The Island Years

"No more moaning that your pomeranian Fifi ate them during the summer of 1974. Or that the Great Typhoon of 1975 warped your copies beyond repair. The original vinyl LPs are back and more robust than ever. And there’s a bonus LP that includes all the b-sides. Life is good again." – Sparks; September 2015

After a well-received appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972, the Mael brothers Russell and Ron relocated to London the following year to try their luck. Their luck was in, and after signing to Island Records, what followed was arguably the most fecund and consistent glam rock & roll outside of the Bowieverse, four albums of almost superhuman pop perfection recorded between 1974 and 1976. If Sparks are considered something of a niche concern these days in many quarters, their success in Britain during this period was immense, especially for a couple of weird siblings from Pacific Palisades. Their diverse career would see them conquer territories, but sporadically and in keeping with the mores of the regions they cracked one by one. First the UK, then France in the late 70s, then the US during the early 80s, then Germany in the mid-80s.

As soon as they arrived in the UK in 73, they placed an ad in Melody Maker: "Wanted: bass player for Sparks. Must be beard-free and exciting". This call to arms beautifully encapsulated the band’s joie de vivre as well as their contrariness, because after all, even Roxy Music begrudgingly allowed Phil Manzanera to keep the chin curtain. Punk would never be so forgiving, and Ron’s controversial "toothbrush" would precede Siouxsie Sioux’s swastika armband by a few years (although he could have just as easily been inspired by Charlie Chaplin as he was by Adolf Hitler). Sparks, it transpires, were visionaries, and punk would have benefitted from their anarchic musical dexterity had it not been a movement so vehemently all about anti-virtuosity. And facial hair aside, this collection of five heavyweight pieces of exquisite vinyl, including a B-sides best of, is a retrospective thing of beauty to behold, a piece of art gathering all those majestic sleeves together, as much as it is a musical collection. Nothing about it feels fusty or anachronistic or a product of its time – these albums 40 years later sound as good as they’ve ever sounded.

And if there’s an album more robust and more packed with brilliant pop songs per square inch than Kimono My House then I’m yet to hear it; recorded with producer/Island A&R Muff Winwood (older brother of Steve), it’s a scattershot work of genius on par with The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Kimono is positively brimming with songs that could have all been hits: ‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’, ‘Hasta Manana, Monsieur’, ‘Falling In Love With Myself Again’ – and of course their song that was a massive hit – ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, which was only kept off No.1 by the Rubettes’ ‘Sugar Baby Love’ in the summer of 74. ‘This Town…’ is as operatic as it is pop, a number brimming with verbose lyrical and highfalutin musical ideas made to sound easy, as otherworldly as a deep space rendezvous and as colourfully androgynous as a Pre-Raphaelite painting. It subverted its way up the charts and made the Mael brothers household names for a time. In some ways they peaked too early, because Kimono is Sparks’ absolute chef d’oeuvre, though this boxset surely dispels the fallacy that all their genius was used up on their first Island offering; Propaganda, Indiscreet and Big Beat are all very nearly as good.

Propaganda, also recorded with Muff Winwood, includes the gorgeous ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’, the dizzying ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ and the brilliant ‘Reinforcements’ ("When a potentate ain’t so potent in his state he summons help fast / Unilaterally I draw / What was peace is now a grand coup d’etat"). On the cover the pair are tied up, while on Indiscreet they’ve survived a plane crash, with Russell lying seductively on the asphalt while Ron surveys the wreckage in a muscle vest. With Tony Visconti behind the mixing desk, it’s their most glam rock™ offering, if that’s possible. The artwork is the most lavished upon, a gatefold sleeve featuring a black and white Ron and Russell with groceries, and Russell sat atop a horse in tweeds to tie in with ‘Happy Hunting Ground’, while the rest of the band recline by the pool in boaters and tennis shorts in keeping with the Cowardesque ‘Without Using Hands’ and ‘Looks, Looks, Looks’. It’s as Magrittian as much of the cover art of the time, as record companies blew mighty budgets they could only dream of in the future. ‘Get In The Swing’ anticipates the future, a carnivalesque round similar to later repetitive works (‘How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?’, ‘Your Call’s Very Important To Us, Please Hold’), that impregnates the brain and gestates for up to nine months at a time, while ‘T*ts’ ("Tits were once a source of fun and games back home / And now she says tits are only there to feed our little Joe / So he’ll grow") is a source of genuine laugh out loud mirth. Meanwhile, ‘Pineapple’ is ostentatious enough to make Freddie Mercury weep, allowing one to recall the wag on Twitter who once wrote: "Queen: Sparks for Cunts."

By 1976, and by now a proper duo, the Mael brothers decided they’d freshen up their sound by playing with session musicians in New York while enlisting the services of polymath Rupert Holmes as producer. Sonically the record is more stripped back, and despite efforts to change things around, it still maintains the irreducible stomp of glam, a genre they wouldn’t be free of until working with Giorgio Moroder on No.1 In Heaven and Terminal Jive, throwing the rock & roll baby out with the bathwater. Despite their own antipathy towards the record, Big Beat features a similar quota of earworms: ‘Big Boy’, ‘Nothing To Do’ and ‘Throw Her Away (And Get A New One)’ among them.

The final disc – The Rest Of Sparks – proves Sparks were as prolific and negligent as Suede in their heyday, demoting tracks as magnificent as ‘Lost And Found’, ‘Barbecutie’ and ‘Marry Me’ to B-sides. The album also features a rather terrific, kitschy off-the-wall take on the Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, and commits ‘Looks Aren’t Everything’ and ‘Intrusion/Confusion’ to vinyl for the first time. If that weren’t all enough for you, Sparks have a festive single ‘Christmas Without a Prayer’, out this year. The cheapskate in you could get that for the Mael brothers fan in your life, but deliver them The Island Years this Noël and you’ll not just make their Christmas, you’ll make their year as well.   

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