Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Sparks and American Rock Critics - a Hate Story


One star review and skin-crawly loathing from an early '90s edition of Rolling Stone Albums Guide - not sure who M.C. is (Mark Coleman?)

But wait, there's more!

Propaganda [Island, 1975]

Admirers of these self-made twerps certainly don't refer to them as pop because they get on the AM--for once the programmers are doing their job. So is it because they sing in a high register? Or because a good beat makes them even more uncomfortable than other accoutrements of a well-lived life?; "Never turn your back on mother earth," they chant or gibber in a style unnatural enough to end your current relationship or kill your cacti, and I must be a natural man after all, because I can't endure the contradiction. C-

Introducing Sparks [Columbia, 1977]

On its five albums for Bearsville and Island, this skillful brother act compounded personal hatefulness with a deliberately tense and uninviting take on pop-rock. But with their Columbia debut, Big Beat, they began to loosen up, and here one cut actually makes surf music history, in the tending-to-hyperconsciousness section. This is tuneful, funny, even open. But the fear of women and the stubborn, spoiled-teenager cynicism is still there, and it's still hateful. B

No. 1 in Heaven [Elektra, 1979]

Anglophilia's favorite androids were destined from day of manufacture to meet up with some rock technocrat or other, so thank Ford it was Giorgio Moroder, the most playful of the breed. They even got a minor dance hit out of it--"Beat the Clock," a good one--but that's not the point. The point is channeling all their evil genius--well, evil talent, then--into magic tricks. Like the ultimate voice-box song. Or the title tune, which sounds like "Baba O'Riley" and then breaks down into Eno (or is that Gentle Giant?). Fun fun fun. B+

That's from Dean Christgau's running compendium of judgments on anything and everything. 

But this relatively recent snit takes the biscuit - item in a Greil Marcus Real Life Rock Top Ten from only last year

Since 1972, Sparks, a.k.a. the vaguely incestuous brother act of Ron and Russell Mael, have followed the path of effete cabaret. They are the epitome of the cult band: anything resembling a hit, anything suggesting that everyone knows who they are, would erase their whole reason for being. It’s worked: while most of the world has ignored them, all kinds of people adore them, including Leos Carax, who more than two decades ago made the completely uncategorizable Pola X, perhaps the least likely literary adaptation in the history of cinema — it’s based on Melville’s nearly impenetrable Pierre; or, the Ambiguities — a movie I’ve always found impossible to remember in any detail and impossible to forget for its drive toward self-destruction. The result is a very long picture starring Adam Driver as an L.A. stand-up comedian who is above laughter — all of his routines seem to be based on King Lear — and Marion Cotillard as an opera singer with a two-octave range, and not a moment of believable human feeling in its 140 minutes. And the Maels have nothing to fear from Hollywood: the film cost $15.5 million and took in $3.1.

Peculiar things about this take:

- "vaguely incestuous", followed closely by "effete cabaret"  - American rock critics of a certain generational stripe really do seem viscerally unsettled by the not-quite-maleness of the Maels

- "the epitome of the cult band: anything resembling a hit... would erase their whole reason for being"

Erm, they were pop stars in the UK and in bits of Europe! I know the United Kingdom and Europe don't figure in the Greil-i-verse,  rock being inherently American. But "most of the world has ignored them" - not quite!  

When pop stardom started to slip away, Sparks tried a series of maneuvers to recover it - including teeming up with Giorgio Moroder, the biggest hit-maker in the world at that precise point. And it  worked: they were in the UK pop charts again with "Number 1 Song in Heaven" and "Beat the Clock".  Hardly sounds like a group content to be a cult.  Moreover, Sparks desperately wanted to match their overseas pop success with similar chart impact in America. So in the gap between the glam-era Brit stardom and the Moroderized Eurodisco recovery, they toned down the popera aspects for a couple of more conventionally rocking albums (like the boring Introducing, which garnered Xgau's tempered approval). Then in the '80s, they went New Wave (having prefigured it to some extent), teamed up with Jane Wieldlin from the Go-Gos, etc. Over the years the Mael bros have tried again and again and again to have hit records.

(Also - why would it matter if they'd cultivated culthood anyway? Vulgar Boatmen, Mekons, Sleater-Kinney and other GM-approved outfits aren't exactly in the business of pop universality.) 

Right about one thing, though - Annette was awful, I could only get about half an hour into it before turning it off. 


The running theme  - or closely entwined themes - to Sparks-aversion among US rock critics of a certain generation is the feeling that the Mael Brothers are:

1/ un-American

2/ unmanly 

An alternative title for this post could be: Springsteen or Sparks - the Choice is Yours.

Even back in the 1970s -  when unexamined assumptions about substance, integrity, truth, were like microplastics in the generational bloodstream, when  people believed in a thing called "street credibility"... even back in the '70s, it's hard to see how someone could attend a Springsteen concert and see it as less theatrical than Sparks - as somehow more "real" or "true".  

Here's a counter-view from one of those Britkids electrified by Sparks on Top of the Pops, reviewing a best-of around 1990. 

(Proximity to someone else's review of The Animals oddly appropriate - Brits infatuated with Black America versus Sparks as Californians injecting Gilbert & Sullivan into rock 'n' roll). 

In this review - like a poptimist to the manor born! - I do some crafty transvaluation: taking exactly the sort of negative terms (whiteness, hysteria, overwrought, highly-strung, castrated, perverse, baroque) applied by Yankcrits (see also Dave Marsh on Queen) and positivizing them. Not that at the time of writing I would have been aware of how hated Sparks were in their homeland.  For me and other Britkids now grown up and trying to explain to ourselves the fascination of the Maels on our TV screen, it is precisely  Sparks's distance from "rootsiness" or "feel" or the category of "the natural" that makes them interesting and exciting.  

Obviously, the Brit Rock Experience starts with unrootedness and inauthenticity. Sparks-as-Anglophiles amplifying that English not-quite-realness and cleaning up in the U.K. - it makes sense as a historical phenomenon, but more than that, it's bound to hit a Brit on a vibrational level. What's that they say about Sparks?  "The best British band to have come out of America". Or perhaps it was "the most English group that isn't actually from England"  Either way, the deficiency of Creedence-ness is what gives them credence - where we live, at least. 

Sparks: Huysmans at the hop. 

Against Nature 

What on earth is there not to like? 


  1. I noticed the Marcus slam when it happened, and as I said then, I'm sure the Maels genuinely enjoyed being called 'vaguely incestuous, effete cabaret'.
    You're onto something about why 70s US critics had scorn for Sparks, but it's not just that they were 'theatrical', but the wrong KIND of theatrical. Springsteen was just as dramatically oriented, as you note, but he was rooted in rock-accepted forms of it - girl groups, soul revues, doo-wop street-corner harmonies and the like - and more importantly, he took them seriously (if there's a major flaw in his work, it's that he isn't funny - tall-tale garrulous, yes, but not funny). The Maels, on the other hand, were not only more Cole Porter than Lieber and Stoller, but they WERE funny, and in a way that left it open to interpretation whether the joke was on the listener or not. And I think that's the big reason critics hated them - they could take a certain amount of humor, but not too much of it, and they couldn't take ridiculousness or camp at all

    1. That's true. C.f. how uneasy Bowie made all of them feel in the '70s. Like "is this a put on?". They warmed up to him when he "warmed up" and started to sing "black".

      Mind you, Marcus does love Bryan Ferry - and how that could be possible without a feeling for camp I'm not sure.

    2. See also Suede's failure to crack the US ...the more straightforward (in every sense of the word) Gallaghers faired significantly better. Sticking with the mid 90s, Tricky's failing to replicate his UK success (unsure how much his penchant for make up and cross-dressing in promos contributed to that, but one suspects it didn't help).

      Brits generally seem far more comfortable with playfulness and ambiguity than US audiences (or Australian ones - thinking back to my Aussie childhood, I'm struck by how overwhelmingly EARNEST Oz popsters were - the closest you got to glamour was Michael Hutchence!)

  2. The funny thing for me is that I've never seen Sparks as particularly English either - when I was kid I always interpreted them as being Continental European, and I was quite surprised when they turned out to be American. My brother and I always used to refer to them as "The Hitler Group". I think there is probably a Jewish angle going on here - Christgau and Greil as Jews who have have utterly embraced the USA and its mythos, versus the Maels who are Jews who still look to the old, dark continent.

  3. The Edgar Wright documentary is a bit plodding, but one of the parts that is fantastic is the round-up of memories from people who saw This Town... on TOTP. An absolutely seismic pop moment, as big as Anarchy in the UK. Maybe bigger, because everybody saw it.


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