It was pretty hard to choose a track off 2006’s Hello Young Lovers but I decided to settle upon “Metaphor” because it is probably the only ever song about metaphors. If it is not, it is certainly the only ever song to implore listeners “who’s up for a metaphor”?
The answer, obviously, is “chicks”.
Title: Frankly, Scarlett, I Don't Give A Damn
It’s Sparks week all week long!
Here’s one from their 1994 re-emergence (it would be wrong to say “comeback” because they never broke up) album and masterpiece Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins.
Talent Is An Asset: The Story of Sparks is remarkably one of two Sparks biographies released in the past year after an absence of any titles in this genre since, let’s see, their inception in 1970.
One reason Sparks biographies are so non-existent is that Ron and Russell Mael, brothers, band members and main protagonists, are frustratingly reclusive, preferring to spend every available second creating masterpieces in their studio as opposed to swanning around red carpets draped in supermodels or being interviewed by biographers, which brings us to the problem with this book - Ron and Russell’s non-involvement.
This crippling flaw means the book is mostly a mere chronicle of events as opposed to an in-depth treatise of the men behind the music. Although the back cover promises to go “behind the myth”, Sparks lack of involvement means by the end of the book we are no closer to understanding Sparks themselves or what makes them tick. Easlea is forced to quote from past interviews, which has the inherent problem that Ron and Russell aren’t the most reliable interviewees - a problem he notes as he dispels the various myths they have successfully perpetuated about themselves, such as being the offspring of Doris Day, child models and that the I Predict video was directed by David Lynch (even I believed this one).
It’s frustrating that Ron and Russell refused to be interviewed, as Easlea interviews their current backing band and manager so you know they aren’t that opposed to the idea of a biography. Easlea also seems to be very wary of upsetting the brothers, as there is nary a mention of their private lives. I wouldn’t expect a dirt sheet, but if you were expecting to know more about them as people prepare to be sorely disappointed. This is important as I was hoping to learn more about Ron and Russell as songwriters - we’re talking about two people who wrote songs about bestiality (“Angus Desire”), incest (“Fa La Fa Lee”) and pineapples (“Pineapple”). These are not normal people, and at the end of the book it is still a mystery how they write the songs they do.
What is interesting though are the interviews with former band members and producers, which gives us a valuable insight into the recording of the albums. Producers James Lowe, Muff Winwood, Tony Visconti and Rupert Holmes are all interviewed. Not interviewing the brothers means that while their albums up to the mid-80’s are well covered (especially the successful Island years between 1974-6) thanks to interviews with band members and producers, it becomes a bit murky after they increasingly retreated into the studio as a duo, shunning all outsiders. When you can’t get any insight on Ron and Russell as people, songwriters or finally how they produce their music it all becomes a bit pointless and from the late 80’s the book races through a list of their activities. Particularly annoying is the scarcity of any information on the lost years between 1988-1993 which they spent trying to get a musical produced.
Weirder still are the frequent quotations from bassist Martin Gordon who lasted one album, behaved like a dick, was fired, was never successful again and has been bitching about it loudly to anyone who will listen for nearly forty years. Nobody forced him to sign away his royalties. His bitterness nearly four decades on is bewildering and his jokey pretense unconvincing.
Easlea also offers his verdicts of their music, yet even this can be off. He is unfairly harsh on the brilliant Indiscreet and the overlooked Interior Design, and too easy on the Big Beat, whose excellent songs were ruined by horrible production and mixing (which doesn’t even rate a mention, amazingly). I can’t work out if this is because he liked Rupert Holmes, whose interview takes up a bulk of the chapter, or because he is deaf.
Although I’m glad the book exists, I can’t help but feel like without Ron and Russell’s involvement it remains a missed opportunity.
Just ordered from Amazon. Can’t wait!
Sparks first two albums are reasonably obscure, so after they hit the big time with their third album in 1974 Bearsville decided to repackage the albums as a double-set under the name 2 Originals Of Sparks. Ironically this double-set is now also reasonably obscure. Sparks are a resoundingly strange band, but it still comes as a surprise to consider just how strange their first two albums are.
Sparks, their self-titled Todd Rundgren debut, starts off in a fairly straight forward manner with the slow rocker Wonder Girl, a track that reached the outer echelons of the US top 100 - their last to do so over ten years. From there the music gets increasingly stranger, encompassing snatches of fairground music, beautiful, hypnotic melodies, Californian surf rock and sped up or layered vocals - hardly mainstream fare. The music wasn’t helped along by subject matter like incest, aging opera singers, bankers’ daughters or a love song using entirely biological terms (a product of the college boom of the 50’s and 60’s). The production is fairly minimal though, and Rundgren is smart enough to just let the band be themselves.
The follow-up A Woofer In Tweeters’ Clothing is undoubtedly the better of the two. This time with producer James Lowe (of psychedelic rock band The Electric Prunes) Sparks expanded their already diverse sound, adding strings, accordion, some discordant instrumentation and heavy psychedelic production. Tracks include a cover of Do-Re-Mi that ends in a drum solo over the last verse as Russell is shouting to be heard, Angus Desire, a song about cattle love, and Girl From Germany in which some parents have trouble forgetting the war.
After this album the brothers split from the rest of the band and continued as Sparks, and although they had far more success, they were never this musically obscure again.