Posts Tagged ‘Grace Bumbry’

The Freedom of Music: Kimono my Propaganda

December 12th, 2010


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

A quick story:

In late 1974, Sparks were one of the biggest bands in Britain…. There was only one shadow on the duo’s horizon. They had just dismissed their lead guitarist. So they… began casting around for a suitable replacement. Somebody well known. Somebody respected, but somebody whose career was maybe on a distinct downward spiral. Somebody… like Brian May.

… His band, Queen, had shot their bolt…

“I did like the band,” May reflected. “I loved ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us.’ Anyway, they came around, the two brothers, and said, ‘Look, it’s pretty obvious that Queen are washed up; we’d like to offer you a position in our band, if you want.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think we’re quite dead yet.”*

sidebar-4You get that? The boys in Sparks thought Queen guitarist Brian May might want to lose his washed up band and join the one that was bound for greatness. Of course Sparks were in the year when they would record their two greatest albums, Queen was still a whole year away from theirs. But nowadays you can be forgiven if you ask of Sparks, who?

I am one of the worlds few people who would rather listen to Sparks 1974 album Propaganda than Queens defining work of a year later, Night At The Opera (featuring Bohemian Rhapsody). What is surprising is, I may not be the only one.

It was probably more than twenty years between having a discussion of any sort with somebody about Sparks. They would, and still do, occasionally churn out a new album, having gone through an euro-electro-pop phase in the early 80’s. In 2009 they released their 22nd album, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergen. Yet I have never known anybody to buy one, never saw a Sparks CD and never heard of anybody replacing their copies of Propaganda or Kimono My House on CD.

I had forgotten about Spark completely, actually, until about two years ago when I stumbled on an MP3 download of the aforementioned 1974 albums. I downloaded it, assuming they would be an embarrassing memory, rather like Loverboy. Instead, I found in Propaganda an album that I remember loving, and still think is an excellent album. In fact, if I was piecing together a list of my 100 best albums, Propaganda would be on it. The other album, Kimono My House, which actually came first, is almost as good.

I’ve been doing the rounds of record stores, record shows and that sort of thing a fair bit lately. Now that “vinyl is back,” there seems to be more opportunity than there has been in years to browse records. On top of used, there is a fair bit of new vinyl records out there, including a big whack that is being re-released all these years later as “160 gram vinyl.” To understand it, 160 gram vinyl is short for, “much better quality than we sold you back in the day when we could take you buying our product as a given.” They are, finally, providing really good quality vinyl albums, and they are doing so at a price point that would commonly be called, not cheap.

Of the albums that has been re-released, and is in stock in every store I’ve been in that sells new records, the most surprising has to be Kimono My House. And it’s not just there. It keeps turning up wherever I buy records. Last week I was at a record show and saw three copies of a record I have never seen at a record show before. Last week a Facebook friend posted a video of This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us. I was shocked that I knew somebody who remembered this band.

For the uninitiated, Sparks circa 1974 is hard to explain. Singer Russell Mael and his Charlie Chaplain/Hitler look-alike brother, keyboard player Ron, are the heart of the operation. Russell sang in an operatic falsetto over a solid rock and roll beat. When I say operatic, don’t think Bohemian Rhapsody, rather like Grace Bumbry singing Sausalito Summernight. Or, more aptly, Luciano Pavarotti imitating Grace Bumbry singing Sausalito Summernight. And yes, I know I just described a somewhat obscure band using a somewhat forgotten, if not obscure song. But Sparks are like that, in that they are unlike anything you have ever heard before.

Here’s a prediction: if you decide to check out Sparks after reading this you will either like them a lot, or dislike them… a lot. There really is no middle ground. If you can get past the operatic vocals, there is some great rock and roll being played. And once you get past the vocals, you will find you like the vocals, and soon, you will start to understand the vocals (hint: he doesn’t sing as fast as it sounds like he’s singing). Once you get to that point, well Kimono My House is available just about everywhere records are sold these days. You’ll want to be getting it before it disappears again.

From I Hate New Music, page 50.
Thompson, Dave. I Hate New Music: the Classic Rock Manifesto. New York: Backbeat, 2008. 49-50. .

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