There can’t have been a more unforgiving year in music than 1974. Hardly anything fitted in – its time had either been and gone or was still to come. Glam was over – Bowie and Roxy were still delivering but, post-Ziggy and post-Eno respectively, they seemed in transition and this was doubly so for T.Rex and Mott, as those desperate dirges Teenage Dream and Saturday Gigs testified.
Music had come so far in the previous decade that it could hardly see back to where it had come from and had little idea where it was going. Revival of early rock ‘n’ roll had become big business but these lingering gazes in the rearview mirror at irrevocably lost pre-Vietnam times – embodied by the admittedly wonderful American Graffiti – took eyes off the road ahead. Meanwhile, the idealism of seven or eight years earlier had long since curdled, calcified and ossified but many from these periods were still around yet cut adrift and much of what’s now considered classic from ’74 or thereabouts didn’t even gain enough of a profile to be ignored; what audience was there still left for the ex-singer of the Box Tops and his new band? For the guy who left the Byrds after two years? For the guy who sang The Wanderer and Runaround Sue?
Nor was there yet much of an audience for leather-jacketed bubblegum, played faster and louder than it had ever been before, for Who pasticheurs in suits, nor even for Runyon-by-way-of-Scorsese mock epics set in New Jersey. As for the Stones, the Who themselves and sundry solo Beatles, they had crested, peaked, plateaued and were settling in for Olympian sessions of water-treading. Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had the commercial momentum but, as the planet became barely big enough to accommodate them, the controls were already set for them to hit the wall. And then there were the Bay City Rollers… the truism that you have to know where to look, which has sustained many music fans through barren times, was seldom as true as in 1974.
It was in this blighted, benighted, blasted environment that Sparks made their impact and there was no one smarter, fresher or more zestful to be found anywhere. The calcium carbonate and Camembert Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, had started off in their native California as Halfnelson, named after a wrestling hold, and while the camp theatricality of American wrestling had some resonance with the music they produced, their fine debut for Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville label, and its follow-up , A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing – their first as Sparks – cut little ice in a market made for the Allmans and the Dead.
The land where Mick McManus plied his gravelly trade in the ring was in thrall to the aforementioned glam gargantuans and had just embraced Lou Reed – if not yet the Velvets – so a move for the Maels, avowed Anglophiles both, made palpable sense. Of course, everything took off swiftly after their no 2 hit, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, a song which, despite the best efforts of some to wreck it through overplay, I simply never tire of hearing. Received wisdom – something I often find myself concurring with but always strive to avoid taking as gospel – has it that parent album Kimono My House was Sparks’ early high watermark but my acquaintance with it at this time was fleeting. Its follow-up Propaganda is often dismissed as a hastily-conceived sequel, arriving as it did just six months later, but it’s the one that found its way into our house, that I had the time to get to know, and which confirmed Sparks as the first band I properly got into.
I was in the early stages of primary school and it helped immensely that children are a recurring theme on Propaganda, stories told with directness and empathy from their point of view, and what could have been objectionably twee in other paws is an endlessly productive grin factory instead, albeit with a sober edge. The message Never Go With Strangers, printed on flyers alongside a ghostly silhouetted figure, was being drummed into us and was as horribly urgent as it’s ever been; on Thanks But No Thanks the Maels characterise the strangers as “The merry band of how-are-yous/In tweedy suits and pointy shoes.” in Russell’s incomparable falsetto, I heard nothing sinister and thought instead of Enid Blyton’s mischievous goblins and brownies, who I always favoured over the all–too-human Famous Five, and as a mesmerising extended fade geared up, I sympathised with Russell’s bewildered infant as he mused: “My parents say the world is cruel/ I think that they prefer it cruel.”
Even so, parenthood is made to sound as much unalloyed fun as childhood on Who Don’t Like Kids, though this is as much down to reassured egos as anything else – the kids are “proof that I’m not just a vegetable” and get to chant the title between a circular riff that would have caused more than a few copies to be checked for stuck grooves. Less gleeful is Aaron, the deserted father narrating BC who, for reasons not fully explained, loses both Betty and Charlie, paradoxically to the most upful, high-kicking melody on an album exploding with the things.
The other most prominent members of Propganda’s cast are flustered would-be suitors. The marauding, propulsive At Home, At Work, At Play recounts the familiar tale of the unattainable girl but this time she’s out of reach not because of mystery or aloofness but because of a relentlessly packed social and professional diary. The extended military metaphor of Reinforcements is characteristically clever, if not quite subtle, but enables the Maels and the piledriving but skilful band they recruited in London to spin another scintillating coda. And there’s real pathos on the album’s first single, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, where brevity – it’s barely two and a half minutes – is no barrier to them executing their most beautiful moment to date, while relating an enigmatic story of emotional chaos and a strange interlude of “three days and two nights away from my friends” before remorse forces temporary abandonment of the wit and smart wordplay: “I’ll admit I was unfaithful/But from now I’ll be more faithful.”
The biggest riot is reserved for Achoo, a song I was warned got loud before I heard it for the first time. A patient bass riff from Ian Hampton and a strangely menacing keyboard fanfare from Ron usher in an epidemic of “La-las with a powrful sting/That’ll stop any opera or any Bing.” Russell once observed that, in true pantomime tradition, the song lent itself to audience participation; by the time the grandstand of mingled Californian and English sneezes is done, quarantine would be strongly recommended.
There can be little doubt that Billy MacKenzie and Martin Fry were listening as closely to Sparks as to their more established contemporaries. Ron’s primitive synths teeter on the edge of Yes-scale pomposity on the closing Bon Voyage, which could redefine every notion you have of bittersweetness, but it was 1974, after all, and Sparks were tossing around incalculably original ideas which helped to ensure pop, or rock if you must, survived its most fraught period to date (PG).