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Sparks - Propaganda (1974)

Discussion in 'Album Reviews' started by ladyislingering, Jun 10, 2010.

  1. ladyislingering

    ladyislingering retired

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    Jan 16, 2010
    The lobby of the Ritz hotel.
    Sparks - "Propaganda"
    Island Records


    Russell Mael - Vocals
    Ron Mael - Keyboards, lyrics
    Adrian Fisher - Guitar
    Trevor White - Guitar
    Ian Hampton - Bass
    Dinky Diamond - Drums


    (Ron and Russell Mael, 1974. Photo restoration done by the Lady herself.)​

    After finding great success with their album, "Kimono My House" in early 1974, the strange and visually distinctive brothers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks embarked on a new project, changing their line-up and thinking of new ways to evoke curiosity.


    Their fourth album, "Propaganda" was born in November of 1974. The cover, a photo of Ron and Russell bound and gagged on a speedboat, was reportedly the product of one particular abusive afternoon. Though the concept of the cover art, and its provocative inner sleeve were of a lighthearted nature, the making thereof wasn't very fun for the brothers Mael at all.

    The innersleeve depicted Ron and Russell tied to one another on a large bed, Russell apparently getting closer to calling for help (as it was an abduction joke).


    The backside of the cover was also in-keeping with the kidnapping concept: Ron and Russ bound together in the backseat, their band chilling at a petrol station, as if posing as their abductors.


    The cover shot required several minutes in subzero weather. Wet, windy, wavy, and overcast, it was reportedly a miserable experience. However, "Propaganda" launched a slew of creative album art thereafter.

    The tracks are not listed on the back of the sleeve, nor anywhere to be found until the package is opened! Not surprisingly, the record is as silly and provocative as its cover.

    During and after the recording of "Kimono My House" much squabbling took place between the brothers Mael and their bassist, Martin Gordon. Creative differences (in which the bassist is still bitter about) led Ron and Russell to nix Martin for Ian Hampton; during this time they also recruited guitarist Trevor White.

    "Propaganda" was produced by Muff Winwood (who was previously the bassist for the Spencer Davis Group) who had produced Sparks' previous album.

    Despite the outward silliness of most of the songs on "Propaganda", the lyrics are sharp and witty - something that their large teenybopper following didn't understand, as they were too busy dribbling over Russell. The brothers Mael were intimidated by this and afraid that this particular audience would drive away an older crowd, to which their music was intended. Nevertheless, "Propaganda" was born.

    Opening up with a title track that barely reaches 30 seconds, Russell's falsetto is immediately in focus. Several layers of Russell in a-cappella with himself glitters the overuse of the album's title and . . .

    . . . enters abruptly into "At Home, At Work, At Play" - a song about a man who's frustrated because he can't seem to get the attention of a girl he's chasing, because she's always busy. A strong, if raucous display of guitars and kickass rock glory illustrates Russell's ability to sing just about anything, faster than anyone could take to understand.

    (above: 2008)​

    While it never seems that he gets the girl, the next tune paints the portrait of a paranoid guy who just wants to know "why the shrubbery moves" even if he's not prepared for battle in case something should happen.

    "Reinforcements" is rather bass-heavy and filled with brilliant imagery. The backing vocals are also quite obviously from their British guitarists (as the accent is very strong).

    With the next track, the album gets a little personal, and a little risque. "B.C." is the tale of a man who married a wonderful girl, has a great house, is recognized as an important part of his neighbourhood, and has just had a son. Things are wonderful, for a while, until his wife starts giving her attention mainly to the baby.

    (With a foreword in Russell's best forced lilt of an accent.)​

    Usually child abduction happens when they're naive to the world, or talk to strangers. And, usually, it's not very funny at all. Except for when Ron Mael writes a song about it. Then it's hilarious.

    "Thanks But No Thanks" introduces us to a boy who doesn't understand why his parents want him to hurry home from school, when a stranger would rather so graciously "offer me a ride in style, and something sweet to make me smile".

    The melody is light, giving way to Ron's piano and a rather innocent little melody in the intro, though the lyrics will make you want to go take a shower.

    After that particular romp about one of life's most important life lessons comes a song about a terrifying woman. "Don't Leave Me Alone With Her" describes such a woman as "a Hitler in high heels" while Russell pleads to not be left alone with her.

    The chorus is catchy, and complete with an infectious bassline. The guitars are terrific and ever-present (as Russell's falsetto is) throughout the entire song. At times the song itself evokes a sense of genuine terror. That, and it's just hilarious.

    After a hard-rocking side A of Propaganda, side B opens with a tender and precautionary tale about what a person should never do if they'd like to survive.

    (Side B will be in the next post.)
  2. ladyislingering

    ladyislingering retired

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    Jan 16, 2010
    The lobby of the Ritz hotel.
    Side B of Los Angeles natives (and their British band) Sparks' "Propaganda" continues with "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth". Because even "when she's on her best behavior", a person should never take for granted that she's there. And angry.

    (Maybe she's angry because Russell appears to have not eaten in a few years.)

    The single reached #13 in the UK, with "Alabamy Right" (a song about American consumerism) as its b-side. With its tender melody it's also a bit of a ballad - without, of course, forgetting that with Ron's lyrics there is almost always a punchline.

    Putting his lyric-spewing skills to the test in the high-energy, overwhelming track "Something for the Girl With Everything", Russell's talent as a versatile vocalist really comes into full swing, without taking away from a backup band that never seemed to receive enough credit for rocking out.

    What does a man have to do to completely please a woman? Easy. Buy her everything. Give her no reason to complain, "secure in knowing she won't break you yet."

    So many clever analogies and references are packed into just under three minutes - because Russell Mael knows how to sing a novel without stopping to breathe. The groove of the guitars echo back to "Kimono"'s "Amateur Hour" but the piano still reigns supreme.

    The meaning of the next track is up for speculation; "Achoo" appears to be a song about a jealous man who may be sneezing at his competition, via subtle putdowns - another man who has more to offer to the girl he's chasing.

    Perhaps it alludes to the "allergic to bullshit" cliche?

    The studio version includes at least a minute and a half of layers of "achoo", which proves to be rather annoying, but the video clip has adorable gestures.

    "Who Don't Like Kids" is a rather ironic ditty, considering that neither of the Maels have ever been married, or fathers - and would not care to. The lyrics are snide as any Mael classic; despite its hilarity it proves to be annoying once the shouting kids start in.

    "Propaganda"'s closing song has the tenderness of "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" - except with harder guitars.

    "Bon Voyage" pokes fun at the animals that didn't make it to the arc. And the bitterness that went on between those, and the ones that did.

    The lyrics are deliberately dismal, which makes them simply hilarious.

    Thus concludes Sparks' "Propaganda", which reached #9 on the UK's album charts and has been their highest-charting album in that country, to-date. Though similar in many ways to "Kimono My House" it was different than anything they had done before that point.

    A little personal input:

    I actually have the original poster advert for "Propaganda", featuring a large version of the inner sleeve picture, framed above the bed in my room. I also have an original promotional pinback button for the album with the same image from 1974.

    Through the album takes some getting used to, it's better to start with "Propaganda" than it would be to progress to the next record in the Sparks collection. As they're constantly changing, differences tend to be abrupt. "Propaganda" is only the 4th of Sparks' 22 (and counting) album catalogue.

    My favourite tracks from this album:

    Something for the Girl With Everything
    Thanks But No Thanks

    If I were to grade this particular record on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being a total disappointment, 10 being a masterpiece without question) I'd rate it as a 7.

    For fans of glam, this (and "Kimono My House") is a great place to start discovering Sparks if you're not familiar with them.

    Any questions/comments/videos/pictures from or pertaining to this year in Sparks history are greatly appreciated.

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