And another treat of a set it should be. The Kimono show two days ago was every bit the treat one would expect, though it was also amusing to see that due to the packed-in crowd for that one that not only did occasional amateur camerafolks get in the way of the main camera, but more random comments from attendees and/or staff were overheard. Just like actually being at a show, really.
The year being 1974, it would have been perfectly understandable for a massively successful band – in the UK, America, anywhere – to have had some kind of over the top demi-airbrushed rock myth album cover. This was the era of Houses of the Holy, Diamond Dogs and the like. The new titans of the age needed celebrations of their own triumphs of the will.
So logically Ron and Russell appeared on the cover of their followup to Kimono bound, gagged, Ron behind sunglasses and Russell’s mane of hair in full windswept flow, looking somewhat aggrieved at being stowed in the back of a small motorboat going at full speed. The small insert in the corner showed the two in a similar pose photographed in more congenial surroundings but no less annoyed, while the back cover had them stuffed into the rear seat of a car that their backing band had taken into a body shop. On top of the small insert was printed, stamped almost, the words “SPARKS PROPAGANDA.” Now that fame was theirs, the idea of celebrating it straightforwardly must have seemed terribly uninteresting.
In ways Propaganda was a simply a logical continuation of Kimono much as Woofer had continued onward from the debut. The producer remained the same, the backing band jiggled a bit, with Ian Hampton replacing Martin Gordon on bass, but otherwise kept up the same glam-rampage approach, and the album was even released the same year as Kimono, a turnaround time that these days can’t be done without press agents telling you a year in advance about ‘two part albums’ and similar nonsense. Of course, the potential danger lies in burnout or retreads – and the Maels, as time has shown, are immune to neither. But here, everything was in sync.
The start of the album, though, was like something they hadn’t tried before – a strictly a capella performance from Russell on the title track, overdubbed singing provided wordless melody and rhythm as well as words, packing in everything from wartime slogans to militaristic imagery to that thing called love in about twenty seconds. Then a slamming, stentorian delivery from the full band heralds “At Home, At Work, At Play,” and the combination of theatricality, giddiness, hyperspeed melodies – not to mention turn-on-a-dime tempo shifts and pauses – makes it all the clearer that by this time Sparks had come pretty close to being sui generis. They were already unusual enough by the first two albums but by this time they were essentially their own scene, and even songs like “BC,” which on this album feel just a touch like a ‘typical’ Sparks number, would be utterly atypical for practically anyone else.
There’s a slightly more winsome jauntiness on Propaganda at points – musically if not necessarily lyrically, almost as if Ron and Russell were creating World War II vaudeville singalongs for their temporarily adopted home country. The Gilbert and Sullivan worship had already been at least partially if not totally consciously clear but started to gel in full here. “Reinforcements,” playing around again with ideas of love and/as war, almost begs a high-kicking chorus to be backing Russell on stage, even with the full band ripping in and pulling back from the arrangement and finally wrapping up with competing choral vocals over a steady, friendly stomp and shake. In a different vein entirely was their attempt at a proto power-ballad “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” down to the strings and heroic guitar solo. With a lot of background echo – check the drums towards the end! — Ron on what surely must be harpsichord and a beautifully alien midsong break where Russell sings in fragile tones over heavily flanged violins, it’s something else and then some.
As for lyrically, where to begin. Again, about anything was up for discussion or used as was seen fit, while Ron’s eye for the knowing cliché in the title again reigned supreme – besides “At Home At Work At Play,” there was “Thanks But No Thanks,” “Something For the Girl With Everything” and but of course the album-concluding “Bon Voyage.” “Achoo” might be the one song with a sneeze as its title – it’s definitely the only one that starts “Who knows what the wind’s gonna bring when the invalids sing,” while “Who Don’t Like Kids” takes the whole question of offspring and creation of same with a eye that’s rather unsentimental: “There’s more in the wings, shall we bring them on or/Shall we just sit and talk ‘til the early morning.” “Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her,” one of the album’s best songs – hearing Russell’s worried tone on the chorus is him in his actorly heights, while the break to just piano and vocals before the final moment is a classic bit of theatricality — also has some of its best words in the portrait of the feared titular figure:
“A Hitler wearing heels
A soft Simon Legree
A Hun with honey skin
De Sade who makes good tea.”
The rest of the band keep things moving as before – Dinky Diamond’s drumming might just have been the secret weapon in the end, as good as moments like the concluding spiraling guitar break on “Thanks But No Thanks” — and on “Something For the Girl With Everything” they pack it all into just over two minutes. Yet another spangly melody, Russell in falsetto overdrive, blasting guitar riff mania towards the end and a hysterical conclusion.