I DJ’d my very first “radio show,” closed-circuit not broadcast, in 1974 to an audience of about 15 in the Chagrin Falls High School cafeteria. I was nervous as hell. The first band I played was Sparks – I was practically born cool.
The L.A. band Sparks’ first two albums (from ’72 and early-’73) failed to generate much more than embarrassed silence. The Mael brothers – Ron and Russell – then broke up the original band and moved to England in mid-’73, where at least the press had been kind.
Sparks was reformed in late-’73 with Adrian Fisher on guitar, Martin Gordon on bass, and Dinky Diamond on drums, in addition to Ron’s varied keyboards, and Russell’s mock-operatic vocals. The new band kicked with greater rhythmic intensity, and the Mael brother’s songwriting found its voice in a hard-charging art-pop: a bizarre alliance of Roxy Music, Richard Wagner, and the Chipmunks. Evidence of this was amply provided on the album Kimono My House, a garden of freakish delights.
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both Of Us” follows Russell over a busy roller-coaster melody conveying a series of Walter Mitty scenes involving stampeding zoo animals, aerial combat, cannibals, and the terrors of pursuing women. Dynamically alternating between orchestral keyboard accompaniment and kick-ass rock, “This Town” is one of the great singles of the ’70s.
“Amateur Hour” marches to a double-time beat, as Russell’s comparatively naturalistic singing recommends practice as the remedy for sexual naivete. “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” is an impassioned rocker that pursues the recurring theme of awkwardness between the sexes, as does “Hasta Manana, Monsieur” and “Equator.” Fisher’s guitar rocks throughout the album and the tough arrangements balance Russell’s tendency toward twee.
Propaganda was a worthy follow-up to Kimono, with similar themes and virtues. “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” is an elegant Spectorish pop song cautioning the listener that Mother Nature can be bitch. “Something For the Girl With Everything” is favorably reminiscent of “This Town” without being derivative. “Achoo” is the album’s best and most thought-provoking song, using the sneeze as metaphor for everything from a romantic brush-off to the voice of the downtrodden, culminating in an astonishing multitracked chorus of “achoos.”
Sparks took many twists and turns and by the ’80s rode the crest of new wave to considerable success in the U.S. that has continued on and off to this very day – they just released a new one, Lil’ Beethoven, in July – but they have never again been as quirky, fresh and provocative as on this pair out of left field in the mid-’70s.