Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’S Of Rock – S

“This blog ain’t big enough for the both of us”
Sparks – Part One
The best band you may have never heard. 22  studio albums. Formed in 1968 and still active to this day. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael are the nucleus and a cast of hundreds have helped them on their long “Rollercoaster” journey. They are a tough band to define in that they have experimented with almost all forms of modern music, often very ahead of the curve. Russell is the flamboyant falsetto-voiced front man and Ron is the silent, well dressed (except for the Chaplin meets Hitler moustache) keyboardist and chief songwriter. They have had brilliant highs and some questionable lows but are still the band I reach out to when I need a lift. A check of my most played songs on my iPod will attest to that. Here we go, Sparks Part One.
The Early Years – Halfnelson/Sparks/A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing
The first two Sparks albums released in 1971 and 1972. Actually, the first album was called “Halfnelson” by the group Halfnelson and then the group became Sparks and changed the album title to “Sparks”. In the process they changed record companies (Bearsville to Warner Brothers) and changed the artwork on the cover. This is not the place to begin your Sparks quest. Although the humourous lyrical elements are clearly in place the band had still not found their magic sound. The first record was produced by Todd Rundgren and contained the very minor “hit” “Wonder Girl” and a couple of other keepers. At this point the group consisted of  the brothers Mael  along with the Mankey brothers Earle and Jim and Harley Feinstein on drums. They seemed to be trying to sound quirky for the sense of being quirky. After leaving the band Earle Mankey would go on to release a great single “Mau Mau” on Greg Shaw’s Bomp! Label and ending up producing records for The Long Ryders, The Runaways and Concrete Blonde. The release of these two records did take the Mael brothers to England and it was there that they began to cultivate a following. Their daring cover of The Sound Of Music’s “Do Ri Me” would become an early fan favourite. Although these two records have their moments they highlights can be found on a couple of Greatest Hits releases.
Top Of The Pops! – Kimono My House/Propaganda
In England Ron and Russell ditched the old band and replaced them with Brits Martin Gordon, Adrian Fisher and drummer extraordinaire Dinky Diamond. They signed with Island Records and brought in Muff Winwood to produce “Kimono My House” (they originally had wanted Roy Wood). With Ron taking over as the main songwriter the band soon found its niche mixing rock with Russell’s falsetto and Ron’s twisted lyrics. This was the first of their many brilliant album titles and covers. The timing was perfect for the odd pair as glam was overtaking the U.K. and all the standard rules were being thrown out. Much like Sparks, Roxy Music were making quirky keyboard driven music and, the Mael brother’s very distinct images made them the darlings of the “flavour of the month” British press. Somehow “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” rocketed up the U.K. charts to number two and the boys were stars. Here is a classic from 1974 with a great intro by a couple of drummers you might recognize. .
The second single “Amateur Hour” also charted and the boys were fast becoming stars in England. “Talent Is An Asset”, which employed the trick of individually introducing instruments as the song progressed (think “The Intro & The Outro” by The Bonzos or “Memphis Soul Stew” from King Curtis), may be the only song ever written about the family of Albert Einstein. That was the song that enamoured me to the band forever.
 The band started to get some traction in North America and performed on such shows as “The Midnight Special”, “In Concert” and “Don  Kirshner’s Rock Concert” (our answer to videos at the time).  The U.K. press was all over them and they began to appear in the U.S. based rock rags.
With Muff at the helm once again they headed back in to the studio later that year and recorded “Propaganda“ which is their “Revolver“ answer to “Kimono‘s“ “Rubber Soul“.
How many groups have the audacity to open  an album with a 22 second a cappella  song that sounds like the Munchkins from the Wizard Of Oz? They sing of pedophiles in “Thanks But Not Thanks” and then balance that with a song like “Achoo”. Neko Case covered  the ballad “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” on her 2009 “Middle Cyclone” album. Another classic album and cover.
The Next Step -Indiscreet/Big Beat
Although may would disagree, Sparks next album, the 1975 Tony Visconti produced  “Indiscreet”, was their masterpiece (and best album cover). The lyrics were some of Ron’s best ever from “Tits” (a drunk man discovers his best friend is having an affair with his wife, shortly after the birth of their first child), “Hospitality On Parade” (The pilgrims take over America) and “It Ain’t 1918’ (conformity or else). The musical styles are all over the map with rock, swing, fiddle, strings and everything but the kitchen sink thrown into the mix.
It was around this time that Sparks appeared in Toronto for the first time at Massey Hall. Even without radio play the band packed the old Shuter Street hall. Opening the show that night were local favourites Brutus with the great Walter Zwol. They would return the next year to Seneca where the opened for Patti Smith in one of the greatest double-bills ever. My date that night would later go on to be immortalized in the song “Sweet Thing” by Goddo.
The next album was “Big Beat” which was the band’s most straight ahead rock record and contained classics such as ’White Women”, “I Bought The Mississippi River” and “Everybody’s Stupid”.  The band performed in the very cheesy movie “Rollercoaster” . Starring George Segal and Timothy Bottoms the movie was the first major film credit for a very young Helen Hunt. I went to the theatre to see it and only remember the portion with Sparks.
“Introducing Sparks” was next up in 1977 and it was the first real letdown from the band (and what the hell were they thinking of with that album cover?). A couple of decent songs but nothing to write home about. A quantum shift was coming.
Disco Hits – No 1. In Heaven/Terminal Jive
After the lack of success of the previous three albums Sparks dropped their standard rock line-up, hooked up with  producers Giorgio Moroder  and  drummer/producer Keith Forsey and experimented in the avant-garde sythn-driven disco which exploded out of Europe. They enjoyed club and chart success with “The Number One Song In Heaven” and “Beat The Clock” both from the “No. 1 In Heaven” album. In 1980 they followed this album with “Terminal Jive” once again with Moroder, joined this time by Harold Faltermeyer. This would be their Jerry Lewis album as it spawned a huge hit in France with “When I’m With You”. The record was not released in the U.S.. Can’t say I was a big fan of this era although “Beat The Clock” still stands the test of time.
Welcome Back – Whomp That Sucker/Angst In My Pants
Sticking with Moroder, but returning to a standard rock line-up, the band recorded “Whomp That Sucker” which was a welcome return to form. “Tips For Teens” was one of the best songs they ever recorded and “Funny Face” harkened back to the sound of “Propaganda”.  Using virtually the same line-up the band recorded “Angst In My Pants” which finally returned them to the U.S. charts with the single “I Predict”. “Mickey Mouse” and “Sextown U.S.A.”  proved the band could still write witty pop.
Next week. Sparks hook up with a Go-Go, have a hit single, cover themselves and seduce Ingmar Bergman, and release another 11 albums.
Go to our site later this week and you can help yourself to the exclusive new compilation album from Denmark’s Alcoholic Faith Mission. Taken from the best of their first three studio albums this is the perfect introduction to the band that is often compared to Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire. We will be releasing their next studio album at the end of March and also announcing some North America dates to coincide with the event.
As always if you are in Toronto and looking for a cool rock’n’roll diner please visit our friends at Shanghai Cowgirl 538 Queen Street West. It is right beside the world famous  Bovine and around the corner from Cherry Cola’s.
Cameron’s column appears every Thursday
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Cameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener,  The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, The Daily XY and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.

One Response to “Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’S Of Rock – S”

  1. “Chicks dig metaphors” – one of my favourite lines from my favourite eccentrically brilliant songs of theirs!

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