Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sparks (and Halfnelson) Drummer Project (3): John Mendelssohn, 1969!

"I remember the Maels exchanging unhappy glances when I said I thought we should be violent and scary, a la my idols, The Who." - John Mendelssohn

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John Mendelssohn
This is the third of a series of discussions with the individuals that played drums for the band Sparks - or in this case, Halfnelson, the band that evolved into Sparks. The first two installments in this series are with David Kendrick and Harley Feinstein.  In this installment, I talk with John Mendelssohn, who played with Ron and Russell Mael, the leaders of Halfnelson/Sparks, from July through September, 1969. A short period, but a highly significant one, as it was during this time that the eponymous (and never released) Halfnelson record was made, with John playing drums.

John Mendelssohn is a multifaceted man who has distinguished himself as a journalist, an author, a graphic designer, and a performer and songwriter in his own right.  He is well known for his often acerbic, but also quite humorous, record reviews for Rolling Stone and Creem magazine, among others. However, like his time in Halfnelson, this is but a small part of his extensive career.  His Wikipedia page is worth reading for a good summary. I am grateful to John for his generosity of time and insight, and patience with my follow up questions.  He was candid with his views, and his sense of humor is intact. John's blog is compelling reading, and can be found here.

Becoming a drummer

Monte: What inspired you to become a drummer?

John: At my best friend's bar mitzvah, the drummer's red sparkly drums mesmerized me. I joined my junior high school orchestra as a percussionist, and when the Beatles arrived, imagined the skills would be instantly translatable. I was, of course, woefully mistaken. (Influences) as a drummer? Keith Moon and my former dear friend Bev Bevan of The Move.  I also came to appreciate groove players like Jim Keltner.


John behind the kit, pre-Halfnelson
Monte: How did you meet Ron and Russell Mael? 

John: I was in an Italian class at UCLA with Russell. We were the only two long-haired boys in sight, at a time when one could get mugged for having long hair. He didn't seem interested in being friends.  A couple of years later, the two brothers, calling themselves The Bel-Air Blues Band (Bel-Air being the second richest neighborhood in LA) jammed with (me) in the basement of my dormitory at UCLA. Ron played lead guitar, without distinction!

How would you describe your involvement with the Halfnelson recording session? 

John: As far as I know, I played on all of it, though you'd never know anyone played drums on it from the way it was mixed. 

Monte: There sometimes seems to be an impression that these were "homemade" recordings.

John: Nothing homemade about them. It was my understanding that Mike Berns (Halfnelson's manager at the time, who also was a drummer) bankrolled their going into an actual professional recording studio in Hollywood. It cost Mr. Berns a small fortune to record what was intended to be an official debut album in an actual, professional recording studio.

Monte: Which of the songs from the Halfnelson album stand out to you? 

John: I thought Landlady was particularly awful. I don't remember particularly liking any of them, though my friend Ralph Oswald, who played bass on a couple tracks and then played guitar in my own 1970s band, Christopher Milk, liked (one of the songs). 

Monte: Landlady isn't one of my favorites.

John: Let's call it a youthful mistake.

Monte: Who else played bass on the recording?

John: (As mentioned) Ralph Oswald played on two tracks.  I suspect Earle played a couple of songs, or maybe even Russell, who was playing bass when I rehearsed with them.

Monte: Did you ever work with Jim Mankey? I wonder how the two of you would have worked together.

John: He joined later.  I was always amused at the others' inability to get him to get a groovy haircut. He always looked like the hippie kid brother who hadn't actually bought fully into the idea. (Working) with me would have been a challenge for any bass player, given my very low skill level as a player.

Monte: On some of those songs, such as Arts and Crafts Spectacular, you are quite good and shift rhythms seamlessly.

John: Very kind of you, but honestly, how would you know? I can't hear myself, except for an occasional snare drum fill.

Monte: Can you talk at all about Earle Mankey's role, in terms of leadership, songwriting, and the like?

John: His main contribution seemed to be in devising a clever tape delay for Russell to sing through at rehearsal.  I am unaware of his writing any songs.

Monte: Did you have any expectations of a career with Halfnelson?

John:  I think I rehearsed with them three times. I was quickly becoming quite famous by that time, and wasn't terribly deflated when Russell phoned to say they were replacing me.  They seemed intent on being precious, cutesy. I found the prospect dreadful, and I think my making that view very well known doomed me.

They desperately didn't want to be another righteous blues band, man. I think they wanted to be perceived as quirky and adorable. I remember the Maels exchanging unhappy glances when I said I thought we should be violent and scary, a la my idols, The Who.

Monte: I get the impression that your experience with Halfnelson was somewhat mixed. 

JohnAbsolutely. The Maels were cordial and charming on the surface, but actually impenetrable.  I never felt that I made a connection with either of them.  I wasn't enthusiastic about the music. 

I'll tell you something that always amused me - how brazenly they aped the Kinks! Mere days after the Lola vs. Powerman album came out, they had a song about "contenders." And where do you think they got the idea for that song (Wonder Girl)? I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess, from Ray Davies' Wonderboy!

Post-Halfnelson: Observations

John: Over the years, I've heard a couple of tracks by them that I liked very much, and when I saw them at the Santa Monica Civic Center in 1975, they were terrific.  Russell's earlier diffidence had given way to confidence.  It's always seemed to me though, that they're solely about being wry. I won't pretend to have followed their career very closely, but my guess is that they've written few songs that express much more than what they find funny. There never seemed much genuine emotional expression. 

Monte: I know what you are saying about "genuine emotional expression."  With a couple exceptions, it seems like that's just not a characteristic of this particular band, and they are not that comfortable in that milieu. Is that your impression?

John:  Exactly. Not only as artists, but as people. I won't pretend to know them well, but it was not my impression that I ever would.  Russell, especially, is very, very guarded. Sort of the opposite of me.  I wear my heart on my sleeve. The Maels' never being anything other than wry has been a real problem for me as a might-have-been. 

Monte: Though for many years they played up Russell's flamboyance and Ron's reticence. 

John: I think they're both highly guarded, but I always sensed slightly more warmth coming from Ron.

The Christopher Milk era
Monte: When do you think you came into your own as a drummer? In Christopher Milk? (note: Christopher Milk was the band formed by John and Ralph Oswald in 1972).

John: I look forward to feeling that way, Monte! I will have to improve around a thousand-fold before I qualify as mediocre.

Current Work

Monte: In your current music, are you able to flex your drumming muscles, so to speak? Do you rely on a primarily electronic process, and who are some of your favorite people to work with? 

John:  I don't play actual drums, but program the drum parts via a MIDI keyboard. I like to think I'm reasonably good at that. I play all the instruments on my own recordings, and I am able to say that I am every bit as good a guitarist and keyboardist as a drummer!  

I enjoyed working with UK Jazz Singer Debbie Clarke in Do Re Mi Fa (Cough), and with my wife, on the Mistress Chloe album in 2002.  

John has a diversity of works reflecting his varied pursuits. A good place to start is one of his YouTube channels.   As for the songs themselves, here are a few of them, as well as John's commentary on the songs:

John: My Country Tortured is the leadoff track from my 2010 album, Sorry We're Open.  (This Supermodel)  is also from that album). The song Ride the Tsunami  is by Zelda and the Deathgrips, (which) is what my wife Claire intended to call her late 70s New Wave group after the breakup of the Voyeurs.  Repulsion  is probably the only pop song you'll hear inspired by a Martin Amis novel. I will admit to being genuinely proud of the guitar on "Repulsion." Emotive! My ode to depression is Falling Off The Face Of The Earth, which I've been battling since age seven.

Monte: You've had - and you continue to have - an amazing and diverse career. In the overall context of your life's pursuits, is creating music a special priority for you? 

John: Yes. In a perfect world, I'd be playing music full time. With any luck, I'll find the inner strength to keep on keeping on, producing fiction and music, among other things. 

Here's a recent video of John playing some music, and having a lot of fun at it....

...And let's not neglect John's literary side: 


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