Friday, March 13, 2009

Maverick Mael Brothers Set Out To Conquer Heaven And Earth

Popular music has thrown up its share of maverick artists of the years, those fringe dwellers of the mainstream, whose eccentric, quirky, eclectic styles and approach, position them at the cutting edge of largely uncharted territories. A pioneering artist such as Frank Zappa established a genre virtually all his own, through combining an innovative, daring, even provocative methodology, in taking conventional styles and fusing them in unconventional ways. Similarly, brothers Ronald and Russell Mael were creative entities, inhabiting pops periphery, not often listed on the mainstream pop music menu, but rather a special order item for clientele in the know. Yet, like Zappa (though not to the same degree obviously), the Mael brothers, through their group identity Sparks, were hugely influential, in an almost subversive way. They helped shape the look and feel of popular music, as part of that loosely aligned underground movement of artists, removed in large part from the pressures of adhering to a commercially ‘safe’ formula, yet paradoxically influencing that formula.

Californian brothers Ron Mael (b.1950) and Russell Mael (1955) spent part of their respective childhoods modelling for children’s clothing catalogues, which may, or may not, have informed some of the more oddball elements of the Sparks image. By their teen years both had turned to music, and whilst attending U.C.L.A. campus during the late 60s, they played in a few different bands separately, before coming together in a band called Moonbaker Abbey. By 1971 the Mael brothers had formed their first band called Halfnelson (which had evolved out of the Urban Renewal Project). Russell (vocals), and Ron (keyboards), were joined in the initial line-up by college friends Earle Mankey (guitar), Ralph Oswald (bass), and John Henderson (drums). Over the next couple of years Halfnelson attracted a solid following at live gigs, and by 1971 had recorded a number of demo tapes. One of those demo tapes attracted the interest of Todd Rundgren, who at the time was an in-house producer with Albert Grossman’s ‘Bearsville’ label. Rundgren pushed for, and got, Halfnelson a recording deal, and helmed production for their eponymous debut album, released in February 1972. It appeared the world was not yet ready for the Mael brothers, and the ‘Halfnelson’ album tanked. Over the next few months the band recruited a new rhythm section, with Jim Mankey (Earl’s brother) on bass, and Harley Feinstein on drums, replacing Oswald and Henderson respectively. The band’s manager at the time, also encouraged them to change their name, perhaps out of concern that they may be confused with a popular move from professional wrestling. And so it was during the second half of ‘72 that Sparks were ignited. Their debut album was re-released under the new moniker, and a track from the set, ‘Wonder Girl’, actually flirted with the outer reaches of the U.S. charts (#112).

In February ‘73, Sparks released their sophomore album ‘A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing’ (with James Lowe producing), the clever title giving a further indication, if it was needed, that the Mael brothers had a bent for quirky and curious lyrical games. Whilst musically they favoured challenging art rock elements with psychedelic overtones, which maybe proved a little too challenging for U.S. audiences at that time. With the mammoth success of art rock powerhouses like Roxy Music, and the flamboyant excesses of glam-rock, perhaps the U.K. would be more receptive to what Sparks had to offer. During 1972 the band had enjoyed a successful tour across Britain, where it seemed their curious pop tendencies were less perplexing, and more enticing to live audiences. The album ‘A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing’ started to notch up slow but steady sales, and before the end of ‘73 the Mael brothers made the decision to relocate to London on a fulltime basis. The rest of the original Sparks’ line-up remained behind in the States, with Earl Mankey going on to a successful career as both producer and recording artist, and brother Jim playing a key role in the formation of Concrete Blonde.

It’s probably fair to say that Sparks were just a little too ‘dangerous’ for the U.S. music scene of the mid 70s, where ‘middle of the road’ and ‘album oriented rock’ proved safer, and more commercially palatable. Russell Mael’s at times piercing, near manic falsetto vocal stylings, combined with his gregarious and strongly androgynous image, proved an effective juxtaposition to songwriter Ron Mael’s quirky arrangements, mischievously acerbic wordplay, and unnerving stage presence (Mael sported a Hitler style moustache - or maybe it was Chaplin, and maintained a relentlessly stiff and moody demeanour - which was later parodied by Paul McCartney in the brilliant promo-video for his 1980 #1 ‘Coming Up’). The combination delivered a strikingly eccentric package, that no doubt lent itself to the more innovative, and audacious British music scene of that era. Upon settling into their new London base, the Mael brothers recruited a new backing unit, featuring Adrian Fisher (guitar), Martin Gordon (bass/vocals), Dinky Diamond (drums), and Peter Oxendale (keyboards), for both touring and recording duties. Soon after Chris Blackwell’s Island Records signed Sparks to a deal, and in-house producer Muff Winwood (ex-Spencer Davis Group), whose brother Steve would soon return to Island, helmed production on Sparks’ May ‘74 album release ‘Kimono My House’. The immaculately conceived album captured Sparks’ arch combination of intelligent, witty lyrics and glam edged art rock, and the lead out single, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, made an immediate impact on the British charts. The track was defined by Russell Mael’s quavering, pseudo-operatic vocals delivering Ron Mael’s oddball lyrical twists, and soon shot wild-west style to #2 on the British charts (OZ#69). It was kept out of top spot on the British charts by the Rubettes’ ‘Sugar Baby Love’, the Rubettes having benefited greatly from an appearance on the BBC’s ‘Top Of The Pops’, as a replacement act for the scheduled Sparks, who were pulled from the show at the last minute, when they weren’t able to flash their music union credentials. As the album ‘Kimono House’ set up residence inside the British top five (#4/OZ#22/US#101), the follow up single ‘Amateur Hour’ scored a welcome gong at #7, establishing these pop ‘fringe dwellers’ firmly within the British mainstream - at least for a time. During this period Sparks even had the honour of playing on the same bill as Queen, at London’s famed Marquee Club (that would have been some double bill).

The new single ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ (UK#13) preceded the November ‘74 release of the album ‘Propaganda’, which delivered more of the same edgy pop-rock formula, whilst gave Sparks their second consecutive British top ten album (#9/OZ#75/US#63). The Mael brothers seemed to delight in unleashing organised chaos, confronting listeners with a myriad of musical styles fused together, in a disconcerting, yet paradoxically, engaging manner. This time around they were backed by Trevor White (guitar), Ian Hampton (bass), and Dinky Diamond (drums), a support group that would be in place for the next eighteen months or so. In January ‘75, the single ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ (UK#17) continued Sparks’ solid run of chart success. Producer Tony Visconti (of Bolan/Bowie association) was brought on board for Sparks’ next album ‘Indiscreet’ (UK#18/US#169), released in October of ‘75, featuring less than discreet cover art, and a downright over the top musical melange, with a clear power pop flavour evident. By now the oddball formula wasn’t so oddball anymore, or perhaps by its very nature, oddball has a short shelf life, before it grows wearisome. Though it wouldn’t be fare to define Sparks’ as a novelty act, in the context of their work during this period - the ‘novelty’ was wearing thin. That said, ‘Indiscreet’ spawned two top thirty singles with ‘Get In The Swing’ (UK#27), and ‘Looks, Looks, Looks’ (UK#26), but Sparks’ consistent run of chart success was about to stumble and fall into a hole.

By 1976 the Mael Brothers had dispensed with a regular support roster for Sparks, and instead employed session players on an as needs basis. After the stand alone single ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ (yes, a cover of The Beatles’ classic), the support cast for Sparks’ next album included bassist Sal Maida, drummer Hilly Michaels, and Tuff Darts guitarist Jeff Salen. Having lost impetus back in Britain, the Mael’s had also shifted operations back to the U.S., but their next project, ‘Big Beat’, produced by Rupert Holmes (see previous post), proved to be a serious miscalculation. It was an expensively produced attempt at stripped down, hard edge power-rock, but aside from Sparks performing two of the album’s tracks in the disaster flick ‘Rollercoaster’, the Mael’s attempt to finally crack the U.S. market once more proved to be a mini-disaster of its own. The ‘Big Beat’ album marked the final outing for Sparks on the Island label, and the (now) duo signed with CBS/Columbia for their next project. There was a deliberate irony to the title of 1977’s ‘Introducing Sparks’, the band’s seventh album, which did little to redress their anonymity Stateside. Co-produced by the Mael brothers and Terry Powell, it was recorded with a slew of L.A. session players, but its contrived studio slickness was arguably its undoing.

Sparks soon parted company with CBS/Columbia and set up camp with Virgin Records (Elektra in the U.S.), for their next album ‘Number One In Heaven’ (UK#73/OZ#63), released in March of ‘79, which contained only a half dozen tracks (though all quite lengthy). A year previous, the Mael’s had met up with Euro-disco producing guru Giorgio Moroder, whilst on tour in Germany. Virtually no one was above having a tilt at disco during that period, and Sparks, addicted to stylistic metamorphosis, once more threw away their established recipe to embrace a disco-funk meets electronica formula. The single ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’, co-written by Ron Mael and Moroder, sparked a renaissance in Sparks’ fortunes, and returned the Mael brothers to the British top twenty (#14/OZ#85) for the first time in over four years, albeit with a style a world away from their mid 70s fare. Some critics unleashed derision upon Sparks for selling out to disco, but it’s likely the duo didn’t care, especially given the manic funk-disco follow up single, ‘Beat The Clock’, released in a slew of different mixes, bolted all the way to #10 in Britain during mid ‘79. On the 12” mix, a bonus track titled ‘Untitled’, featured comedian Peter Cook in a mock advertisement for the album ‘Number One In Heaven’. A third chart hit, ‘Tryouts For The Human Race’ (UK#45), confirmed that Sparks’ potentially risky strategy, in entering a creative marriage with Moroder, had paid off, commercially if not critically. Russell and Ron Mael would continue to defy expectations (and convention) into the 1980s, though as had been the case throughout the 70s, mainstream commercial appeal would remain sporadic at best.

Thanks to the definitive Sparks website for some of the photos used in this post. Check out more great pics and info on the history of Sparks at the following -


Peter Greenwitch said...

Hello there

Most of the Sparks pics are from website

Thanks to mention it


Xavier Lorente-Darracq

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks for your comment Peter/Xavier, and I'm happy to give your great website credit and a mention for the fantastic Sparks photos.