Introducing Sparks (for the seventh time)

Yesterday’s Big Beat show was about what everyone hoped it would be — a chance to let a group of songs that didn’t quite work on record thrive in a new context. As a commenter on the list said, all of a sudden it was clear that the whole album was packed with great singalong songs like “Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)” and “Everybody’s Stupid,” it just needed an audience and a great live band to show it in full. The feeling was more playful than on previous evenings, with Russell acknowledging how good it was to see a crowd out for an album that’s not high on the favorite list for many fans — they’ll probably mention that tonight as well! — as well as telling stories about the Ramones and Jacques Tati that nicely honored their memory, while Ron’s various addresses to the audience were treats, such as the wry notice before “White Women” that ‘not all the songs were meant to be taken literally.’ The highlight, however, had to be the encore of “Tearing the Place Apart,” which fell apart after the first verse. Ron stepped up to apologize in this vein: “We’re playing all these obscure songs, which can mean a lot of obscure chord changes…” Second time through they nailed it, and very well at that.

Tonight’s featured album, meantime, is one of the eternally contentious points among Sparks fans. I’ll let the draft below — written before the rerelease of the album last year, to explain the concluding section a bit — speak my initial thoughts on the album, but a relisten right now for the first time in a while is bringing out some of its better qualities to my ears. (One thing’s for sure — I always knew that Weird Al Yankovic was a Sparks nut [his song “Virus Alert” from the other year is a specific homage to the band’s early sound], but hearing the phrasing on Russell’s singing on a song like “Ladies” makes the link suddenly clear.) I’m still pretty well convinced that the live show will smoke the album recording through and through, and I’ll be very interested to see how it all gets carried off.

As has been the case from the start, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show is accessible here:

INTRODUCING SPARKS

Consider this scenario if you will – relocated to America during The Big Beat sessions, their glam-era presence in the UK charts ended and their deal with Island up, Ron and Russell relax at home in Los Angeles and wonder what to do next, unsure of their next move but hardly thinking it was time to give up. Still, America had resisted them when they were there for the first albums and hadn’t cared at all about them during the British heyday outside of pockets of isolated fandom and the occasional TV appearance – Rollercoaster certainly didn’t help any.

They’re well aware, though, that the LA studio system of the time has produced a lot of success, with musicians working on any number of projects and bringing a professional if not always inspired sheen to successful albums and singles that dominate FM radio. Nobody seems to match their sensibilities, though, until a friend points out that there might be one duo, admittedly busy enough themselves, who could help them create an album that could work. Like the Maels, they’re known for their wry lyrics and wide appreciation of plenty of early and pre-rock music, even if musically their results are generally much smoother and less frenetic than what Sparks do. Still, it couldn’t hurt, and so Ron and Russell decide to sit down with Walter Becker and Don Fagen. The resultant album, though not a commercial success, is nonetheless a fascinating experiment on both duos’ parts, with Steely Dan getting the most out of their stable of regular performers and Ron and Russell’s songs and performances finding a new, strangely compelling setting to work in. The duos never work together again as other interests and opportunities come to the fore, but both later remark fondly on the attempt to make their contrasting aesthetics combine, while the album and its associated demos becomes a cult classic, never falling out of print following an initial CD release in the late eighties accompanied by some noteworthy press coverage.

That, in a nutshell, is not the story of Introducing Sparks – which, by the way, is also one of the most ridiculous album titles ever, given that it was the group’s seventh, and was hardly the first album they’d released in America either. Doubtless it could well be intentional, but like the album itself, it’s an effort that just doesn’t quite work in the end.

The Maels did indeed record an album with a group of LA session musicians who were already well known names on that circuit, including Lee Ritenhour and Mike Porcaro, though they handled all the production themselves. They ended up on CBS Records and the album cover, in its own heavily airbrushed way, suggested where incipient ironizing and reappopriation of forties and fifties commercial art aesthetics was going to end up towards the eighties.

But beyond that? There’s really not much to be said for Introducing Sparks. It’s definitely a Sparks album, of course – the pounding piano from Ron and Russell’s voice at the start could convince anyone of that from miles off. There’s enough bite – but nowhere as much as there could be – here and there in the lyrics to make it clear that it’s the Maels at work as well, thus from “Occupation”:

“We cowboys are a hardy breed
We eat our beans and tumbleweed
We’re good on horses, good with guns
We smell, but so does everyone.”

And everything’s professionally played – a little too much, perhaps. There’s no real edge to the album, and hearing the smoothed-out, tame pseudo-Spectorisms on the opening “A Big Surprise” – not to mention the slightly horrifying misstep of Russell being backed by generic backing singers, a mistake repeated throughout – and one has to wonder what happened.

The album doesn’t improve much from there, occasional flashes like the pseudo-Russian Cossack kick of “Goofing Off” aside – promising songtitles like “Girls On the Brain” and “Those Mysteries” end up stuck with songs that are timekillers, wordplay that’s cute but not jaw-dropping, reflecting perhaps an unwarranted desire to avoid distressing the powers that be – and the whole feels like a vague attempt to create something for the Grease/Happy Days generation, various early rock’n’roll and Beach Boys moves. Perhaps most irritatingly, the gift for great melodies is entirely present, but the presentation kills everything stone dead – “I’m Not” and its implicit drama buried under extra vocal gloop and a not-much guitar solo is one example of many. No lost classics are on here, and the two songs that ended up on the Profile compilation, plus the bizarre proto-lo-fi “The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael” and possibly “Goofing Off,” are enough.

Introducing Sparks
can be summed up by this simple fact – it’s the only Sparks album out of print, that has never been re-released, never officially appeared on CD. Only the truly completist fans – like me, admittedly – will want to find a burned CDR of it, and the Maels would have to wait a few years before LA, at least, was fully won over (if not America as a whole).

But they say it’s darkest before the dawn, and the next Sparks album is, simply put, one of the most amazing albums ever released.

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