I admit I`m having a weakness for this band. Why? Well, I think Wikipedia says it best: “Known for their quirky approach to songwriting, Sparks’ music is often accompanied by intelligent, sophisticated, and acerbic lyrics, and an idiosyncratic, theatrical stage presence, typified in the contrast between Russell’s wide-eyed hyperactive frontman antics and Ron’s sedentary scowling. They are also noted for Russell Mael’s falsetto voice and Ron Mael’s keyboard style.”
And that is exactly why I like them. If you never heard of them – check them out on YouTube – search for their album “Kimono My House” from 1974 and enjoy!
Santa hangs around drag bars listening to Sam Cooke
Sparks make it on antibiotics, Advocaat, and adulation.
And MAX BELL tears himself away from the Baron`s presence long enough to check it all out.
Contrary to popular belief, Santa Claus – alias Saint Nicholas – is alive and well and living in Amsterdam.
But did you know that he has a coloured side-kick, too, and hangs around in drag-bars listening to Sam Cooke?
Well, he does – but just to prove that he`s as ubiquitos as ever (and that the pigment of a man`s skin affects his generosity not one jot) their images are displayed together in every shop window around.
Christmas is definitely more commercially muted in Holland than in London. The glitter and sense of exploitation are replaced by an atmosphere of sheer fantasy which permeates everything from the doll-house facades that flank the canals to the Dutch language, apparently a variation on English whereby the insertion of two extra vowels to our equivalent will make the lamest linguist fluent.
Hence telephone becomes telefoon, Great Britain translates to Groot Britagnie and so on. A notable exception to this rule of thumb is the word Sparks which should in theory be Spooks; however they compensate for that by referring to them as “The Sparks,” apparently the case throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe.
A trip to the red-light district (sheer professional interest of course) reveals the alarming effects of inflation. Unless this is their tea break the girls ain`t exactly busy. They`re sitting propped up in flimsy negligees paring nails and sneering at wide eyed passers-by. Holland may be famous for its cakes and pastries but these tarts don`t seem too hot – though that could be lack of clothes. If you linger too long they get edgy and abusive and the fact that there are more pimps than customers doesn`t make it the healthiest area to buy tulips – not wishing to sustain third degree clog injuries our party returned to the confines of civilisation, in this case The Hotel.
Lunch with Ron and Russell Mael proves to be a time for recuperation after the hardship of a not-so-wonderful flight from Copenhagen. Most of the group are terrified of aeroplanes and a pilot demonstrating the delights of automatic right turns at thirty thousand feet couldn`t have done much for their collective digestive systems.
Only driver Jim-Jam remains as overtly cheerful as usual, chortling at the contradiction of being a coach-driver without a coach, thus able to finish work without starting it and still get paid.
Two salads and a plate of mussels later Russell revealed that they too may soon become rich by default. Apparently the distributor of publishing royalties for Doris Day in Scandinavia phoned Ron and asked him whether he was Terry Melcher as she had several million krone to get rid of quick because the tax authorities were breathing down her neck. Informed that the moniker was Mael not Melcher she said `have the money anyway` and hung up.
Of more immediate significance is the fact that the current mini-tour has been a riotous success, although the legacy of forty days continuously on the road in England means that antibiotics rather than adulation have kept body and soul together. To prove the point, Trevor White still has tonsilitis.
During the afternoon the Maels went shopping and were able to relax for the first time. Despite their sophisticated appearances Ron and Russell are, in their own words, “The world`s worst tourists.” We spent hours looking at and buying tacky souvenirs; Ron revealed he has a penchant for electric whirring toys, tin ducks and plastic food reproductions, like hamburgers, that squeak when you bite them. They also collect postcards; the poorer the taste the better, so ones of aforementioned young ladies entitled “Window Shopping In Amsterdam” were quickly snapped up as were the brothers by scores of delighted locals, though it was mostly the older ones who ventured to ask for autographs and a chat. It`s perhaps not surprising that such a wide spectrum of people know and like Sparks, particularly when Ron`s distinctive appearance and his famous stage stare (the most peculiar gimmick since Django Reinhardt`s right hand) are worth a thousand yards of lurex.
Sparks are playing a sold-out gig in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam`s version of a scaled down Albert Hall and usually reserved for classical performances. The walls are engraved with long-dead names and the management are visibly nervous. The Berlin Philharmonic may never get rushed but now the front stage is swarming and the floor is already knee deep in Amstel bottles and butt ends. For anyone who has seen the band in England, tonight`s audience is fascinating, an average age of twenty plus but very hip and getting rapidly high on a thick blanket of green smoke which puts the Roundhouse to shame.
The lights dim to pitch black and suddenly a deafening roar greets the arrival of five shadow figures. Spotlight on Mael senior jabbing the introductory notes to “Talent Is An Asset” and they`re off. It`s immediately noticeable that the acoustics are good and Russell`s voice more so. Whereas his vocals can sometimes be submerged in a welter of noise, now they`re up front all the time – and yet the music is infinitely tougher. This version of “In My Family” dispels any crap that Sparks are a “cute” band, as Trevor`s lead rips into a savage burst of feedback that sends the crowd bananas.
All the solos are now precise, and sustained, “Reinforcements” realises it`s full potential with Dinky (Diamond) driving along a fierce military beat assisted by a more than willing audience. Because of obvious language problems Russell has cut out most of the in-between raps and certain numbers are left out. The result is a breathtakingly fast pace which only enables him to relax during “Bon Voyage”, still hitting perfect high notes over ascending guitar runs that bring the melody line right out. Ian Hampton`s bass, beginning on “Achoo” recalls early 50`s instrumental. When Ron adds a decidedly idiosyncratic organ line, staring blankly into space, body hardly moving – pandemonium, during which somebody kindly throws Russell a handkerchief.
Part of Sparks` success as live performers, apart from a highly developed sense of humour, is the impression one gets of a desire to please and to work hard for effect. Russell is everywhere. Never forgetting the sections of the crowd without such a good view he plays to everyone and takes nothing for granted, hence even older tunes like “Souvenir” or “This Town” still come across freshly. Because of the speed of their act, much of Sparks` subtlety gets underwritten – but quieter numbers like “Never Turn Your Back” prove the reproducting qualities of the group, particularly on those swelling final chords. No doubt about an encore and, as with any exhilarating concert, the closing number “Here In Heaven” seems the best. After the final symphonic “Many” Dinky launches into his now immaculate solo, Russell sings `Years` and nearly ends, like the drum sticks, in the audience. Lights up but no-one wants more – you can`t improve on Total Satisfaction.
After the show the Maels hold informal court in our hotel bar, Ron and I retiring to quieter confines for a chat. Had the reaction to their leaving for a lengthy spell in the States surprised them. Was it, such a big deal?
“Not at all. Having done two tours in a year we wouldn`t be playing England anyway, until the winter of 1975. We`ll be releasing another single from `Propaganda` with a new `B` side in January, and the next album should be recorded in America – still with Muff, though we hope to have Earle Mankey, our old lead guitarist, engineering.
“What`s really exciting is that he`s working with the Beach Boys in L.A. and there`s talk of having them doing some background harmonies.” That could do Sparks a whole a lot of good as the Beach Boys` presence is bound to give them commercial credence. However, earlier in the day (at a Dutch press conference), Ron and Russell had broached the theory that the tradition of American audiences had hardly changed since Beatle days, and that the newer generation were generally so soaked in wine and downers that a band like Sparks needed to get to the fresher, more creative atmosphere of England to survive.
If that was the case how come Sparks think they`ll make it now?
Ron mulled his answer over thoughtfully: “Well, we have the advantage of being secure in Europe.”
Yes, but then none of the new-wave “sophisticated” bands have yet transferred successfully – and they`ve had that security, too…
“Humm…we do have the element of local-boys-made-good, and the English element as well, plus this is our best-ever combination. There`s a lot of, I know this sounds kinda naive, youthful spirit. We aren`t the initial thing to latch on and so we do have a reputation preceding us. It will be a shock though, going back, after the success here.”
As with all aspiring groups Sparks aren`t sure whether to play as a support band (there`s the possibility of Santana or Johnny Winter gigs!) or headline in smaller halls. Personally I don`t see how they can adopt the former policy, so well -defined is their audience. On the other hand, they must aim to sell across the board as they do in Europe. A tricky dilemma.
Ron admits that while they don`t yet have complete financial security, he enjoys the touring:
“Living in hotels means responsibilities are taken away from one, which gives me the energy to devote to writing. But it does make you a cripple in a certain way, always relying on others. It`s hard to put into perspective. I only realise the “star trip” bit when it hits me on a personal level, so I get off on the concerts and the mobbing, that`s reality now. It gets more important to have genuine reaction. I can only relate to an audience when I`m not looking at an account sheet with rows of noughts.”
Ironically the Maels have always been so forthcoming and pleasant that, unlike most rock stars, the aura of mystique is negligible: “People are sometimes disappointed when they meet us which makes it odder for them, but I enjoy all the aspects of popularity. I really believe it`s more important to have what you`re doing stronger than what you are – to keep the product first!”
Such an absence of cynicism means that Ron and Russell`s stage and private personas are more or less similar, never patronising or blase. Somehow I don`t think that will work against them because it`s so real. For example, they don`t yet realise how big they are.
Of Island`s bands in Holland, only Cat Stevens` might outsell them – and the picture is similar all over Europe. Yet despite the apprehension of cracking America, Christmas at home is an exciting prospect.
Russell seems the more homesick of the two but Ron`s dying to play with his clockwork fairground.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper and you are free to use it as you like. If you use it on your own webpages – please credit me or put up a link to my blog.
This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Bryan Ferry, Rick Wakeman, Gong, Rolling Stones, Big Jim Sullivan, Dizzy Gillespie, Otis Redding.