Sunday, August 13, 2023

Sparks: The Debut Album!

 We were trying to play within the rules of what constitutes pop music, and also seeing what happens when you find those rules too confusing.” - Ron Mael, on Sparks debut album.

I wrote a piece about Kimono My House, the third album by the band Sparks, the other day. People seemed to like it, and I felt encouraged to write about more Sparks albums, to look at the albums from my current perspective (we'll generously call it "non-youthful"), delve into why the albums are still special to me, and to celebrate Sparks’ enduring music. And I started thinking about their very first, self-entitled album - a truly special piece of work with Todd Rundgren producing, to boot. 

The Original Halfnelson Cover

The album was originally released in 1971 as Halfnelson. It tanked, but was re-released as Sparks a year later. It tanked again, but for the song Wonder Girl incongruously hitting number one in Mobile, Alabama. Fortunately, the band had the support of Bearsville Records president Albert Grossman, who authorized a follow-on,1973’s A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing. 

It was after these albums that Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers at the heart of the band, moved to the U.K. to seek their fortune. In 1974 they released both Kimono My House and Propaganda, and suddenly they were household names in the United Kingdom.

The Rebranded Debut

Over time, "Sparks" became a catch-all moniker for Ron and Russell’s music and vision. When making the first two records though, Sparks was a five piece band trying to make a name for itself. In addition to Ron and Russell, the other musicians - Harley Feinstein on drums, and the brothers Earle and Jim Mankey on guitar and bass, respectively - contributed to the song writing and were integral to the band’s sound, reflecting a somewhat warped perspective of the world but played out in a traditional rock band context. Russell has called this the only incarnation of Sparks that was “truly democratic.”

I saw Sparks on American television a couple times when they played songs from Kimono and, later, Propaganda. Their visual presentation was as captivating as the music and I was hooked, and soon after I got my hands on Sparks and Woofer. The albums shared many traits with Kimono and Propaganda; but they were also decidedly different. The U.K. albums rocked hard from beginning to end; Sparks and Woofer rocked plenty, but there was so much experimentation on them and had a different feel. But that only begins to tell the story. 

Right from the start, on their very first album, all the elements that we often associate with Sparks are present. Their music is built, at the end of the day, on Russell’s vocals and Ron’s keyboard and compositional genius. The non-traditional subject matter, often relayed from the perspective of a downtrodden underdog trying to figure things out; the intelligent and often very funny lyrics; the sophisticated compositions, always putting the song first and employing the musicians largely to advance Ron’s vision; and of course Russell Mael’s powerful singing, realizing Ron’s vision to perfection - all of it is here, on their very first album. 

The comments above reflect the consistencies in the music, even from the start. Just as interesting is how the two U.S. albums diverge from the first of the two U.K. albums. I think this reflects the inputs not only of Ron and Russell, but the albums’ producers. Todd Rundgren, who produced the debut, loved the eccentricity of the band, and studiously avoided tinkering with the band’s presentation. Russell has noted that Rundgren “didn't wanna change what we were doing, he just wanted the fidelity to be better.” Thaddeus James Lowe, who produced Woofer, had a similar perspective. 

In contrast, Muff Winwood, who produced Kimono and Propaganda, gave the music an almost “wall of sound” feel and smoothed out the edges. Winwood - reflecting what Ron and Russell were seeking to achieve - made the presentation a bit more accessible to a mainstream audience - while maintaining the qualities that made the band unique. 

All this reinforces why it’s such a treat to appreciate the debut album for what it is - an introduction to a vision that would endure for well over 50 years now, but also an album that stands up very well on its own terms. 

The first song on the album, Wonder Girl, was the only single to be released. As with much of the music on this album, it’s hard to figure out who the target audience is. It’s not a ballad, and not a hard rocker. It just moves forward, carried along by Feinstein’s simple and consistent beat and Ron’s tinkling piano low in the mix, with a few interesting guitar bits thrown in. It’s deceptive; the more you listen, the more you realize how quirky it is. And, like many of the tunes on the album, Wonder Girl reveals Ron’s capacity to write melodies that you just can't get out of your head - right from the start. 

Any illusion that this is a “normal” pop album is immediately dispensed with the very next song, Fa La Fa Lee, which is a peppy little tune about, umm…incest: “What I need…she can’t be…nature, nurture who’s to say…Anything between us is…a felony…fa la fa lee…” 

So yeah…on the band's second ever official release, they're singing about incest. From here on, the lyrics take a dark turn, and that’s where they stay for the remainder of the album. And the lustful brother is just one of the many fascinating characters that populate the album - a Ron Mael trademark. A faded opera star; a fellow on his death bed listening to the cynical comments of his friends who surround him; a “broke, spent” former horn blower trying - in vain - to hold on to the glory days: Follow me, my lady, to my home…see my large collection, some on loan…of every big band record ever made…I had to sell my heater so don’t shake…..

The underdog, the outsider…these are familiar characters on all of Sparks albums. And here, we can emphasize with them just as strongly as with all the folks we would meet over the years. It’s hard not to be impressed. 

The lyrics are strong throughout, as one would expect. Ron sometimes stuffs his songs with lyrics from beginning to end, but here there’s a little more space. And the guy delivering the lyrics - yeah he’s pretty good. Hints of Russell’s range appear early and often. On Big Bands you hear a hint of the falsetto that became his trademark. While the album lacks the frenetic, fast paced nature of the material that Ron would later write - and require Russell to sing - the album’s arrangements certainly pose many challenges. Even early on, Ron wrote the songs as he heard them in his head, and Russell just had to adapt - apparently their standard operating procedure for years to come.  

Ron was toying with all kinds of ideas as he composed these songs. One of the real treats on this album, Fletcher Honorama, has a low-key, almost jazz feel to it (at least to these ears) as it tells its story - Fletcher Honorama, shall we justify the eighty Junes you've seen...Since that might be stretching things we're merely sing the songs that made you scream.. Many others - for example, Saccharin and the War (about dieting), defy easy categorization. And then there's the lovely Simple Ballet, about an alternative future where ballet has replaced sports as the national fixation: Instead of "hey Orange Drink, vendors will say, get your souvenir posters of the ballet...

The arrangements hint at the fluidity and flow, the sometimes classical experimentation and grandiosity, that would be refined over time. At times the guitar sounds less integrated into the songs than one would hear in later years, and the drums play a more traditional, rhythm-keeping role. This was a band doing its thing - indeed, on four of the ten songs Russell is listed as either co-writer or, in the case of Roger (about a person named Roger who is the person to ask about things), sole writer. Both Jim and Earle Mankey each get a writing credit as well. Co-writing credits are rare on their later albums.

Two songs on the second side are the most straightforward, arrangement wise: Slowboat (a personal favorite), and (No More) Mister Nice Guys, the hard-rocking album closer. It’s good, but Slowboat is special. A fellow laments that his boat is slowly taking him further from his true, unrequited, love. It’s a rare Sparks ballad with no bells and whistles. Russell sings in a straightforward manner with no affectations, and it closes with beautiful guitar from Earle Mankey - a technique used effectively on later albums but alas, very rarely. 

The Earle Mankey penned Biology 2 does not, in this reviewer's opinion, measure up to the rest of the album’s songs. It has its fans; to me it’s not of the same caliber. Of course, Earle Mankey went on to have a very long and distinguished career (as did his brother), so what do I know? 

Some of the arrangements may be a bit unrefined in places, but most are quite beautifully put together. No doubt Rundgren provided some guidance, but it’s clear Ron had the capacity to pursue a vision for his songs from the outset of his career. That’s impressive. 

I would add that while I admire Rundgren’s commitment to let Sparks be Sparks, the production can sometimes be a bit underwhelming. Some of the guitar parts could have been refined; some of the percussion - the cymbals in particular - comes across as just too tinny. Sparks was proud that they were banging on cardboard boxes, but proper drums would have made a difference.

One other thought - to me, the debut album reminds me a bit of Whomp That Sucker from 1981, which was the first time in many years that the brothers would work in a true band context after the poorly received Terminal Jive. On both records there's a rawness and straightforwardness to the production, and both sought to capture the work of a small band working together to realize Ron's vision. Whereas Sparks gave the band a start, Whomp gave them a reset - and a new start. In both cases, I should add, the albums were followed by LPs in a similar vein, but more honed and less raw in their presentation. And in both cases, those sets of albums paved the way for all kinds of creativity and greatness to follow. 

Sparks' debut album will always be a favorite. The album stands as a solid piece of music, and all the elements that Sparks would come to be known for are here. You can hear ideas and themes in their embryonic stages, and it’s just fascinating to think about how things would evolve.