Unpublished, June 2004
SPARKS ARE IN London to play the Meltdown Festival at Morrissey's request. Outside in the stifling heat the capitol is experiencing its own 90 degree meltdown but in the unattended bar of their Kensington hotel the Mael brothers can't get a drink.
I suggest breaking into the locked mini-bar in the corner. "Maybe we could use this" says Ron Mael in his best one-licquor-short-of-a-cocktail voice. He is gripping a tiny tea spoon in his hand. A waiter eventually arrives with a full tray. "Can I get you anything else?" he asks. "Bring me another i-Pod please" says Ron. Well one's just not enough is it?
Ron and Russell Mael are already there, patiently waiting in a cool air-conditioned alcove, when I arrive at the appointed hour. Somehow you can't imagine them being fashionably late. Unfashionably early maybe. The LA duo has spent over thirty years and nineteen albums bucking trends. They aren't about to start embracing rock and roll conformity now. Indeed their most recent album, Lil' Beethoven, is arguably their most groundbreaking to date. Their Meltdown patron Morrissey has asked them to perform their classic 1974 glam-opus Kimono My House in its entirety at the Festival Hall. Ron Mael, a man not given to excessive nostalgia, has insisted they be allowed to perform Lil' Beethoven too.
"Morrissey really clutches into that period of ours" notes Ron. "But the way we can continue for so long on a strong musical path is to deny that period. Not put it down musically but –"
"Not even denying just that period as such" interrupts Russell, "but denying all the past."
Although painfully aware of my journalistic obligation to mention Charlie Chaplin and Hitler at least once in this feature it has to be said that Ron, trim in a tight black suit for our interview, would pass as a slightly more sinister looking version of film maker John Waters these days. Russell, in casual black t-shirt and jeans is also looking obscenely fit for a fifty-something. Time has taken little toll on his youthful features, and as the Festival Hall show reveals, he still has one of the great pop falsettos.
Musical life for the Maels began in California in 1969 with a band called Halfnelson and a crudely recorded demo-tape version of what would later become the eponymous first Sparks album. In 1972 Todd Rundgren got them signed to Bearsville and produced their debut. Russell repaid the debt by copping off with Todd's girlfriend, Bebe Buelle. A second Bearsville album, A Woofer In Tweeters Clothing, followed in 1973. Listening to these early try-outs now it's obvious that many of the bands unique elements are already in place. Russell's fluttering higher register. Ron's dysfunctional worldview. The glam-gothic heroics. The seedy grandeur. The warped take on show-tunes. All it lacks is a little fine tuning.
If the band had split up in 1973 those two Bearsville albums would now be cult classics. Rodney Bingenheimer would have been obligated to open a Sunset Strip club called Sparks and tracks like 'Wonder Girl' and 'Whippings And Apologies' would have been all over the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack like a glitter rash.
In 1973 Sparks came to England for the first time. Offering themselves as sacrificial glamour boys to the tomb like acoustics of The Old Grey Whistle Test, they performed two of the stand out tracks from the Bearsville albums, 'Girls From Germany' and 'No More Mister Nice Guys'. The tape has long since been wiped but Russell still remembers Bob Harris's less than enthusiastic reaction. "He said something to the effect that we were a cross between Bobby Vee and The Mothers of Invention" the singer recalls. "We thought that sounded great, but I think it was being used in a derogatory way." Harris may have been as famously sniffy about Sparks' Whistle Test appearance as he was about The New York Dolls 'mock rock' but the music industry sat up and took notice. "The reaction was so beyond anything we had encountered in the States" says Russell. "We were playing the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles for six cocktail waitresses. We went from that to a residency at the Marquee for four straight weeks. One tv show and suddenly there's a line around the block."
Quickly signed to Island, the record company made it clear that they only wanted the Mael brothers which meant saying bye-bye to fellow founder members, brothers Earle and Jim Manky, and hello to a whole new combo. Ads were placed. Auditions were held. Eventually a powerhouse trio of Adrian Fisher (guitar) Martin Gordon (bass) and Dinky Diamond (drums) was assembled. During rehearsals in the winter of 1973 the new recruits got an early indication of the Maels attention to detail when guitarist Fisher lit a cigarette and in time honoured rockist fashion stuck it in the end of a guitar string. The Maels made it abundantly clear that they weren't that kind of band. They didn't look like that kind of band either. Preppy in an age before Thrift shops introduced the UK high street to fifties nostalgia, the Maels were about as far from the early seventies denim and boogie blueprint as you could get. Of their contemporaries only Roxy Music looked and sounded as defiantly out of kilter with prevailing norms. In April 1974 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us' took them to number two in the charts. The classic Kimono My House followed a month later.
By 1974 there were abundant reasons to ignore the trash aesthetic. Popular music was getting so damned intelligent for starters and Kimono My House was just one in a long line of smart mid-seventies albums. Consider if you will the first three Roxy albums, Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets. Conceptual Bowie. Todd. 10cc. Pretzel Logic. Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom. The new wave underground axis of Ayers-Nico-Cale-Eno that had its valediction (and validation) at the Rainbow Theatre concert on June 1st. Hindsight and ruthless genre-fication may have subsequently sifted these artifacts into their seperate market categories but to anyone searching for an alternative to glam schlock at the time they all represented, in their sophisticated forsaking of fake primitivism and contrived innocence, a direct recognition that the sixties were well and truly over.
"We always considered ourselves instrumentally quite able, but the idea of flaunting that seemed part of the rock aesthetic rather than the pop aesthetic" says Ron. "In rock the song was just a basic opening to show how good you were on the instrument. Whereas we liked the glamour aspect and screaming girls too. Also we thought we were good enough but didn't have to show it. We knew we could play but didn't see why that had to be in the forefront all the time".
Fusing classic pop-sensibilities with a knowing sense of sophistication, Kimono was as inventive as anything else around at the time. Behind that inscrutable demeanour Ron Mael was a man capable of epigrammatic wit of Wildean proportions, whether toasting the vainglorious narrator of 'Falling In Love With Myself Again' ("I bring home the bacon/I eat it myself/here's to my health") or reducing talent to its essential truism in 'Amateur Hour' ("its a lot like playing the violin/we cannot all grow up to be Yehudi Menuin.") Rons lyrics were full of sudden narrative twists and surreal flights of fantasy. On the albums closing track, 'Equator', a guy arranges to meet his girl on the Equator but forgets to specify where. As his desperation increases ("all of the gifts are now melted or dead") Equator turns into the ultimate metaphor for not connecting. 'Here in Heaven', is the story of a suicide pact that goes wrong; he jumps, she doesn't. Five years before David Byrne suggested that heaven was a place "where nothing ever happens" here was a songs protagonist bemoaning the fact that his partner will be having a better time of it down on earth. By the final verse there's a suspicion that she engineered the entire thing to get this jerk off her back.
We'd probably call it post modern playfulness now but when Ron Mael started advocating in interviews that he was trying to write songs made entirely of hooks there was simply no pop precedent. At the height of their glam-era fame, the Maels went on the Radio One show My Top 12 to play their all time favourite records. They concluded their selection with a hilariously inept budget label cover version of 'This Town Ain't Big Enough'. Thirty years on, they remain, with the possible exception of Kate Bush, the act least likely to be inspire cover versions in the entire history of pop.
Having released albums entitled Kimono My House, Angst In My Pants, and Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, Rons eyes light up when asked whether Sparks have ever gone a pun too far. "It takes bravery to use puns" he declares proudly. "It's considered such a low form of the usage of words. I like the idea that its frowned upon. I like the idea of flaunting it. So much of what's considered quality lyric writing is either indecipherable or revealing about personal experience, but if you can just get right down and have a pun in there that sets the day off right!" "Or if not a pun, then at least a cliche," opines Russell.
On the follow up album Propaganda, rush released just five months after Kimono, the best songs are as good as anything on its predecessor. Trouble is there are only four of them, the hook-filled 'At Home, At Work, At Play' and 'Something For The Girl With Everything', the paranoid pleading of 'Don't Leave Me Alone With Her', and the sublime 'Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth', which, shamefully, didn't even make the UK Top 10 when released as the follow up single to 'Amateur Hour'. Unfortunately Propaganda also contains barrel scrappers like 'Achoo', a song about sneezing, and 'BC', which concerns a couple called Aaron and Betty who have a child called Charlie ("so the neighbours sing hooray for ABC")
Ron concedes that the post-Kimono period was difficult. "There was always the pressure of 'where is 'This Town'? Are you going to come up with another of those?' Indiscrete was a reaction to that. Trying to bring in other instruments and arrangements and getting away from the band format."
1975's Indiscreet merely compounded the loss of momentum. The big band beat and faux flapper-jazz of 'Get In The Swing' and 'Looks, Looks, Looks' cranked up the irritation factor and what had sounded innovative two years earlier now started to sound like parody. And a parody of Sailor at that. The England adventure was over. In 1976 Sparks went back to LA, where after the Rupert Holmes produced Big Beat album, and the lame attempt to gain US radio play that was Introducing Sparks, they did what any conceptually smart west-coaster would have done in the wake of Rumours and Hotel California. They started making European disco music with Georgio Moroder. "We were trying to find another format to work in because we didn't know if we could come up with yet another fresh album working within a band context" remembers Russell. "And then we heard Donna Summers 'I Feel Love'.
They contacted Moroder and asked him if he would produce them. "He'd never worked with a band before" says Russell. "He was one of those svengali types who takes a singer and puts that into a new framework. But the album was a real collaboration between the three of us." No 1 in Heaven welded Moroders motorik pulse to bizarrities like 'Tryouts For The Human Race' and 'Beat The Clock' and gave the band a new lease of life. "You couldn't really place where that album was coming from" says Russell. "My vocal style took it away from having the pejorative taste of disco music. It still had a pop band sensibility but with dance rhythms." Sparks were back on Top Of The Pops again, but due to their propensity for building albums in the studio without regard to live performance they never toured the No 1 in Heaven album. In fact they weren't to play live in the UK again until 1994. In the 1980's the UK forgot all about Sparks.
"It's a bizarre situation" concedes Ron. "We have these weird decade holes in different continents. During the eighties we had most of our success in the States. We did Saturday Night Live, a lot of tours. It's the one decade where we're almost unknown in Europe, but it's the one that America knows us best for. K-Rock latched onto the Womp That Sucker album and that made us one of the biggest bands in LA."
"No one had a clue what 'This Town' was. They thought we were a brand new band" says Russell. "That song just died when we played it in Los Angeles" agrees Ron. "We had to eliminate all of the English songs. 'Amateur Hour'. 'At Home At Work At Play'. All these songs that were just crowd killers in England in the seventies."
Although the band were absent from the UK during the eighties their musical legacy was everywhere, from The Boomtown Rats to The Associates, from the B52's to Devo. Try not to hold it against them but they probably kick-started Power Pop too. And while we're at it, listen to Morrisseys 'Ouija Board'. Now imagine Russell singing it. It's easy if you try. The Mael brothers are not unaware of their influence. "Sometimes its not even the sound" says Russell. "It's a sensibility. And it's a different sensibility through different eras. Morrissey really liked the Island albums period. Then there's the synth duo bands that liked No 1 in Heaven. Then there's Franz Ferdinand who we just met in Los Angeles. It turns out that they are really big fans of the band and would like to collaborate with us. We've just collaborated with Orbital on their final album. It all depends on where you came in to the story. Different people from different eras pick up on different things about us. Joey Ramone was a good friend of ours and he was a big fan, and if you think of 'Number One Song in Heaven' you wouldn't necessarily think of Joey Ramone. New Order covered 'When I'm With You' on a live album, and that's as near as we get to MOR. It's a soft pleasant song and it was a really big hit in France but then New Order play it and it takes on a different life."
Sparks finally returned to England in 1994, and released their first new album in six years, and their first UK release in eight. Gratuituous Sax And Senseless Violins revealed a fresh dance music sensibility and showcased their first great song in over a decade, 'When Do I Get To Sing My Way'. The Balls album, released in 2000 consolidated the Mael's individualistic take on electronica. Then in 2002 came L'il Beethoven. Elevated by anthemic orchestral flourishes and an undiminished sense of pop-heroics, Ron's wordplay and perspective on modern mores were now stripped to their lyrical essence.
"We had an album of songs already written that had evolved from the Balls album previously" says Ron, "but partly for self preservation we felt like we had to do something that was a radical departure, so we decided to scrap those songs. We were even at the point of not calling it a Sparks album".
The album began life with a remix for a small German label – "this little Bavarian art project" says Ron – showcasing celebrity football announcer, Gunter Koch. This led to a track called 'Wunderbar'. "We put his voice over an orchestral thing. It was repetitive and really aggressive and this was the seed of Li'l Beethoven. We thought maybe there's a way to expand on this general idea."
The other big influence on the album was the brothers love of rap. "We really like hip-hop music even though there's more cliche's now than there's ever been in that area" says Ron. "We wanted to use vocals over a background that isn't just loops, which is kind of mined out as far as we're concerned"
Tracks like 'How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall' ("practice man , practice") reveal the bands unrepentant love of the well honed cliche, while 'I Married Myself' ("this time it's gonna last") evokes an unbroken line of thematic continuity that goes back to Kimono's 'Falling In Love With Myself Again'. 'Suburban Homeboy', with his girlfriend "from the projects of St Tropez" shows that they've lost none of their observational sharpness. "It was written out of affection" maintains Ron. "It's too easy to take a target like that and say 'here's a protest song against that kind of thing'. I really do like that culture. There isn't any vitriol. It isn't satirical."
What about 'Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls'? Surely that's more vitriolic? "It is, but it's couched by being said by Russell's character. The song isn't making that statement. The character who has had that experience is making that statement".
"I like the fact that that song is overly detailed" muses Russell, neatly summarising the brothers raison d'etre. "It's too long in its narrative. It's seven minutes of elocution about this situation. You didn't need to know all of that but we thought we'd tell you even more than you needed to know."
Ladies and gentlemen I give you Sparks. The band that tells you more than you ever needed to know.
© Rob Chapman, 2004