It’s been a while since I wrote anything on this blog. 2016 to be exact. Where does the time go?But for whatever reason, I decided to take pen to paper - or at least fingertips to keyboard - to write a bit about an album released almost 50 years ago; that I’ve heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times; which I’ve held in high esteem since I first heard it; and which led me on a journey that I’m still walking today.
The album is Kimono My House, the breakthrough album from Sparks that was first released - get ready for it - in May of 1974. It’s a meaningful album to me - the first I purchased (or technically, that was purchased for me by my brother - thank you Sam!), right after seeing them perform some of the songs on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. So it means a lot to me.
I listened to it on a bustling morning commute a few days ago but there were many distractions. I can look at Kimono and kind of just absorb it from a quick glance. I know what’s on it. I know it’s great. But I felt it deserved a proper, attentive listen. So that's what I did.
Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Ron plays keyboards; writes the lyrics; and arranges the songs. Russell sings; he is a force of nature, singing stronger and better than ever. Over 50 years in, they are currently enjoying worldwide popularity and recognition that successful bands usually experience much earlier in their careers. Kimono was the first time they attained international attention, and I wanted to give it a listen with almost 50 years having passed since its release. The album is older now; I am too.
In a nutshell, it’s astonishing how good this album still is. Kimono features Ron and Russell working in a band context; The additional three musicians - Dinky Diamond (drums), Adrian Fisher (guitar) and Martin Gordon (bass) are masterful and make the songs come alive. Eight of the ten songs are classics, and the other two are pretty damn good. As a whole, the album sounds as fresh and creative today, almost 50 years later, as it did way back in 1974. That’s saying something.
Kimono was produced by Muff Winwood, a highly successful producer at the time who knew how to make a commercially viable album, while building on (as opposed to suppressing) the quirks and personalities of the band. Having just moved to the UK after two commercially failed albums in the United States, Ron and Russell were clearly happy working with a producer who knew how to present their music for a wider UK audience. There was a meeting of the minds - a band ready to sell records, and a producer who knew how to make it happen.
It is speculation, though, as to whether this team-up would be a success were it not for the first single off of Kimono, which is also the first song on the album: This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us, which reached number two on the charts, earned Sparks an appearance on the U.K.’s premier televised musical showcase the Old Grey Whistle Test, and made them household names in the UK and beyond. The song captures the essence of Sparks and continues to thrill to this day. The band closes its live set with it, and somehow Russell to this day hits all the high notes.
Nothing on this album even resembles a traditional pop ballad. This song is no exception - it sets the tenor for the rest of the album as it roars ahead with its Walter Mitty story, capturing now-familiar Sparks themes with wit; Russell’s signature falsetto, which he introduced on earlier albums and now really leaned into; a carefully crafted arrangement; and Ron Maels’ brilliant writing - and all in just over three minutes.
The next song (Amateur Hour) is also highly regarded, and clear themes were presented that remain a mainstay to this day - the wry commentary on the human condition, great humor., and a fella seeking to transcend his own limitations.
Ron’s capacity to paint a picture in words is prominent in this song. One often-quoted couplet captures the song’s theme: It’s a lot like playing the violin; you cannot start off and be Yehudi Mehnuin. The surroundings of the protagonist (the lawns grow plush in the hinterlands), his great desire to succeed on his quest (dance, laugh, wine, dine, talk and sing, those cannot replace what is the real thing”); and of course the one line that captures this moment in time (our voices change at a rapid pace; I can start a song in tenor and end up in bass”). The song is so much more than a tune about trying to get laid - even if that’s what it is at its heart, and only Ron Mael could paint this contextual picture so vividly, and with such sophistication.
The next song introduces a theme - falling in love with one’s self - that the boys have periodically returned to, and in ¾ time, just to make it more interesting. A great song, but the next one - Here In Heaven - is special. It’s the story of a suicide pact - he kept to it, she didn’t. But it’s not told as a story in the third person - it’s told from his perspective, looking down: Juliet, I thought we had agreed…now I know why, you let me take the lead…..
Side one’s closer, Thank God It’s Not Christmas, is a top ten Sparks song for me. It features the pitch-perfect guitar of Adrian Fisher; an amazing arrangement and a compelling story - a down and out guy thinking of France as an alternative to his bland, unadventurous life: If this were the Seine, we’d be very suave, but it’s just the rain, washing down the boulevard. To me, that will always stand as one of Ron’s greatest lyrics.The song reaches a dramatic crescendo with Russell’s voice in perfect sync. This ain’t pop music; this is opera, this is story-telling at its finest, this is Sparks at their best.. And the themes are still being played out in their music to this day (see: Edith Piaf from Hippopotamus, or Take Me For a Ride from their most recent release).
Side B hits you with two enduring classics right from the outset - Hasta Manana, Monsieur (a guy trying to pick up foreign girls but getting everything all mixed up), and Talent is an Asset, about the travails of growing up Albert Einstein - from what appears to be the perspective of his overly-protective parents. Hasta Manana has yet another oft-quoted lyric from Ron: You mentioned Kant and I was shocked, so shocked…where I come from none of the girls have such foul tongues). And as for the latter? One of the funniest songs on the album - peppy, accessible, and yet, still off-beat as hell.
That’s seven songs in a row that in my mind, hold up today as absolute classics. That’s not easy to pull off. So when I say that the next two songs don’t quite meet that standard (in my humble opinion), that’s not a criticism of the songs themselves; they’re fine songs. I just don’t feel they reach the level of the others and in fact, the flip side to the This Town 45 has a song - Barbecutie - that I believe should have made the album and could have replaced Complaints with very little, uh, complaining. They’re good songs though, but it’s the next, and last, song on the album that really brings it home for me.
That song is Equator - classic number eight. Russell is given space to show what he can do. This one features early experimentation with the synthesizer, has a haunting arrangement, and a story that’s familiar ground for the band, but always told in some new and creative way from the depths of Ron’s psyche: a guy who’s date doesn’t show up - even though he’s walked halfway around the earth to meet her (All of my flowers are wilted or dead and I’m sorry, sorry in advance…). Gradually the music drops out and only Russell’s voice remains: equator…equator…you said you’d meet me there…you must be just around the bend….
It’s just as mesmerizing to me today as it was almost 50 years ago. Amazing song.
On Kimono, magic takes place within traditional pop structures but always while stretching them; there is a devotion to the song as its own entity, with no real solos throughout the whole thing and impeccably arranged. The subject matter is unconventional, and the vocals have little in common with the typical radio fare - and yet the album met tremendous commercial success.
There’s nothing like this album. It doesn’t hint at genius - it simply is genius. And this was only their third album. It’s great to this day. I love it. It deserves all the kudos it has earned.