And the Sparks concert series is off and running

And based on yesterday’s show, this is going to be as much of a treat as everyone expected. Ron and Russell are looking and sounding in fine shape, and getting to see and hear them with their backing band for this one (Steve Macdonald from Redd Kross is once again holding down the bass with aplomb) is a joy. The live broadcast, as with most such efforts, had its glitches but though the video pauses could be a bit frustrating, the audio for the most part come through without a hitch — and hey, it’s free after all! Wisely, the quality wasn’t hyper-clean — a single-camera setup from the back of the venue with the audio recorded via said setup rather than through the soundboard — which put this all between a shaky YouTube cellphone clip and a professional DVD release, a understandable tradeoff given any formal release they might want to arrange for the future.

A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing will be in a couple of hours — bookmark the broadcast site! — and I’m looking forward to that one even more, as I think it’s a stronger and more audacious album all around. But while we wait, I’ve decided to indulge in a little project by placing up selections from the ‘director’s cut’ of my Sparks discography for Arthur magazine — however, it’s much more accurate to say that these are the initial drafts, slightly cleaned up but definitely more in a rambling mode without any initial editorial eye applied. I actually didn’t write out every entry this way to start with, and for a number of the later entries the differences between draft and final edit are minimal, so I probably won’t do it for every album in the end. There’s also a few reviews of compilations and collections which ended up being cut from the final piece due to space, so that’ll be appearing later on as well. This all said, best still to go to the actual published piece and the overall issue as a whole — as mentioned last month, my article, along with Chris Zeigler’s wonderful interview with Ron and Russell, is in the part 2 PDF — first.

Anyway, the first two entries follow!

SPARKS

Whatever demos or other work had been recorded already, it was the self-titled debut that first brought the Maels and company to the public eye – first as Halfnelson and then shortly thereafter Sparks, the name-change somewhat hilariously prompted by the band’s then manager, who as Ron Mael explained years later was convinced that Halfnelson was too esoteric, but Sparks Brothers had a ‘wacky’ edge to things. Regardless of the altered identity and the subsequent new cover for the album, the contents were the same and they were, simply put, weird. Getting Todd Rundgren’s ear via demo work turned out to be exactly the right contact – likely enough nobody else in America had both the relatively high profile plus the appreciation of demented yet still compellingly catchy pop to connect with what the Maels and their band were creating. The pop key is especially important – balanced between a whimsical fragility and a dramatic rock punch that stacks up to any proto-metal group of the era, it’s not merely the tension between the sides that makes Sparks’s first album so memorable, it’s the fact it’s so instantly enjoyable. Then as now, the Maels wanted hits lots of people could enjoy, but they just wanted them on their own terms.

And so it proved – if opening track “Wonder Girl” was legendarily only ever a hit in Montgomery, Alabama and nowhere else, it wasn’t because it couldn’t be hummed. It almost encapsulates the band’s entire history in a nutshell – the intentional use of a cliché in the title, Russell’s sweet-with-a-twist-of-sour falsetto (easily one of the most uniquely beautiful vocals in modern pop), Ron’s sprightly keyboards, and lyrics which are sunny on first blush only if you’re not listening closely. But it’s also a tour de force of production, and if, as has been said, Rundgren actually respected the band enough to let them get on with it without putting a heavy stamp on things, then at this time the entire group was using the studio beautifully – listen to the crisp hits of Harvey Feinstein’s cymbals (EDIT — I had this as Harvey Weinstein in the final edit! my error there) and the almost electronic smack of the beats, how the melodies created almost sink behind the rhythm and vocals.

From there the group heads off to the races – no one song sounds quite like the other, but they’re all from a similar group mind, one that treated the past decades as a playground to pulverize and reassemble in odd shapes – there are constant little quotes and intentional references to other songs and sounds throughout the album, but never at the expense of the songs themselves. For sheer ambition only Frank Zappa had a broader range while still being a ‘pop’ artist, and it’s little surprise that someone like Mike Patton is a declared fan of both. It’s also less of a surprise, as has often been noted, that this eerily blueprints a formula that Queen would simplify on the one hand, overblow on the other and take to the bank in the end. Songs change tempo on a dime – and then again and again, harmonies swirl in and out of nowhere, strutting rock snarls melt immediately into boulevardier swing, and the whole shebang really is art rock without apology, with Rundgren the perfect filter to ensure that it got out to the public as it stood, down to jawdropping songtitles like “Saccharin and the War.” “Fa La Fa Lee” begins as almost dinky proto-synth pop and ends up with a huge abbreviated guitar riff. “Roger,” meanwhile, has a series of percussion breaks that sound like it could be a combination of a parade from The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Wizard’s computer, a kiddie TV show gone demented.

Guitarist and future legendary power-pop producer Earle Mankey got a bit of songwriting glory with “Biology 2,” a demented girl group/surf-of-sorts song which literally sounds like it’s sung by perverted Munchkins taking their science lessons too far – if the Tall Dwarfs had released this tomorrow, absolutely nobody would bat an eye. Then there’s the monstrous album closer “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys” – which, it should be noted, came out well before Alice Cooper’s almost similarly-titled song, but rocks just as hard as Cooper’s legendary original band. At one point it could almost be the Who, but you never quite heard Roger Daltrey singing “Just when sin is quite the thing, there’s one who holds quite tight to what had worked before.” But not everything is constant fizzing – “Fletcher Honorama,” surely the great lost influence on XTC’s post-touring days, is absolute musical delicacy, a soft descending guitar line and a lovely vocal from Russell (but of course, saying things like “Telecast in fifty states/And brought to you by anti-wrinkle dew”), careful drumming and an almost soothing piano break from Ron. There’s also the steady, stately progression of “Slowboat,” as close to a conventional anthem as the band had then, with harmony singing like butter backing a bravura but never overcooked Russell vocal. The sense of theatricality, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and movie musicals which helps define the Maels is here but this is as far away from the excrescences of such ‘rock’ Broadway efforts as Rent as you can get – and thank heavens for it.

A WOOFER IN TWEETER’S CLOTHING

It’s understandable enough to say that A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing is the first album redux. Eleven songs like the first album, one of them by Earle Mankey solo, unchanged lineup – the only obvious difference is that Todd Rundgren didn’t produce, but the presence instead of Thaddeus James Lowe, whose marvelous engineering job on Sparks helps make the album sound as unique as it is, also demonstrates a certain continuity, as does, in the end, the album’s excellent quality. Even the first song on the album is, again, about a girl. But this time the stakes were a little higher:

“Oh, no! Bring her home and the folks look ill
My word, they can’t forget, they never will
They can hear the stormtroops on our lawn
When I show her in
And the Fuehrer is alive and well
In our panelled den…
My word, she’s from Germany
Well, it’s the same old country
But the people have changed”

Imagine all this being sung by Russell with an almost sweetly diffident air over a chugging rhythm that’s a bit of glam rock stomp, a touch of Neu!-style motorik, and a chorus that soars down to the backing pseudo-Col. Bogey whistles. Thus “Girl From Germany,” one of the wickedest and wittiest songs ever – Nazi shock tactics by the first wave of punks a few years later fall completely flat next to this. From there Woofer’s could do whatever it damn well pleased, and did.

Beer-garden polka singalongs crossed with minimal drones that transmute into a rapid roll of drums, frenetic high speed guitar (and harpsichord?) and a mock Mickey Mouse style letter by letter cheerleader/gangshout for the titular character, “Beaver O’Lindy.” A song called “The Louvre” sung, but of course, in French, sounding – at least initially – like a random 1968 Beach Boys number drop-kicked across the Atlantic and trailing sparkling keyboards in its wake. A concluding song, “Whippings and Apologies,” that begins like Stereolab warming up for a twenty-minute freakout and then keeps stop-starting on a dime – including a great fake ending – so Russell can discuss the situations a tender-hearted sadist must face. “Do-Re-Mi” – yes, THAT “Do-Re-Mi,” from The Sound of Music, not one word of the lyrics changed at all, but turning into a high-speed gallop halfway through the second repeat of the words and getting even more over the top after that point. It’s almost tempting to say ‘and so on and so forth,’ but that’s only because nearly the whole album is so insanely fractured – and once again, so astonishingly catchy – that it’s hard to know what to highlight.

To be fair, some songs are pleasant more than breathtaking – for instance, the extended instrumental break on “Nothing is Sacred” is completely upstaged by Russell suddenly saying “I am sure you will appreciate your newfound leisure time” – and then answered by a chorus repeating the sentiments. But immediately following is the string-section accompanied tripping-piano-line-and-straw-boater winner “Here Comes Bob,” where Russell merrily declaims “For affairs with staying power, I go after limousines.”

At the heart of the album lies “Moon Over Kentucky,” the only song bassist Jim Mankey wrote for the band (with Ron sharing the credit), and quite possibly the landmark of the entire first incarnation of the group. A rock epic without apology, it’s also the full band at their most extremely dramatic, with the opening piano and wordless vocals given a steady, darker counterpoint with Mankey’s bass. This gets contrasted throughout with verses shot through with a nervous keyboard rhythm, Harvey Feinstein’s rolling drums and a snarling riff that sounds like a Tony Iommi line delivered in two seconds. Russell yodels like a lost ghost somewhere in the woods and the end result feels like what Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald would have done if James Whale had directed, down to the horror-movie organ final flourish.

Had the band simply collapsed at this point, doubtless the two albums would have received the occasional rerelease, appreciative liner notes from someone or other, comments about what might have been and all – but then Ron and Russell, noting that a tour in the UK had gone down well, weighed an offer from Island Records for them – and only them rather than the full band – to come over to London to see what they could do there permanently. So they went, recruited a new band and hoped for the best. Nobody could have guessed what was next.

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