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.”