|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Sparks Fits Into This Mess
Funny that so much of the better-sounding music today might ordinarily be called junk: few things I can think of sound so swell right now as the old Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones' Metamorphosis. There may even be some decent reasons for this. One is simply historical, that in a time of stagnant economics and stale politics one's safest tools are embedded in the past. Another would pretend to be formal, that rock has always shown its greatest affinity for dreck -- teendreams and petty aggression, everyday frustrations and just plain silliness. But junk is a commodity value: garbage is a product of industrial society.
Bad taste has its virtues -- in the class struggle over culture it is at least a respectable stand. Of course, it started with rock no more than that class struggle did. A case in point might be Liberace, who did such a dandy job of making "good" music bad, who even 20 years ago had established such standards of bad taste that Sparks may never be able to match him. But some distinction need be made between merely exemplifying industrial society's impoverishing taste and aggressively asserting a new one against it: Jerry Lee Lewis, for instance, could lick Liberace with both hands tied behind his back.
Sparks fits somewhere in this mess. In Kimono My House and Propaganda they have produced two of the trashiest records in recent memory, wherein bits and pieces of the mundanest music are deranged and flung about with what can only be called perverse glee. Led by the brothers Mael, Ron and Russell, a couple of Pacific Palisades media freaks with a careful eye to dress, and featuring a tin-can backup band whose wall of sound is most likely made of Masonite, they are reputed to be one of the top band sin England. Rumor even has some Sparks mania blossoming here.
The albums, which threaten to make kitsch purposive, certainly have their attractions. Their lyrics are clever enough, replete with items like "Here in Heaaven," a woebegone tale of a broken suicide pact with the deceased chortling, "Up here in heaven without you/ It is hell knowing that your health will keep you out of here/ For years and years and years." And the music, Russell's vocals in particular, features every imaginable cliche in such gaudy juxtaposition it might just be dangerous or at least brilliant. Or, as Russell put it on one interview, "When you've got a nice ballad you really gotta try and ruin it. Cos that's where the fun comes in."
Yes, it might be dangerous, but unfortunately I don't think either Mael would know a nice ballad if it ran him down in a Mack truck. Their music is amateur -- any resemblance to Jan & Dean or Rodgers & Hammerstein or the Who or even Liberace is strictly coincidental (which the earlier, presyncopated albums will bear out). The lyrics, too, are often merely cute, trivializing, and evasive -- offering little more than an abiding fear of and confusion over women ("You mentioned Kant and I was shocked/ You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues").
The problem is that even as junk Sparks doesn't quite pass muster -- they are too wrapped up in their style, too preoccupied with looks. Sparks may be a comedy team, but their comedy is based on an essential dishonesty about who they are, how they were brought up, what they want to be. And if they have once or twice hit upon stuff which smacks of brilliance -- and for what it matters I think they have -- well, that is the way with clever amateurs. Consistency, or purposiveness, is something else. When they turn pro we'll let you know.