by Domenica Clark
For beginners to the decades-spanning career of Sparks, their seminal art-baroque-glam-pop Kimono My House has been often noted as the obvious place to start. Kimono is super pop-y, accessible and has classic stompers such as “Amateur Hour” and “Talent is an Asset”. After you’ve found that you enjoy Kimono and are ready to graduate to higher Mael plains, I would suggest mostly looking to their pre and post-Kimono output, most notably their albums Indiscreet and A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. While Kimono is by far their most accessible album, there are albums and songs that truly illuminate what makes them so darn special in rock music history. The Mael brothers’ output is notable for their acerbic, witty lyrics and clever songwriting. The following songs are some of their most wild and unusual and highlight why they are (often) great.
Halfnelson/Sparks – “Arts and Crafts Spectacular”
Before they were Sparks, they were known as Halfnelson, and they were a relatively obscure Los Angeles band of Anglophiles. This song is one of their first, circa the late 1960’s, and it doesn’t sound of its era at all. The song completely lacks their future obsession with male-female relations and instead focuses on the minor drama during a competition for the top prize at an arts and crafts fair. Sparks are at their most interesting when they cover unusual subject matter and marry it to smart songwriting. This song is impeccable, and one of mega-Sparks-fan Morrissey’s favorites, and for good reason.
Sparks – “Without Using Hands”
Before I heard the album this song was taken from, Indiscreet, I had been a casual Sparks fan. I owned Kimono My House, I enjoyed it well enough, but I didn’t became a believer until I heard Indiscreet, and it was “Without Using Hands” in particular that turned me around. There is an explosion at a hotel in France and luckily no one was hurt except the manager, who lost his hands and thus will live his life without using hands. Musically, it is a very odd piano-based number that is reminiscent of Sparks’ other more experimental numbers.
Sparks – “Alabamy Right”
This odd, jaunty number is a b-side from their album Propaganda. It is one of my favorites because of its unusual song structure and casual observation about a supermarket opening in (presumably) Alabama and the flood of families clutching coupons that enthusiastically swarm in seeking amazing deals on frozen food.
Sparks – “Hospitality On Parade”
In live footage of a performance of this song from the late 1970’s, Russell Mael prefaces it by saying “This song is about the history of the United States.” This is undoubtedly one of my favorite Sparks songs ever, especially as I first heard it at a time when I was working in retail and fully engrossed in the dregs of Capitalist America. It is set in presumably the mid-19th century and concerns U.S. expansion into the West and the power that citizens relish in being able to be their own masters where “the customer is king.” Sample lyrics follow:
“Hey Jenny meet your master/Be nice show him kindness and such/Be kind to our master/But a feeling is a-brewing that we/don’t need any masters/’Cause we all can be a master/and we all can be a king.
Sparks – “Whippings and Apologies”
Possibly Sparks most S/M-friendly song in their discography. Actually, it has nothing to do at all with kinky stuff (but who knows, Ron Mael seems like a freak to me), but is situated in a vaguely historical era, about a girl with “holy water running through her veins” who has the gumption to disagree with her master. Russell Mael squeals the words “Whippings and apologies/over and over and over” ad nauseum which gives the song an especially absurd edge. This is a particularly great Sparks song to sing along with, and is from their second album A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing which stands with Indiscreet as one of their weirdest albums.