The 1960’s musical explosion started ripple effects that are still felt today. People at the time felt emboldened by the consistently collapsing definitive restrictions that were placed on all artists before. It was this exact blank slate of expression that bore many of the most forward-thinking bands of all time. One of those offspring was Sparks. Hailing from Los Angeles and originally consisting of two sets of brothers, they plied their trade in the legendary late 60’s LA scene. Over 50 years of touring, they’ve gained admirers across the world for their true dedication to showmanship and heady, well-constructed songs. Although over the years they have changed their lineup, Russel and Ron Mael (vocals and keys, respectively), have kept the continuous presence of ambition and silliness to all of their creative outputs. Every album entices, while snubbing its nose at you. Sparks have had a career spanning 50 years releasing 23 albums and are still acting like children in the best possible way. Here are must hear’s from Spark’s lengthy and overlooked discography.
One of many wonderful ballads that echoes the band’s obvious love of the grandiose. The feeling of not belonging is a constant theme as well, and this song is in that same vein. It’s hopefulness as well as its state of current dissatisfaction make it one of their most emotional and melancholy songs. The track appeared on their debut effort and gave a glimpse into the range they possessed. The lyricism and beauty of Ron Mael’s vocal line combined with Todd Rundgren’s production make “Slowboat” one of their most endearing pieces.
“Fletcher Honorama” Sparks/Halfnelson-1971
Also on their debut album, “Fletcher Honorama” is directly from the future. The song is written and produced so masterfully it’s truly shocking to believe that it was made in 1971. It has a sinister tone that adjusts to an exquisite climax and back again. No section is out of place or dull. The way the song drifts through each one is an of early examples of their immense vision.
“Moon Over Kentucky” –A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing-1972
The foreboding nature of the track misleads from the point that the song is about an outcast adolescent trying to experience their fist tastes of life and independence. The haunting vocals throughout give it a distant and eerie feeling. The hammering of chords between the verses adds to it’s overall effect and creates a very strong statement. It moves fascinatingly and it paints an amazing picture with it’s structure.
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” – Kimono My House-1974
Probably the most popular Spark’s song. It’s chart success made it synonymous with the band, who have maintained an extremely rabid alternative following. The song’s ability to reach an audience that the band had not up to that point, launched them into genuine music success. It was a culmination of their early lineup’s sound and a sign of what they were eventually to do. The song’s construction is also noteworthy, flying through time changes and putting their ability on display.
“At Home, At Work, At Play”-Propaganda-1974
A song that defines the band’s ability to use every aspect of the massive account of musical influence stored in the Mael brother’s heads. The song is one of the best representations of what makes Sparks truly special. The drop from the opening salvo of lyrics on the intro “Propaganda” is one of the heaviest moments on any Sparks’ album. It has aspects of the hard rock that proceeded it, however it would be hard to relate them to any of the band’s that defined that genre. The lyrics continue a theme of the main character speaking more or less ironically about romance and the ridiculousness of courtship.
“Hospitality On Parade” – Indiscreet-1975
Another whimsical comment on the world around them. The title aids to the idea that good things aren’t done without ulterior motives. They take the statement, “the customer is king” and basically break down how we have accepted it as a fact in society. In a statement, business needs to appear to offer something to the general public, while still understanding that they are attempting to make profit off of it. The social commentary of Sparks is one of their more indelible qualities.
“Tits” – Indiscreet-1975
A brilliant story of the pitfalls of marital “bliss” and a mid-life crisis. The name and overall vibe indicate a crass, humorous song. Yet the subject matter, when looked at devoid of comedy, seems very depressing. The repetition of “drink Harry” calls toward an aging, sad man in an unhappy marriage with a wife who appears to also be expressing the same amount of wear. Their lyricism is often overshadowed by the musicianship on the songs, yet this one’s lyrics seem to do the opposite.
“Forever Young” – Introducing Sparks – 1977
The sentiment of the song is the driving mantra of all of the music Sparks made. It’s almost a thesis that they over the years have been consistently trying to prove. It has all the aspects of a true power pop song: a driving beat, triumphant guitar, and soaring vocals. Written like a true idealist, it disregards all notions of aging having an effect on them. It’s one of their most hopeful songs.
“Tryouts For The Human Race”- No. 1 in Heaven-1979
A very interesting mix of disco and experimental electronic music, which in many ways ended up being the template for the sound of the 80’s. It’s a signal of a new sound and a new era that they were accepting. As a band that had always prided themselves on being cutting edge, it’s fitting that they took the technology being used around them and made it their own. Produced by Giorgio Moroder, the song was a great blend of past, present, and future.
“Sherlock Holmes”- Angst In My Pants-1982
One of the only Sparks’ songs that can be defined as inherently sweet. The longing vocals make for a very interesting change of pace to the “Angst In My Pants” album, and their overall catalogue. He speaks of Holmes as a character he envies and believes he’ll never compare. The simplicity sets it apart from the complex songs that had become their staple. The lyrics defy the past style in the sense that they seem very romantically inclined, albeit quirky. It distinguishes itself while staying true to their main sensibilities.
“Suburban Homeboy”-Lil’ Beethoven-2002
From one of their more recent efforts, “Suburban Homeboy” is one of Sparks’ greatest examples of wit. They dismantle an entire group of people from the beginning and continue the hilarity throughout as if they were comedians picking on a heckler. Many times, Sparks challenges a social construct to inflict their lyrical wrath upon. In this case, they turn their gaze towards a character, or characters, they have a genuine distaste for. The song is somewhat timeless in it’s theme. It can be specifically applied to people today and, interestingly enough, was written by a band 35 years into touring and recording.
Additonal Songs Worth Checking Out
“Fa La Lee”- Sparks/Halfnelson-1971
“Simple Ballet”- Sparks/Halfnelson-1971
“Girl From Germany”-A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing-1972
“Here Comes Bob”-A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing-1972
“Amateur Hour”- Kimono My House-1974
“Screwed Up”-Big Beat-1976
“I Want To Hold Your Hand” (cover)-Big Beat-1976
“Those Mysteries”- Introducing Sparks-1977
“My Other Voice”-No. 1 in Heaven-1979
“Wheres My Girl?”- Whomp That Sucker-1981