Thursday 15 August 2013

Sparks: 'Kimono My House'

"Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat." Sparks put the fear of God into pre-teens in 1974 with their debut Top Of The Pops appearance. As pretty boy Russell Mael flashed his eyes and the agitated, almost oriental glam of This Town Ain't Big Enough rang out, the whole nation wanted to shout "Watch out! Hitler's sitting behind you! And he's playing the piano!" You had to laugh or you'd be terrified.

Ron And Russell Mael were child models, and later ice cream salesmen, born and raised in southern California. They formed a band called Halfnelson in 1968 and were soon taken under the aegis of eccentric rabbit-boy Todd Rundgren. After two low-selling albums and a name change - to something midway between the Marx Brothers and pure electricity - someone smart suggested they try their luck in England. "It was a fantasy" says Russell, "we were real Anglophiles. And we were too naive to be paralysed by thoughts of failure."

It was 1973. Initially they were holed up in Beckenham, Kent. It may have a proud musical tradition (Bowie, Siouxsie, Haircut 100) but it held little allure for our Hollywood exiles. "We got tired of catching the 10.49 from Victoria every night. So we moved to South Kensington, to the basement flat of Kenneth Tynan's house."

Impressively, Sparks earnt themselves a month's residency at the Marquee Club straight away, which led to an Old Grey Whistle Test performance. "In the US we'd played to six people at the Whiskey A Gogo; in London there were queues around the block. We started a new life." With the rest of the original band heading home, the Maels placed ads and found Adrian Fisher, Martin Gordon, and drummer Dinky Diamond. Island Records signed them and very soon they had recorded a blinding third album.

Even compared to the quickfire pop of the previous records, Kimono My House was hyperactive. There's a theory that British bands play higher, tighter and faster than American counterparts (think Beatles vs Byrds, Sex Pistols vs Nirvana) because it's the best way to keep warm in a damp, cold rehearsal room. Ron Mael claims the faster pace was purely down to the classical music he was listening to - but maybe, thirty years on, they've forgotten the biting reality of the English climate. Their first UK-honed single in April '74, This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us, was an astonishing blend of old Hollywood, Roxy Music, and Monty Python which fulfilled pop's primal needs by getting ever louder, faster, and shriller over its three and a half minutes. With the greatest of ease, it hit the Top Three within a month.

Kimono My House - released in June - was no letdown, a hypoid, Dada-ist stream of potential 45s: Amateur Hour was also eatern-guitar-flavoured (plucked to become their second top tenner), and a tribute to adolescent dancefloor hell; Here In Heaven was sung by a dead lover to his girlfriend on earth who had chickened out of a suicide pact; the dense, superloud Thank God It's Not Christmas was a straightforward thumbs-up for the 364-days-a-year party life. "Their music is so obviously and totally different from anything we've heard before" said Todd Rundgren. So clever and sharp, so quirky and immediate, such intense fun. Anita Loos would have adored them.

"We had the screaming girls and other fans who thought there was a deeper side to what we were doing. They didn't like the screaming girls." Ron and Russell soon settled into London life. Once they went to a cinema and a rat ran over Russell's feet - "that didn't really happen in southern California. Or stores closing on Sundays. Reality hit us after living in England a while. But we got to see Roxy Music and the Sweet, who were really good, and we were fans of Indian food. So that was on our positive checklist. Tandoori chicken... sorry, Morrissey. We've since cleared up our act. There are very few chickens in our lives now."

As a bona fide pin-up Russell was asked to contribute a weekly column to girls' magazine Mirabelle. "Heady stuff. Favourite sweets. The pro's and cons of pies. Colours - do you like them?" Moustachioed Ron, unsurprisingly, was spared the ordeal - it is likely that no feature was written on Sparks in 1974 that didn't mention Hitler, or child molesters, at least once.

By the year's end the band started to fragment with the acrimonious departure of bassist Martin Gorman, but - barely pausing for breath - they released another fine album, Propaganda, in November. Melody Maker voted them brightest hope for 1975 as the utterly beautiful Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth graced the Christmas Top 20. Guitarist Fisher was next to go, ahead of the Indiscreet album which delved into Gilbert and Sullivan and flapper ditties, maybe a little too deeply. The kids didn't need their own Hinge And Brackett, and 1976 saw Sparks disappear from the charts completely. For a while it had all fitted just so - the shock, the ambiguity, the thrill of the falsetto - and by the dawn of punk it was all used up. The Maels returned to the States in '77 to lick their wounds and await the first of several rebirths.

The sauce and cheek of Kimono My House ("You mentioned Kant and I was shocked, because where I come from none of the girls have such foul tongues") had a strong effect on the young Morrissey. As a neighbour in LA, he was invited chez Mael to hear the premiere of 2002's Li'l Beethoven, a beat-free album which bore no resemblance to any previous Sparks album, or anything else in pop for that matter. Russell considers it "unique and bold" and it's hard to disagree.

The Maels' bravery was rewarded with international praise and an invite to play Morrissey's Meltdown. "We're both kind of detached from the real world" reckons Russell. They settled on Kimono for the first set, the whole of Li'l Beethoven for the second.

"Kimono My House was an important album in Morrissey's formative years. We had mixed feelings about doing it - we were really flattered, but we've re-established our group as a current creative force. We didn't know how we could justify doing it to ourselves, but doing both albums made it an interesting and conceptual show. Li'l Beethoven" concludes Russell, "is a modern equivalent of what Kimono My House represented."

He sounds a little fidgety and unsure, like he took a lot of persuading. Ron, a silent and slightly eerie presence up until now (as if you would expect anything less), finally speaks. "It took me a lot more. But people grabbed me by the shoulders, and they shook me. Physical force always works on me. Eventually."

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