Growing up in the early seventies there were numerous images sent to frighten us through the medium of television – the Autons on Doctor Who, the UFO episode when the Earth is invaded, Stuart Hall on It’s A Knockout and Sparks performing on TOTP. The first time I saw Sparks I wasn’t sure what I thought – the fast, falsetto singing coupled with a humourless piano player with a Hitler moustache were just too much for me to take in!
Sparks began under the name of Halfnelson when two sets of brothers, Ron & Russell Mael and Earle & Jim Mankey joined with Harley Feinstein in Montgomery, Alabama. Despite having their initial album produced by Todd Rundgren and an appearance on American Bandstand they only managed a local hit. The band’s manager decided that the name Halfnelson was at fault and rechristened them Sparks. While their re-released, and re-titled, LP failed to make any impact, the follow-up, “A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing”, began to make some waves in Europe. To support this, Sparks undertook a short tour of Europe and it was this that helped the Maels in their decision to move to London in order to achieve their musical ambitions.
So it was in 1973 that the Maels left the other members of the group, flew to Britain, recruited local musicians and began to record the classic LP “Kimono-My-House” for release in 1974 – Sparks had arrived!
It was at this point that they began to scare us, with Russell’s falsetto and Ron’s visage, through their TOTP appearances in support of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us) and “Amateur Hour” (No. 2 and No. 7 hits respectively), a fact not lost on the music press where they were described by Sounds as having “the musical extravagance of Wizzard, the sophisticated feel of Roxy Music and the menacing power of the Third Reich”!
With the oncoming approach of punk, a determination to make the charts back home and, if you believe the press, their dislike for the British weather the Maels moved back to the US in 1976. Their music however needed to change (I was going to say “evolve” but it didn’t need to get better just different) for the new market. It was this change that led to their re-emergence in the British charts in 1979 with the synth-pop of “The Number One Song In Heaven” and “Beat The Clock”.
While Sparks have only had a few minor chart hits since then (including an interesting version of “This Town……..” with Faith No More) they have continued to experiment, develop and record with each LP having some new nuggets of Mael mania hidden within them. Over hits included- Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth and Something For The Girl With Everything and Get in the Swing.
Beat the Clock got ton No.10 in 1979.
Finally, I mentioned at the beginning how I was scared by the humourless piano player. The stern features were obviously just a front as any group that can release an LP with the title “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins” must have some in builthumour!