In an hour and a half Sparks play their third show in the series — though this won’t be the first time they’ve done Kimono My House, their third album but their first big hit release. A few years back Morrissey booked them for the Meltdown festival he curated, but did so wanting to hear the ‘old stuff.’ While the Maels have been on good terms with Moz for years, they weren’t interested in that, so they ended up splitting the difference nicely, doing both that album and their then most recent one Li’l Beethoven in full. I’ve been lucky to catch a few of the songs from this album performed by the band in recent LA shows over the last couple of years, but seeing the full thing will be something, and I can only imagine the full on crowd hysteria.
Last night’s performance of A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing was every bit as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be — it’s a stunning and still quite underrated release, and hearing things like the gang shouts on “Beaver O’Lindy” done with the crowd cheering along every letter — not to mention the hilarity of “Batteries Not Included” and the amazing fake endings of “Whippings and Apologies” — well, it all made me wish I was there of course, but I’ll take enjoyment at a distance.
KIMONO MY HOUSE
It starts, not like a thunderclap, but like a gentle shimmer of spring rain, a keyboard figure easing up volume step by step. Then a voice zooms in, almost but never ever once tripping over itself at high speed:
“Zoo time is she and you time
The mammals are your favorite type, and you want her tonight
Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat
You hear the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers.”
The briefest pause.
“This town ain’t big enough for both of us!”
A massive six-shooter gunshot rockets across the speaker range.
“AND IT AIN’T ME WHO’S GONNA LEAVE!”
Then the full band kicks in and it is all OVER. And it’s only just begun.
Kimono My House shouldn’t have been; had Ron and Russell decided not to take the chance they did in moving to London, it wouldn’t have been. They did, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” crashed into the UK top five in early 1974 and what had been a low key pleasure for some turned into popstar mania, and tales of suicides happily singing down to girlfriends in the still-living world, celebrations of the most exclusive genealogical background ever concluding “Gonna hang myself from my family tree” and specifically non-holiday carols were suddenly all the rage. The lunatics hadn’t taken over the asylum, but their observers were genii at portraying their foibles in hummable form.
The new backing band – guitarist Adrian Fisher, bassist Martin Gordon and drummer Dinky Diamond – weren’t necessarily as outré as the Mankeys and Weinstein, but as a crackerjack combo perfectly in tune with the over-the-top glam hysteria of the day further aided and abetted by Ron’s ever-increasing, they were essential. “This Town” is just one example of many – consider other smash singles like “Amateur Hour,” with its quick, ascending main guitar line completely working against the typical descending melodies of the time and place, or “Talent is an Asset,” a music-box melody and hand-clapping foot-stomping rhythms celebrating the young life of one Albert Einstein in a way that bears no resemblance to anything created by Yahoo Serious. In otherwards, it’s funny, spry and you can sing along. The break on the chorus when the guitars fully smash in and then immediately stop may be a trick of production but Muff Winwood knew what he was doing throughout.
As for Ron and Russell themselves, rising to the occasion was no problem – they seemed to welcome it. If Ron’s keyboards often times seemed drowned in the mix of the songs that he himself wrote, they weren’t absent – the organ adding further beef to the mix of “Here in Heaven,” the combination barrel-house r’n’b swing and cabaret twinkle on the concluding “Equator.” They stood out fully on the singles, just as much as Ron’s legendary appearances with the band on British TV, stock-still with short hair and Chaplinesque mustache. John Lennon’s own alleged response to seeing this – “Hitler’s on the telly!” – sums up the sheer WTF reaction this garnered.
What would have been quieter songs, perhaps, on earlier albums become full on anthems here – “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” is probably the perfect example, slow stomp grinds on the verses turning into a widescreen chorus that Queen probably borrowed for their own “Thank God It’s Christmas” a decade later. That’s not the only thing they borrowed from this album either, but we need not go there immediately. Suffice to say that plenty of younger musicians in the making were bowled over sideways by this record – Siouxsie and the Banshees ended up covering “This Town” years later, while Morrissey’s open worship of Kimono — its rock splashiness and its amused views of the creatures called humans – culminated in getting Sparks to perform it in its entirety at the Meltdown Festival in London he curated in 2004. (No fools, the Maels insisted on being able to perform all of their then new effort Li’l Beethoven as well, but more on that record anon.)
Perhaps the emblematic song of the album was “Hasta Manana, Monsieur,” with its lovely piano melody at the start, Russell’s bravura extended vocal break towards the end…oh, and the words too:
“Leaving my syntax back at school
I was thrown for a loss over gender and simple rules
You mentioned Kant and I was shocked
You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues.”
And that was just one verse.