "Joey Ramone wanted to do a version of 'Nothing To Do' yet never had been able to convince the other Ramones..."  

The heavy guitar/bass driven sinister sound of 'I Bought the Mississippi River' is reminiscent of 'Moon Over Kentucky'. The singer (who would later own something even bigger – the BBC) wonders if he should 'Leave it there, or lug it out west'.

'Fill-er-Up' is an unlikely car song for Sparks. Russell's hyped up vocals certainly drive the tune forward. Ron is not being rude on 'Everybody's Stupid'. He surely includes himself in this category, but we know that it is all in jest. 'Throw Her Away and Get a New One' shares a theme (a preference of young girls) with 'Happy Hunting Ground'.

'Confusion' was originally called 'Intrusion'. (The song was to be included in the aforementioned Jacques Tati film.) With slightly different lyrics, the Calypso style tune ('Intrusion') had been recorded during the Indiscreet sessions. 'Intrusion' appeared on the Island Masters CD reissue, although it was not a Big Beat outtake. On Big Beat, the song evolved to become 'Confusion'.

'Screwed Up' mentions fads of prior decades, yet the current vacuous era (the 1970s) finds us mostly screwed up. 'White Women' is undoubtedly Ron's equal opportunity answer to the Rolling Stones' 'Brown Sugar'.

A version of 'I Like Girls' was recorded three years earlier. Rupert Holmes re-arranged it, with a horn section for Big Beat.
Russell: "The song was written at the time of the original L.A. band. On returning to America, after our 1972 European tour, we jetted to Bearsville studios in upstate New York (Woodstock) to record the stage favorite 'I Like Girls'. It was to be a single, but it never saw the light of day until the Rupert Holmes production version on Big Beat."

The 1973 version of 'I Like Girls' was later included on the 1991 Rhino Entertainment compilation Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection.

Just before the start of their US tour, Sparks were filmed performing 'Big Boy' and 'Fill-er-Up' at Magic Mountain amusement park in California for the Sensurround film, Rollercoaster. These two songs comprised the first single release in October 1976, followed by 'I Like Girls'/'England' in November.

Holmes produced a lush orchestral arrangement of the Beatles' 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'. It was to be a duet with Marianne Faithfull, who backed out. Russell ended up singing it alone. The single was released on 19 March 1976 in the U.K, Japan, Germany and France. The B-side was (an Indiscreet outtake) 'The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael'. (Mary Hopkin voiced Jacqueline Kennedy). A song called 'Room For Two' was written for Marianne Faithfull, which was never recorded. Marianne was dating Sparks' drummer Hilly Michaels at the time.

For the UK and Scandinavia releases, the B-side was 'England' – a sarcastic portrait of the place they left behind, produced by former Sparks/Halfnelson guitarist Earle Mankey. 'England' was recorded in LA at the Beach Boys' studio in Santa Monica where Earle was the engineer at the time. Both songs appeared on Sparks' Island Masters Indiscreet CD reissue as bonus-tracks.

Island's 21st Century Edition bonus tracks, along with the above, included 'Looks Aren't Everything' and 'Tearing The Place Apart'.

A German sampler called In the Swing offers remixes of 'I Like Girls' and 'Big Boy'. Although they are the same performances, the sound on the remixes is fuller. 'I Like Girls' benefits from a fuller orchestra.

Sparks toured North America with the Big Beat band, adding guitarists were Jimmy McAllister and Luke Zamperini. (Luke's dad is Louie Zamperini, the heroic subject of the film Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie).

During 'Everybody's Stupid' Ron emerged from behind his piano – a rare occurrence at that time, to utter the title words in each chorus! Also, on the last tune of the set list, 'Big Boy', Ron again smashed his piano bench - which paralleled The Who's destruction of their instruments on stage. The set included a stunning extended version of 'Equator' done in a blues format.

American Tour 1976
(6) Santa Barbara CA (11) San Diego CA, Civic Theater (12) San Francisco CA, Berkeley Theater (13) Santa Barbara CA Arlington Theater (27) Passaic NJ, Capitol Theater (filmed) December
(3) Boston MA Orpheum  (4) Buffalo NY Century Theater (8) Columbus OH, The Agora  (9) Milwaukee WI Riverside (10) Chicago IL, Aragon Ballroom (11) Indianapolis IN (12)– Detroit MI, Masonic Auditorium (16) Allentown PA, Roxy (17) Philadelphia PA, Tower Theater (18) Pittsburgh PA, Mosque (19) Toronto, Seneca College (21 & 22) New York City, The Bottom Line - 4 shows (31) Santa Monica Civic CA.

In December 1976, Sparks played two nights (four shows) at The Bottom Line in NYC. The 21st December soundboard performance was recorded, which became a popular bootleg.

"During The Bottom Line shows Ron put the piano bench to his chest and slid across the front table knocking over record executives' food and drink! Nice touch." - Sal Maida

Island Masters (1994)
Island 21st Century Edition (2006) With bonus tracks
Sparks - The Island Years (2015) Boxed vinyl set

Big Beat was a highlight of the shows in Islington. The earth shook during 'Big Boy'. Russell dedicated 'Nothing To Do' to The Ramones, who almost covered the tune at one time, and 'Confusion' to the late film director Jacques Tati. Ron warned the audience not to take the lyrics to some of the songs seriously, especially 'White Women' and 'Everybody's Stupid'. 'Tearing The Place Apart' was the encore. At last, Russell flubbed the lyrics, but with utter dedication, he stopped and started the song over. Ron made a legitimate defense for Russell: 'During these obscure songs, there are some obscure chord progressions and obscure structure. We apologize for basking in obscurity'.

Big Beat
       Russell Mael - Vocals
       Ron Mael - Keyboards
       Sal Maida - Bass
       Jeffrey Salen - Guitar
       Hilly Boy Michaels - Drums
       Rupert Holmes - Production
       Jeffrey Lesser (for Widescreen Productions) - Production
       Godfrey Diamond - Engineering, Re-mix
       Bob Clearmountain - Additional engineering
       Harvey Goldberg - Additional engineering
       Michael Barbiero - Additional engineering
       Richard Avedon - Photography

Sparks' next album, their seventh, was ironically titled Introducing