Let’s stop the nonsense, shall we? You don’t really like Sparks, do you?
Perhaps you were really into Queen as a youth and needed another band that was remotely like them in your collection? If so, that’s cool. No need to explain.
Perhaps you were totally into the Ice Capades and these guys turned you onto The Power and Glory of Rock? OK, I can see that.
But plenty of critics and rock ‘n roll fans whose tastes I respect LOVE these guys. Have I had the bad luck of only hearing the likes of my man, Townsman The Great 48, rave about them on April 1? Stop putting me on, will ya.
Is that code for “it has is a really bitchin’ centerfold of Debbie Harry it it?”
But back to Sparks. I can’t pretend to know all about them and you’ve presented more info about them to me in this post then I’ve seen/gleaned of them since the 70’s but I always got a kick out their humor and silliness. That “#1 Song in Heaven” video was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while. I’ve always loved it that Ron has used an ironing board for a keyboard stand.
And I liked PeeWee’s Playhouse from the get-go so maybe Sparks just isn’t your cup-o-tea.
This is not to say I’m going to go out an buy any of their records or anything…
Can I say that the singer really annoys the hell out of me. I HATE that high-operatic style of singing. I love how his hair style changes through the years.
The McCartney video for “coming up” has a “character” very much like the keyboardist. Paulie must be a sparks fan too.
Blech. Funny you mention Zander as the keyboard guy struck me as a possible skinny-cousin of Bun E. Carlos.
Nice one, Mrclean. Yes, andyr, you may say that you “HATE” that style of singing. I’m appreciative of those of you who feel the way I do – and I’m most appreciative of your not clogging up my personal inbox with a Silent Storm of “Yeah, you tell ’em, Mr. Mod”-style posts – but I’m most curious to hear more from those who appreciate this band Sparks. Let me check and see if any .mp3s have arrived yet. I’m sure that hearing the music without seeing those guys will help me.
Clearly the singing is the main problem with them, and it’s always been the main impediment to my pursuing an interest in them. The only reason I (and probably many music nerds in the 70s) know their music at is that their LPs were kings of the cutout bin. They’d hit big in the UK, but bombed here. So think I had three of their albums, even though I fought against the vocals. What the hell, 50 cents? Why not.
What I like about them is the songwriting. Very clever musically, and often brilliant conceptually. Equator is the song I like. But it’s sung in that upper range that straddles falsetto, as he always does. Why?
I never heard much of their more synthy stuff, but it always seemed like it should have been a better match to their gifts and goals.
If all their songs were sung an octave lower, I wonder if they would have been more successful? Clever is not enough. How in the world have they stayed in business so long?
For those Sparks fans of any degree who’ve checked in so far (thank you!) and for those considering how they might help me, a few questions are on my mind:
I will answer all of these questions and more, with additional mp3s as evidence, this evening. In the meantime, what did you think of “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’?”
So far, I’ve only had the chance to listen to it twice. As you suspected, Great One, I was terrified by the production/style of the song, but I did appreciate the more direct structure of the song. It’s no different, structurally than a 100 late-60s/early-70s . Motown/proto-disco songs I like. I wish there was less reverb on the voice so I could better make out the lyrics. The skater’s voice is not as annoying as that of the guy in Pet Shop Boys. Coupled with that “#1 Hit” song, I’m wondering whether I am more apt to tolerate their synth stuff. It seems to keep the songwriting in one direction. When they hop all about to different segments in that camp/glam style I’m reminded of bands like The Tubes. And as I said, I only like Queen on the few songs where they don’t feel the need to put on a show!
I’ve got to listen to that “Angst in My Pants” song again. That had some decent segments, but it’s still nothing I could imagine listening to on my own.
Not seeing these guys is helping my assessment of the music.
OK, I’m giving “Angst in My Pants” a second listen. Aside from the dramatic high parts, which I’m rarely into, the overall structure and lyrics aren’t too different than Sprinsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”, which I like a lot. The melodrama Sparks puts into their song, however, verges on Billy Joel territory. I wish I could hear someone I like, such as Pete Shelly, cover this song.
THINGS I LIKE ABOUT SPARKS, PART 1:
1. The voice. I can see why it would annoy many people, but what can I say, I’m a fan. What I like about it is that it doesn’t sound like either a put-on or a “conscious artistic choice”: it’s more that he’s got a good falsetto and he likes to use it. (Note to Mr. Mod and BigSteve: as he ages, his voice has, naturally, lowered in pitch. You may find the two more recent albums, LIL BEETHOVEN and HELLO YOUNG LOVERS, more to your tonal liking.)
2. The lyrics. I’m a lyrics guy, as we have often discussed here, and I am a sucker for a clever line. Ron Mael is the cleverest bastard out of all the clever bastards in the world.
3. The arrangements. Once when we were in the car running some errands, back when Zipcars still had XM radios in them, Deep Tracks played a KIMONO track…possibly “Here In Heaven,” more likely “This Town” or “Amateur Hour.” And about 3/4s of the way through the song, Charity said, “You know what I love about Sparks? There are hooks, and then there’s The Awesome Part. Normally, The Awesome Part only ever comes around once in a song. But with Sparks, it’s like they key in on The Awesome Part and just repeat it over and over again.” Naturally, LIL BEETHOVEN was built on the concept of repetition, but it’s exactly right that this was a key part of the Sparks arsenal from the very beginning.
4. The change-ups. More than any other band I can think of, Sparks’ career is based on brief (two to four years, on average) self-contained units, where the band sounded completely different based on where they were living, which musicians they were working with and what style of music they’d chosen. But here’s the important thing: Sparks has never repudiated any of their earlier styles. Mr. Mod will never be able to title a post “Sparks’ music…as it was MEANT to sound!” Their attitude, in contrast, has always been more along the lines of “That’s what we were doing then. It was fun. But this is what we’re doing now. It’s also fun.”
5. I’m impressed that this is a band that formed the year before I was born and released its best album the year I turned 32.
I decided before maintaining my like of Sparks, I should actually do a serious revisit of my old Sparks records. I still like the “glam-period” era of the band but actually prefer the debut record when the were still a California band called Halfnelson. Kimono My House still holds up for me, but the rest of the era’s LP’s seem less solid and really could be condensed into one record. After that era, I pretty much lose interest in the band with the exception of a few moments here and there.
In terms of bands that sound in this vein, I previously mentioned that I like the band Jet (not the band called that now) who put out one record and had sacked bassist Martin Gordon along with guitarist David O’List and Andy Ellison on vocals from the group John’s Children. I actually prefer the Jet record (and Radio Stars) to Sparks recordings.
In terms of the look, the Hitler/Chaplin mustache thing always scared me as a kid and the brothers Mael looked best when they were in the audience in the concert film The Big TNT Show.
Groan. Look, rock doesn’t have to be stupid or “primitive” to be good. But this kind of arch, “meta-rock” just makes me want to throw my hands up in despair, if not hurl a shoe at the stereo. I suppose some people need a soundtrack for puffing thoughtfully on their Sherlock Holmes pipes. But your tweed jackets are being worn in vain, people — this music is not smart!
If I want silly music, I’ll cue up some Spike Milligan. If I want rockin’ operatic bombast, I’ll reach for the Darkness. And if I must indulge my need to feel clever, I’ll find some truly interesting music, like Harry Partch or something. It’s like these guys tried to smush three barely passing grades in each of these categories together, in an attempt to fashion an “A plus” hybrid. But it don’t work that way!
By the way, I reckon that with the exception of one or two of you, I may be the most seasoned Sparks hater among us. I remember checking out “Kimono My House” from the American Embassy library (come to think of it, my Dad must have okayed that purchase; interesting…) in, like, 1976 or so. I remember thinking: this isn’t clever — this is two gimmick-dependent jerkoffs trying to *sound* clever. I remember a line from one of the songs (I forget which one): “…you said Kant and I was shocked, very shocked…” and thinking (after I looked Kant up in my World Book) that the line would’ve been much better if they hadn’t tried to shoehorn that retarded, hyper-intellectual pun in there. I was only 13, people — and note that that doesn’t make me a genius; it just makes Sparks incredibly stupid.
Bottom line, in the words of Mr. Horse: “No, sir… I don’t like it.”
p.s.: what’s next, Mod: a group grope over The Tubes?!
Meta-rock? Come on, now, no need to try to put your visceral hatred of this band on some sort of higher intellectual plane. I think Sparks were on a simple mission to take the piss out of anyone who takes music overly-seriously: both the diehard rock traditionalist and the po-mo academic get skewered. Do you really think they are trying to impress you by dropping Kant in a lyric? Or are they making fun of such musical pretentiousness?
And judging by these kinds of responses, they’ve succeeded. I suppose you could compare them to bands like Devo, and even Ween, but unlike these two bands Sparks don’t really care if you get their joke or not; they’re more intellectually rigorous if you will, and yet still not afraid to keep asking the listener, “You think THIS is ridiculous….”
Now, all of the above would be rather beyond the point if their music wasn’t so catchy and well written (see Great 48’s comments).
But the point I want to make is that you’ve got to make a conceptual leap to enjoy them. That is, they challenge you by forcing you to like them on their own terms, not yours.
I’m really enjoying the discussion, but I wanted to make a few points of my own here. In response to this query:
Sparks are definitely not an anomaly. They (well specifically the first 3 albums) were a huge influence on an obscure mid ’70’s LA band called The Quick, who put out a great (but woefully obscure and out-of-print) Lp on Mercury called Mondo Deco. Members of The Dickies roadied for them and they were incredibly influential on them and by extension, a lot of US and UK pop-punk to come, especially with really nasally vocalists. This is all related to the glam influence on early LA punk. You could even call them an influence on UK punk vocalists like Feargal Sharkey or even Pete Shelley if you were being generous.
For me, the fact that the punks liked them has been one of my entry points into Sparks, which is not a band I perhaps wouldn’t have checked out otherwise, generally (though with some major exceptions) not being a fan of theatricality in rock. Plus, I first got into them when Lil’ Beethoven came out, so I got into them when they put out an absolutely stellar album and I worked backwards to select albums from there on.
Now as you can probably guess, I like the mid ’70s stuff and the 2 most recent albums way more than anything else I’ve ever heard by them. They’re either not in musical styles I particularly enjoy or they just haven’t aged well (see “Angst in My Pants” or the “My Way” song, which reminds me of an overblown late period Pet Shop Boys song; sorry great48). Even more so, it really puzzles me when others on here like Mr. Mod say that the disco/synth-pop stuff is more suited to their strengths.
One huge exception, however, is the OTHER, far superior (IMO) song on the Valley Girl soundtrack, “Eaten by the Monster of Love”, which I absolutely love. I’d love to have an mp3 of it actually. Shawnkilroy? Anyone else?
Regardless, thanks for the mp3s and esp. for posting those awesome YouTube clips from that German TV show.
Great discussion so far, Townspeople. A couple of things…
Berlyant, I asked you if Sparks were anomaly for YOU, not the tastes of some obscure band you read about in a fanzine. You’ve danced around the question: Do you like other bands that sound like Sparks? The members of The Damned may have loved Sparks, but they don’t sound a bit like them.
Berlyant also wrote:
Why? For me, the disco/synth-pop stuff reigns in their tendency to foppishly disregard all that is great in rock ‘n roll. They stick to more consistent, repetitive patterns and structures. They don’t, in other words, automatically risk sucking by rock band standards. Now if folks want to judge those earlier records by their vast collection of cabaret tunes, that’s another matter, one I’m not qualified to comment on.
I’m sure I’m not alone in favoring the synth Sparks stuff, even relatively so. HVB, you’ve taken a big bite out of the negative side of this topic. How do those synth-pop songs match up with your Style Council collection?
I’ve never cared for Sparks, but like Mr. Mod said earlier, I tried because some people that I think really know their music really dig them. That’s why I bought Kimono My House. I think I still have it somewhere, but I also think it’s really mediocre at it’s best, and downright unlistenable at it’s worst. If it’s supposed to be funny, then it’s as funny as King of Queens, and I just don’t get that joke, I guess.
Sparks just seems to ignore The Power and Glory of Rock to me. That’s just not cool. But I am all in when we do the Group Grope for The Tubes. Hell, I’ll use both hands!
I wouldn’t exactly call The Dickies obscure, would you? I mean, they are to many people, but if you’re mentioning The Damned (whose LA show incidentally gave The Dickies the kick in the ass it took to get them to start playing), then why should they be excluded? I could also sight bands like The Pointed Sticks or more recently, The Vindictives, along with the ones I cited yesterday. So how did I not answer the question? Admittedly, that influence is mainly in the nasally vocal style. If that’s not good enough for you, I submit that to my ears their mid ’70s work has sonic similarities (at least vaguely) to Roxy Music and Queen (of course), both of whom I like at least somewhat (Roxy a lot, Queen a little).
Oh and P.S. I never heard The Quick (though I’d read about them and The Dickies covered their “Pretty Please Me”) before a friend sent me a cd-r of their sole album recently, so there.
i like the way these guys span glam, disco, techno pop, rock(not so much roll), and do it with such a fun sense of humor. I thought Ray Davie’s “boyfriend” character in the video for “Come Dancing” was pure Sparks. Also Taylor Negron’s “Julio” from “Easy Money” was all 1 thing and I loved it.
I’m generally OK with and often an outright fan of glam and assorted theatrical, overblown rock types, but I was having trouble getting through the supplied tracks when I took a shot last night.
I think it was the vocals, I was sort of getting the same feel as when I’ve tried to listen to, say, Supertramp. Part of what I like about Freddie Mercury and Jeff Lynne as singers is that they seemed to know just the right time to break out the high-pitched end of their range. Too much of that can create instant listener fatigue for me.