Sparks

TrackAlbum
Falling In Love With Myself AgainKimono My House
Thank God It's Not ChristmasKimono My House
EquatorKimono My House
Who Don't Like KidsPropaganda
Looks Looks LooksIndiscreet
Throw Her Away
(And Get a New One)
Big Beat
I Like GirlsBig Beat
The Number One Song In HeavenNo.1 In Heaven
Cool PlacesIn Outer Space
This Town Ain't Big Enough
For Both Of Us
Plagiarism (with Faith No More)
Dick AroundHello Young Lovers
And finally, all of ...The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman

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Contributor: Craig Austin

‘Well I ain’t no Freud / I’m from LA …’

In common with their fellow unappreciated hip priests, The Ramones and Jimi Hendrix, it required a very public and passionate fling with the UK in order for Sparks to eventually grab the attention of its hitherto comatose homeland. In doing so the very notion that these native Californians should opt to go one step further in actually choosing to make England their temporary home, eschewing as they did the sunshine and regulation dentistry of the Golden state for a sticky-carpeted nation still under the cosh of a three-day week and a mainland Republican bombing campaign, says much about the incongruous and incomparable nature of the inexorable brothers Mael. Or as Russell remembers it, on just the recording process itself: ‘They told us that we could work from, like, noon to four, but after that there was no power. And then they said “well lads, even if the record does get finished there might not be enough vinyl to go around”. That wasn’t part of our dream of conquering Britain’. But against all odds, conquer Britain they did, the gates of the pop citadel ultimately giving way under the combined pressure of a barrage of operatic excess and a startling visual image seemingly comprised of equal parts 20s Hollywood and 40s Berlin; a dizzy catalyst of art rock conceptualism, the genesis of which vocalist Russell Mael remembers with both anxiety and relief: ‘We sold everything we had and moved to England, not knowing what to do if it hadn’t worked. Fortunately Ron had a wet Sunday afternoon in Clapham Junction and wrote “This Town”’.

Whilst apocryphal tales of generational conflict playing out amongst the domestic audience of the now defunct Top of The Pops are legion, the image that Sparks presented to the British public in the Spring of 1974 – a nation still suffering the after effects of a World War that had ended almost three decades prior – was more deliciously provocative than the compounded impact of a dozen dreary ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ inquisitions. ‘Look, Yoko!’ John Lennon is said to have gleefully exclaimed upon first clapping his eyes upon the toothbrush-moustached Ron Mael, ‘Hitler’s on the telly!’ In this, as the playgrounds of the nation’s schools would immediately attest, the one-time Beatle was not alone. This Town Ain’t BIg Enough For Both Of Us, the timeless gunfighter’s provocation, was so much more than a perfunctory pop single, embodying as it did the lofty cultural highpoint of the Weimar-end of the glam spectrum, one whose chequered lineage encompassed the likes of Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel as much as it did Bryan Ferry. Its parent album, the exquisite Technicolor pop piñata that is Kimono My House is not just the finest album of the period, but quite possibly the greatest album of the 1970s; a perfect embodiment of both sparkling pop genius and shameless art rock provocation, the album with which Sparks finally transformed the initial promise of their early ventures into vaudeville Americana into a proposition of steely self-assuredness and beguiling machine-gun etiquette. Or as the teasing adult exotica of Hasta Mañana Monsieur would have it: ‘You mentioned Kant and I was shocked, so shocked / Because where I come from none of the girls have such foul tongues’. It’s a record that somewhat remarkably (not least in the minds of Island, their suitably bewildered record company) propelled the tousled curls of Russell and the arched eyebrow and asymmetric fringe of Ron into the hearts, and onto the walls of a horde of new-found teenage acolytes; the passage of time since its release underlining how the past, more than ever, is an uncompromisingly foreign country.

Perhaps unavoidably, the 1970s is often viewed as Sparks’ golden age, yet this is on the misguided premise that there was just the one. Whilst the whole of the 80s was a somewhat less stimulating, and at times patchy period for the band – I defy you to find an album whose production is more evocative of its time than 1983’s In Outer Space, one that even chucks in a duet with Jane Wiedlin for good measure – surely no decade has better proffered the lyrical stimulus that is fundamental to the Sparks experience; the brothers’ artistic progression being ultimately rooted in their desire to act as commentators on the sheer absurdity of the human condition, a role in which they continue to both revel and excel. The soft-rock pastiche Rockin’ Girls, a song that was surely destined to soundtrack the mounting detritus of a “Less Than Zero” pool party, is particularly adept at stripping away the mystique of transient teenage courtship in a way that with hindsight is both sinister and downright hilarious: ‘I hope I never have to see the doctor ’cause of you / I hope you never have to see the doctor ’cause of me’, while the title of 1986’s Shopping Mall Of Love tells you everything you need to know about Sparks’ take on Reagan-era America’s overwhelming commodification of the spirit. It is a recurring theme previously explored within the grooves of 1976’s Big Beat, its standout track Throw Her Away (And Get A New One) embodying the very worst of our culture’s emotional treachery, both then and perhaps even more so now: ‘Just like everything else in this world / time wreaks havoc on a girl / whaddya do? / whaddya do? / whatddya do?’

Much like John Peel’s well-worn assessment of The Fall being, ‘always different … always the same’, the brothers’ artistic progression – one that has periodically encompassed jazz, disco, and Mid-West mall metal – has never allowed itself to be the hostage of anything so tasteless or vulgar as fashion. For a band that in spirit, if not in fury, is as punk as it comes, it now seems odd (though typically shrewd) that they effectively opted to sit out the cull of the supposed dinosaurs only to return to the post-punk fore with a (gasp!) rollicking disco number – 1979’s shimmering Moroder-produced The Number One Song In Heaven – at a time when, to many, disco was outright box office B.O. Yet notably it is most frequently the most creative and transformative of the nascent British punk scene, the likes of Siouxsie Sioux and Julian Cope, that cite Sparks and more often than not Roxy Music as a defining artistic influence. Crucially, both acts were ultimately spared the fate of many of their contemporaries in the systematic ‘Year Zero’-style cultural purges that formed a primary tenet of that scene. Sparks are nothing if not resilient, they cannot be killed by conventional weapons. Punk is dead, whereas Sparks are most certainly not.

In 2009, Sparks typically defied all artistic logic and commercial reason in releasing the breathtakingly lavish pop opera, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman. Its underlying theme, the often chasm-like divide between American and European culture and the ongoing skirmish between the purity of art and commercial demands, is textbook Sparks territory and one that they devour with both a knowing glance and a scathing wit. For a band whose relationship with ‘the system’ has been a seemingly perpetual balancing act its razor-sharp positioning of the Hollywood studio’s cultural snake-oil – ‘We’re not hicks, but we must deliver kicks’ – is especially perceptive. Straddling a range of disparate musical genres once again Bergman’s imagining of a visit to Hollywood by the outsider film director and his ‘total disdain for escapist art’ represents for many the pinnacle of the entire Mael oeuvre. Much like Sparks themselves, Bergman is ground-breaking, fearless, and at times, hilarious. As early-adopter and self-appointed super-fan Morrissey – himself the subject matter of the gently mocking Lighten Up Morrissey – once quipped, ‘Ron and Russell Mael always knew what they were doing. Which is precisely why they never laughed’.

At first she said your call is very important to us, then she said please, please hold

In their sublime chronicling of the inanities of contemporary living, Sparks remain as relevant in the 21st century as they did in the early 1970s – I challenge you to find a more fitting contemporary anthem than the homage to listlessness and urban ennui that is Dick Around (see clip below). In many ways they always were 21st century, 19th century too; forever ahead of their time, but equally conscious of their unique role and place within the lineage of pop history. Their love of pop music forever compromised by what they openly acknowledge to be the absurdity of the cultural territory within which they operate (see the measured yet laugh-out-loud invective that is What Are These Bands So Angry About?). Yet theirs is a craft finely honed on the anvil of the human condition and with meticulous artistic tools sharpened over both time and experience. Or as the words of Amateur Hour positions it: ‘It’s a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start off to be Yehudi Menuhin’.

Sparks can, though. Sparks can do anything. Anything they want.

Sparks official website

Sparks biography (iTunes)

Craig Austin (@TheCraigAustin) is an Associate Editor of Wales Arts Review which re-launches on April 10th.

TopperPost #421

4 Comments

  1. Merric Davidson
    Mar 13, 2015

    Have to agree with everything Craig writes about Kimono My House, definitely one of the very great records of the 70s. Back then I used to cut out and keep album reviews slipping them inside the sleeve. Ian MacDonald’s wonderful lengthy literary review of Kimono in the NME in May 1974 still sits there inside my LP, the review ends: “By all means get your copy of Diamond Dogs, but don’t be fooled, Kimono My House is the real breakthrough. I think you’re gonna love it.” I loved it to bits. Loved Propaganda later too (At home at work, Thanks but no thanks, Never turn your back…) and Indiscreet definitely had its moments but I guess I fell out of love with them for a while after that. I’d like to thank Craig though for making me fall in love with the Maels music again – a crash course in their incredibly diverse and prolific output, particularly the extraordinary Seduction of Ingmar Bergman which had just passed me by completely. It’s just brilliant.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 14, 2015

    Craig, thanks for this great list on a fine band. But I would have to have ‘Lighten Up Morrissey’, if just for the title…

  3. David Lewis
    Mar 14, 2015

    In the early days of Queen, the Mael brothers approached Brian May to join Sparks. So instead of a ‘what! no?’, because the list is too good, I’ve presented a ‘What if?’ …

  4. Nairn Davidson
    Apr 7, 2015

    Barbecutie tramples on some in this ten, along with Beat The Clock. Love the way Sparks never compromised, never went with the flow. Top chaps!

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