Sparks Destroy Conventional Pop Music

posted Thursday Aug 3rd, 2006

Sparks are one of the last true musical anomalies. How else could such quirky and boundless compositions make the leap from drawing board to major label, and include such strangely alluring characters with groundbreaking moustaches, if it wasn't for the fertile musical timeframe of the late 1960s? Starting off as Halfnelson in 1969, Ron and Russel Mael drew from a theatrically aggressive and overly creative musical angle that was just downright unprecedented in the day and age. Unfortunately, they had quite the hard road ahead of them to attempt to turn the bloated heads of the hippified and burned-out California music scene. Responding to an ad posted by the Mael brothers, Earle Mankey (who later went on to produce and/or engineer countless bands like the Mumps, the Quick, Weirdos, 20/20, Helen Reddy, The Pop, and many others) and his brother Jim, quickly fell into place on guitar and bass, adding a solid rock foundation to the rapidly developing dynamic sound. On one hand, you had the fluttering falsettos and wispy melodies, and then on the other you had a subdued and ugly riff keeping it in line, but all enveloped in a unique operatic delivery. Their debut self-titled LP in 1971 was met with a consistent undue enthusiasm and the album sank fast, despite the numerous benchmarks in modern pop music it harbored in it's grooves. It's this same sound, produced with the help of Todd Rundgren, that later made lots of other bands famous (primarily Queen), but the fledgling band in the early 70s clearly had everyone in tune with pop music on their toes, watching their next move.


New management suggested the name change to Sparks, and their breakthrough single, "Wonder Girl" in 1972 helped land them an oddly placed appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, much to the chagrin of confused teenagers across the country. A few months later, the band set it's sights on Europe and embarked on a string of very well-received gigs which included more than a few TV appearances and fans were quickly won over by their darkly witty yet delirious pop arrangements. Returning to the States to see the release of their acclaimed second LP for Bearsville, A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, just caused more headaches and cancelled singles and tours were proving all the more disappointing. At this point, an unbelievable offer by Island Records for Sparks to return to England sounded better than ever.

Earle and Jim Mankey stayed behind and the search for new band members was on. The Maels took in all the sounds of the English glam explosion, notably the Sweet and Roxy Music, and scoured the ranks for potential. With the incredible patience and support of Island Records and their manager, John Hewlett, Ron & Russell started working on their epic Kimono My House album, and recruited the rough and flashy guitar stylings of the Jook's Trevor White (check out his scorching solo track "Crazy Kids" from the Glitterbest compilation) and Chris Townson. Both White and Townson later joined the also highly recommended JET with Andy Ellison, previously of John's Children. Other attempts were made by numerous UK underground luminaries like Paul Rudolph of the Pink Fairies and Warren Cann, later with Ultravox, to no avail. Locking down the Kimono My House album and it's single, "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us," they had a hit on their hands, this time in a land where it was cool to be weird. Weird indeed, as the the year 1974 proved to be pivotal to Sparks as their appearance on the highly visible Top of the Pops show was the catalyst in securing their rightful place in British pop royalty. Classic albums Indiscreet and Propaganda soon followed, and the brothers sailed off into the abyss of success, albeit only really in the UK and Europe.

The rest of the decade proved the Maels correct in their ever changing state of innovation, and despite their constant lack of appeal in the US, they remained of legendary status to the fledgling underground acts of the mid-to-late 70s in the UK and Europe still to this day. They continued on through the synthetic 80s and electric 90s as gods overseas, and yet with little domestic notice, finally reconfiguring themselves back to the original two core members. In the late 90s however, critical accolades started springing up reaffirming Sparks of the depth of their own influence, and reintroducing a whole new generation to their beautifully bizarre world.

Fast forward to 2005, and with a whole new batch of reissued recordings and three generations of fans, the Mael brothers found themselves signing with long-respected independent underground rock label, In The Red for their 20th studio album, Hello Young Lovers. Their legend was alive again with renewed interest in the band, and they even recruited Redd Kross bassist Steve McDonald for their latest tour, solidifying their rightful place in underground history and drawing new fans from all directions. In The Red's success with the new album will culminate with the release of the "Dick Around" single that features one unreleased new live track from May 2006 on the 7" version, and three unreleased live tracks PLUS two music videos, and an interview conducted by Sex Pistols' Steve Jones, on the enhanced CDEP version. Look for it soon, and check out a vintage Sparks clip from Musikladen here...

and "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" on Top of The Pops 1974

and from their new album, Hello Young Lovers, "Dick Around"