Sparks (1971)

You know that band Queen that everyone gets so excited about? Well, there’s this criminally forgotten band called Sparks that basically makes them obsolete. Nah, I kid. I like Queen. But what’s mind-boggling is that brothers Ron and Russel Mael were doing exactly the stuff Queen gets all the credit for before that band recorded anything. I think I can pinpoint the reason why: Sparks were way too ironic and self-consciously fake at a time when those traits were completely avoided by the pop-purchasing public. Also they were weird provacateurs, one of whom insisted on sporting a Hitler mustache at all times. But that’s beside the point. They wrote some of the decade’s best melodies on this record alone (“Wonder Girl” and “Saccharin And the War” are particularly incredible). But the real reason they’re here is that they predated new wave and most other glam rock bands, their awesome songwriting talent notwithstanding. In 1971, they were already using synths and keyboards with panache and skill that artists from 1977 couldn’t even muster. They also took a markedly different direction from the current glam movement. They certainly had some uptempo guitars, but their sound and songs were very regal and operatic, which is where Queen’s style would come from, as well as the next year’s Ziggy Stardust.

Like a lot of glam rock groups, their flights of fancy and arch aloofness get a little out of hand occasionally, but that over-the-top aesthetic is pretty much the point of the genre. Here, it always makes for a fun listen, even if you have to repeat songs a few times to work out the melody. The vocals are absurdly posh and trilly, for example, but at that point, the only direction to take rock in was a totally preposterous extreme. And in a rare case I can think of, Sparks transcends their initial superficial awkwardness to become truly resonant and fun. Even David Bowie and definitely Roxy Music had some lapses in making their experimentation exciting; not so for Sparks. For a similarly twisted pop band that tackled even more genres, check out the also-underrated 10cc, the debut album of whom is every bit the equal of Sparks.

Key track: “Saccharin And the War”

See also: 10cc – 10cc (1973), Kimono My House – Sparks (1974), The Original Soundtrack – 10cc (1975), Big Beat – Sparks (1979)

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