SPARKS

Friday, October 09, 2015

THIS AIN'T NO DISCO!

How Sparks Parted The New Wave
By Madeline Bocaro

In 1979 punk rock was still the rage in England, and disco was devouring America. So where did Sparks fit in? With disco in England of course! This didn't make much sense at all to their fans, but the Mael brothers made the best of both worlds. Their take on disco had a European edge coupled with Sparks' trademark sensibility. It became the perfect formula for a revolutionary new sound that would resonate through the decades. They may or may not have known it at the time, but Sparks were prophetically writing the Ten Commandments of Synth-Pop. Unfortunately, the commandment most often disobeyed by their eventual followers was, "Thou shalt be original!"


In the days when Sparks were releasing an album per year, No. 1 In Heaven was the follow-up to the surprisingly ordinary Introducing Sparks. Ordinary became extraordinary seemingly overnight. As suddenly as Tyrannosaurus Rex became electric warriors, and as shockingly as when Dylan went electric, Sparks went electronic! They got as much flak from their fans as Dylan and T-Rex did in their time, but some of us were hip to this new change, and new fans became enlightened as well. The music press gave the album equal shares of praise and damnation, but its musical prophecy would ring true in due time.

For almost a decade, the usual Sparks album consisted of ten succinct, highly unusual pop songs. No. 1 In Heaven gave us six extended, highly unusual fluid epics; the shortest just under five minutes, the title track being the longest, outlasting both "Hey Jude" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" at 7:27, not to mention the re-mixes!

In 1977, Donna Summer's disco hit, 'I Feel Love'  - a collaboration between man and machine in a musical Metropolis approximating Kraftwerk at 78 rpm - topped the dance charts worldwide for weeks on end. The conflicting warm and sensual vocal performance over robotic trance music intrigued Ron and Russell who were already bored within the constraints of a 4-piece rock band. Sparks went right to the source and recruited Summer's producer Giorgio Moroder for their radical experiment in marrying pop with dance music. He even received co-writing credits on four tracks. The album was recorded at Moroder's own Musicland studios in Munich. Aside from David Bowie who was also recording in Germany with Roxy Music's Brian Eno, using synthetic instruments for a more decadent ambiance (on his albums Low and Heroes), Moroder was the only producer using automated devices within popular dance music. This was a time when synthesizers were quite rare and expensive, despite being primitive - basically a suitcase containing wires and knobs that could be tuned to oscillating frequencies. Moroder took the reins and found Sparks a U.K. deal with the very supportive Virgin Records, and with Elektra in the U.S.

Although the Maels were lured toward new electronic sounds, they maintained that all the drums be played live. The track 'My Other Voice' featured computerized hi-hat cymbals played in reverse.

The high-paid fashion models on the album jacket - one caucasian and one black - look cold and sterile yet still sexy, as their lab coats are blown upwards like Marilyn Monroe's white skirt in that famous film (The Seven Year Itch). Enroute to heaven's laboratory they each hold a microscope, indicative of the groundbreaking musical experiment taking place on this record. The models were also featured on the stylized remix artwork. The "Tryouts For the Human Race" single sleeves and picture discs depicted robotic mannequin hands and test tubes, mixing 2 parts Rock with 2 parts Disco - and just a dash of Chemical X. The results were explosive!

Angelic nurse imagery. Are sexy nurses your idea of heaven?
RussellLike I've always said, you can't go wrong with a woman in uniform.

The typically brilliant Sparks lyrics were about fast-paced society ("Beat The Clock") and the first song you would hear in heaven (their own 'No. 1 Song In Heaven' of course, which peaked at #14 on earth). "Tryouts For the Human Race" is the album's 'sexiest' song. After a suggestive Sci-Fi intro, Russell lends his voice to those feisty sperm cells  - a major aspect of sex that is not usually on people's minds when having it - in a lavish production about reproduction. A twisted Biology lesson with a disco beat. On "Academy Award Performance" as well as on the title song, the double-tracked vocals allow him to sing in two octaves simultaneously! Russell's soaring vocals prevailed over the new synthetic Sparks sound. Ron Mael expanded his keyboard repertoire with the Yamaha DX-7 and a Fairlight Roland JP-8. He favored the coldness and inhumanity of the mechanized sounds and mesmerizing beats contrasted with Russell's glorious vocals. Ron un-slicked his hair and grew it long and wavy, resembling a mad scientist  - or was it more 'nutty professor'? Russell told England's Melody Maker in 1979, "I wouldn't be caught dead in a disco!"

'Beat The Clock' was like a Velvet Underground song when I wrote it at the piano, and if you listen to it with that in mind, you can kind of tell, but what Georgio did with it was amazing." – Ron Mael, Mojo magazine UK 2002

The promotional video for 'Beat The Clock' featured Ron & Russell (with a bevy of female factory workers), mass-producing life-size cardboard cutouts of themselves in a race against a giant clock. Perhaps this was an 'indiscreet' commentary upon the tedium and uniformity in rock/pop music, and the stereotypes within disco, until they were effectively mixed into one medium. Charlie Parker never dreamed that 'fusion' could sound like this!

Ultimately, the result of Sparks' stab at disco only remotely resembled the mind-numbing genre. Their special peculiarity predominated and a new form emerged, providing Sparks with two more UK hits. After eight weeks, the title track finally charted, peaking at #14. It was Sparks' first U.K. hit in four years. They performed the second single 'Beat The Clock' on Top of the Pops in November of 1979, which made the top Ten. 'Tryouts…' reached No. 45 in the U.K., and although several more 12-inch U.K. singles were issued from the album on a rainbow of coloured vinyl, overall it did not chart well, reaching No. 73 for one week only. No. 43 was its highest chart position in Sweden. America saw the single release 'Tryouts for the Human Race' (with 'No. 1 Song in Heaven' as the b-side). The Maels portrayed werewolves in the extremely rare video, however, the U.S. remained oblivious. Perhaps Sparks' thought-provoking lyrics were too complex for the mindless dancing masses. But subliminally and with the passing of time, the album became a landmark in music history.

Soon after, Blondie would collaborate with Moroder on their smash hit 'Call Me'. M appeared with the percolating hit 'Pop Muzik'. New bands emerged from the UK two by two, and climbed aboard the ark that Sparks built; Human League, O.M.D., Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode... The atmospheric Ultravox quickened their pace. At first labeled New Romantic or Synth-Pop, the new genre crossed the ocean and became New Wave (eventually spawning Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys and countless others). The Mael/Moroder-penned track 'My Other Voice' contains the foretelling line, "I'll be all you'll hear for years and years and years." European bands were now successful on American radio. Sparks, of course, still were not. Ask any of these groups who their inspiration was, and they will inevitably say…"David Bowie." But we all know who really parted the waves!     

Friday, December 26, 2014

SPARKS - KIMONO MY HOUSE 40th ANNIVERSARY- LIVE

SPARKS  
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

KIMONO MY HOUSE 
40th ANNIVERSARY
Live In Concert

With the Heritage Orchestra


The Barbican, London
December 19th & 20th 2014

By Madeline Bocaro

As we entered the elegant Barbican hall, various recordings of the popular song 'Come-on-A My House' set the evening's jubilant theme. Sparks were about to perform their third album, Kimono My House on its 40th anniversary. As the album was recorded in London, this was the perfect place and time for this momentous occasion.

The lights dimmed as the 38-piece Heritage Orchestra took the stage with its conductor, Jules Buckley. We were swept away by a bombastic, Wagnerian overture with snippets of our beloved KMH melodies weaving in and out of the aural whirlwind. It was a justifiably pompous prelude to the amazing journey we would be taking during these two celebratory evenings at the Barbican!

In homage to the classic album cover, the kimono-clad Mael brothers appeared at opposite ends of the stage, ceremoniously approaching each other like Sumo wrestling opponents. Ron sat at the grand piano, Russell grabbed the microphone, and the magic began!

The orchestral performance of Sparks' classic album was aflutter with glissando strings, dramatic pauses, trills, tremolos and countless crescendos. Bravissimo! Each song was given a customized score befitting its character, by award-winning arranger Nathan Kelly.

Violin bows were bobbing with millions of 16th notes. Every musician's feet and heads were tapping and nodding to Sparks' strange symphony while maintaining intense concentration. Buckley's baton waved madly. The 22 instruments included harp, glockenspiel, First and Second violins, complete brass and wind sections, bass, cellos, tympani and a conventional rock drum set. The Maels' gear included Ron's grand piano and Roland keyboard, and of course the castanets played by Russell during 'Hasta Manana Monsieur'!

'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us' was cinematically glorious. The arrangement was reminiscent of the Plagiarism version – times one hundred!

'Amateur Hour' would have impressed Yehudi Menuhin! It deceptively began in a minor key until Russell's flawless vocals kicked in. 'Falling In Love With Myself Again' became a grand Weimar waltz with thundering kettledrums. Ron achieved a whimsical calliope effect on his keyboard.

During 'Thank God It's Not Christmas', we wondered how an anti-Christmas song could invoke so much holiday spirit! Visions of sugarplums danced in our heads, as flickering white lighting evoked a delicate snowfall. Sleigh bells and glockenspiel rang and chimed in glorious union. Enhanced by a heavenly harp, the song became an enchanting yuletide anthem.

'Hasta Manama Monsieur' broke out into a full rock rendering at its coda, as Russell wielded castanets. He encouraged double-time handclaps from the audience throughout 'Talent Is An Asset'. The earnest musicians played on, as Russell recited a litany of things and people who should 'go away' from little Albert Einstein.

An eight-minute long 'Equator' began simply, with glockenspiel and trombone. Russell encouraged a sing-along, but reprimanded the audience for tempo and pitch. He teased, calling us 'semi-pros'  "You can't sing that high, can you?"

Ron and Russell thanked the audience for the accolades and ovations. They also thanked the three great musicians with whom they recorded the album in 1974; Martin Gordon, Adrian Fisher and Dinky Diamond.

An intermission was needed to fully absorb the exhilarating grandeur we had just witnessed. 'The Rhythm Thief' began a second hour of ten orchestrated Sparks classics, which included 'Let The Monkey Drive', 'When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?' 'Dick Around' and selections from The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. It is amazing how similar they sounded to the album tracks. (Ron is usually 'the orchestra', masterfully wrangling symphonic sounds from a keyboard synth!)

Two Indiscreet album tracks came to life. Russell's whistle blow signaled the unmistakable start of the festive march, 'Get In The Swing'. The Big Band sound of 'Looks Looks Looks' became even bigger! The octave jumping 'Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat' was string driven. 'No 1 Song In Heaven' featured ethereal harp, bells and chimes.

Both nights' performances were equally stunning, The second show was more memorable, due to Ron's slip-up, brush-off and quick recovery from his clumsy, yet endearing Vaudevillian shuffle dance.

Then it was stripped back down to Two Hands, One Mouth, as the Mael brothers performed their most grandiose opus 'Change' alone, acoustically – with the entire orchestra sitting silently behind them. Their services were no longer needed. Or maybe Sparks just didn't want to pay them overtime!

Backstage guests included Bryan Ferry, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and Kimono My House album producer Muff Winwood.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

SPARKS – Two Hands, One Mouth


Live at The Trocadero, Philadelphia PA
& Highline Ballroom NYC
April 24 / 25 2013
By Madeline Bocaro

The name of Sparks' current tour, Two Hands, One Mouth is anatomically correct. Ron and Russell Mael are using only these respective body parts to bring you the entire Sparks experience. Any less, and it would be the sound of one hand clapping. Any more would be too ordinary. The Mael brothers are constantly picking up and dispensing with instruments and band members. This time, they've purged everything and everyone.
Could it still be dynamic? Would it sound complete? Could they pull it off? Would we be wondering, 'Where did the groove go?' The answers are yes, yes, yes and NO! Like a brilliant actor losing himself in a role, Russell interprets the songs so intensely that you do not even realize that there is no band. Ron's keyboard playing is all encompassing. Their minimalist approach remains interesting, because Sparks' extraordinary compositions are filled with hundreds of notes and multitudes of words. The brilliant lyrics are now clearly in the spotlight, receiving their deserved accolades.
Sparks – the original synth duo, who brought us No. 1 In Heaven thirty-plus years ago, has gone back to basics. They have even dispensed with the cumbersome synthesizers of yore, while their contradictory copycats are touring with full bands these days!
The real trick is to span their entire catalog, and make it come alive in its purest form. In many ways, they are working much harder, proving that 'less is more'! The tour started in Lithuania, then travelled to Japan, Europe and culminated with ten shows in America. Audience reactions were wildly spectacular. The dynamic of Ron and Russell's personalities is integral to their music and endearing to their fans.
In their first East Coast appearances in more than ten years (since their 2002 Lil' Beethoven show in Central Park), Sparks played in Philadelphia (4/24) and in New York City (4/25).
Russell must have swallowed some magic beans right before each performance.  His voice was full and flawless - as glorious as ever. First, Ron appeared onstage alone to play an overture medley of iconic moments from many Sparks' songs that we all know and love. Russell also announced, '…some songs from our opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.' We were all invited to 'The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy To Russell Mael'. We heard gems from Propaganda, Indiscreet, Lil' Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers and many others from their twenty-two albums.
During 'Beat The Clock', Russell briefly took over keyboard duties. Ron emerged front and center, and with Two Feet, Two Legs, he erupted into his infamous shuffle dance, to everyone's delight.
The sold out New York City show surpassed all expectations. The sound of thousands of hands and mouths clapping and screaming for an encore filled the venue. The finale was a song titled after the name of the tour, which 'satisfied' everyone.
The promise that they would be back again soon was the icing on the cake!  Good night, that's all.



Saturday, September 06, 2008

IN THE BEGINNING…

HALF A NELSON IS BETTER THAN NONE

OR…
GENIUSES IN FOOL'S CLOTHING
By Madeline Bocaro ©

 

After a brief incarnation as Moonbaker Abbey in 1967, the young Mael brothers formed Urban Renewal Project with a couple of friends. They recorded some unreleased songs including "A Quick Thought", "As You Like It", "The Windmill" and the futuristic "Computer Girl". In their hometown of Pacific Palisades California, Ron and Russell formed yet another new band in 1970, committing commercial suicide before recording their first note by calling it Halfnelson, after a wrestling hold.

 

Still in their high school years, both handsome charismatic brothers had long, curly hair. Ron already had his trademark moustache, keyboard and maniacal stare. Their friend John Mendelsohn joined on drums. Earle Mankey played guitar, and Russell doubled on bass and vocals until Ralph Oswald later joined on bass. They soon produced a full LP acetate, containing the strangest recorded sounds ever made - supposedly the result of the Mael brothers emulating their idols, the early Who and the Kinks (whose clever lyrics were sung over a powerful, thrashing sound). The result was none too similar, but it sounded fine to the Maels.

 

The 12-song acetate, financed by manager Mike Berns was a complete album. Only two of these songs ('Roger' – Russell's first major composition, pre-"Pineapple" - and "Saccharine and the War") in completely different versions, later appeared on the actual Halfnelson LP. (The acetate was called A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing, which later became the title of Sparks' second album). According to Russell (Vol. 19, No. 6): "It was packaged in a large rectangular box resembling a restaurant checkbook. A hand-written bill for '$100,000 For One Halfnelson Album' was scrawled on the checkbook. Inside were photos, a bio, and the vinyl disc. We always subscribed to the theory that the packaging was an essential part of one's presentation, even at this stage when we didn't know what the hell we were doing."

 

One hundred copies were pressed and sent to American record labels. Collecting rejection notices became the band's favourite pastime. (Years later, this demo album turned up on a scarce bootleg called California Folk Songs).

 

The twelve song subjects ranged from an evasive "Landlady", to women competing for a prize at a fair in "Arts & Crafts Spectacular" (which Morrissey released in 2003 on a CD of songs that inspired him, called Under The Influence). In "The Animals at Jason's Bar & Grill", a moose, a dog, a mouse and a deer appear at the door and startle the dining patrons. Diners drop their burgers in panic and suspense until, at the end of the song, the moose simply asks for change of a quarter. The only reason these tracks resembled psychedelia is because they sounded like the band members were on acid. The debacle here is that they were not!

 

Todd Rundgren was convinced by his girlfriend (Miss Christine of the GTO's  - whose affair with Russell probably slightly swayed her opinion of their music) to produce the Halfnelson LP for Bearsville Records. Actually, Todd liked the strange four-song demo he received. According to Ron, "We sent the tape to Rundgren because he had satin trousers and we thought that was a sign of sharpness on his part."  When Todd flew to Hollywood to meet them, he was enamoured by the live show the band performed just for him, complete with props and canned applause. Rundgren brought his producer/engineer Thaddeus James Lowe to see the band practice at The Doggie Bunk Bed Factory, which is exactly what it was! Todd secured a contract with Bearsville, and produced Halfnelson's eponymous debut album in 1971.

After the recording of the demo album, the final band lineup for the released record consisted of Russell on vocals, Ron on keyboards, brothers Earle and Jim Mankey on guitar and bass, and drummer Harley Feinstein.

 

The official Halfnelson album cover was described by Russell (Vol. 19 No. 6): "It wasn't Grace Kelly, but rather a woman model who was showing off a brand new 50's car on a promo photo from an old car show brochure. We cut our photos into that photo. We actually went to the legal step of asking permission from the auto company before using the photo. Kind of like an early form of sampling." The artwork was later replaced with the brick wall cover/band shot, designed by Ron.

 

The band's name and album's title upon re-release in February of 1971 were both changed to Sparks, prompted by Bearsville's head Albert Grossman. (He'd originally suggested the Marx Brothers). 'Wonder Girl' hit #1 in Montgomery, Alabama. The band played at Mormon dances, high schools and delicatessens across America, and a stint at L.A's Whiskey A Go Go.

 

Bearsville's bio on the band prophetically begins, "Mostly, Sparks are somewhere else entirely." It prophetically continues, "American Bandstand will never hold them. Instead, someone will have to resurrect Ready, Steady, Go!" That 'somewhere else' indeed turned out to be England. There, and in Holland, they played close to 30 shows, and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test.

 

In late 1971/1972 Sparks played live in the US (five nights at Max's Kansas City was their New York debut) and in the UK, made more TV appearances and gained a substantial following. Performance clips of "Wonder Girl" and "Do Re Mi" on Hits A Go Go (German TV) exhibit a mischievous rivalry between pretty boys Russell Mael and Earle Mankey, who was also quite a poseur. Ron straddled the borderline between glamour and parody (the latter soon prevailed) with his moustache and mascara. Russell knocked himself unconscious with a giant wooden hammer onstage in Houston, Texas. Sparks, again with hammer, performed "Wonder Girl" and "No More Mr. Nice Guys" on American Bandstand (July 29, 1972 – the first of six total appearances on Bandstand over the years).

 

A second album for Bearsville, A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing followed in March 1972 produced by Electric Prunes singer, Thaddeus James Lowe who had also engineered their debut LP and worked with Todd Rundgren in the Nazz. Woofer's cover shot featured the entire band. Was this their idea of tweeter's clothing? Russell: (Vol. 19 No. 6) "We liked the idea of the front and back covers being nearly identical yet with some unexplained action having taking place on the back. And the black and white photos were hand-tinted by Larry Dupont allowing me to have two different color checked suits at no additional expense."

 

Even less commercial than the unconventional first album, it was decided that no U.S. single would be released from Woofer, the first in a succession of senseless marketing strategies that were surely deliberate. 'Wonder Girl' from the first LP was released instead, although their new cover of "Do-Re-Mi" would have sufficed. The band appeared on the UK's Old Grey Whistle Test to great acclaim, and performed gigs at the Marquee Club. But back in the states, Sparks' manager regretted that there was nothing more he could do for the band. Then, upon Island Records' show of interest in Ron and Russell, the American band members were left behind and the Maels moved to England to record Kimono My House. The rest is history!

 

- Madeline Bocaro

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA-HELLO YOUNG LOVERS LIVE

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
Hello Young Lovers
Live Debut – Glasgow February 12, 2006
By Madeline Bocaro ©

Once again, as with Lil’ Beethoven, Sparks performed their new album in its’ entirety, because there is not one inferior song to be left out!

This ain’t no fooling around! This is ‘Dick Around’ – the dazzling opener of Sparks’ astounding stage presentation. Our protagonist recites a monologue about how he’d ‘won the rat race’ and how his busy life completely changed with just one phone call. Words in comic strip bubbles help illustrate his point. Melancholy cinematic interludes suggest a suspenseful crime drama. Screeching Psycho shower scene strings, give way to heavy rock explosions, evocative of McCartney’s ‘Live And Let Die’, accented by jazzy narratives. The quick and frenzied string arrangements rival those in ‘Flight Of The Bumble Bee’! But mostly, this song rocks the house!! It’s much ado about doing nothing!

The band is behind a translucent black mesh curtain, while Ron and Russell, both clad completely in black, act out Hello Young Lovers. Imaginative big screen projections (created by Shaw Petrino) perfectly illustrate each song.

Benny Goodman convenes with the Buzzcocks in the sinister swinging, syncopated, percolating ‘Perfume’ with its’ driving ‘Radar Love’ groove. As Russell names names, the perfiumes and universally recognized female symbols drop off the assembly line.

‘The Very Next Fight’ especially when performed live, is in SPARKSURROUND - making you feel like you are actually IN a movie. Your own life is completely forgotten, and you are now lamenting your hopeless on-screen relationship. Enraged by jealousy, you are impassioned even more when the guitars kick in. Ron has a fierce altercation with his on-screen alter ego. He both wins, and loses!

On ‘(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country’ Buster Poindexter's 'Hot Hot Hot' collides with the Clash's Sandinista! album in this festive political party! On screen, an animated battalion with thousands of uniformed Rons and Russells comprises a vast army of two. The heavy-handed, sword wielding Mael militia marches in triumph of its' own will. I’ll bet Francis Scott Key never dreamed that he would posthumously join forces with his compatriots, the Maels in the public domain! Guitars abound; acoustic AND electric, punctuated by brass and yankee doodle drumming. We all get caught up in the party atmosphere of this ironically provocative piece. The heroic performance was worthy of the extended ovation it received - barring a 21 gun salute!

Punctuating the poignant symphonic sadness of the slow, swelling emotive score of ‘Rock Rock Rock’, Ron perfects the power chord on his borrowed Les Paul. Huge thumping on-screen retro amplifiers pause for an echoing, robotic vocal stutter, then burst into flames!

On ‘Metaphor’ Russell’s spoken poetic phrasing gives birth to Hip-Hop Haiku. The song transitions into what could be a traditional Celtic beer drinking folk song, with tipsy townsmen thinking up even more metaphors for ‘metaphor’ to use as pick-up lines down at the pub. Chicks dig ‘em! Everyone present enjoyed the sing-along!

‘Waterproof’, is rife with sweeping surrealistic clouds and precipitation. Jazzy interludes give way to Broadway rhythms. For the grand power-pop finish, Flying V guitars and umbrellas come raining down in torrents. Ron and Russell remain completely dry while deliberately (mis)quoting Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

On the seductively strange boogie-woogie of ‘Here Kitty’ an imposing, yet cute feline foursome mimes along to the hybrid of doo-wop / scat-singing – two long forgotten genres meeting for the first time in history - where else but on a Sparks song?! We’re not sure whether to Jitterbug or do the Charleston, so we stand perfectly still in utter amazement. The kitty chorus of ‘MEOW!” enlists more ‘cat calls’ and cheers from the crowd. Doo doo dah, doo doo doo dah!!

All of the new songs are almost – I repeat, ALMOST romantic (in a twisted Sparksian way). It’s certainly the most emotional work they’ve ever produced, stirring up feelings that we never knew we had!

Next is, ‘There’s No Such Thing As Aliens’. Little green men might really be up there laughing at us, but as of now, Sparks have convinced us that they don’t exist. Here, Ron resembles a stressed Strauss, but he masters the fine art of the mad waltz. After the melodious ‘Carol Of The Bells’ intro, Russell’s vocals multiply and harmonize, building and swelling in a stellar climax until the thunderous crescendo, which is matched by deafening applause. Surely, even Martians would be impressed - if they existed!

During “As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At Notre Dame Cathedral” the venue is sonically transformed into Quasi Moto’s former dwelling. We all have a ‘hunch’ that the album’s grand finale will be spectacular, and it most certainly is!! Our spirits are immediately uplifted by the sheer rapture of this piece. The chiming, clanging pendulous sounds (reminiscent of the mangled cuckoo clock sounds on ‘Roger’) urgently warn our protagonist that it’s time to leave for the ‘office’. He runs off as quickly as the Mad Hatter. The grandeur of the organ, the seemingly infinite heavenly choir, and the fervent vocal / instrumental frenzy collectively raise the roof of this strange congregation! Ron works the stuttering keyboard like a rabid Rachmaninoff. He summons an unbelievable multitude of orchestral sounds which visually flourish on-screen in the pipes of the life-like cartoon organ that he is so skillfully playing. A job well done, about a job well done!

Russell announced that they’d be back in a few minutes ‘to perform our other nineteen albums’ And they almost did! Without ruining the shock and surprise of which gems they polished up, let’s say they made full use of the complete, fantastic rock band they now have; Tammy Glover, Dean Menta, Steve McDonald and Josh Klinghoffer, and put those guitars and drums to work!

Spread the love…and hey, Ron Mael – please promise us that you’ll leave your brain to science!

- Madeline Bocaro

Monday, May 30, 2005

Angst In My Pants - Who Wears The Pants In This Family?!

By Madeline Bocaro ©
The lovely couple on the album cover made perfect musical harmony once again, and it sure looks like they enjoyed their Niagara Falls honeymoon as illustrated in a scintillating photo on the inner sleeve!

However, we are not fooled by this deceptive depiction into believing that Russell actually wears the pants in the Mael family. Although he is trying to feign purity and virtue, it is indeed the unshaven Mael order bride who is behind all this madness!

To start off the 80’s with their focus back on America, Sparks returned to a rockier, guitar-oriented sound imbued with danceability. They even revisited  the five-piece band format, including the Bates Motel band; Les Boheme on bass, Bob Haag on guitar, David Kendrick on drums and James Goodwin on synth.

Giorgio Moroder’s protégé Mack programmed some
minimal, yet punctual synthesizers, giving the album a built-in
revved-up engine.

In 1982 Angst In My Pants on Atlantic records became
Sparks’ first U.S. top 100 album. The single “I Predict” garnered
significant airplay, especially on the west coast on good old KROQ.
The peculiarly provocative video for “I Predict” was banned by MTV, not
for its bizarre sexual content, but for the political incorrectness of
Ron’s moustache! They were completely off target…nobody was looking at
his moustache! We were utterly distracted by all the sexual energy Ron
was radiating onstage at the strip club in his corset and feather boa!
Despite the M.T.V. (Moustache Too Vulgar) video veto, the single
reached #60 in the U.S. charts in March of 1982. The video was finally
reinstated - for late night viewing only - on MTV the following summer.

During Sparks’ television appearance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (May
15, 1982) Ron recited a lengthy monologue on the rodent species,
prefacing the song “Mickey Mouse”. The band also performed their new
single, the uncanny “I Predict”. Ron’s now infamous shuffle, then in
its infancy, had its monumental TV debut on this show!

Sparks performed “I Predict” (as ‘Bandstanders’ might say, “It has a
good beat, but you can’t dance to it!) and ” Eaten By The Monster of
Love” on American Bandstand in September of 1982 - Sparks’ third of six
appearances on that legendary show. Russell defined the word ‘angst’ to
host Dick Clark as, “A German word meaning problems or stress, but in
this case, in the pants region.”

In Russell’s opinion at the time, this was the most ‘pleasant’ Sparks
album to listen to. He varied his vocal range throughout, and the tunes
were less complex - even catchy. American radio appreciated the album
and actually played it! However, there were those who were disappointed
in Sparks’ return to a full band format, and the gripes would continue
when the band would again waver to a more electronic sound. You just
can’t win!

Sparks toured America throughout the summer of ’82. They also supported
Rick Springfield on his U.S. tour. Russell sparkled in a glistening
sequined suit (the colour varied at each gig). Ron, the mysterious
deadpan figure, usually firmly planted behind his keyboards, now began
to nurture his inner child which emerged in a scary, full drag
strip-tease in the David Lynch directed “I Predict” video (not a pretty
sight), in a wedding gown on the album’s cover and in several quirky
stage routines including a wacky shuffle and tap dance, and a mime to
Abbott & Costello’s ‘Who’s On First?’ routine with a stuffed toy dog
(at Hollywood’s Whiskey A Go Go). Things were looking up!

The album’s opening title track features Russell singing in what might
possibly be his lowest register, then bringing it up an octave to
stress that even YOU may very well be inadvertently sitting on some
angst! After an intro that sounds like a steamship’s horn, the melody
and instrumentation are simple and sparse, yet beautiful. Who else
would write such a happy-go-lucky song about a certain gravity-defying
male reflex? The Maels told America’s Trouser Press magazine in
November, 1982 that Ron came up with the melody at the last minute. Ron
plays every instrument on the track except for David Kendrick’s drum
tape loop. The song was mixed and completed in just one day!

In “I Predict” Russell portrays a pretentious clairvoyant. Sparks had
usually been quite accurate in predicting future musical climates and
beating everyone to the punch. In this song they seem to have
delusional visions of psychic grandeur, but who knows, maybe cold beer
and pretzels really do cure cancer! Has anybody ever tried it? The
catchy hand-clapping beat and heavy bass drum get your feet tapping in
no time. They should play this one in baseball stadiums instead of
Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.

“Sextown U.S.A.” is the precursor to “All You Ever Think About is Sex”
on the next album. Both songs are about, um…sex, and they concur that
sex is fun in a variety of locations. These are Sparks’ most
straight-forward lyrics and they have received no arguments to date.
The Maels seem somewhat envious of the supposedly sexy sleuth in
“Sherlock Holmes”. Where did they get the foggy notion that Sherlock
impressed women? Hey Ron & Russ, here’s a bit of advice; there are a
lot of guys out there right now telling their girlfriends, “I can’t
sing like Russell Mael, I can’t write songs like Ron Mael, just pretend
I’m Russell Mael, uh oh, uh oh, yeah.” So just go with what you’ve got!
You are SPARKS! What could be cooler than that! Just use your old
trusty pick-up line, “Kimono my house, mon amour!” Women will surely
melt in your arms. There is some sort of synthesized wind instrument
sound on this one, impersonating a flute perhaps? Anyway, it’s quite
effective and the middle eight is pure Sparks!

The Surgeon General could have used “Nicotina” as his mascot. Who
wouldn’t sympathize with this poor little burnt-out cigarette and quit
smoking pronto! She was so cute until the Marlboro man inhaled her. The
melody seems to be Russian derived and has some wicked guitar work by
Bob Haag.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse and all their pals run rampant in a paradise
where animals are people too, in a tribute to Disneyland. The next song
is dedicated to the power of the “Moustache” and how it makes a man,
commands respect, alienates a certain religious group and
(unfortunately) reveals what a man has ingested for lunch. Another
upbeat tune to which Ron shaves his off completely in the video.
Parenthetically, he grew it back again!

“Instant Weight Loss” becomes ‘instant weight gain’ in case anyone
didn’t know. It’s zoo time once again on “Tarzan And Jane” when
Chemistry class degenerates into de-evolution with a tribal drumbeat.
It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys!

In “The Decline and Fall of Me” our singer is reduced to a bumbling
idiot in an unwarranted tale of low self esteem. The poor guy has even
started a collection of frozen pizzas! This song contains the following
stunning couplet;

“ Where’s my mouth, man, this eating is rough on the shirts
Gee, I’m sorry about the thermometer, nurse.”

There are very few Sparks songs containing the word ‘love’ and the
single, “Eaten By The Monster Of Love” is one of them. It’s not really
about ‘love’. It’s more about the ‘monster’ with graphic descriptions
of what he’ll do to you and how to avoid him. A fun party song, if
you’re going to a strange party. This song, along with the title track
was featured on the Valley Girl film soundtrack.

Well, it certainly looks like this marriage will last a lifetime! I
wonder who caught the bride’s lovely bouquet of daffodils!

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Propaganda

PROPAGANDA
By Madeline Bocaro ©

This album instilled in me the burning desire to drop leaflets from  helicopters declaring Sparks the greatest band in the world!! Having no
access to a helicopter at the age of fourteen, word traveled slowly but  surely, by various subversive missives.

Despite the Maels’ intentions to take a completely new direction, ignoring the successful formula of Kimono My House, they segued right into Propaganda. Sparks’ third and fourth albums (both on Island Records) complemented each other like a pair of bookends. 

Britain’s ‘Holy Trinity’ Melody Maker, Sounds and NME raved! They gave Ron and Russell tremendous coverage, featuring lengthy interviews in which they mostly discussed their favourite topic…food!

In 1974, recorded immediately after the smashing British reception of
Kimono My House, Propaganda retained the same producer, Muff Winwood
(brother of Traffic’s Steve Winwood). The album was made in the
anglo-maniac Maels’ new home, England with Sparks’ live touring unit;
bassist Ian Hampton (replacing Martin Gordon from the Kimono sessions)
and guitarist Trevor White - both former Jook members, (the late)
Adrian Fisher also on guitar and drummer, Dinky Diamond.

The album cover of Propaganda launched a succession of hilarious cover
shots, presenting the frail Mael brothers in extraordinary
predicaments, usually helplessly victimized in some way. Here they are
on the south coast of England - abducted, bound and gagged at the back
of a speeding boat, and on the back cover, held hostage at a petrol
station in the rear of a car. Their captors (Ian, Dinky and Trevor) are
fiendishly deciding their fate. The inner sleeve finds the brothers
breaking their ties and attempting to telephone for help.

Russell shines on the a’capella title track, with his voice overdubbed
30 times! The rest of the songs are sung in various narratives; the
voices of animals left behind on Noah’s ark (“Bon Voyage”), a kid who
likes taking candy from strangers (potential abductors) but can’t
understand why he shouldn’t (“Thanks But No Thanks”), a girlfriend
being bribed by abundant eccentric gifts to keep her from divulging
incriminating information (“Something For The Girl With Everything”), a
cowardly army recruit (“Reinforcements”) and many more. This was some
of the most multifaceted pop music ever recorded. It was almost
operatic with its amazing range and orchestrations, sudden tempo
changes and strange storylines - and it rocked! Gilbert & Sullivan
would have either been proud or envious!

Guitarist Trevor White told Goldmine in July, 1995, “’Achoo’ ended with
this really great characteristic long solo… (from Adrian) and they
wiped it off and put on all those horrid multi-tracked sneezes. They
figured everyone had heard a guitar solo, but they hadn’t heard us all
sneezing.” Yes, guitar solos are a dime a dozen, but sneezing on a
Sparks record was groundbreaking! Unfortunately, it never did catch on.
The Hell Collection contains an exceptional live version of this song.
1974 brought Sparks four hits in the UK Top Twenty within nine months. 

The album charted instantly, and “Something For The Girl With
Everything” / “Marry Me” reached #17. All of the UK singles from
Propaganda contained non-LP B-sides. Sparks’ debut Bearsville LP was
also reissued, as well as the single “Girl From Germany” from their
second album, A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing.

In October of 1974, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” /”Alabamy
Right” reached #13. It was the nearest thing to a ballad that Sparks
had ever done, featuring beautiful mellotron and synth strings. In 1975
during the Indiscreet sessions, a new version of the song was recorded
by producer Tony Visconti’s wife at the time, Mary Hopkin, which Ron
Mael says is even more haunting than the original. It has never been
released. A Propaganda outtake, “Profile” was later issued as the
B-side of the Visconti-produced Indiscreet’s “Get In The Swing”.

During Sparks’ second British tour, their live performances caused mass
audience hysteria. Disney tunes were played before each gig, firing up
the teens who tore at Russell’s clothing during every show. Ron
received an occasional outburst of affection as well! Ron and Russ
became centerfold pinups for all the British teen magazines. Sparks
were uncomfortably wedged somewhere between Glam and Rock although they
were neither one entirely. As refreshing as their music was to some, it
was equally annoying to others – a high standard which Sparks maintain
to this day!

While the band finished up their 40-day UK tour, Propaganda was
released in America in January of 1975. They soon appeared in a barrage
of television appearances including NBC’s Midnight Special and the
syndicated Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. On ABC’s In Concert, Sparks
were introduced by Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. The band performed up to
six songs on each of these shows (highly contrasted amongst the most
dreary American rock groups), and caught the attention of many new
fans. Sparks made their second appearance on American Bandstand on July
12, 1975 to perform “B.C.” and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of
Us”. They also charmed the American music press, especially Hit Parader
and Detroit’s Creem magazine. Mumps/An American Family member (the
late) Lance Loud also granted several interviews with the Maels in
Circus magazine.

A subsequent U.S. Propaganda tour beginning in April, 1975 was received
less enthusiastically, despite much appreciation by those with a
modicum of taste. The after-show parties were held at Burger Kings and
I-H.O.P.s across America instead of exclusive hot-spots so that fans
could join in the festivities. The first-ever Sparks bootleg album, One
And A Half-Nelson ‘The Instant Darlings Recorded Live’
was made at this
time.

In a video clip of a rare studio session, Ron falls off his piano bench
during “Something For the Girl With Everything”. Sparks performed the
song on Holland’s Top Pop television show, and they were received
passionately in concert there as well.

The Propaganda album elaborately set the stage for Sparks’ next
excursion…the inimitable Indiscreet.