I fell in love with the music of Sparks (Ron and Russell Mael) the minute I saw and heard them on the legendary BBC show Top of the Pops in 1974, performing This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us. Almost 40 years later, I still love their music and regularly listen to it. Why?
First, let’s go back to that initial visual encounter. The pop world then was full of musicians – of varying levels of quality – competing to be noticed. Today we might talk about them attempting to develop their brand. How did the musicians and artists do that? They dressed differently, wore makeup, took part in publicity stunts, went on any TV show that would have them, and battled with the music press. Appearing on Top of the Pops was the number one (sic) goal of every pop artist and wannabe star. If you got that opportunity, you grabbed it and did your utmost to make an impact; you pranced about the stage, smiled or growled at the camera, fluffed your lip synching or fake instrument playing. Anything to get noticed.
It was, and this is classic understatement, going against the tide for Ron to sit at the keyboard and play his instrument. Ok, the Hitler style moustache made an impact. But there he was, the center of attention, refusing to play ball. (Instead, he played his instrument…) And he wore a tie! It was left to Russell to do the normal pop star stuff. I bought it all.
I remember being taken in by their sound; I had not heard anything like it before. But, if I had been in any doubt about the situation, the lyrics sealed it for me. My love affair with the English language – nearly killed off by a dreadful secondary school English language syllabus – means I am attracted to good writing in all forms. (Well, all forms except theatre.) I have been known to read and write poetry. (No, you may not see any of it. Yes, it is not very good.) Sparks music stands on its own, but often so do the lyrics; they are frequently playful, often insightful, sometimes puzzling and nearly always entertaining. So, when I heard:
“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, and it ain’t me who’s gonna leave”
that was it. I appreciate, in isolation, you may not see the impact. But I was a young kid, hungry for something new, something different, and something meaningful. When Sparks sang lines like this:
“Flying domestic flying
And when the stewardess is near do not show any fear
Heartbeat increasing heartbeat
You are a khaki-coloured bombardier
it’s Hiroshima that you’re nearing”
that was what I was looking for.
I bought the album Kimono My House and played it to the proverbial death. I still know the lyrics of every song on that album.
“Well, I ain’t no Freud
I’m from L. A.”
From then on, I was a loyal fan. I bought every album and also played them to death. I expected them to be more commercially successful, but that eluded them. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because most of their music demands more than an initial listen; it makes you think. (The intellectual snob in me loves this.) But, for anyone who is prepared to make the effort, it is well worth it.
“Up here in heaven without you
I’m here in heaven without you
It is hell knowing that your health is keeping you out of here for many, many years”
In preparing this piece, I spent some time refreshing my memories of their music catalog. It struck me that what I had missed out, thus far, was the quality of the music. Yes, the lyrics are often top notch. But, for many of their songs, stripping out the lyrics will leave you with a quality piece of pure music. In other words, they are true professional musicians. And while their output is not universally magnificent, the vast majority of it is. They may be underrated, but if popularity were a measure of quality we would all be in trouble. Sparks – Ron and Russell Mael – are a class act.
Sparks official web site: here.
Trivia: in the early days, at the Marquee in London, it’s alleged that one of the bands that opened for them was Queen…