Sparks Appreciation & Album by Album thread

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Scope J, Jun 27, 2015.

  1. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
    Halfnelson 1971 reissued as Sparks 1972

    Wonder Girl
    Fa La Fa Lee
    Roger
    High C
    Fletcher Honorama
    Simple Ballet
    Slowboat
    Biology 2
    Saccharin And The War
    Big Bands
    (No More) Mr. Nice Guys


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  2. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
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  3. Jack o' the Shadows

    Jack o' the Shadows Well-Known Member

    "Halfnelson" is a decent debut, I suppose, but I can't help but think that it is very uneven compared to what was to come. My favourite tracks on this release are definitely "Wonder Girl" and "Fa La Fa Lee." The driving interaction between the organ and bass, as well as the bass part following the second chorus on the latter is among my favourite instrumental parts of any Sparks track. And let it not be ignored that the black humour of the lyrics is simply hilarious. "She ain't heavy, she's a brother to me" anyone?

    Let me also thank you for starting this thread. It will make for great reading, and it's good to see Sparks getting a more promenent band on these boards and elsewhere.
     
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  4. Helmut

    Helmut Forum Resident

    Location:
    Germany
    The topic should have started with the real "Halfnelson" album, which they released privately before and which is making the rounds. Probably more exiting than the first official Sparks album.



    I guess most people discovered the official first album years later after their british break through. Very interesting music even then, though more "difficult" than "Kimono". Suffers a bit from a strange mastering/mix.
     
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  5. MadMelMon

    MadMelMon Forum Resident


    I like it quite a bit, but it's very derivative in spots. A bit too much Jim Morrison for my taste.

    Has anyone even *seen* one of these? There's a photo circulating of the test pressing, supposedly taken by Harley Feinstein (Spark's drummer,) but it's just a plain white label...literally could be anything. Nobody's seen the artwork. A few fans have created artwork based on Russell's description, but nothing on the real one.

    There's also supposed to be a bootleg of this stuff called California Folk Songs, but I can't find any reference to it outside of a couple of blogs.

    Weird.
     
  6. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
    Cool to see there is some interest
    in the Halfnelson demos

    1. CHILE FARM FARNEY (1.27) - 2. JOHNNY'S ADVENTURE (2.52) - 3. ROGER (2.28) - 4. ARTS & CRAFTS SPECTACULAR (2.33) - 5. LANDLADY (2.41) - 6. THE ANIMALS AT JASON'S BAR & GRILL (2.36) - 7. BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN (1.29) - 8. MILLIE (2.07) - 9. SACCHARIN AND THE WAR (2.36) - 10. JOIN THE FIRM (3.53) - 11. JANE CHURCH (3.27) - 12. THE FACTORY (2.32)

    All songs written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael and sung by Russell Mael except "Big Rock Candy Mountain" sung by Earle Mankey. The demo Lp was produced by Earle Mankey for Halfnelson. Unknown original cover design by Ronald Mael. At time of these sessions, Halfnelson's members was as follows : Russell Mael, vocals and bass guitar, Ron Mael, keyboards, Earle Mankey, guitar, John Mendelsohn, drums and Surly Ralph Oswald, bass guitar.

    http://graphikdesigns.free.fr/halfnelson-sparks-demo-lp.html

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  7. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
  8. S. P. Honeybunch

    S. P. Honeybunch Presidente de Kokomo

    Location:
    California
    Great debut album with quirky songs and quirky, tinkly keyboards. "Slowboat" will make you feel like you are on a boat.
     
  9. johnnyyen

    johnnyyen Forum Resident

    Location:
    Scotland
    Never really know what to make of it. The potential is there, but it reminds me of the David Bowie Deram album; a pointer to the future, rather than a fully formed group and album.
     
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  10. MadMelMon

    MadMelMon Forum Resident

    A collage I made of the assorted stuff. The white label is Fierstein's photo, the woodgrain is (supposedly) the A side, and the rest are fan-made covers based on Russell's description (the check on the plaid table is based on an explanation from Fierstein, supposedly used for the copies sent out to labels when looking for a deal.)

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  11. MadMelMon

    MadMelMon Forum Resident

    If anyone happens to be interested, I'm writing a critical appraisal of their catalog, album by album. I'm doing it as an exercise to get out of writer's block, and as such I don't really have plans for it outside a group of Sparks-curious friends.

    I could post a few here, although I should say up front that they're basically me riffing on the impression the records make on me. So, basically, you'll be reading as much about me as Sparks o_O

    Don't worry, I'm FASCINATING. But if I'm clogging the thread, lemme know, no offense taken :D

    -----

    1970: Not yet Sparks, still Halfnelson.

    The first time I heard The Residents, I thought they were boring. Weird, sure, but boring. I was a bit too young, and all I heard was a vaguely darker version of the dumba** tapes my friends would make on their cassette recorders when they were drunk. Later, when I had been exploring music long enough to have some context, The Residents seemed impossible. The Beatles were inspired by Eddie Cochran and the like, Led Zeppelin had the blues, etc. What in God’s name did The Residents start with? They seemed to have been hatched from eggs laid on some distant planet, come to Earth to try (and fail) to blend in with the locals.

    There’s a never-officially-released album of Residents demos called The Warner Brothers Album, and it pre-dates their official debut by a few years. It clears up a lot: the Zappa, Beefheart and Fugs influences were not yet fully digested, and TWBA inspires an “oh, so THAT’S what happened” reaction.

    Halfnelson (later to be renamed Sparks by Albert Grossman, their manager at the time) baffled me in the same way. Their songs were more traditionally pop, but that just made them weirder. They, like The Residents, seem to have just...happened.

    Sparks also have an unreleased album, made several years before their official debut, although unlike TWBA it was completed and ready for release. This album also has clear connections to the music of the time. Big Rock Candy Mountain sounds like The Association’s Along Comes Mary as reworked by The Mothers of Invention. Jane Church owes more than a little to The Doors, minus Jim “I am The Angel of Death, Look at My Dick” Morrison’s rumblings, and Landlady has Brian Wilson written all over it. Their take on those bands was pretty weird, yes, but those bands were the standard influences of the time. Overall, this is a fairly good, pretty odd, but ultimately derivative record.

    But here’s the problem: where the Residents’ demos clarify, Sparks’ “real” first album DOESN’T CLARIFY A DAMNED THING.

    First of all, nobody’s seen one. Well, not exactly. Sparks’ drummer at the time, Harley Feinstein (allegedly) took a photo of his copy, but it’s worthless: plain white label, no identifying marks. There’s another (again, alleged) photo with a woodgrain label, but nobody knows who took it, and there’s nothing on it except a rubber stamped “A.” Nobody, outside of the band, seems to have seen the cover. Feinstein says copies were sent to label execs in a box that looked like an album sized order pad, the kind a waitress might use. But again, no pictures.

    In fact, no graphics at all. A cover was supposedly designed by Ron Mael, but it’s never been so much as printed out. It’s been described (by who? Nobody knows) as a surfer riding a wave under the Eiffel Tower. Fans have since designed covers based both on this rumor and Russell’s descriptions of the order pad. But actual cover art? No trace.

    The questions keep piling up: this is popularly known as A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing (a title used on Sparks’ second official, unrelated album.) Feinstein, however, insists he hadn’t heard the phrase until sessions for that second official effort were well underway. The material was (again, allegedly) bootlegged under the title California Folk Songs, but again, nobody’s seen one, and there’s no trace of it in any online database, not even fan curated discographies. Blogs have slight variations on the same small bits of information, but they just seem to be quoting each other.

    This is getting creepy.

    When we get back to the music, a comparison of this mysterious thing to the official debut shows a band well on its way to shedding its influences, as bands will when they mature. But the old, more derivative sound doesn’t seem to have CONTRIBUTED to this new sound.

    Yes, Landlady, (from the unreleased album) has a middle section that’s essentially a low budget Good Vibrations, and Fa La Fa Lee (from the official debut) is surf rock on quaaludes. It’s easy (and tempting) to say both show a Beach Boys influence and move on. There are other parallels...but something doesn’t add up. The Warner Brothers Album shows a Residents that was halfway between imitation and originality. Sparks show a similar transition, but there’s something different. Something difficult to put a finger on.

    Something disquieting. Sparks are a well known band. You’d think an unreleased album wouldn’t be all that tough to track down, but even the bootlegged version seems to have vanished in a puff of smoke. It’s as if there’s something hiding, pretending to be a quirky band, going through a normal development. But why? What is it hiding from?

    More importantly...WHAT THE F*** IS IT?
     
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  12. DJ LX

    DJ LX Forum Resident

    Location:
    Madison WI
    I love Halfnelson/Sparks. As someone else noted, it's quirky to a fault, with delights like "Fletcher Honorama" and "Simple Ballet". It also has two bona fide Sparks classics in "Wonder Girl" and "(No More) Mr. Nice Guys". I consider it an essential Sparks album.
     
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  13. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
    one of my faves from the demo

     
  14. MadMelMon

    MadMelMon Forum Resident

    It hit me jogging this morning that we're technically on their debut, and not the "lost" album, so I'm gonna put this thing up. Again, hope I"m not clogging things up...

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    1971: Halfnelson debut, become Sparks, debut again.

    This record is f*cking terrifying.

    Like most of Sparks' material, first impressions can be deceiving. At a glance this is a catchy, if utterly weird, early 70s pop album, and it’s quite a good one. Wonder Girl, the album’s single, is permanently lodged in your brain with it’s very first line, Showboat is a beautiful non-cheesy ballad, and Roger (the only song taken from the unreleased album, albeit remixed) sounds like a little kid locked in a room full of puppies and toys. Different, and intriguing enough that it draws you in, even if you don’t particularly click with it at first.

    But when familiarity sinks in, things take a turn for the sinister. Fletcher Honorama is a song about a dying man surrounded by what may or may not be friends who may or may not be having a party. But even if you ignore the lyrics, the undeniably creepy music lets you know that something’s amiss: opening quietly with a gentle, funereal organ, the song is played like a lullaby at midnight. But like most lullabies, it’s one small step away from becoming the soundtrack for the monster under the bed. Fletcher Honorama takes that step, a few more steps, then hits you with a jaunty barrelhouse piano out of nowhere.

    But the jocularity isn’t fooling anyone. That piano is played by ghosts. And these friends that may or may not be friends...well, they may not even be alive at all. And that party they’re having could well be celebrating Honorama’s arrival...in Hell.

    Then the cracks begin to show. The surf party rock of Fa La Fa Lee sounded so happy at first, like the soundtrack to the weirdest beach party ever. But why are the mix and production so subdued? The organ plays such a happy tune, but why does it play it so quietly? Like it doesn't want to wake you...

    Eventually, the joy becomes a malignant parody of happiness, inspiring a kind of squeamish fascination. The kind felt by people who are afraid of clowns. I don’t care if it’s laughing, I don’t care if it’s friendly. That thing wants to swallow your soul.

    This album was initially released under the name Halfnelson. Afterwards, the band changed its name to Sparks, and further editions bore that name and totally different cover art. The new art is no less unsettling...frankly, it makes everything creepier.

    On the Halfnelson cover, the band are simply aloof, like the rock stars they are. On the Sparks reissue, they’re staring straight at you. But it doesn’t seem like aggression so much as bland disinterest. The only one not staring at you is glaring menacingly at something hovering just outside the frame, and whatever it is, it seems to be several feet in the air.

    Oh yes. And he has a Hitler mustache.

    Why is the guy in front wearing a sailor suit? Of all the disinterested stares, his is the most catatonic. It’s almost like he’s looking right through you.

    Get closer. Cover one eye, he’s looking right at you. Now cover the other eye. He’s not looking at you. He’s not looking at the camera. He’s not looking at anything. The others at least seem to be aware of their surroundings. This guy just seems...there.

    What the hell have I brought into my home?
     
  15. DJ LX

    DJ LX Forum Resident

    Location:
    Madison WI
    Fantastic write up. Just one bone of contention though. Ron Mael never intended to evoke Hitler with that mustache. He was taking his stylistic cues from Charlie Chaplin. But folks see what the want to see. :rolleyes:

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  16. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
    & Oliver Hardy
     
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  17. Pennywise

    Pennywise Forum Resident

    Before there was Halfnelson, there was...

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  18. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
    Too cool !

     
  19. MadMelMon

    MadMelMon Forum Resident

    Oh yes, I know (and get into it with some detail in the next review.) I'm just going off of the impression the record made on me the first time I heard it. The silent film connections go quite deep...the barrel house piano bit in Fletcher Honorama has a definite silent comedy feel.
     
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  20. MadMelMon

    MadMelMon Forum Resident

    Are you the guy who posted those photos in the Facebook Sparks group? Because DAMN.
     
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  21. Scope J

    Scope J Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Michigan
    A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing (1973)

    Girl From Germany
    Beaver O'Lindy
    Nothing Is Sacred
    Here Comes Bob
    Moon Over Kentucky
    Do-Re-Mi
    Angus Desire
    Underground
    The Louvre
    Batteries Not Included
    Whippings And Apologies


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  22. Pennywise

    Pennywise Forum Resident

  23. Helmut

    Helmut Forum Resident

    Location:
    Germany
    The outstanding track from this second Sparks album for me always was "Moon over Kentucky". And looking back on those albums somehow this is a very different "Sparks", cause they were a real five-piece band at that time with all members writing - see "Beaver O'Lindy". The further path of the band is good as it is, especially with the next british chapter following. But it might have been interesting - just a game of thoughts - what had happened, if the other three members also had followed the call from Muff Winwood to come to London. While all future band members acted more in the background, this rare video shows a band of equals. At least the guitar player...
     
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  24. Jack o' the Shadows

    Jack o' the Shadows Well-Known Member

    Much as with Halfnelson, I've never really got the hang of this album. The atonal elements in many of the melodies always turned me off, and many of those that should work in theory, simply don't do so in practice. As with Halfnelson, the soundscape is too weak, and some of the tracks, "Beaver O'Lindey" in particular, also suffer from far too direct and unsubtile lyrics.

    Note however that there are exceptions. I have long held the view that "Girl From Germany" stands among their best tracks both melodically and lyrically. This is, as I see it, the track that launches Ron Mael's particular brand of humourous lyrics combined with a serious theme and melodic excellence.

    Some may regard "Fa La, Fa Lee" as an even earlier example, but I tend to disagree, since the way that song deals with the subject matter is less complex. For though incest undoubtedly is a serious matter, its severity is not revealed in the lyrics. Not, at least, to the same extent that the severity of mistrust of a present generation due to unfortunate actions of past generations is viewed with such in "Girl From Germany." And it is with discussing these subjects humourously in such delightful pop tunes that the greatness of Sparks lyes.

    Apart from "Girl From Germany", the only other song I feel is up to their standard on this album is "Here Comes Bob." The frantic strings and driving piano really serve the lyrics well, and the melody, though simple enough, is also really good.
    though simple enough, is excellent.
     
  25. Dino

    Dino Forum Resident

    Location:
    Kansas City - USA
    A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing was my first Sparks album.

    I heard Moon Over Kentucky on a Warner Bros. Loss Leader album and loved it. I kept my eye out for the A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing album and it was not long before I saw it in the racks. I was not disappointed. Loved the entire album. (Well, I didn't particularily like Do-Re-Mi but I didn't feel the need to skip it when I played the album.)

    I naturally sought out their other album Sparks/Halfnelson. I loved every song on that album. Fletcher Honorama and Big Bands were standouts though. I find it odd that people would think of this album as being odd or strange. That never crossed my mind. (Maybe odd is my cup of tea.)

    I made a cassette of A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing and Sparks/Halfnelson and it got a lot of play in the car.

    I became a huge Sparks fan. I already had hair and a build like Russell. For a few weeks I added a mustache like Ron. Man, I got a lot of comments on the mustache. I shaved it off because I got tired of it and it was not exactly a "chick magnet".

    The only people that I knew back then that liked or were even aware of Sparks were friends that heard their music as a result of my playing and talking about them.
     

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