Review: Ian MacDonald, NME May 1974

SHEESH! One way or another 1974’s turning out to be quite a year for rock’n’roll. If things carry on the way they’re going, these twelve months might just be the most vital we’ve enjoyed since… coo, it must be 1967, mustn’t it?

“Kimono My House”, y’see, is an Instant Classic – the third this year (the others being “Pretzel Logic” and “Todd”). All of them American New Wave, too. But where Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren are working over fascinating refinements of rock-as-she-is. Sparks have gone one better. “Kimono My House” signposts a sea-change in the genre: rock-as-she-will-be – or at least could be. In an interview with The Laid-Back James Johnson (NME April 13), group song-writer Ron Mael had this to say about Spark’s position: “These days nobody’s primitive and I don’t think you (can) set out and pretend you are… Once you’ve lost you innocence, you can’t go back… If we tried a naive approach, it would come off really contrived, so we really make contrived songs so it’s eventually less contrived.”

This is “the counter-culture’s musical malaise” in a nut-shell. With increasing rapidity after about 1969 (Woodstock, what else?), rock underwent a traumatic Loss of Innocence in all departments, a disastrous thing to happen to a genre which has relied upon untutored spontaneity more completely than any other I can think of. There are three logical ways out of such a dilemma: (1) you can place a curb on excess, maturely take stock of you personal situation, and then – with the maximum amount of dignity possible – close up shop; (2) you can fight it with everything you’ve got, insisting that the Loss is mainly spiritual and that the account be at the very least balanced, even if not actually carried back into credit or (3) you can somersault through that invisible barrier of imagination which every human endeavour runs into now and then, and simply burst open the accepted boundaries of what’s possible.

Much as I admire them, I think Steely Dan ultimately fit into category No. 1 (examine the career of The Band in terms of their being an early anticipation of this solution, and you might see what I mean). Todd Rundgren is certainly into category No. 2 with a vengeance. On a pure sound level, Faust were the earliest stirrings of category No. 3 – but they gave up almost immediately (in retrospect, it was all probably a great big accident in the first place). But Sparks… well, now. They’re really there.

How can you tell? Look at it this way: if anyone’s going to escape from an age of Innocence Lost, he’ll have to do it (as Ron Mael points out) with sophistication. There’s no way you can de-sophisticate yourself; it’s an accumulative process in the same way that you’re a day older every morning you wake up. However, if you move out of one age into another, it’s got to be independent of antecedents (as was, say, Impressionism in art) – which means it’ll begin again in Innocence.

Thus, Roxy Music, for example, would appear on paper to be trying for the same thing as Sparks – but do they sound Innocent? Quite the opposite. They’re the end of the line which Ron Mael’s just got off. Sparks are “there” by virtue of the most startling facet of this exhilarating and unnerving record: their new-found Innocence.

This may not interest you too much if you don’t know their earlier records – but one listen to “A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing” (in which they court the danger of sinking into the murk as the ultimate effete afterhouse band, winking their time away in a self-consciously ambivalent cultural twilight) followed by a hearing of “Kimono My House” (in which they manifest the unblinking gaze of the new-born) will rock you on your heels. Of course, it’s actually all just pop music. Stuff to dance to. Sparks probably only know that they’ve never felt better in their lives.

Cliche coming up: how can you communicate the flavour of something totally new? Some people have heard this album, laughed hesitantly, and said: “It sounds like he writes his tunes and then makes the others play them backwards.”

Ok, all the accoutrements of rock are still here, from electric guitars to A-A-A-B-A and common time. But Ron Mael has set the whole lop-sided wobbly-man of technique and “tradition” spinning again: melody lines spiral up and down (care of the extraordinary voice of brother Russell) through intervals and over chords that seem to echo from somewhere in The Classics. A few Brahms harmonies in there, methinks.

But whatever he’s up to, he’s breaking most of the rules and the band sound like they’re delighted to help. A predictably astute production by Muff Winwood allows every last drop of sensitivity and energy to come clearly through. And there’s more energy on “Kimono My House” than anything I’ve heard since… you know when. However, let’s stick to the tracks themselves.

There are ten (five a side). I’ve listened to the album about six times and nearly all of them sound like standards already. Looking for a flaw, I seized on “In My Family” as the weakest track; it may be – but once you turn it up, it all becomes relative. (As do most of the human race in Russell’s lyrics – “Now you’ve got your Rockafella/And you’ve got your Edward Teller/And J. Paul Getty is a splendid feller/But none of them would be in my family.”)

Opener is “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”. You all know about that. (Just keep buying it, aright?) Next is another candidate for single-hood- except that the whole album is done a la “singles consciousness”. “Amateur Hour” stamps along at a typically hectic pace, its infectious chorus cutting the bar-lines with all the iconoclastic determination of mid-period Beatles. Of course, it doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard, really – except maybe Roxy at a hundred mph and shorn of all that monumental weight.

Speaking of which, the succeeding number, “Falling In Love With Myself Again”, cops the “Song For Europe” wall-of-sound perfectly. But again, it loses the aforementioned immediately with its harmonic freedom and swaying waltz-time. The words here set the tone for the album – calm, confident, and full of self-debunking laughter: “I bring home the bacon/I eat it myself/Here’s to my health”. Ah, that’s the stuff.

On “Here In Heaven”, a song concerning a lovers’ suicide-pact which only one partner honoured, the rest of the boys cut loose –Russell with his stratospheric falsetto (a blend of Marc Bolan and Tiny Time, made much more by his society enunciation), the rhythm-team of Adrian Fisher (guitar), Martin Gordon (bass), and Dinky Diamond (drums) powering into lift-off. The first side closes with the set’s best song, “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”. Pure, magical originality. You might think of Randy Newman’s first album in terms of attitude – but the Mael’s concept it too rarefied for him, in terms of music, there are no parallels.

Side Two beings on a lighter note with one of the two Mael/Mael collaborations, “Hasta Manana Monsieur” (the other being “In My Family”), this mood extending into the hand-clapping “Talent Is An Asset”, about a child prodigy surrounded by ranks of admiring relatives who won’t let anyone near the boy for fear of contaminating his genius.

Autobiography? Whatever it is, the opportunity for a good toothy snarl here has been rejected coolly by Ron in favour of his customary rule of being witty and humane simultaneously. Now that talent’s an asset, alright. (Or maybe it’s all in the breeding?)

“Complaints”, featuring Russell as the man in charge of handling dissatisfied customers in a departments store, confirms the hints of classical influence with its heave on-beat and upward-trending sequence.

An odd interval in the verse captures perfectly the notion of being a professional evaluator of breakages – and, once again, the band get stuck well in on the fade-out (the fades being particularly good throughout). Then there’s “In My Family”, and then the problem of concluding something like this. How, man? Simple. Just rock the listener back to ground-level with a lullaby (grin, grin). No compromise, “Equator”. It’s the weirdest number on the album.

Another lover’s tryst gone wrong. Russell, in a quite extraordinary vocal performance, complains that she’d promised to meet him at the equator (“Surely we said it was March the tenth?”), finally presuming that she “must be just around The Bend”. Just take a look at the superb cover shot of the geishas: the one on the left is listening to “Kimono My House” for the first time (she’s probably just realised how Russell Mael is going to finish “Equator” and isn’t quite sure whether she can take it); the lady on the right with the cocky wink and the open fan has heard the whole deal and is “there” with Sparks. Yessiree, this record makes you jump in every sense.

By all means get your copy of “Diamond Dogs” (who knows – it may be exactly what you’re after). But don’t be fooled. “Kimono My House” is the real breakthrough. I think you’re gonna love it.