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Sparks - Big Beat (1976)

Discussion in 'Album Reviews' started by ladyislingering, Aug 19, 2010.

  1. ladyislingering

    ladyislingering retired

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    Quirky brother duo Ron and Russell Mael, collectively known as Sparks with their ever-changing disposable session musicians had grown tired of the atmosphere in England and came home to America to begin recording what was their sixth album. Upset with the disappointing sales of their 1975 record "Indiscreet" they felt a change was imminent - as it always is with Sparks. After having charmed over CBS for a record deal, they dismissed their English band for broader horizons.

    Their initial purpose for the new record was to obtain the typical Los Angeles (West coast) sound. However, the result turned out to be more of a mixture of this style and the punk rock sound that was rising in the Big Apple.

    Produced by Rupert Holmes at Mediasound Studios in New York City, production of the album itself only required about three months, and was released in October of 1976. This album, full of bold sounds and gutsy lyrics was called "Big Beat". The task of finding new musicians for their new record was tedious, and they were almost able to woo the legendary Mick Ronson, who politely declined since he was already working on a project with Ian Hunter. However, they were able to bag bassist Sal Maida, who was known for his work with Roxy Music. Rupert, who was virtually unknown at the time, would later record "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" and skyrocket himself to momentary success.

    In 1976, Mediasound was nicknamed "The Church" by locals. It had housed famous sessions by artists such as The Rolling Stones, KISS, David Bowie, and the Ramones. Artists had to spend their time wisely - one hour in the studio was approximately 170$.

    At first the record cover may fool you into thinking it's another glam album. Or that it might not have much substance. After all, there's a typical bare-chested pretty boy, and his strikingly gaunt brother. What lingers inside is much more than the tenderness featured at first glance.

    (old colour edits from my archives)

    [​IMG]
    (front cover)

    [​IMG]
    (inside sleeve)

    The photos, according to Sparks legend, didn't take a tad of effort, and the brothers were allegedly quite hurried by photographer Richard Avedon. 15 minutes and a hole in the pocket later, the photos were done - and the Maels were pleased.

    Its personnel were as follows:

    Russell Mael (vocals)
    Ron Mael (keyboards)
    Sal Maida (bass)
    Jeffrey Salen (guitar)
    Hilly Michaels (drums)​

    "Big Beat" opens with "Big Boy" - a song about a type of guy that everyone knows. The great big neanderthal that can steal any girl he wants, or beat the living shit out of you if he pleases. In a live performance at the Bottom Line that year, the song was performed with a little extra dialogue from Russell to further illustrate the song. (Unfortunately it's not available for easy listening - I do have a bootleg of the entire live album though.) The sound of the track itself is positively enormous.



    (above: live, 2008)

    The song was featured in the 1977 film "Rollercoaster". Sparks had been invited to play the short role of an outdoors band in this disaster film, after KISS said they'd have no part in it. The bros Mael have both expressed distaste and regret for the occasion - even fans cringe when anyone mentions it! It was also one of two singles from the album, and its b-side was "Fill 'er Up". It was, sadly, a commercial failure despite their appearance in "Rollercoaster".

    [​IMG]

    "I Want to Be Like Everybody Else" (sorry, no A/V this time) has a bit of a nursery rhyme sound to it, complete with silly lyrics. It tells the tale of a guy who just can't seem to get into the social world, because he's always awkward and his timing is always inappropriate. While the lyrics are a little watered down (which is made up for later in the record) the band is larger than life, with an unmistakable solid rock sound.

    "Nothing to Do" is a little more abrasive than the two previous tracks.


    (above: live, 2008)

    Ron's piano is prominent, and his songwriting suggests what was going on during this point in Sparks' career. In their latest biography by Daryl Easlea, "Talent is an Asset: The Story of Sparks" a time is recalled in which Ron actually broke down and cried because he felt as if the band was going nowhere, and nobody cared what they were doing.

    The song itself has lyrics that suggest that the protagonist obviously has nothing to do, but if he had a girl, he'd be set with something to "do" all the time.

    One of my favourite tracks on the album, perhaps because of the obvious presence of Ron's piano, follows: "I Bought the Mississippi River".

    It sounds like something Morrissey would write. It's got that cocky edge of entitlement - which is exactly what this song is about. Everything about its instrumentation is amazing. Drums especially.


    (above: live, 2008)

    "Fill 'er Up" (again, no A/V - this stuff is rare) is where things start to get mildly offensive.

    The lyrics are spat at you much faster than you can take in, but one of my favourite lines that make normal people cringe:

    Basically it's a song about a guy with a petrol-thirsty car. And you're treated to a screaming Russell. While on topic of this vehicular tune, I find it safe to mention that Russell owns a green '57 Chevy (which I nearly died when I heard about, because I have coveted that particular type of car since I was a little girl) - which he's had for years and absolutely adores.

    "Everybody's Stupid", the last track on side A of the record, is a masterpiece.


    (above: studio version.)

    It has just the right amount of the necessary elements of a rock song. Including Ron's biting wit.

    Some classic lines from this track:

    It's one song that, if it doesn't make you smile, you have no soul. Or you're just dead.

    Stay tuned for side B of "Big Beat", coming right up.
     
  2. ladyislingering

    ladyislingering retired

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    Side B of Sparks' "Big Beat" album opens with perhaps one of the naughtiest songs of their catalogue: "Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)".


    (above: live, 2008)​

    (*A girl born in 1959 would have been 18 years old at the time this record was released.)

    The next track, "Confusion", is positively adorable. The lyrical content, however, is not. Russell's enunciation in his vocals, however, are precious. The song was originally going to be featured on a score in a Jacques Tati film. Unfortunately, Jacques died before it could be possible.


    (above: live, 2008)

    In short, it's a track about a guy who finds that his girl's been untrue while he's been away. And it's basically the end of his world, and a tragedy that anyone should deceive him.

    "Screwed Up", another mildly offensive track from the record, is a brilliant stab at humanity and how it's apparently gone downhill. Though it's not meant to be taken seriously, I cite this song as being positively prophetic. Aside from the excellent lyrics, the band has still upheld its "big" sound.


    (above: live, 2008)

    It's another song that, if it doesn't make you crack a smile, I'm sorry to inform you but your pulse is missing.

    "White Women" is, without a doubt, my favourite song from "Big Beat". It's deliciously offensive in every sense of the word. There's no getting around the fact that it's a song that hints at white supremacy. Unfortunately I can't find any audio - perhaps because of the content.

    The song itself starts out with some really sneaky drums, and the rest of the band sounds a little bit jerky. You almost expect it to be a Talking Heads tune, but, alas, it's a rock gem with the snarling vocals of Russell.

    Delicious.

    "White Women" was one of the highlights of the "Live at the Bottom Line" bootleg. Russell really snarls the vocals out, to the point where it's almost frightening. One thing I must note about "Big Beat" is that while there's a lot of raucous sound coming from the younger Mael, his falsetto is almost completely MIA.

    The final track on "Big Beat", "I Like Girls" was originally written in the late 60s when the brothers were just starting out in Los Angeles. Its most popularly bootlegged demo was recorded, however, during the "Kimono My House" sessions, in 1974.

    Enjoy a little brass, a little snazz, and a little taste of what was to come for their next record.


    (above: studio version.)

    "I Like Girls" is a tune about a guy whose sexual orientation is questioned by his peers, or so he suspects, so he must profess that he likes girls, despite the fact that he sweats in the daytime, but not much at night.

    Coincidentally, the sexual orientation of both the Mael bros has been an object of speculation since the birth of Sparks. But they're not telling.

    A recent re-issue of "Big Beat" unearthed this little gem, a cover of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand", which was originally to be recorded as a duet between Russell and Marianne Faithfull. However, she wasn't available, so Russell was left alone with vocals, and this lush arrangement of cheesy delight was born and released as a b-side.


    To every extent, "Big Beat" is a long forgotten rock album. Its songs are absolutely solid. If you can handle a little bit of silliness, sleaze, and a romp of pomp, this record has everything you'll ever need, and more.

    I rate its original release, on a scale from 1 (worst) to 10 (freaking masterpiece) at a 7. Its production is a little disappointing and the complete absence of the classic Sparks sound was completely discarded. Nonetheless, the album lives in bargain bins and record shops throughout the United States.

    Recommended listening from "Big Beat":

    I Bought the Mississippi River
    White Women
    Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)
    Confusion

    A little personal input:

    I love this album. I knew, from the day I received the LP in the post (and after I successfully diverted my gaze from its jaw-dropping exterior) it was bound to be one of my favourites of their discography. I'm hoping someday to find a way to pass the "Live at the Bottom Line" bootleg around. During that tour, they chilled with Patti Smith and the Runaways. Cool. Also, according to Sal Maida, at some point during the Bottom Line show, Ron had a moment in which he slid his piano bench square into the lunch of their record executives! It was typical, during this time, for Ron to finish up the show by busting the hell out of his piano stool.

    Because of how often Ron took his frustrations out on helpless piano stools, roadies would tape it up for him, so it could serve as a breakaway prop rather than always buying a new one. On another occasion, if I'm not mistaken, Ron happened to take an ill step off the stage and suffered a severe injury to one of his spindly legs.

    During that same year, they were at a show in Santa Monica in December. Who opened for them? Van Halen.

    I find it to be a rather accessible album for the casual listener. It's definitely worth the cash and the time - you're really in for something else with this album.

    Questions/comments/suggestions are highly welcome.
     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2010
  3. mystic fred

    mystic fred Member

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    You are quite an authority on Sparks ms.L, good for you for supporting them!

    I remember that they had some big hits here in UK in the early 70's, they seemed part of the glam rock era, i had a couple of their albums then and still have "Beat the Clock" and "This Town..." in my singles collection, keep up the good work!


    .
     
  4. ladyislingering

    ladyislingering retired

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    Thank you!

    They're just incredible. Basically everything they do steals my heart. ;D
     

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