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Big Beat:  Watch a complete Sparks concert from 1976
10.20.2015
10:01 am

Topics:
Heroes
Music

Tags:
Sparks
Ron Mael
Russell Mael
F.F.S.

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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.
 
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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.
 
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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…
 

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That time Peter Cook plugged Sparks with a hidden message on their singles

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There is a well-worn myth about Peter Cook that his career went into sad, alcoholic decline after his longtime comedy partner Dudley Moore, who became a famous Hollywood star, ended. Poor old Cook supposedly spent his days pissed out his brains, counting his millions, bemoaning the loss of his once great talent while raging with jealousy over Moore’s success. Of course the truth is never quite as simple or as boring—in fact Cook rarely stopped using his talents to amuse, entertain, experiment or just fuck about for the hell of it—albeit at times on a somewhat smaller stage.

In 1979, while bringing down the house as the judge in The Secret Policeman’s Ball—where he ruthlessly lampooned the dubious summing-up in the infamous trial of Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe for the attempted murder of his alleged lover Norman “Bunnies” Scott—and hosting the chaotic punk music TV show Revolver, Cook squeezed in time to record two improvised adverts for Sparks’ album No. 1 in Heaven. These ads were hidden on the inner grooves of the twelve inch singles for the Mael brothers’ hits “Beat the Clock” and “Tryouts for the Human Race.”
 
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Picture discs, colored vinyl, 12-inch singles and alike were all part of the many gimmicks used to sell records in the late 1970s, and credit must be given to whoever it was that thought up the jolly wheeze of hiding a wee plug from the subversive Mr. Cook on the latest toe-tapper from Sparks—it was certainly a novel way to shift merchandise.
 
Continues after the jump…

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Sparks: Ron Mael says he’s a better song-writer than George Harrison

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Fun with Ron and Russell Mael, interviewed by Julie Brown on Music Box in 1985. Ron (as one commentator notes) is particularly “perky,” perhaps due to the excellent review in Sounds that claimed he was a better song-writer than Lennon and McCartney. Ron disagrees, but admits he is maybe a better song-writer than George Harrison.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Excellent Sparks live footage from 1974


When Sparks Met Comedy genius Jacques Tati in 1974


Ron and Russell Mael: Documentary on Sparks made from found footage


 
Bonus interview plus vintage Sparks comic strip, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Paul McCartney spoofs Ron Mael of Sparks, 1980
01.23.2013
06:05 pm

Topics:
Music

Tags:
Paul McCartney
Sparks
Ron Mael
Music Video


 
I never knew this existed until now, and I wonder what Ron Mael thinks of it?

I assume McCartney is a Sparks fan if he is willing to spoof Mael in his own video, or maybe it was just an easy impression, even if he does it well. He also does Hank Marvin, but not so well, and I assume some of the other “band” members—they’re called The Plastic Macs, geddit?—are spoofs of other musicians from the period, too.

I’m not a McCartney fan really, but this IS a cracking tune:

Paul McCartney “Coming Up” (1980)
 

 
H/t too Wallace Wylie.

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Leave a comment
Ron and Russell Mael: Documentary on Sparks made from found footage
11.12.2012
07:53 pm

Topics:
Heroes
Music
Pop Culture

Tags:
Sparks
Ron Mael
Russell Mael

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I do love Sparks, those delightfully talented brothers Ron and Russell Mael, whose music has made the world so much better. They arrived in my life at the moment The Bonzos left, and offered a similar wit and sophistication with a syncopated beat. This documentary is made from found footage, for a journalism class in 2010, by jedenobel. It’s seems somehow right that Sparks should have a homemade fan documentary, and this one doesn’t disappoint, being both entertaining and informative, and with plenty of clips.

The fab image of Sparks above comes via the lovely Lady Is Lingering site.
 

 

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Sparks: 4 Blistering Tracks ‘From the Basement’
01.02.2012
06:14 pm

Topics:
Heroes
Music
Television

Tags:
Sparks
Ron Mael
Russell Mael

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Sparks perform a selection of excellent songs on From The Basement, in 2009.

The tracks in no particular order are:

“Propaganda” / “At Home, At Work, At Play”
“I Can’t Believe That you Would Fall (For All the Crap in this Song)”
“Good Morning”
“Strange Animal”
 

 
More joy from Sparks, after the jump…
 

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Sparks: Live in Concert, Isle of Skye Festival 2006
11.15.2011
07:26 pm

Topics:
Heroes
Music

Tags:
Sparks
Scotland
Ron Mael
Russell Mael
Skye

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Opening with “Happy Hunting Ground” and finishing with “Suburban Homeboy”, this is fifty minutes of sheer bloody joy, as brothers Ron and Russell Mael take us and an audience, at the Isle Skye Festival, from June 2006, through the glorious history of Sparks.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Rarely Seen 1974 Promo for Sparks ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us’


When Sparks met Jacques Tati in 1974


 

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When Sparks Met Comedy Genius Jacques Tati in 1974

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This should have been something: When Sparks met Jacques Tati in 1974, to discuss Ron and Russell Mael’s’ starring roles in the French comedy legend’s next feature Confusion. N’est-ce pas incroyable, non? As the brothers explain over at the fabulous Graphik Designs website:

Russell Mael: “We were discussing with a guy from Island Records in Europe fun things to do that weren’t involved with being in a rock band and how to just kind of expand the whole thing… JacquesTati’s name was brought up and we just kind of laughed it off. Anyway, he approached Jacques Tati and somehow got him to come meet us. Jacques Tati didn’t know anything about Sparks because he was 67 years old and doesn’t listen to rock music.”

Ron Mael: “We were to be in Tati’s film Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company to help them out with some American technical expertise and input into how TV really is done. Unfortunately due to Tati’s declining health and ultimate death, the film didn’t get met.”

Confusion was to be a “visionary project” in which Tati offered a critique of the encroaching globalization of the world through advertising and television. It was planned as a follow-up to his masterpiece Playtime that dealt with the damaging alienation caused by modern corporate life. Tati had even decided on a shock opening to his new feature. In the first reel, his famous comic alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot would be killed off, in a mix-up with a real and prop gun.

The film had Hulot working in a rural TV station and his death leads to the arrival of two young American TV execs (Ron and Russell), who have plans to modernize the TV station.

What should have been one of the greatest pop-comedy films ever made, sadly never happened after Tati went bankrupt and his declining health put the project on hold. However, Sparks did write a song for the film, Confusion, which appeared on their Big Beat album. Instead of starring roles, the brothers made a cameo appearance in the 1977 blockbuster Rollercoaster. Plans to film Confusion lingered on for a few years, until Tati’s death in 1982 brought the project to a close.
 

 
Bonus clips of Sparks, plus their demo ‘Landlady, Landlady, Turn-up the Heat’ after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment