SPARKS

Friday, October 20, 2017

INTRODUCING SPARKS


By Madeline Bocaro

This year (2017), we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sparks' seventh album, ironically titled Introducing Sparks.

Although the sound of Introducing was unusually traditional for Sparks, they still remained true to form. The slick production was incongruent with the rise of disco (which the Maels would soon tackle in their own weird way on their next album, No. 1 In Heaven) and completely unrelated to the scathing rage of Punk in England and in New York City. So once again - as tame as Introducing sounded – Sparks were producing the antithesis of what everyone else was doing at the time.

In 1977, after recording Big Beat with producer Rupert Holmes for Columbia Records in America, Sparks stayed with the label for one more album. Introducing carried over the traditional rock sound of their previous album, Big Beat.

After living in London for many years when Sparks were highly successful in Europe, Ron and Russell were again based in their native California. Their admiration of the Beach Boys was highly evident. Introducing features session men with a slick and polished sound. The album was recorded at Larrabee Sound in Los Angeles. Ron had a hand in the arrangements, but it sounds like he did not have complete control. The Maels were paradoxically criticized for sounding American when they are indeed American! 

The first pressings were released in November 1977. Promotional copies were pressed on red vinyl. The album did not chart. Two singles, 'Over The Summer' and 'A Big Surprise' (both with 'Forever Young' as their B-sides) also did not get much airplay.

The Cover

A side for each brother. Russell is technically on the front (although he is sideways, as the spine is at the bottom of the photo and the opening on top). Was there a subliminal message behind the ruby rings?

"We liked the idea of there actually being no front or back cover, that they were in fact the same image but with a different one of us on each side. We thought it would look cool in shops that randomly, either Ron or myself would be the featured cover. The rings were only a detail that we felt helped better color-coordinate us with our shirts. There's your symbolism theory shattered."
 Russell Mael, Sparks Official International Fan Club

The portraits were by photographer Bob Seidemann, who also shot the infamous and controversial Blind Faith album cover (August, 1969). That cover featured a topless pubescent girl holding a silver space ship. The image, titled 'Blind Faith' by Seidemann, inspired the name of the band. It was decided to not print the name of the band on the cover, but only on the wrapper. When the wrapper came off, so did the type. This was done previously for The Rolling Stones' 1964 debut album, the Beatles' albums Rubber Soul in 1965 and Revolver in 1966, and Traffic's 1968 debut album. Sparks employed this idea of obscurity on their 1974 albums Kimono My House and Propaganda.

The Songs

'A Big Surprise' begins with a Ronnettes 'Baby I Love You' style intro. It's a very atypical 'boy meets girl' song for Sparks – containing those actual words in the lyrics. 'Occupation' is an ode to the working man. The song really comes alive with Russell wearing a variety of job uniforms in the promotional video. If you can envision each one while listening, the song is even better!

'Ladies' begins with a beautiful vocal harmonic. The song includes a litany of heroines in the singer's living room. He hides the ladies when his mom comes home, and they all mysteriously disappear when his friends come over. The best couplet here is, 'Eva Braun is cracking jokes / While Joan of Arc just sits and smokes".  With its stomping beat, 'I'm Not' takes the opposite approach to Ron's usual autobiographical songwriting, listing the things he is not, or things that he is not doing; shaving, working, getting dressed, eating lunch - and he's not missing much! Russell's punchy, almost shouting vocal with a slight echo is really cool!

The bubbly and triumphant 'Forever Young' is the ultimate in defiance. "I'll sit and watch the history books get thicker".  'Goofing Off' conjures memories of a Bar Mitzvah, with a poignant violin intro worthy of Itzhak Pearlman punctuating the happy traditional dance. The song includes a searing guitar solo. This seemingly ethnic klezmer tune is simply a celebration of the weekend. ("Two days to try to forget a week of crap and crud".) After all the partying, the protagonist is dragged in to work and 'propped up in a chair' – just as he was at his Bar Mitzvah!

'Girls on the Brain' is a twisted bluesy standpoint about a debilitating ailment of the same name. On 'Over The Summer' in the light of lush background harmonies, Russell's plain girlfriend literally becomes hotter by summer's end. It is truly steeped in homage to the Beach Boys.

'Those Mysteries' is a song spent in wonderment. "I don't even know what I don't even know." Russell shines on this beautiful ballad of bafflement as to everything that exists, and that which does not exist. The demo version (performed solely by Ron and Russell) includes four additional words to the final questions, omitted from the album version. "Why is there time? Why is there space? "Why is there wine?"

Singles:
'Over The Summer' and 'A Big Surprise' were released as singles, with 'Forever Young' on both B-sides.

21 x 21
When Sparks performed Introducing in live 2008 (during their 21 X 21 tour in Islington during which they performed all of their albums to date in their entirety), it was one of the most exciting concerts of the series. None of the songs had been previously performed live, and 'Goofing Off' was voted amongst the top songs requested by fans at the final show of the tour.

Reissues
Introducing Sparks had been out of print for decades, as Columbia Records held the rights to the album. Although the entirety of Sparks catalog became available on CD, Introducing Sparks was the last to be released in the format, although bootlegs were available.

In November 2007, after several campaigns by Sparks fans for its release, Introducing Sparks was officially released on CD via Sparks' own label, Lil' Beethoven Records. The CD was not remastered from the original studio master tapes (owned by Sony and held in their vaults) but from vinyl. On a later release in Japan on SHM-CD (high end CD format), the same vinyl remaster was used.

Introducing was part of a Japanese CD re-release series of six Sparks albums (Imperial Records, 2009) including the outtakes, 'Kidnap', 'Keep Me', 'Breathe' and 'Fact or Fiction'. It also includes a demo of 'Those Mysteries'.

The booklet includes Russell's written descriptions of the bonus tracks:
'Kidnap' – "Sung by the young victim of a botched kidnapping where the wrong boy is grabbed. The kidnappers appeal to the President of the United States to have all of America contribute a little something to fulfill the ransom demands. Once released and now seeing how pro table this scheme can be, the young boy annually teams up with the kidnappers pulling off the same scam and this time splitting the profits."

'Breathe' (unreleased demo) - "A song proclaiming the importance of keeping one's lungs in good working condition."

'Fact Or Fiction' - (unreleased demo): Sets the record straight on some of the world's most misunderstood thoughts and conceptions. Note: at that time we gave the demo to Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick as a tune for the band to cover. They didn't, but it's apparently remained a staple on their touring bus entertainment system."

In 2014, a fan discovered a quadrophonic master tape of Introducing Sparks, with an early mix of eight songs. The tape also included the outtakes 'Kidnap' and 'Keep Me'. All had countdown intros and cold stops instead of fade-outs.

There was no live tour for Introducing Sparks. Nor was there a tour for the next Sparks album, which switched gears in a big way. In 1978, the Mael brothers teamed up with disco diva Donna Summer's producer Georgio Moroder for No. 1 in Heaven (released in March 1979), taking things to a whole new level. Sparks spawned the pop duo and an entirely new age of music. In fact, the album was so far ahead of its time that Ron said, "The downside was that just because of the nature of the technology, we were never able to do that album live until the mid-'90s because there was no way to bring a synthesizer the size of a building with you onto the stage."


Introducing Sparks
All songs written by Ron Mael & Russell Mael
All lyrics ©1977 Ackee Music, Inc. (ASCAP)
Lead & Background Vocals: Russell Mael
Background Vocals:
Recorded at Larrabee Sound, Los Angeles
Engineer: Lenny Roberts
Assistant Engineers: Betsy Banghart and Randy Tomanaga
Arranged by Al Capps and Ron Mael
Mastered at Allen Zentz
Management: John Hewlett
Licensed from Island Records Limited, London
Photography: Bob Seidemann
Design: John Kehe, Tom Steele



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.


The album was recorded in Los Angeles, though it says Musicland, Munich on the album. Although the Maels were lured toward new electronic sounds, all the drums were played live. The track ‘My Other Voice’ featured computerized hi-hat cymbals played in reverse. 


“There were no drum machines, so Georgio had a drummer, Keith Forsey, who came in and did 15 minutes of kick drum. The studio in L.A. was all walls of stuff with cables in it…You’d see these red lights go on and we’d go, ‘Wow!’. It was just like a new toy.” We could never tour this record at the time because it was (technologically) impossible.


 – Ron Mael, Uncut October 2017


The 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 the 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?

Russell: Like 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 No. 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 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 No. 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 colored 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.


Ron stated, “The downside was that just because of the nature of the technology, we were never able to do that album live until the mid-'90s, because there was no way to bring a synthesizer the size of a building with you onto the stage.”


Soon after, Blondie would collaborate with Moroder on their smash hit ‘Call Me’. M appeared with the percolating hit ‘Pop Muzik’. Sparks spawned the pop duo. 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!          

                
One final tidbit: 

“One time, Georgio (Moroder) wanted some songs for Donna Summer, so I tried (to write). To me, they weren’t very good and he didn't like them either.”


- Ron Mael, Uncut magazine, October 2017


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.