Before I start this weeks post, I would just like to say a very special ‘thank you’ to Ron and Russell Mael, who although currently very busy in the studio, took the time and trouble to answer a couple of questions I had whilst writing this article. Those of you who have read my article when bands go bad, will know I am a big fan of Sparks, so receiving their reply really was very much appreciated.
Has there ever been a band that were so ground-breaking, so influential, so innovative, so consistent, so experimental, so prolific… and yet so underrated (in comparison) as Sparks? Don’t get me wrong, they have a massive and loyal fan-base, but for some reason seem to go fairly un-noticed in the ‘outside world’.
A career spanning five decades (yes really!) has seen them continually pushing the boundaries and challenging their listeners ears. How many other artists can say that? Indeed, how many artists are likely to have their 19th studio album sited as quite possibly their best to date by both critics and fans alike?! This is what happened to Sparks when they released Lil' Beethoven in 2002, more than 30 years after the release of their first album. And what an album it is too, crammed with lush layers of orchestral arrangements, choirs, some inspired lyrics and a healthy dose of wit! all mixed in with that unmistakable Sparks 'sound'. Record Collector magazine here in the UK, a well revered and respected publication, even went as far as to say "one of the best albums ever made" - praise indeed.
It took a few bands names and line-ups before brothers Ron and Russell Mael finally became Sparks (Moonbaker Abbey and Farmer's Market in the mid 60's and Urban Renewal Project in 1967), but it was as Half-Nelson (formed in 1968) that they would release their first album. Heavily influenced by the British Psychedelic sound of the late 60's, this little gem is actually very listenable, and although there is an early Floyd-John's Children-Kinks-early Quo kinda vibe going on, the fact that this is a (future) Sparks release is clear to the ear - particularly on Wonder Girl which with the right arrangement, could fit in on pretty much any of their albums. And I think this is one of the things I love most about Sparks, they have this unique way where they can hugely diversify their sound, yet be instantly recognisable, all at the same time - the Mael 'seal of approval' on every release!
It sometimes makes me grumble when Queen's 'magnum opus' Bohemian Rhapsody is ritually dragged out and put on a pedestal, with the same arguments pulled out time and time again… it's rock, it's opera, it's grand, it's over the top, it's creative writing second to none. Yet Sparks have been quietly banging out their own brand of Bohemian Rhapsody's for the best part of 40 years! Take last years Hello Young Lovers album for example, and the opening track Dick Around. A breathtaking track, and every bit as creative as This Town Ain't Big Enough (32 years its senior!). If it’s easy, background music you're after, then Sparks is not for you. Their music is complex, and demands your full attention. Right from the opening bars, Dick Around is one intense track, building and growing as it progresses over 6 haunting minutes. By the time the menacing guitar riffs start kicking in half way through, you need a cigarette to calm down (and I don’t even smoke!).
Over the last couple of years, we've been treated to quality re-releases of some of Sparks finest albums, Kimono My House (1974), Propaganda (1974), Indiscreet (1975) and Big Beat (1976), have all received '21st century edition’ releases, complete with extra tracks, interviews and booklets overflowing with information. But of the 20 albums released to date, there has always been just one album suspiciously missing from the CD set, 1977's Introducing Sparks.
At the time of release, it received mixed reviews (I wasn't old enough at the time to appreciate such subtleties!), and has always seemed to be treated like the black sheep of the family. But like a fine wine, it has matured over time, and finally after 30 years, the wayward son is coming home.
This is a unique album, wedged between the previous ‘Glam-esque’ releases (although to be fair, Big Beat was starting to head towards a more American sound), and prior to their full blown move to the Euro Electronic sound. By the mid 70’s, Sparks were pretty big all over Europe (particularly in Britain), and the band were keen to make inroads in their own backyard, so this album was to take on the US market – even the title seems geared to their prospective new audience, although knowing their wicked sense of humour, it was more likely just a piss take title for their seventh album! I asked Russell and Ron to spill the beans on how they ended up with it, they told me “We just felt it a propos to title our 7th album Introducing Sparks. Most bands don't name their 7th album 'introducing'. That's probably what appealed to us. In fact, most bands don't even have a 7th album!”.
No expense was spared for this Columbia records release. The very best session musicians of the day were brought in to perform, and although some say this made the album sound soul-less, you can’t help but appreciate the lavish quality of these recordings. I asked Sparks what their thoughts were of this album 30 years on “It's been a long time since the recording of Introducing, in both a time sense and in our sensibilities as musicians. We still have a fondness for the album, even though we've moved on musically since then” It certainly has a unique sound, there is a definite West Coast\Surfin’ kinda feel to the album (particularly ‘Over the Summer’ which just about out-surfs the Beach Boys!), mixed with that MOR sound that Alice Cooper was experimenting with around that time. But the Sparks humour is very evident throughout, and no better than in Occupation where various job options are raised and then instantly dismissed by Russell:
We athletes run around and round,
We moan and groan and hit the ground,
And when we get to 35,
We sell cosmetics and survive
We salesmen can sell a storm,
We sell you blankets when you’re warm,
And if you’re really really warm,
We’ll sell you two, we’ve got that charm!
Whilst there is no doubt that the songs on Introducing Sparks have a very different sound to anything that came before or after, lyrically (as the above lines show), they could fit just about anywhere in their vast back catalogue. For years, I’ve always been interested to know if these songs were all written especially for the album, or if any were unused tracks from earlier in their career. But Ron and Russell confirmed to me that “All the songs were written especially for Introducing”. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as I can almost hear a Kimono\Propaganda style version of Occupation in my head! But when I asked the boys which song from Introducing Sparks they would most like to re-record today, Occupation wasn’t mentioned, “Those Mysteries could fit into a contemporary context and sound great re-recorded today”. Finally, I asked if in hindsight, they had learnt anything from the making of Introducing Sparks, the reply was short and sweet “The only thing we learned from the experience is, don't trust session musicians!”
At the time, this release didn’t trouble the charts on either side of the Atlantic, but once again, perhaps the boys were ahead of their time. Look how cool Brian Wilson is again these days! Introducing Sparks is Ron and Russell’s very own ‘Smile’! Buy it, enjoy a piece of history, and marvel at just how unique this Sparks ‘missing link’ is.
INTRODUCING SPARKS IS RELEASED ON 5TH NOVEMBER (and you can even pick a 'Ron' or 'Russell' cover!)
If you’re a Sparks fan, then you may be interested in a great new band I recently discovered. They are called Silvery, and are certainly very influenced by Ron and Russell! They have just finished recording their debut album, and are currently looking at offers to mix it (one of which could be Kimono My House legend, Martin Gordon!)
Have a listen to this demo of the track Horrors and see what I mean:
Silvery are signed to Blow Up records: Link to Silvery at Blow Up
While you're here, why not have a read of my reviews of the recent 21x21 shows. The Propaganda review is here, and the Hello Young Lovers review is here
Also, don't miss my EXCLUSIVE, extensive interview with ex-Sparks member Martin Gordon, and he had plenty of interesting Sparks stories to tell! part 1 is here and part 2 is here
Want more Sparks? Check out the 'Graphik Designs' Fan Page, quite possibly the most detailed Sparks site on the web Sparks Pages
Below is the video for the shortened version of Dick Around by Sparks: