Saturday, December 26, 2009

Auf wiedersehen to the beat

Few bands engender such hostility as Sparks. In the first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide Billy Altman of Creem Magazine wrote "The(ir) objective was to hit it big in a foreign land and then return home to conquer the masses who ignored them before they went to England to get rich and famous". He also "docked" them "one star per album for being somewhat responsible for Queen." Of course the first statement is not true. Little did he know when he wrote that put-down in 1979 that Sparks would still be around in 2009 with a dedicated worldwide fanbase. And the second statement is way off the mark, as Queen was already well on their own upward path in 1974 when Sparks hit the big time in the UK.

From their first demo recording of oddball California Folk/Psych (the sadly never-released Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing) in 1968, to their most recent 2008 release Exotic Creatures of the Deep the Mael brothers have followed their own path. They have conquered, then jettisoned more musical styles (and bandmates) than even David Bowie. Frankly I never got into their Euro-electro-dance pop albums of the 80s and 90s, but what came before and after are essential pieces in my LP/CD collection.

The central nugget that ties their 21 albums together is Ron Mael's songwriting. He can pop out a killer hook in a heartbeat. And the lyrics - oh my - how does one begin to decipher the byzantine layers of psychological maneuvering that takes place in most of their songs? At the same time there is a junior high school sex-obsessed boy peeking out from under the sheet music.

Leaving my syntax back at school
I was thrown for a loss over gender and simple rules
You mentioned Kant and I was shocked ... so shocked
You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues

That little nugget comes from Hasta Manana Monsieur on 1973's breakout LP Kimono My House. Here is a live performance from Don Kirchner's Rock Concert in 1974 at the Beacon Theatre NYC. I can only imagine the shocked look on the faces of the people in the crowd... what the heck IS this? Give a listen to the crackerjack band - Dinky Diamond was a powerhouse drummer, and guitarist Trevor White laid down a glam sound that kicks these songs into fifth gear.

Immediately following HMM is Thank God It's Not Christmas, which may be my favorite Sparks song ever. The opening guitar melody is genius. The music may be upbeat but the lyrics tell the tale of a man who spends 364 days of the year seeking thrills in the streets of the city

There I'll spend the night
Meeting fancy thins
At bistros and old haunts
Trying very hard to sin

That 365th day is the one he wishes to avoid at all costs - spending time with only his mate.

Thank God it's not Christmas
When there is only you
And nothing else to do
Thank God it's not Christmas
Where there's just you to do
The rest is closed to public view

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