Sparks Spectacular: Big Beat (1976)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Michael Row

You gotta realize: I’m a social worker by trade—on a fixed income—and I’m trying to get by in insanely expensive London. This isn’t exactly easy. Much as I might’ve wanted to, I just couldn’t plop down £350 for a Golden Ticket to see all 21 SPARKS gigs at the Carling Islington Academy. I had to choose, and very carefully.

Initially, I figured I’d go and see the very first record the Mael brothers ever recorded—under the moniker HALFNELSON—a really weird one, even by SPARKS standards. Then I started leaning toward Angst in My Pants: that was my newwavey entrance into the wild and woolly world of SPARKS as an 11 yr old in ’81. Eventually, I even considered Introducing Sparks, their most maligned and dismissed work; I am a contrary bastard by nature. But one godawful early morning a few months back, I reached for something to hold morning coffee and I found my hands wrapped tightly around my vintage SPARKS Big Beat mug. I’d made my decision.

Fill ‘Er Up

Yes, Big Beat from 1976—the first LP SPARKS made stateside after returning to L.A. from their years-long, chart-topping run in the UK. Recorded with an entirely new band, some of whom had been plucked from New York “new thing” bands like MILK & COOKIES and TUFF DARTS. A return to a simpler, harder-rockin’ sound. And a big letdown in the eyes of most SPARKS fans.

But to these ears, Big Beat always sounded like a big step forward: they were turning into a streamlined CHEAP TRICK that suited the second half of the seventies like a glove, while their lyrics remained as cynically absurd/biting as ever. So what if the arrangements and production felt a bit blunted in comparison to earlier LPs like Indiscreet? The Maels were in the process of reinventing themselves yet again, and that’s when SPARKS always felt most vibrant.

I struck up a conversation with a greyhaired, 40-something fella while in line. By day, he worked as a rubber scientist (!), but night he transformed into an unflagging SPARKS fanboy and lucky Golden Ticket holder. He gave me a rundown of the first five shows I’d missed and we chatted about things only meaningful within a tight SPARKS orbit: what Ron’s moustache looks like these days, how cryptic the lyrics to “Biology 2” were, and which song they might play for the encore this evening (I picked “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, while he chose correctly with “Tearing the Place Apart”). I appreciated the opportunity to vent my fandom to someone similarly awestruck.

Early on in the evening, Russell gave thanks to the far-from-capacity crowd of mostly middle-aged men for coming out for “one of the obscure albums.” He acknowledged that we all could have done the obvious and come out for Kimono My House—yawn—but we didn’t. We were there for Big Beat. We knew he knew why we were there.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

No bare chests or high-waisted white jeans on display from Russell on this night. But that didn’t matter, because he was belting out these tuff tunes like Jacques Brel might’ve sang “Jacky” back in ’65, if that Frenchman had a deeper appreciation for Marshall stacks and three-chord guitar pop. In between songs, Russell put the songs into context: prefacing “Nothing to Do” with a story about how Johnny Ramone was always threatening to work up a cover of it with his RAMONES (it woulda sounded hot), and relating the story of writing “Confusion” for a Jacques Tati film that was left unfinished when the director died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. Throughout the gig, Ron sat near-immutable behind his Roland keyboards—with logo altered to spell out Ronald—only slightly altering his stare sloth-like every few minutes to creep everyone out. The real show-stopper was “I Want to Be Like Everybody Else” which got all us gushing fans screaming along like it was a dumb football chant. “A warning,” Ron noted halfway through the set, “some of these lyrics are not meant to be taken literally.” Thank you, sir, for the clarification.

Weirder still was seeing gentlemen Ron and Russell propelled forward by such a young, motley group of backing musicians. On closer inspection, I realized I recognized a few: Steven McDonald of REDD KROSS on bass, Jim Wilson and Marcus Blake of MOTHER SUPERIOR on guitars. These longhairs played it perfectly—wild but rock solid—with that restrained precision that always marks all SPARKS in my mind. Eternal teen Steven M., in particular, looked to be having a grand ol’ time, grinning and bobbing as he thumped out basslines that may well have inspired a half dozen different REDD KROSS tunes.

And so when things finally rolled toward a close with “Tearing The Place Apart,” it didn’t matter that Russell flubbed the lines and had to start again from the beginning. “I’m getting rid of every memory/I don’t know where to start”—we knew the lyrics by heart, anyway.

One Response to “Sparks Spectacular: Big Beat (1976)”

  1. The Golden Ticket « Pig State Recon:
    July 31st, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    […] beautiful LPs, one gig at a time. Me, I could only afford to see one of these shows, but oh! What a Big Beat it turned out to […]

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