Ahhh, to be Sparks in 1974. The duo of Russell and Ron Mael have spent their career, spanning 46 years and counting, constantly reinventing themselves and showing off new guises. Through it all they’ve done albums that were great, some that were not-so-great, and some that were just okay. They’ve had their share of commercial successes and dry spells. They’ve innovated and they’ve borrowed. But 1974 was the year where everything went right.
Sparks formed in 1968 in L.A. as Halfnelson, but formally changed their name in 1972. At this point the band was a 5-piece; the Maels, Earle Mankey and his brother James, plus drummer Harley Feinstein. They attracted the attention of Todd Rundgren who produced their first album, a fascinating slice of oddball and sarcastic pop. But neither that nor follow-up A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing managed to sell much, so the Maels ditched the band and flew out to the UK in order to join the burgeoning glam scene. It was an odd and reckless move, but in retrospect the best one of their career.
For in the UK, Sparks struck gold – here they recruited a new band, consisting of Martin Gordon, Adrian Fisher, and Norman Diamond. More importantly, they’d found an audience, they found inspiration, and they found their sound. From here out, the Maels would be the band’s focus; certainly, they were the standout members before, but their first two albums did have songwriting contributions from the Mankeys, and all five members appeared in band photos. And why not – they had loads of songwriting talent, looked like models, and gave the band a unique identity. You had Russell, with wild long hair, a flamboyant stage manner, and an incredible falsetto (sometimes even approaching the Klaus Nomi zone!), leading those who only heard the band via radio to believe he actually was a woman. Then you had keyboardist Ron, who was nearly the opposite; with short, neatly trimmed hair and a moustache, who was reserved, and subtle (the letters on his Roland were rearranged to spell RONALD, which is actually the thing that made me fall for the band in the first place, before I’d heard any of their music).
Ron was also the band’s principal songwriter, and he was on a roll when ’74 rolled around (so much so that Kimono was only the first of two excellent albums released that year). Ron has a unique gift for songwriting; his music can be hyperactive and goofy, it can be punchy and massive, or it can be symphonic and complex. Sometimes, it’s all of these things at once. Even more notable sometimes are his lyrics – often by turns cruel, sarcastic, and dirty, but nearly always hilarious. Just look at some of the subjects here – Romeo lamenting the fact that Juliet chickened out of their suicide pact (“Here in Heaven”), a man trying to land a foreign woman despite not figuring out what language she speaks (“Hasta Mañana, Monsieur”), hating the holidays because they prevent you from being degenerate (“Thank God It’s Not Christmas”), or why you ought to lose your virginity to someone who is experienced and willing to give feedback (“Amateur Hour”).
Of course, this is par for the course when it comes to Sparks; their lyrics are always great. What is a little unique for them is finding such a consistent and special sound. Kimono My House does not exactly pull any special tricks – there are a few strings and saxes here and there, and there are some multitracked vocals, but about 95% of this could’ve been performed live by the 5-piece band. Still, they don’t quite sound like anyone else; they come out with guns blazing (literally, as it turns out), with a hard-hitting, guitar-heavy sound that pounds and bashes through nearly every song (the sultry closer “Equator” is sort of an exception).
The main difference between Sparks and any other glam rock band were of course the Maels themselves. Ron’s keyboards are not exactly front-and-center as they’d usually be, but they do feel like they’re in the driver’s seat. He either plays full melody lines or just bangs on a chord or two for a while, but it’s clear that most of these songs were first composed there. The music is often brash and unsubtle, but there’s a classical element to all of this; you could play all of this with just piano if you had the chops. As such it’s difficult to figure out exactly what genre this is; it’s catchy and fun like pop, layered and symphonic like prog, wild and flamboyant like glam. That of course is where Russell comes in; his voice is powerful and rather extreme, as he remains in falsetto through the entire album. Combined with the carnival-esque keyboards it really makes their music stand apart from everything else; Sparks are a love-it-or-hate-it sort of band and they never tried to reign in their goofiness.
This, by the way, should have been a godsend in 1974. At the time the charts were full of dreary, midtempo pop songs, and critically respected groups like King Crimson and Genesis were starting to put out dead-serious opuses like Red and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It must’ve been a shock to hear such a fun, heavy, balls-out album like this in the midst of it (I will point out that similar tactics worked for Van Halen four years later). Audiences responded in kind; “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” (UK #2) and “Amateur Hour” (UK #7) both got significant radio play.
I have no idea if anyone considered these guys to be gimmicky at the time. After all, you wouldn’t exactly hear a lot of falsetto and carnival organ in those days (you don’t now either, but there are certainly fewer stones left to turn in 2014). And you certainly wouldn’t know what to think of Ron’s dangerously short moustache – we don’t even know what to do with Michael Jordan’s today (I think Ron wears it better). Still, Sparks are so obviously brilliant on this one that you can really forgive them for just about anything. 40 years later, Kimono is a staple on “All Time Top-25” and “Best of the 70s” lists; it’s full of personality and every song is genius, and most importantly it still feels relevant today. It sounds way too advanced and clean to be from the mid-70’s; like Roxy Music, listening to it the first time now should inspire a pretty strong “so THAT’s where it all came from” reaction. A lot of bands certainly took notice; most immediately you have Queen, who nicked a fair bit from Kimono. Later on the dancier and goofier elements to their music would manifest themselves in the Pet Shop Boys and Mr. Bungle, respectively. Layer a bunch of their songs on top of each other and you have Cardiacs. Feed them into a MIDI controller and you get Max Tundra. Overdrive the guitars and add the word “party” and you’ll get Andrew W.K. And so on.
Sadly, things started to fall apart quickly. As great as the Maelmen were, it was the band of Gordon, Fisher, and Diamond that really turned them into something special, and apparently Gordon was too much of a showman for the Mael’s tastes. They went on without him and released the maginificent Propaganda in the same year, which was also a success (including “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and “Something For the Girl With Everything”, still two of the band’s best singles). Fisher would leave for 1975’s Indiscreet, which was all over the map anyway, and by the time of 1976’s Big Beat the group was Russell and Ron plus session musicians, and they really sounded like it too. Neither that or the subsequent Introducing Sparks (quite a clever title for a band’s 7th album, that) charted, nor did they receive very good reviews. That said, all these albums are worth a listen; Ron’s songwriting muse had not exactly left him, and there are good songs on all of them.
Alas, that’s just the nature of Sparks. There’s no telling what could’ve been had the Kimono band stuck together, but you could imagine that No. 1 in Heaven, their excellent collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, probably wouldn’t have happened if they had. For better or worse, that’s Sparks, a couple of old dogs constantly in search of new tricks, and somehow they seem to keep finding them. When it looked like the songwriting well had finally dried up, they wrote “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'”, their best single in about 15 years. When Balls showed them to be more comfortable as followers rather than leaders, they released Li’l Beethoven, a nearly unclassifiable album full of orchestral arrangements, densely layered vocals, and almost no drums whatsoever, a hell of a leap for a band known for dance music. Lately they’ve written a musical (The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman) and released Two Hands, One Mouth, their first time playing as just a duo, and their first official live album, 42 years after the first studio one.