Listen now on:
[On February 14 and 15, Sparks—backed by a 38-piece orchestra—will perform their 1974 masterwork in its entirety in downtown L.A. More info here.]
Here’s how pivotal 1974’s Kimono My House is: Prior to it, no other single song collection had combined the baroque wit and grandeur of Gilbert and Sullivan with the brash ’60s power of The Who and The Kinks, the proto-punk of The New York Dolls and the Stooges, the ingenious art glitter of Roxy Music and T. Rex, the virtuoso derring-do of Frank Zappa, the propulsive stomp of Slade, and the bubblegum dynamics of Sweet—not to mention what Sparks themselves had already brought to the drawing board.
The Los Angeles-based duo consists of the Brothers Mael: Ronald, the manic, Chaplin-mustachioed elder, who composes the songs and doesn’t so much play the keyboards as he does possess them, and Russell, the younger, of whom the term “frontman” seems insufficient and “swashbuckler” comes closer.
Freak-pop provocateur Todd Rundgren discovered Sparks and produced their first two LPs, fitfully potent confections that invite comparisons to any number of rambunctious rock ’n’ roll rule-breakers of the day, although Old Grey Whistle Test TV host Bob Harris may have best nailed it by likening Sparks to “The Mothers of Invention meet The Monkees.”
Kimono My House, though, is the album where Sparks put all the aforementioned influences together and, bolstered by their own combustive genius, charged forward—and, even now, have just kept going. Here is the very record where Sparks became Sparks.
Consider Kimono’s opening track. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.” Swooping in on dreamlike electric piano, Russell Mael talks tough by singing of jealousy and zoo animals in a falsetto that Tiny Tim would require a tank of helium to reach.
From there, Russell’s declaration of the title is followed by an actual gunshot ricochet, Gestapo boot beats, and fuzzy guitars set to raze any ear they can reach. In those first 30 seconds alone, Sparks simultaneously dismantles, one-ups, and supersedes the hyper-machismo of big, loud, bad boy rock circa ’74.
The onslaught only intensifies as the song storms onward, commingling Old West tropes, battlefield percussion, bop-along bubblegum dynamics, and airy-fairy dandyism, all as the angelic-voiced fop hero smashes home to his rival that the girl is his, their local confines are too tight, and that “it ain’t me who’s gonna leave!”
With “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” Sparks lays forth the bridge connecting glitter to punk. Each successive song on Kimono My House serves as another plank moving forward, although not just to, say, The Sex Pistols (whose Never Mind the Bollocks was once proclaimed as rock’s greatest record by the Maels) but to an endless future where Ron and Russell continue to inspire.
Among the vast array of artists to praise Sparks as a profound influence are the Ramones (in whose “Something to Believe In” video Sparks make a cameo), Faith No More (whose Mike Patton has performed with the Maels onstage), and Franz Ferdinand (who are presently recording with the brothers). That’s in addition to Kurt Cobain, Arcade Fire, Depeche Mode, Bjork, the Pixies, and They Might Be Giants.
In fact, no less a Sparks fan than Paul McCartney even paid tribute by donning full Ron Mael regalia as a deadpan keyboardist throughout the music video for his 1980 hit, “Coming Up.”
In the 21st century, however, Sparks has had no greater champion than U.K. superstar Morrissey. Humanity’s foremost musical mope-meister has long opened his shows with Sparks videos and in recent years arranged an epic three-week concert run for the Maels in England in which they performed every one of their albums. (Sparks returned the good will via their 2008 ditty “Lighten Up, Morrissey.”)
To discover the most direct connection between Sparks, The Smiths, and what Morrissey’s done since then, go directly to “Here in Heaven,” Kimono My House’s other supreme wonder on par with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.”
“Here in Heaven” cheekily reveals the details of a lovers’ leap suicide pact gone wrong, sung from a boringly antiseptic afterlife by the deceased Romeo, as he was the only one to actually jump. Just imagine young Stephen Patrick M. (Morrissey before he was just Morrissey) first hearing Ron’s words: “Dear, do you often think of me/as you overlook the sea?/Do I qualify as dearly departed or am I/That sucker in the sky?”
Something unmistakably British does pulsate throughout not just Kimono My House, but almost all of Sparks’ work, which went on through the years to remarkably hop genres (ranging from Euro-disco to new wave to neo-classical, and more) up to an including 2009’s The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, an opera commissioned by the government of Sweden (really).
Sparks’ U.K. connection makes sense on one hand as Kimono and its comparably brilliant follow-ups Propaganda and Indiscreet were recorded there. Still, it’s also peculiar in that the Maels, who combined Eisenhower irony with glam-rock swagger and early on claimed to be the sons of Hollywood icon Doris Day, so entirely embody a distinct school of Los Angeles art, pranksterism, and high-vs.-low culture grappling.
Regardless, as with Jack White and Jimi Hendrix, England embraced Sparks straightaway while their fellow countrymen have taken the better part of five decades to catch up. The Los Angeles Kimono My House shows next week provide a joyful opportunity for all involved to revel in this ultimate sardonic triumph. Go-ono their house.