SPARKS:
THE
ISLAND YEARS

by

Tony Maygarden

Sparks Kimono My House LP cover
Front cover to Kimono My House.

 

In the early seventies brothers Ron and Russell Mael joined with another set of brothers, Earle and Jim Mankey, to form the band Halfnelson. With the band name changed to Sparks, they released two albums (Sparks ((a re-release of the Halfnelson album)) and A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing) on Todd Rundgren's Bearsville label to little success. This article will focus on the next three Sparks albums, arguably the band's claim to fame.

The brothers Mael left the Mankeys (who went on to some success of their own) and America and took the Sparks name to England, where they formed a new band and signed with Island Records. In 1974 they released Kimono My House, a power-pop-rock masterpiece. Mighty guitar riffs, quirky lyrics and more hooks than a loaded fishing boat proved irresistible to the Brits.

"This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us" became a top-10 radio hit. Other choice tracks include "Amateur Hour" (with the classic line "Girls grow tops to go topless in"), "Here in Heaven," Thank God It's Not Christmas," "Hasta Manana Monsieur" (with the rhyme "Kimono my house, mon amour"), and "Talent is an Asset." U.K. success was not repeated stateside.

Kimono My House LP back cover
Kimono My House back cover. The band (from top to bottom): Martin Gordon, bass; Dinky Diamond, drums; and Adrian Fisher, guitar. Muff Winwood produced.
Kimono My House LP inner Sleeve
Inner sleeve photo, Kimono My House.
Sparks had a calculated image, with Russell playing the permed pretty boy, and Ron the Hitler mustachioed creepy geek. Their live and TV performances gained notoriety in no small part to Ron's appearance. The album covers and liners flaunted the band's striking visual appearance, as can be seen here.

The next album, Propaganda, came out quickly, and was again a success in Britain (but not America), scoring a couple more hits. "At Home, at Work, at Play" to my ears is the quintessential Sparks Island era song. With a killer guitar riff, layered vocals worthy of Freddie Mercury, stops and starts, and typical Sparks-isms ("You've got to shave half your face at a time"). Other standouts include, well the whole rest of the album, including a rare serious Sparks song, "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth." The music hall sound of "Reinforcements" was a preview of what was to come.

Sparks Proaganda LP cover
Front cover, Propaganda.

 

Propaganda LP back cover
Back cover, Propaganda. The band (standing in back of the Humber): Ian Hampton, bass; Trevor White, guitar; and Dinky Diamond, drums. Muff Winwood again produced.
In 1975 came Indiscreet. With new producer Tony Visconti, attempts at a consistent musical style were largely abandoned. To quote from the Sparks web site: "Big band, marching tunes, and hoe-down were all in the mix with a goodly measure of hysteria." By the time "Looks, Looks, Looks" (which sounds it could have been recorded in the '30s) arrives on side two even the most die-hard Sparks fan would have trouble trying to make sense of it all. "Happy Hunting Ground" and "In the Future" sound like they could have come from the previous albums, but those are about the only ones.

Punk was right around the corner, so maybe Ron and Russell saw the handwriting on the wall. In short order they abandoned the band and went back to America. They have since recorded for a number of different labels, and worked with dance king Giorgio Moroder and Go Go Jane Wiedlin.


Propaganda LP inner sleeve

Inner sleeve photo, Propaganda.

Sparks Indiscreet LP cover

Indiscreet front cover.

 

Despite all the punk moanings about how bad the Rock music scene was in the mid-'70s, it's probably safe to say it was the high water mark for Power-Pop-Rock. David Bowie, T.Rex, Abba and Queen were all in their prime (Sparks could have done a good cover of "Killer Queen"). Though Sparks were sometimes given the "glam rock" tag, it didn't really apply -- they were power pop all the way. You can hear traces of these albums in some of the New Wave Punk/Pop that came along a few years later, like Nick Lowe, Squeeze and Elvis Costello & The Attractions. And, of course, Cheap Trick borrowed the pretty boy/geek duality for their whole band, along with some of the heavy pop guitar riff sensibility.

Sparks was, and is, definitely a unique band, and despite some critical (and consumer) indifference, these three albums represent pop song crafting taken to a pretty high level.

Indiscreet LP back cover

Indiscreet back cover. If you look closely you'll discover that they're on a set with fake grass and a printed backdrop. The band is the same as Propaganda (l. to r.): White, Diamond, Hampton.

Indiscreet LP inner gatefold

Inner gatefold picture, Indiscreet.