Sometimes a band’s best recorded work is never truly appreciated until long after its original release. This has long been the case for brothers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, whose god-like output is still being discovered, rediscovered, and praised many years after it first made vinyl.
Forty years ago this week, the brothers Mael offered up their fifth studio record Indiscreet to a seemingly indifferent public. Produced by Tony Visconti Indiscreet should have been a crowning moment for Sparks, as the record seamlessly developed themes from their previous hit LPs Kimono My House and Propaganda to create a beautiful sonic concoction. Alas, the music press were overly harsh in their reviews, being too busy finessing their hyperbole for the next big thing to appreciate the quality of riches on offer from Ron, Russell and Tony. The album punctured the UK’s top 20 chart, while the two singles “Get in the Swing” and “Looks, Looks, Looks” haunted the lower regions of the top 30 for a few weeks. Disappointed, the Maels disbanded their latest incarnation of Sparks and decided to return to their hometown Los Angeles.
Sparks’ superlative fifth album ‘Indiscreet’ produced by Tony Visconti.
However, the return to the nest was interrupted by a stopover in New York, where the brothers had picked-up on the buzz over punk rock. With a briefcase full of unrecorded rock songs—a few of which were staples of their live set—Ron and Russell decided to record their sixth album Big Beat in the city. Stripping down their lush, instantly recognizable sound to a more basic strum and bang of guitar and drums—a return of sorts to the sound of their early Todd Rundgren/James Thaddeus Lowe-produced albums Sparks and A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. To augment the sound, the brothers considered signing-up David Bowie’s “Spiders” guitarist Mick Ronson to join the band. A series of demos were then recorded with Ronson on guitar, but Mick had to pull out due to his other commitments—recording with former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter and playing as part of Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue.” The Maels therefore signed-up a group of talented session musicians as their backing band and set about recording a more raunchier, rockier more muscular Sparks.
Sparks hoped their slightly harder sound would give them another hit album in the US, and plans were hatched for a tour with the Patti Smith Band (which never came off) and they signed up for an appearance in the blockbuster movie Rollercoaster, where they performed two songs—the album’s opening track (and first single) “Big Boy” and (its B-side) “Fill ‘er Up.” There were also plans for a recording of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with Marianne Faithfull, who dropped out at the last moment leaving Russell to sing it on his own.
After the Marx Brothers, the Sparks Brothers.
Big Beat is undoubtedly more appreciated today than on its first release. It may have been a transitional record of apparent off-cuts, B-sides and startling outstanding originals, but there was enough toe-tapping thrills to write home about. The opening track “Big Boy” is a delightful crowd pleaser, while “Fill ‘er Up” and “White Women” poke a tongue at certain elements of the traditional white rocker’s love of women and speed—with a pointed aside about the racism therein. The doozy is “Confusion” which was intended for a film the boys worked on with great French comic Jacques Tati. “I Bought the Mississippi” harks back to very early Sparks, while “I Like Girls” and “I Want to be Like Everybody Else” could have sat comfortably on Kimono My House or Propaganda.
I clearly recall the week Big Beat came out and when my brother brought it home how we spent many hours listening to this leftfield record, marveling at the manner in which Sparks had once again produced something wonderfully unexpected, original, challenging yet utterly engaging. I suppose my brother and I were the odd ones out, as everyone else in the UK seemed to be preoccupied by ABBA, Rod Stewart, Frampton Comes Alive! and the imminent arrival of punk. Similarly, the kind of clever, ironic social commentary the Maels dished up to the delight of Europe was not going to find an instant audience with an America enamored by Kiss, The Eagles and MOR. Sparks were not to have another hit until their teaming up with Giorgio Moroder for the album Number One in Heaven in 1979.
In November 1976, Sparks appeared at the Capitol Theater, NJ, where they ripped through a powerful set of hits and tracks from their latest album Big Beat. Track listing: “Nothing To Do,” “I Want To Be Like Everybody Else,” “Something For The Girl With Everything,” “White Women,” “Talent Is An Asset,” “I Bought The Mississippi River,” “Everybody’s Stupid,” “B.C.,” “Equator,” “This Town Isn’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us,” “Amateur Hour,” “Big Boy,” “Fill-er-up.”
The whole of Sparks concert plus bonus newbie track for Udo Kier movie ‘The Forbidden Room,’ after the jump…