Sparks’ histrionic humbug

Sparks in London, November 1972; Ron Mael, Jim Mankey, Harley Feinstein, Russell Mael, Earle Mankey

Sparks in London, November 1972; Ron Mael, Jim Mankey, Harley Feinstein, Russell Mael, Earle Mankey. Source: Wikimedia

From the comments below this slightly up itself Guardian review of a Sparks plus orchestra concert, we have this

If a kid today should ask you ‘what does originality in pop music sound like?’ you could always point them to Sparks. Marvellously witty and tuneful and always entertaining, yet sounding unlike any band before them. ‘Kimono my house’ should be up there in any classic album list.

I could not agree more with the commenter. Sparks are my heroes. I hope the concert recording makes it to a commercial release. It sounds, er, different:

If the orchestra enhances the glam pomp of This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us, it turns the rest of the record into cinematic set pieces. Here in Heaven reeks of international espionage, Talent Is an Asset becomes an Oktoberfest oom-pah, and Falling in Love With Myself Again could be Julie Andrews at her most narcissistic. And if Thank God It’s Not Christmas was once a rock anthem of histrionic humbug, it’s now a lost theme to The Muppet Christmas Carol, sleighbells, symphonic snowfall and all.


Musical standards

The musical writing output of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman formed a reasonable chunk of my youth, and evokes good memories. (A definite sign of the rose tinted spectacles syndrome.) So, it was good to read in the Guardian’s interview with Chinn, that there’s a new musical about their work. It’s called Blockbuster, and features Paul Nicholas*. Apparently the story line is about a Soho busker who travels back in time to the 1970s.

[*Interesting choice of star. Nicholas is no spring chicken. He was born in 1945, the same year as Chinn, but is two years younger than Chapman. Clearly the producers think Nicholas has got what it takes to not only bring in the crowds, but deliver the required performances on the stage.]

I was impressed by the honesty of this part of the Chinn interview:

Other number ones from Quatro and Mud soon followed and, Chinn says, the seemingly unstoppable run of success began to be accompanied by a certain arrogance. “It was an industry where you could go to bed on a Monday night and no one had heard of you, and by Tuesday lunchtime, when the charts were released, everyone wanted to copy you. It was tough to deal with, and even today I’m not sure I would be able to advise anybody how to handle it. We did the expensive cars, the clubbing, the drinking too much and maybe not treating people as nicely as you should. For a time we thought we were God’s gift to the music business, because for a while all the evidence said that we were.”

Chinn is now working in Nashville. Of that he says:

“I love working there, but for me it is not as crafted as the way I used to do it with Mike. In Nashville they want to write a song in a day and they will write a song in a day. I sometimes find myself saying it’s not quite good enough, we’re not finished. Mike and I did have a tremendous work ethic and we would keep going at a song until it was the very best it could be. I think we were far more fussy than they are in Nashville today.”

Interesting that he emphasizes the work ethic. In my experience, that aspect of the task in many streams of life – work or play – is too often ignored. But that’s my inner grumpy old man showing its face, probably.

Read the whole thing here. And if you’re anything like me, you will play the embedded videos!


Music on automatic


“Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn…”

Autobahn was the fourth album by German electronic band Kraftwerk, released in 1974.

It was the first of their albums I bought, spurred on by the hit single of the same name. Little did I know that the three and a half minute single was a mere taster for the twenty two and a half minute full version on the album!

At the time my German language skills were not too bad, so I had the added pleasure of understanding most of the lyrics, if not the context.

This explanation, from Wikipedia, was unknown to me but worth sharing:

The title track is intended to capture the feeling of driving on the Autobahn: from travelling through the landscape, the high-speed concentration on the fast lane, to tuning the car radio and the monotony of a long trip. It describes the A 555 from Köln to Bonn—the first Autobahn ever. It was built under the mayor Konrad Adenauer in 1929 to 1932 without any intersections.

My memories around the album include BBC Radio One DJ Johnnie Walker playing the single – giving it his usual due reverence by keeping quiet while it was on –  and then telling his audience that we were not far away from having concerts that consisted of a band member coming out and pressing the ‘on’ button! I guess he wasn’t a fan.

Now, listening to it again, I think the music stands up quite well. It’s pleasant, bears listening to, and is entirely inoffensive. Maybe that’s its limitation. It is electronic music, but it doesn’t stretch any boundaries, or push the envelope in any way. Perhaps it did in 1974.

Regardless, it was good to hear it again.

[The musical journey of rediscovery through my record collection continues. Click on “Vinyl” in the Categories, or in the following links, to see previous entries.]


Ringing a bell


Tubular Bells was the first album from Mike Oldfield, released in 1973. (Gulp!)

It was one of the first records Richard Branson’s Virgin Records released, and I have heard it said that the LP’s commercial success was pivotal in the success of Virgin.

Branson picked up the rights to Tubular Bells after several other record companies turned it down. (Not the first time a blockbuster has gone that way.) In some respects you can see why it was not wanted. It was essentially two largely instrumental tracks, with no real chorus or hook, and all from an unknown artist.

From my perspective, I know I liked it sufficiently that it was one of the LPs I repurchased as a CD. And it’s also one of those pieces of music where it is easier to hear the difference in sound quality between the two formats. Maybe I am kidding myself, but I much prefer the LP to the CD.


You may know the music featured in the film Exorcist, but I was surprised to see, in relative terms, how rarely it had appeared in other media like film and television. Maybe it is too distinct.

Taking the album out again and playing it – again and again – was another joyous part of rediscovering my record collection. But at the end I was left with one troubling question: why hadn’t I bought any other Mike Oldfield albums?

I may have to do something to rectify that…

[The musical journey of rediscovery through my record collection continues. Click on “Vinyl” in the Categories, or in the following links, to see previous entries.]




Approved by the Motors was the second album from The Motors, released in 1978. Naive fool that I was, I bought this on the back of the single release – Airport – and because I had liked an earlier song, Dancing the Night Away. I cannot say it’s one of my favorite albums, but several of the tracks rank highly for me.

For example, apart from Airport, Sensation, and Today are two good pieces of music at polar opposites of the guitar band spectrum.

And how could anybody resist a rock musician called Bram Tchaikovsky?


If you are looking for some hidden treasures, I recommend you have a look at all the albums by The Motors. Apart from the tracks mentioned above, be sure to listen to Love and Loneliness and Tenement Steps from the Tenement Steps album. Both are excellent.

These guys had talent, they created some fine music, and I’m only sorry there is not more of it.

[The musical journey of rediscovery through my record collection continues. Click on “Vinyl” in the Categories, or in the following links, to see previous entries.]


Mucking about on the keyboards


Crisis? What Crisis? was the fourth Supertramp album, released in 1975. What drew me to buying this?

I was an irregular viewer of the Old Grey Whistle Test. Sometimes the bands that were on seemed to be just making a noise. But by chance I caught Supertramp performing Dreamer, and that nifty piece of music stuck in my mind. When I saw this album was by the same band, I was hooked.

Musically, it’s quite different from Dreamer and it is interesting to read up on the band’s view that the album was a dud. (See here.) Some – like Rolling Stone magazine – agreed with that view and slated it. But it must have done reasonably well, given that it was released. Of course, in true contrary style, it’s one of my favorites.


The stand out track (for me) is Another Man’s Woman with a bravura keyboard performance that goes on and on and on, but is just not long enough. Somewhere, sometime – I do not know where, when, or how  – this was described as the band indulging Rick Davies who was ‘just mucking about on the keyboards.’  Listen to that track. It’s quite something.

Other personal favorites here include Easy Does It, Sister Moonshine, and Poor Boy.

I don’t know what the band were doing when they dismissed the album so easily. Were they being overly modest? Playing a prank? Their creative juices were still flowing well, because I think there’s another (later) Supertramp album in my collection.  And as good as this is…

[The musical journey of rediscovery through my record collection continues. Click on “Vinyl” in the Categories, or in the following links, to see previous entries.]



Magnificent Mancunians


How dare you! was the 1976 album from 10cc, a talented foursome from Manchester who could all sing, play multiple musical instruments, and write music and lyrics. Eric Stewart, Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme were going from strength to strength, as the album proves. There were two hit singles – I’m Mandy Fly Me and Art for Art’s Sake – and the album showcased (again) a wide variety of musical styles, all rendered in tight, professionally produced, packages.


But this was the last of the real 10cc. It’s said (here) that this was the last album with the original lineup because Godley and Creme felt constrained by the 10cc commercial success format, and wanted to do their own thing. Had the band been able to handle people doing their personal projects, and not feel threatened, maybe the band could have stayed together. But it was not to be.

Playing the album now, to my ears the music is dated in the sense that it does not belong in today’s world. In other words, you are not going to see the same type of music produced today. But, ironically, it’s still fresh. The songs still have a bite and something to say.

My favorite track (then and now): Don’t Hang Up.

“The band went la di da di da
And I got loady do di dodied
Lousy violins began to play
I went no no no
And as the vol-au-vents exploded
I was walking down the aisle the other way”

The opening track that gave the album its name was also one I highly rated. While clever lyrics are all over the album, that instrumental is just fine and dandy.

It’s written somewhere that there was an art-school half of the foursome. That seems to come across in the artwork for the album. It also still stands out and remains memorable. Click on the following thumbnail for the interior artwork, and see if you can spot the band members. Does anybody recognize any other people in the shot?


Good memories.

[The musical journey of rediscovery through my record collection continues. Click on “Vinyl” in the Categories, or in the following links, to see previous entries.]


Musical execution


And so the musical journey of rediscovery through my record collection continues. (For previous entries, see the links at the end of this article.) Next of note on the record player is this 1975 (under appreciated cracker of an) album from the Electric Light Orchestra: Face the Music.

From a sales point of view, the main single releases from the album – Evil Woman and Strange Magic – were a success. I liked them. However, the album did not do too well and the last single release – Nightrider – was a sales flop. Guess what. It’s my favorite track on the album. It features a lyric that remains firmly lodged at the back of my trivia laden brain to this day:

“Hold on, nightrider baby, hold on you’re a nightrider.
Riding the night, searching for what is gone.
Never reaching the end, so you must travel on.”

And the album is also one of my favorite ELO releases.

The other standout track for me is the instrumental Fire on High. Five minutes plus of joy.

Now some information I picked up from a brief look around the web.

The picture above is the back cover of the album. This is the front:

This, from Wikipedia, is interesting:

The back cover of the record sleeve shows the members of the band with their faces pressed against a glass panel, supposedly watching the “electrocution” depicted on the front cover. The band member who is looking away is Richard Tandy, who didn’t like the idea and didn’t want to participate.

And so is this:

“Fire on High” contains a backwards message in the beginning. When the song is played backwards, the message voiced by drummer Bev Bevan can be heard stating, “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.” — ostensibly Jeff Lynne’s shot at backmasking hysteria, after false satanic allegations were made against their song “Eldorado” by Fundamentalist Christianity members.[3] “Down Home Town” also starts with some backmasking: the refrain from “Waterfall” (“Face the mighty waterfall, face the mighty waterfall”). A portion of the string crescendo from “Nightrider” was used backwards on “Evil Woman.”

The question is, since it’s not practical to schlep the record player around, do I cave in and buy an MP3 version of the album so I can hear it in the car or the gym? Or do I stay faithful only to the vinyl? Decisions, decisions…

[Ballroom Blitz, Glasgow Sound.]


Glasgow sound

If you know what this picture is, you really know Glasgow. (Or, rather, really knew old Glasgow.)


I often drove past the building – the remains of the building – that hosted this pillar and phone number. But it’s not my photograph of the real thing; it’s from an album cover. One of the best albums ever made by a Scottish band, recorded in Edinburgh and manufactured and distributed by a Glasgow company. Is that enough by way of clues for you?

Here’s the next vinyl wonder that has been on my reinstated record player: Continue reading