by Madeline Bocaro
The only consistent thing about Sparks was their unpredictability…but we always knew that their next album would be great! As they started to gain fans from the camps of Roxy Music, Bowie, and Glam Rock, Sparks took an entirely different direction.
Indiscreet, Sparks’ fifth album, (their third for Island Records) was recorded in the spring of 1975 – eleven months after Propaganda, and released in November. The album was produced by the masterful Tony Visconti (producer of The Move, Bowie, T-Rex), who still heralds the album as one of his favorite recordings of all time. On 17 March, recording began at Good Earth studio in London’s Soho. Indiscreet was mixed in Visconti’s minuscule 16-track home studio in Shepherd’s Bush. Tony was introduced to the Maels by their manager John Hewlett (who had been Marc Bolan’s former band mate in John’s Children).
Sparks have to be placed in the unlikely category of ‘Thinking Man’s Rock’. Lyrically, you need a thesaurus to even attempt to glean what Ron is writing about. When the penny drops, the embedded humor in the lyrics hits you like a whack in the back of the head… There aren’t many groups that can hold a candle to the intellectual rock outpourings of the Mael brothers. There is no singer out there with Russell’s vocal agility and aplomb, which are necessary to deliver such potent lyrical and melodic content. He can sing and appear like an angel, making the mangled tortured wordscapes sound like a Sunday psalm on acid.” – Tony Visconti, Sparks News – Vol. 19 No. 5
In the course of almost a year, there were also sessions at Ramport and AIR studios. Sparks were a unique non-rock band that needed strings and orchestrations scored. Island Records granted a big budget for Visconti to hire session musicians. It was similar to the Beatles & George Martin’s working relationship.
Indiscreet was highly exceptional – even by U.K. standards. Upon release, it did not fare well chart-wise. However, its brilliance has transcended the test of time. Strings and orchestral flourishes lend a polished classicism to Sparks’ steadfast lyrical mayhem. A march, a hoedown and a minuet are sprinkled among authentic 1930’s swing and some genuine rockers. The album heeded Sparks’ unspoken motto, ‘Expect the unexpected.’
Russell: “I still like it and it’s still musically strong and complex… It’s not dated because it was never of its time.”
Ron and Russell appear in the midst of a suburban plane wreck on the cover of Indiscreet. An outtake from the cover photo session reveals rescue flares in the foreground – an amusing aspect that was cropped out of the final cover shot by Richard Creamer.
Was this just a contrived excuse for Russell to wear pilot’s gear?
Ron: “Despite Russell liking to show off his new jumpsuit, we first started with the concept of wanting to be photographed in a potentially disastrous situation that in the end miraculously turned out OK. Here Russell crash-landed in suburbia with one of the ‘neighborhood men’ checking out the damage. That’s a film studio painted backdrop, which we had taken to a small airport in the Valley and set up outside behind where the actual plane crash had taken place.
– Sparks News, Vol. 19 No. 6
The back cover finds the band lounging around a swimming pool – another backdrop film set. Outtakes from this session by Gered Mankowitz show arresting photos of the group dressed in Los Angeles Police Department officers’ uniforms.
The double fold-out jacket depicts the Maels in a parking lot. Island Records created life-size cardboard stand-ups of Ron and Russell holding grocery bags, which were displayed in record shops across America.
The Songs of Indiscreet
All of the songs were composed by Ron, except for ‘Pineapple’, which was written by Russell. The album begins with the dramatic ode to America, ‘Hospitality On Parade’. The song increasingly builds up to a thunderous crescendo. A rousing military marching beat is propelled by a stylophone bass line, elaborately setting the stage for the entire Indiscreet opus. Consumerism, customer service and generosity are the topics. Russell: “It’s a brief history of the United States of America, wrapped up in about two verses.”
‘Happy Hunting Ground’ is a sublime Sparks rocker about longing for our school days, when girls are ‘fair fair game’. ‘Without Using Hands’ concerns the amorous French and their ‘hands-off’ approach to child rearing, lovemaking and other things. It is literally about not using hands. The Ritz hotel manager’s hands are blown off in an explosion during a terrorist attack, ”…but at least his face looks well.” The lovely tune has a truly European flair.
Sparks were certainly marching to the beat of a different drum in their very own ebullient parade. Yet, the single, ‘Get In The Swing’ (performed on Top of the Pops) b/w ‘Profile’ made the Top 30. The A-side was written by Ron on keyboards. Each verse represented a different musical style; marching band, swing, string quartet, heavenly choir and back to the marching band.
Strings dominate ‘Under The Table With Her’. It is a stunning minuet involving two children in love pretending to be dogs beneath a dinner table of elite adults, in which Ron utters the rare words, ‘Dinner for twelve, thank you.’ ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ is Sparks’ atypical guy/girl/car song. It features irregular measures and sudden tempo changes.
On the self-penned ‘Pineapple’ Russell, along with a tuba, is the spokesperson for the unpopular citrus fruit. He elevates the ostracized tart treat to the lofty ranks of the cranberry, with his high-pitched sales pitch. This tune has a tropical Hawaiian melody.
‘Tits’ is a tale in which breasts are transitioned from sex objects to mere nutrient source after the birth of ‘little Joe’. It’s a story of two drinking buddies who obviously value their friendship more than loyalty to one’s marriage. While they are drunk, it’s OK that Harry is sleeping with his friend’s wife. The harpsichord sound lends an old-fashioned classicism to the melancholy stein-raising German folk song.
Swing your partner to the story of a soldier, Johnny who is a bit old fashioned. In this square-dance, the town-folk are jealous of his reverie in things of yore in the string driven, wordy and quick-tongued ‘It Ain’t 1918’. In ‘The Lady Is Lingering’ it’s the guy who is nervous about the dangerous silent gaps in the evening. It’s a further study of Propaganda’s ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her’. ‘In The Future’ is indeed futuristic (as is everything that Sparks has ever done). Russell introduces it as “The fastest song in the world” when performing it live.
On the swinging ‘Looks Looks Looks’ Visconti hired a full authentic 1930s orchestra of elderly jazz musicians to accompany Russell’s vocal. (The Ted Heath orchestra, who greatly enjoyed the opportunity to reunite, also appeared with Sparks to perform the song on Supersonic).
Is it worth being late for the theatre and missing the beginning of a movie for love? For movie buffs, this is a tough one to answer. The lovely tear-jerking melody on ‘Miss the Start, Miss the End’ is downright classical.
Ron Mael proves himself one of the most overlooked lyricists in rock, and lands somewhere between the narrative style of Ray Davies and the mordant wit of Cole Porter in fact it could be even Noel Coward if it weren’t for the bit where the hotel manager’s hands are blown off in a bomb attack. In Ron’s world, every day scenarios and facets of the human condition are played out in a surreal, disturbingly comic fashion. Indiscreet? Perhaps. Audacious? Absolutely. – Mojo when is this quote from?
Either the Maels or Tony Visconti were asking: What can we show them that is new? From a tipsy teatime waltz to unstoppable violins, the pace pulverized the listener, and Russell’s mouth seems unable to close. There are so many latitude and longitude instrumental textures that the masterstroke was just almost overcooked.”
- Morrissey (from Tony Visconti’s autobiography Bolan, Bowie and the Brooklyn Boy)
‘Profile’ had been laid down at the KMH sessions. For this b-side of ‘Get In The Swing’, Ian Hampton played bass, and Trevor White added guitar.
Russell wrote ‘The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy To Russell Mael’. This was the original b-side to the UK single ‘Looks Looks Looks’. It featured Visconti’s then wife Mary Hopkin on the spoken ‘I do.’ The song was later replaced by ‘Pineapple’ as the b-side.
Another of Russell’s compositions, ‘Gone With The Wind’ coupled with ‘Tearing the Place Apart’ was consigned to the Best Of Sparks compilation album. ‘G.W.T.W.’ was a view of the legendary film from two perspectives. One is Vivian Leigh’s stunt double, and the other is a couple in a cinema who are bored and confused by the lengthy motion picture.
Another wonderful outtake, ‘Looks Aren’t Everything’ was finally released in 2006 (on the Big Beat CD) when Universal released re-masters of Sparks’ four Island Records on CD.
The song ‘Confusion’ (along with a version called ‘Intrusion’) was also recorded at the Indiscreet sessions, but was later completely re-worked for Big Beat. This is also on the Universal 21st Century re-masters. It was to be included in Sparks’ film collaboration with French director Jacques Tati, which never came to fruition.
Singles / Charts
Indiscreet received mixed reviews. Rolling Stone’s Ed Ward claimed that his dog sighed audibly when the record was over. Indiscreet made it to No. 18 on the UK album chart, spending 4 weeks on the chart. It reached No. 169 in America. Sparks’ chart numbers were declining. KMH was Top 10, Propaganda Top 20 and Indiscreet Top 30.
“There were one or two criticisms along the lines of ‘self-indulgent’. In our world you, as an artist, indulge yourself. We would say, ‘Yes, it is very self-indulgent! Thank you for noticing.” – Russell Mael
In July 1975 after being performed on TOTP) the single ‘Get In The Swing’ / ‘Profile’ (from the KMH sessions) was released. It reached No. 27 in the UK. It was also released in Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Spain. Sparks also performed ‘Get In The Swing’ on the Bay City Rollers’ television show Shang-A-Lang.
In September, ‘Looks Looks Looks’/‘Pineapple’ reached No. 22 in the U.K. The single was also released in Germany, Japan, Portugal, Yugoslavia and America.
‘How Are You Getting Home?’ was used in the soundtrack to the Leos Carax film Holy Motors in 2015.
Two promotional films were made for the tune ‘Get In The Swing’ and shown on UK television with the band; Ian Hampton (bass), Trevor White (guitar) and the late Dinky Diamond on drums. ‘Looks, Looks, Looks’ was performed on Top of the Pops and on Britain’s teen show Supersonic with the Ted Heath horn players and omnipotent bubbles.
A session was taped for Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, which was not broadcast. Sparks performed ‘ How Are You Getting Home’ and, ‘In The Future’. Sparks appeared on American Bandstand for their third time on July 12, 1975.
Following a short Scandinavian tour of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, in early fall 1975, Island Records allocated a big budget for Sparks’ U.K. tour. There was elaborate lighting, a large crew and other devices to replicate the complex studio sounds of Indiscreet. Russell wore a horseback rider’s outfit with suspenders, a tweed jacket and tall boots, accessorized with a whip! Ron wore his usual white shirt and tie.
(15) Newcastle City Hall (16 & 17) Edinburgh Odeon (18) Glasgow Apollo (19) Manchester Palace Theater (21) Portsmouth Guildhall (23) Taunton Odeon (24) Oxford New Theatre (26) Hammersmith Odeon (28) Ipswich Gaumont (29) Leicester de Montfort Hall (30) Sheffield City Hall (31) Liverpool Empire
(1) Leeds University (2) Coventry New Theater (4) Bristol Colston Hall (6) Birmingham Odeon (7) Lewisham Odeon (8) Brighton Dome (9) Croydon Fairfield Halls
The hysteria of Sparks’ third British tour was captured on film at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls gig on 9 Nov. 1975. Hysterical teenage girls and boys hurled themselves onstage in a whirlwind of Maelmania. (The sophisticated lyrics went way over their heads). Europe was conquered, and a short Scandinavian tour brought out more screamers. The final gig was in Stockholm.
(14) Philadelphia PA, Tower Theater (17) Pittsburgh PA, Stanley Theater (19) New York NY, Philharmonic (Avery Fisher) Hall, (20) Detroit MI, Masonic Temple (21) Chicago IL, Rivera Theater. (22) Cleveland OH, Music Hall (23) Buffalo NY, New Century Theater (24) Toronto Canada, Maple Leaf Gardens (25) Ottowa Canada, Civic Arena (26) Montreal Canada, Plateau Theater (28) Kansas City MO, Soldiers & Sailors (29) St. Louis MO, Ambassador Theater (30) Indianapolis IN, Rivoli Theater (Colorado show was cancelled).
(3 & 4) – Los Angeles CA, Santa Monica Civic, (6) San Francisco CA, Berkeley Community Theater (7) Sacramento CA (9) Portland OR, Paramount Theater (10) Seattle WA, Paramount Theater, (11) Vancouver Canada, Vancouver Gardens (14) San Diego CA, Civic Arena
So what did the Mael brothers do after their smashing tours? They exercised their zany marketing strategy, fired their band and moved back home to America. Whenever Sparks were on a successful path, they would veer off the paved road onto one more treacherous. Although the Maels strove for success, it had to be on their own explicit terms. In many ways, their blind faith paid off…but they left for America, and did not return to play live in the UK for twenty years!
Island Masters (1994) – Includes ‘Profile’ and the non-album single (The Beatles’) ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand, and its B-side ‘England’.
The 21st Century Edition (2006) – Includes ‘The Wedding Of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael’ and a live recording of ‘Looks, Looks, Looks’ from Fairfield Halls, Croydon.
Sparks – The Island Years (2015)- Boxed vinyl set
For Indiscreet, the Maels surprised the band at rehearsals with orchestral players who learned the songs on the spot! The fiddler had a hard time keeping up on ‘It Ain’t 1918’ but otherwise it was fantastic! Ron did his infamous ‘Dinner for twelve’ vocal. Producer Tony Visconti would have been proud. The lovely ‘Gone With the Wind’ was the encore treat.
- Russell Mael – vocals
- Ron Mael – keyboards
- Ian Hampton – bass
- Trevor White – guitar
- Norman “Dinky” Diamond – drums
- Mike Piggott – fiddle on “It Ain’t 1918”
- Tony Visconti – orchestral arrangements
- Photography: Gered Mankowitz