Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: Sparks

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday, our weekly tribute to the rainbow and glitter world of music produced by artistes who are simply fabulous darling. This week, nervously risking a serious smiting from the great vengeance and furious anger of Molly…

…we take a look at Sparks – the iconic American duo comprised of the brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael; and –  full disclosure here – I am a hopeless devotee. And so, without further ado, let’s get this Friday’s entertainment underway – in a thoroughly appropriate manner – with a jolly good dick around…

The Mael brothers grew up in Los Angeles County, California, both attended UCLA, Ron studying cinema and graphic art and Russell, theatre and film making. Describing themselves as Anglophiles, early musical influences included Syd Barrett, the Kinks and the Move.

Using the name “Urban Renewal Project” they began their recording career in 1967. Little of those early recordings have seen the light of day, however, in ’68, now calling themselves “Halfnelson”,  they came to the attention of producer and musician Todd “todger” Rundgren, who was sufficiently impressed with the brothers’ art-rock sound to began lobbying record labels on their behalf. As a result, Ron and Russell landed their first recording deal and their eponymous first album was first released in 1971.

This debut is a patchy affair and didn’t bother record store tills in any significant way. However, when re-released in ’72, with both album and brothers Mael now called Sparks, it did somewhat better and produced their very first (and very minor) hit single, the cheesily poptastic “Wonder Girl”. It is not a career highlight.

Their second album, “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing” was a far more coherent release and generated a fair bit of interest in Europe. It landed Sparks a tour of the UK, a residency at the Marquee Club, an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a record deal with Island Records and the start of a significant and fiercely loyal cult following.

Wisely, they did not waste this momentum. Relocating to the UK in ’73, the band quickly recruited a new UK-based backing band and promptly recorded their breakthrough (and utterly magnificent) third album “Kimono My House”. It was this album. released in 1974, with its monster hit single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” that propelled Sparks into the big time.

Suddenly Sparks were a teen sensation, with sold out shows and regular appearances on Top Of The Pops. No less a musical giant (and Puffin favourite) than the mighty Morrissey has named Kimono My House as one of “his favourite LPs of all time”; and the eminently sensible and entirely level-headed Björk has described Kimono my House as one of the records “that changed her life”. This 1974 album was my introduction to the band and it has remained a lifelong favourite. And if, by the way, you think I’m exaggerating with my “teen sensation” comment from above, take a look at this live performance from 1975, with Russell getting a proper mauling from the young ‘uns.

The follow-up albums, Propaganda and Indiscreet were similarly successful and produced the hit singles “Looks, Looks, Looks”, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and “Something for the Girl with Everything”. During this period, Sparks also began the gain a substantial following back in the US.

However, by 1976, Ron and Russell felt their writing and performances were stuck in a rut. They decided to return to US, began recording with a new bunch of musicians and produced the albums “Big Beat” and “Introducing Sparks”. These albums deploy a much broader, west coast sound palette, and certainly have some fine moments, but musically, listening to these albums today, it’s hard to disagree with the opinion that Sparks were treading water.

By 1977 the brothers found themselves at a crossroad, feeling they had gone as far as they could using the musical framework of a traditional rock band. Once again, they felt the musical landscape of Europe was calling to them. The attraction this time was the work of Italian composer and producer, Giorgio Moroder. Dubbed the “Godfather of Disco”, Moroder is now regarded as a hugely influential pioneer of electronic disco and pop music. At the time he was a cutting edge producer who Sparks admired greatly. Moroder produced two highly successful albums with the band: “No.1 In Heaven” and “Terminal Jive”. The former of these two albums has the classic Moroder DNA running right through it. Initially, panned by critics, the album sold very well and eventually became the band’s most successful and influential album since Kimono My House.

Terminal Jive, the second of these two Moroder albums, is an odd affair. The euro-disco feel is still present, but there is also a return to the earlier rock band format and the introduction of New Wave elements. This mix of styles does not sit comfortably with me and it’s an album with which I struggle. Interestingly, Harold Faltermeyer, the German producer and composer responsible for the deeply irritating “Axel F” (the main theme for the movie Beverly Hills Cop) was later claimed to be the primary producer of this album. I find that suggestion very easy to believe.

Sparks now found themselves in something of a technological bind. The studio equipment they had adopted for their new and very successful electronic sound was too cumbersome (and not sufficiently robust) for the rigours of touring and live performance. As a result, they decided to returned to a more conventional band format for touring and for their next run of studio releases. However, synthesizers, sequencers and audio processing were now very firmly in the mix and would remain a key part of the Sparks sound.

Sparks went on to release a run of albums in the ’80s that were critically well received, but it was clear the band’s profile, popularity and influence were in decline. For me it’s a period where the Mael brothers lost focus as Sparks moved from being their primary artistic endeavour to being simply one of many. Ron and Russell became involved in numerous projects including soundtracks, films, musicals, manga and many more. As a result, the quality of Sparks albums produced during this period (Whomp That Sucker, Angst In My Pants, In Outer Space, Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat, Music That You Can Dance To, Interior Design) suffered and several of these albums entirely failed to trouble the chart compilers.

However, in 1994, the Maels made a spectacular return to form with the release of “Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins” – an album as good as its title and one that propelled Sparks back into the album and single charts and saw them make a welcome return to the critical spotlight. For me, this was their best album since Kimono My House (trigger warning: the following video contains triangle playing at a professional level).

Balls, released in 2000, was a competent follow-up album that once again placed the band within the context of electronic instrumentation. However, much better was to follow with the 2002 release of the band’s magnum opus, “Lil’ Beethoven”. Critical reaction to this album was hugely positive: “best new album of 2002”, “possibly the most exciting and interesting release (from) such a long-established act” and even the somewhat hyperbolic “one of the best albums ever made”. It is a very fine album and quite possibly my favourite release by the band. If I could only have one of their albums on my desert island disc selection, this would probably be it.

February 2006 saw the release of “Hello Young Lovers”, their twentieth studio album and a very worthy follow-up to Lil’ Beethoven. Once again, this album was a critical and commercial success with its (banned by the BBC) lead single, “Dick Around” (video at the top of this article) generating yet more chart success for the band.

These two albums completely revived the commercial and critical standing of the band, and since this magnificent return-to-form Sparks have continued to release a string of very (commercially and critically) successful albums (Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, Hippopotamus, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip and The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte) and have embarked on a series of highly successful and very lucrative tours. During this period, Sparks also produced the soundtrack for the radio musical “The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman” and made a very successful return to their ’70s pop-rock roots with FFS, their collaboration with Franz Ferdinand.

Many Sparks aficionados will suggest (and this most certainly includes your humble scribe) that as good as the band’s ’70s and early ’80s works are (and some of them are really very good indeed) this later period of the band, from 1994 to present, has completely overshadowed their earlier work, and with Ron and Russell now in their mid to late 70s, it seems the critical standing of Sparks has never been higher – and long may this happy and thoroughly well deserved state of affairs continue.

We’ll round off tonight’s entertainment with a rough-and-ready audience video of FFS that captures perfectly the energy and excitement of that tour and the enthusiastic support of their surprisingly young audience (I can assure you, I felt very, very old indeed when I attended this tour…).

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s Sparktastic episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays. TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!

Featured Image:  Takahiro Kyono, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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