The Seventies have been caricatured as a decade of flares, platform heels, jumpsuits, the Brotherhood of Man and Starsky & Hutch. But this is a false memory, one that rolled in on successive waves of nostalgia. More fascinating is what those waves have left behind. It is only lately that we have come to celebrate an aspect of the decade that was particularly evident in Britain: a popular taste for intelligent eccentricity. We have started to appreciate the Manchester quartet 10cc, recently the subject of a BBC documentary. And, at long last, due credit is being given to 10cc’s nearest American equivalent, the wonderfully odd and oddly wonderful Sparks.
Once described as the whitest band in music history, Sparks are most often thought of as an electro duo. At the end of the Seventies they teamed up with the producer Giorgio Moroder, the man behind Donna Summer’s hypnotic disco records. Together they created a template, with a quiet man behind a keyboard and an expressive singer up front, that would be used and adapted by a series of great British hitmakers: Yazoo, Erasure, Soft Cell, and, in a subtle variation on the theme (deadpan and deadpanner), Pet Shop Boys. But the work they did from the end of the decade onwards has obscured the work they did at the beginning. A new box set, “The Island Years”, which reissues on vinyl the four albums they recorded for Island Records, along with a drily retitled best-of collection, “The Rest of Sparks”, is a reminder of just how strange and invigorating that early work was.
In 1974, Sparks were a five-piece rock group led by the Mael brothers: Ron (pictured, second left), surely the only pop star ever to cultivate a resemblance to Adolf Hitler, and Russell (pictured, second right). Ron did most of the songwriting, and in performance would perch immobile and stony-faced behind a keyboard, while the flamboyant Russell cavorted and whooped centre-stage.
The Maels had relocated to Britain a year before, believing the country which had embraced glam rock would be more receptive to their work than their homeland. They were right. Too peculiar for the American mainstream, they found an enthusiastic audience in Britain, and promptly scored a major hit with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”, which compacted into three ingenious minutes a greater range of melodrama and genre than Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” managed in six. In 1987 the song was covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees, an act of homage which suggests the original wave of punk rockers had been paying close attention.
That song opens “Kimono My House”, the first of two albums Sparks released within seven months of each other in 1974, the second being “Propaganda”. “Indiscreet” and “Big Beat” followed in successive Octobers. Between them these four records are a dazzling, frantic, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rush of ideas, sources and experiments. They draw upon vaudeville, opera, chanson and European cabaret as much as glam rock, blues and power pop. Sparks always sounded like a rock band – seldom using instruments beyond the standard line-up of drums, bass, guitar and keyboards – but they never sounded like any other rock band on Earth. It was as if they had been dropped variously into Weimer Republic Berlin, a barrelhouse bar or La Scala, and resolved to fit right in.
The common thread running through this crazy quilt is Russell Mael’s voice, swooping up and down the register and lingering on his trademark falsetto as he catapults his way through inexhaustibly inventive lyrics. Sparks’ songs were almost never about anything that anybody else’s songs were about. Nobody else thought to warn of “Mother Earth” as a treacherous femme fatale, or compose an anti-Christmas power ballad. What in clumsier hands might have been insufferably quirky was never less than intriguing.
If there’s another band who can claim to be a major influence on theatrically camp, retro acts like Scissor Sisters, as well as on punks, goths and electro-popsters, I can’t think of them. Each age likes to think of itself as the most sophisticated to date, and yet nothing so strange and eclectic looks likely to trouble the charts today.
The Island Years and The Rest of Sparks are out now