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Sparks - Sparks

Sparks - Sparks

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Genre: rock
Rating: *** (3 stars)
Title:  Sparks
Company: Bearsville
Catalog: BV 2048
Year: 1972
Country/State: Los Angeles, California
Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+
Comments: no poster
Available: 1
Catalog ID: 260
Price: $40.00

Best time to play: When friends are over and you need to show of your rock and roll credentials

Sparks have a hardcore following and as a result there's literally a ton of material out there on the group's roots. As such, I'm not going to spend a lot of time going over history that's better documented elsewhere.

Los Angeles natives, in the late-'60s brothers Ron and Russell Mael were attending UCLA and making money modeling clothing for sales catalogs. Bitten by the music bug, the pair decided to form a band, recruiting drummer John Mendelsohn and bassist Ralph Oswald for the band Halfnelson. Within a short time Mendelsohn and Oswald had been replaced by drummer Harley Feinstein and brothers Earle and Jim Mankey (guitar and bass respective). The band's unique sound brought them to the attention of Todd Rundgren, who quickly signed them to his Warner Brothers affiliated Bearsville label.

Produced by Rundgren (who thought they were strange), some forty five years after it was released, 1971's "Halfnelson" still sounds bizarre. I want to be careful here because the adjective bizarre has some negative connotations and that's not want to imply. Oh, there was no doubt that Ron and Russ were different. Way different. And so was this album. Even if you were hearing impaired, you would have been able to see that The Maels were way ahead of their time, managing to introduce all sorts of cutting edge concepts into their musical mix. There were touches of punk aggression, new wave angst, cabaret-styled excursions (wonder where Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music got some of their ideas), 10cc. styled humor, and even Queen-styled excess ('Simple Ballet') scattered throughout the collection. Coupled with some of the weirdest lyrics you've ever come across (anyone want to take a guess as to what 'Fletcher Honorama' was about), it doesn't necessarily equate to easy listening, but it's still worth a go.

Even though they'd released and album and were actively touring in support of the set, the band's manager subsequently convinced them to change their name to Sparks. In the forlorn hope of scoring some sales as a result of the name change, in 1972 Bearsville reissued the Halfnelson album under the title "Sparks". The track listing remained unchanged, but the package included new cover art - a rather bland photo of the band that gave you the impression they weren't sure what their image was..

- 'Wonder Girl' has always epitomized what I like and what I dislike about the band. Musically it was a pretty decent slice of pop/glam rock with an okay melody and Russell managing to keep his excesses in check. Imagine Marc Bolan and Freddie Mercury hanging out together and trying to out-camp one another and you'd get a weird idea of what this one actually sounded like. For some reason Bearsville tapped it as a single. YouTube has a clip of the band lip synching the song for German television. Watching the German kids trying to figure out to dance to the track is almost as funny as Ron's heavy eye liner. rating: *** stars
- Ron's cheesy-sounding keyboards were a wonderful way to start the song, but the 'Fa La Fa Lee' turned decidedly bizarre (I know, hard to believe for a Sparks song) thereafter. With a proto-new wave feel, after all these years I still don't have a clue what it's about, though I've seen it explained as about virtually every subject matter know to man, including incest. rating: *** stars
- 'Roger' is one of those tracks that you literally have to listen to on a good set of headphones in order to capture all the truly strange studio effects. n I've heard the song dozens of times and each time I spin it I pick up on something different. The disjointed ending is a trip. rating: *** stars
- In the world of Sparks, the pounding, martial-beat propelled 'High C' could almost have been mistaken for one of those massive selling '70s English pop-rock bands like Slade, or The Sweet. Well, the comparison was fair until you got to the odd mid-song vocal gyrations where the song took a decidedly operatic change in direction. rating: *** stars
- 'Fletcher Honorama' managed to cobble together one of their prettiest melodies with a completely ominous and disconcerting lyric. I'd love to know what it was about. Ron explained it as a "tune about a celebration being thrown for an old man named Fletcher just before his death. His friends didn't want to wait until he died to get together." rating: *** stars
- Built on what sounded like a waltz structure, 'Simple Ballet' was recorded years before Queen got around to 'Bohemian Rhapsody', but the two seem to share the same roots. In some ways, the song may even be better that 'Rhapsody'. Kudos to Mankey for the killer guitar solo. rating: *** stars
- No matter how damn weird the Maels could be, nobody could deny they had the ability to craft a pretty melody and that was certainly the case of the sweet ballad 'Slowboat'. Rejection my never have sounded as pretty as this one. It's also worth hearing for the weird "Twilight Zone" zone sound effect slapped on Earle Mankey's guitar. Towards the end of the song Mankey got a chance to cut loose with the real thing. rating: **** stars
- Geez, how do you go from a fairly commercial composition like 'Slowboat' to the totally bizarre do-chromosomes-dance themed 'Biology 2'. Penned by Earle Mankey, with lyrics like "Unless you've got your dominance down in your genes you'll have a kid, invalid just like Mendel's beans" this one was either creative beyond description, or seriously disturbed. rating: *** stars
- Even with the lyrics in front of you 'Saccharin and the War' remains eclectic ... A comment on society's infatuation with weight ? Beats the crap out of me. The song itself was a fairly bouncy piece of power-pop with some nice pounding Ron Mael keyboards. rating: *** stars
- With a pretty, flowing melody and catchy hook, 'Big Bands' was one of those songs that left me scratching my head trying to figure out what the Maels were thinkin' about. Maybe due to the vinylholic theme ("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 song struck me as being pretty funny, but maybe it was meant as social commentary ? Who knows ... Kudos to the Mankey brothers who turned in a crushing performance on this one; especially at the point where the song abruptly morphed from pop song to pseudo-punk diatribe. rating: **** stars
- Earle Mankey's opening guitar gave you a momentary hope '(No More) Mr. Nice Guys' might be fairly commercial rock track and (for a Sparks song) it was. That's too say the song was as strange as you'd expect (but with the album's most rock oriented arrangement and one of the catchiest hooks). rating: **** stars

As mentioned, the album dropped a single in the form of:

- 1972's "Wonder Girl' b/w '(No More) Mr. Nice Guys' (Bearsville catalog number BSV 0006)

I hesitate to use the word groundbreaking for an album I don't love, but yeah, this one was groundbreaking. Well worth looking for, if only to say that you've heard it. That said, some of you are going to love this one.
"Sparks" track listing:
(side 1)
1.) Wonder Girl (Ron Mael) - 2:15
2.) Fa La Fa Lee (Ron Mael) - 2:54
3.) Roger (Russell Mael) - 2:30
4.) High C (Ron Mael) - 2:03
5.) Fletcher Honorama (Ron Mael) - 4:01
6.) Simple Ballet (Russell Mael) - 3:50

(side 2)
1.) Slowboat (Ron Mael - Russell Mael) - 3:50
2.) Biology 2 (Earle Mankey) - 3:00
3.) Saccharin and the War (Russell Mael) - 3:57
4.) Big Bands (Ron Mael - Russell Mael) - 4:15
5.) (No More) Mr. Nice Guys (Jim Mankey - Ron Mael) - 5:49
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