Time for Sparks to hit that perfect (big) beat

And back into another three day stretch of shows. For a lot of people the Indiscreet set was the highlight of the performances so far and I can’t disagree — the band’s fully settled into things at this point, the more impressive because of course they’re not repeating any songs at all, Russell’s in excellent voice, Ron’s Ron and so forth. However it was also a night of surprises, bringing out a horn section, live strings and more at appropriate points to recreate the wonderfully rich sound of the album, their most detailed and varied to that point (at least as I hear it!). Hearing them skip easily through “Looks, Looks, Looks” was worth it alone (even though, of course, I was tuning in for free…)

From here on in things are going to be a little different, though — and I think that’s wonderful. Sparks’s UK reputation still rests most strongly on their glam trilogy, for lack of a better word, and now they’ve been through that and put it to bed. The next few albums found the Maels somewhere between experimenting and flailing a bit, but part of the reason why this concert series is so intriguing is the fact that they’re willing to revisit everything down the line this way. They essentially saw out the seventies working against the sounds they’d created and honed up through Indiscreet, even while ensuring there was a basic core element of the band still in place, lyrically, sonically and musically, and that’s what enabled them to thrive rather than be stuck in the same place.

I posted this over on the Sparks mailing list I run — called the mael-list, of course! feel free to join us — just now, talking a bit more about what I’m looking forward to (repeating a bit of the above, but anyway):

By stepping away from what had been an initial exploration of a sound that had ended up being commercially rewarding — however much that stepping away might also have been driven by further commercial expectations of responding to ‘the marketplace’ and its changes — Ron and Russell neatly sidestepped ‘just’ being a glam band, in much the same way that Roxy Music and David Bowie did but not many of their contemporaries were able to get away with. That the efforts as recorded didn’t fully connect and still to a large extent don’t — I don’t mean this for everybody, obviously! — makes these next few albums challenging to revisit as a result, since they could have just as easily said ‘well let’s just focus on the “classic” albums’ instead.

When I say these next few albums still don’t fully connect, mind you, the big overwhelming exception in my head is No 1 in Heaven, one of my favorite all-time albums anywhere and easily my favorite Sparks album; I see it as the concrete point where it was clear that Sparks was not a specific sound, but whatever Ron and Russell wanted to try at the point of its creation. I’m going to be VERY interested to see how they reinterpret this one with a rock band lineup, because it almost goes against the whole aesthetic point of the release; at the same time, the fact that they’ve broken out guest performers now with Indiscreet leads me to think they have some interesting aces up their sleeves. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it became a one-one performance of just Ron and Russell and Keith Forsey, whereever he is!

But that’s not going to be until Sunday!

My original draft of The Big Beat review isn’t that far from the final version, but here it is below; and again, today’s performance can be accessed here as it happens, 9 PM London time:

THE BIG BEAT (1976)

The final album the Maels did for Island has a straight-up brilliant cover, created by famed portrait photographer Richard Avedon, Russell bare-chested but vulnerable behind folded arms and his tousled hair, Ron looking to the side, his face in shadow. Unfortunately, the album didn’t quite live up to that striking image, and thus the problem that Sparks found themselves in towards the mid-seventies. It’s definitely far from their worst album, but it’s not one to rush out for without checking out all the previous ones first, at least.

Part of the problem possibly lay in the circumstances of its creation – the Maels had chosen to return to Los Angeles as their star started to fade a bit in the UK, though not without lasting impact among a slew of the incipient punk and New Wave stars even then starting to gear up. Even while that happened Ron and Russell found themselves almost unconsciously aligning with their followers, having recruited a new backing band in drummer Hilly Boy Michaels, bassist Sal Maida from Milk’n’Cookies and guitarist/Tuff Darts member Jeffrey Salen. The Big Beat was a surprisingly prescient record in ways – the sharp Rupert Holmes production combined with the arrangements and the generally quick running time of the songs makes it close to being their only punk/power-pop album as such, as reflected through a neo-fifties bite in songs like “Fill ‘Er Up.”

Yet opening song “Big Boy” captures the slight problem of The Big Beat in general – it’s strident and forced where earlier rock-out efforts had felt nearly effortless, the emphasis placed more on Salen’s competent but fairly earthbound riff in comparison to Ron’s less prominent piano, which is pretty much secondary throughout the album. Conceptually there’s still much to recommend about The Big Beat. Songs like “I Bought The Mississippi,” “White Women” and “Everybody’s Stupid” show that the just-off-center view of the Mael universe wasn’t missing, while Joey Ramone later claimed that he wanted to get the rest of his own group to go along with a cover of “Nothing To Do,” certainly The Big Beat’s highlight in its catchy portrayal of random boredom. Still, there’s a sense of compromised horizons, of narrowing scope and less sudden flashes of ambition, especially in the wake of the technicolour widescreen impact of Indiscreet – it’s probably no surprise that the album’s grandiose closer “I Like Girls” actually dates from the first incarnation of the group. It definitely would have been many bands’ highlight album, but compared to so much else before and since, for Sparks The Big Beat is merely an enjoyable enough one-off.

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