In November 1974, Sparks’ Propaganda album instilled in their fans the burning desire to drop leaflets from helicopters declaring Sparks the greatest band in the world!! Having no access to helicopters in our teens, word traveled slowly but surely, by various subversive missives.
Despite the Maels’ intentions to take a completely new direction, ignoring the successful formula of Kimono My House, it segued right into Propaganda. Sparks’ third and fourth albums (both on Island Records) complemented each other like a pair of bookends. Britain’s `Holy Trinity’ Melody Maker, Sounds and NME raved. They gave the band tremendous coverage, featuring lengthy interviews with Ron and Russell, in which they mostly discussed their favorite topic – food!
Sparks’ fourth album (their second for Island Records) was made in England at AIR studios. In August/September 1974. Recorded immediately after the smashing British reception of Kimono My House, Propaganda retained the same producer, Muff Winwood (brother of Traffic’s Steve Winwood).
Ron and Russell retained their KMH touring band, Adrian Fisher on lead guitar, rhythm guitarist Trevor White, and bassist Ian Hampton (both former Jook members) and drummer, Dinky Diamond. Hampton replaced Martin Gordon after the Kimono sessions.
After the wild and sudden success of Kimono My House, Ron felt pressured to write more complex songs. This was his formula:
Jam-Proof Your Composition
(“It’s the same old song, only shorter”)
1) Avoid the key of E. Avoid the key of A.
2) Never use a major or minor when an augmented or diminished will do just as well.
3) Experiment with arresting chord sequences. Surely there’s been a chord sequence that you felt was maybe just a bit too kinky, a bit too complicated. Use it.
4) Never repeat anything.
5) Try adding a small 9, 11 or 13 randomly after a few chords in the song.
6) Save your cleverest lyrics for those long passages in one chord.
7) A good rule of thumb is, ‘When a solo soon will grate, modulate.’
8) When a solo does creep in, a gripping spoken part over-the-top can usually attract the lion’s share of attention.
9) Wherever possible all solos should be restricted to the final passage of a song where they can be quickly and cleanly faded.
10) Reminder, it’s never too late. One inch of splicing tape and a sharp razor blade can eliminate a multitude of sins.
– Ron Mael, Sparks Flashes Vol.2 No. 1
When recording KMH, Ron abandoned the Farfisa organ that he had used on the first two Sparks albums. He now favored the RMI Electra-piano. The intro of ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us’ is symbolic of the instrument’s sound – generated by transistors, like an electronic organ.
‘When I moved to London at the end of 1973, I bought an RMI electric piano, one of the models with three sounds – piano, harpsichord, and organ. The piano sounded so bad that in order to salvage it, I ran it through a Maestro Echoplex, which was a portable tape delay – real tape.
Because it was tape, it gave the sound a bit of an uneven but rather haunting waver that you could never get now and that was the electric piano sound for Kimono My House and Propaganda. “ – Ron Mael
“The sound of Sparks is intriguing and imaginative. They blend early production techniques and tricks that worked well to make the records of the 50s and 60s so successful. The band rely on dynamics and rhythmic changes to carry their tunes rather than depend on one basic melody line.” – Melody Maker, 2 November 1974
The album cover of Propaganda launched a succession of hilarious cover shots, presenting the frail Mael brothers in extraordinary predicaments, usually helplessly victimized in some way. Here they are on the south coast of Sussex England – abducted, bound and gagged at the back of a speeding boat. On the back cover, Ron and Russell are held hostage at a petrol station in the rear of a car (a Humber). Their captors – Ian, Dinky and Trevor – fiendishly decide their fate.
Again, as with Kimono My House there was no mention of the band’s name to deface the Propaganda cover art, nor was there a title on the album cover. An add-on sticker identified it as the new Sparks album. The inner sleeve finds the brothers breaking their ties and attempting to telephone for help, just out of reach of a lifeline. Italian and French pressings had gatefold covers.
Abducted, bound and gagged in varied modes of transport. Where did the kidnappers finally take you, and what was the ransom?
Russell: We shot this on the south coast of England in a gale force wind. That look in our eyes is not acting! We were freezing! The photographer had originally suggested that we be bound and gagged and dropped from an airplane with parachutes on, and he would photograph us from the air as he too descended. We declined his kind offer.
– Sparks News Vol. 19 No. 6
Monty Coles, now a renowned Australian fashion photographer, shot the cover. Coles shot Bryan Ferry’s solo album cover, In Your Mind, art directed by Nicholas DeVille. DeVille directed the Kimono My House album cover with Roxy Music’s art team, and KMH photographer, Karl Stoecker.
The Songs of Propaganda
Propaganda, (along with Kimono My House) was one of the most multifaceted pop albums recorded to date. It is ambitious and operatic, with uncommon orchestrations, sudden tempo changes and strange storylines – and it rocks! Gilbert & Sullivan would have either been proud or envious! All Propaganda songs were written by Ron except ‘Reinforcements’, ‘Thanks But No Thanks’ and ‘Bon Voyage’ co-written by Russell.
‘Propaganda’ is the first of two songs on the album trifling with a military theme, the other being ‘Reinforcements’. Russell shines on the acapella title track, with his voice overdubbed – thirty times!
“We did a longer version (still all acapella) but it just didn’t seem to work. I recall that the truncated version was Muff’s doing. I think he got it right”. – Ian Hampton
A frustrated guy, sorely neglected by his busy girlfriend, sings ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’. Russell portrays a cowardly army recruit on ‘Reinforcements’ with its lovely counter-harmonies. The husband in a disintegrating family narrates ‘B.C’. A kid who likes taking candy from strangers (potential abductors) but can’t understand why he shouldn’t, sings ‘Thanks But No Thanks’. ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her’ is the opposite of guy chases girl.
‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’ is a song about Mother Nature’s wrath, borne of the Kimono My House demo ‘Windy Day’. It was the album’s first single, backed with ‘Alabamy Right’. Ron says that this song came into his mind ‘fully formed’.
‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ is about a girlfriend being bribed by her lover with abundant eccentric and extravagant gifts (including a crate containing Frank Sinatra) to keep her from divulging incriminating information about him – way back when he wasn’t himself. Russell’s breathless pause before the middle eight is a highlight.
‘Achoo’ was a concert favorite!
“’Achoo’ ended with this really great characteristic long solo… (from Adrian) and they wiped it off and put on all those horrid multi-tracked sneezes. They figured everyone had heard a guitar solo, but they hadn’t heard us all sneezing.”
– Guitarist Trevor White, Goldmine, July 1995
‘Who Don’t Like Kids?’ lyrically extolls the virtues of children, while sonically reminding us how annoying kids can really be – especially in the shouting kid chorus near the repetitive ending, which seems like the record is stuck.
The animals left behind when Noah’s ark departed voice the beautifully melodic ‘Bon Voyage’. They contemplate disguises, imitation and other ways to sneak aboard the ark. Within the orchestrated operatic tune which showcases the beauty of Russell’s voice, he performs a gruff sea shanty style call-and-response with himself, ‘Glad that we could know you / I wish that we could join you’.
“I don’t write funny songs, I like things where it’s really blurred, and you can’t tell if it’s funny or not funny. I think mystery is a good thing.”
- Ron Mael, Melody Maker, 2 Nov. 1974
1974 brought Sparks four hits in the UK Top 20 within nine months. The Propaganda album charted instantly. It peaked at No. 9 in the UK, and No. 63 on the Billboard charts.
The Top 5 artists in September 1974 were Mud, Bowie, Slade Queen and T. Rex. Melody Maker voted Sparks “Brightest new hope”. The U.K. In October, the first single, ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ / ’Alabamy Right’ reached No.13. It was performed on TOTP twice, on 24 October and 7 November. Backstage at the television studio, Sparks ran into Queen, who performed their No. 2 song ‘Killer Queen’ on the 24 October TOTP. Spark’s single was also released in Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. In Germany, it reached No. 40.
‘Never Turn…’ was the nearest thing to a ballad that Sparks had ever done, featuring beautiful mellotron and synth strings. A stunning version was later recorded (during the Indiscreet sessions) by Tony Visconti’s then wife, Mary Hopkin. Her rendition was not released until 2007 on her Valentine retrospective collection.
Besides Mary Hopkin’s lovely version, many others followed – most notably; Depeche Mode (1987) for a fan club flexi-disc, Martin Gore (1989) on his first solo album, Billy McKenzie (2005 – the song was released posthumously – Billy died in 1997) and Neko Case (2009). Sparks re-recorded the song for Plagiarism in 1997 with orchestra and choir, again produced by Tony Visconti. The B-side, ‘Alabamy Right’ was also originally a Kimono My House demo, along with ‘Marry Me’.
In January 1975 ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ / ’Marry Me’ reached No. 17 after Sparks performed it twice on Top Of The Pops. (The B-side, ‘Marry Me’ was originally written when Ron & Russell arrived in England to record Kimono My House. (A professional demo was previously made during those sessions.) The French single was ‘Propaganda’/’At Home, At Work, At Play’ / ‘Marry Me’. All of the UK singles from Propaganda had non-LP B-sides.
Sparks had caused a sensation in the UK during their first Top Of The Pops appearance performing ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us’ in May 1974, just six months prior.
‘Television had just become important and the close-up had begun to matter. On TV you could make in impact with a small, subtle action that would have had no effect in concert, in a big hall. You could strike people in a big way – a raised eyebrow, a changed expression, a moustache. I’d done them live before, but nobody had noticed! Now they began to have a massive effect.’ – Ron Mael, The Word #36, February 2006
In France, the single was ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’ / ‘Marry Me’. In the USA, ‘Achoo’ was the only single. ‘Achoo’ was the first song that Franz Ferdinand rehearsed when they formed in 2002. It’s no wonder that they teamed up with the Maels in 2015 to form FFS!
During the KMH tour, which commenced on 7th July 1974, the Maels added a second guitarist, Trevor White, along with the remaining members of the Kimono band; Adrian Fisher (lead guitar), drummer Dinky Diamond, and bassist Ian Hampton. Fisher was soon let go due to creative differences. He was not replaced – although the Maels did try to obtain a new guitarist…
Ron and Russell Mael offered Queen’s guitarist Brian May the rare and prestigious opportunity to join Sparks. After serious contemplation, May declined the offer. Trevor White took over on lead and rhythm guitar. In retrospect, it’s a good thing May declined, as Indiscreet would have been a much different record, and Queen might never have made their next album, A Night At The Opera, which spawned the single ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Before the start of the Propaganda tour, Sparks made television appearances in Germany on Musikladen and Disco on 28th September. They had major support from the British press; Melody Maker, NME and Sounds, along with teen magazines Look-In, Jackie and Mirabelle, for which Russell had his own column about his favorite things. (Russell’s columns were ghost-written by Joseph Fleury.)
On stage, Sparks use lights to good, simple effect. Two bright white spots pick out Ron and Russell throughout, a little like the convict captured in the copper’s torch beam.
– Melody Maker, July 1974
“It’s better to go see the Royal Shakespeare Company than to see a rock band trying to be theatrical. – Russell Mael, Melody Maker, July 1974
Propaganda U.K. Tour
November (2) York University (3) Newcastle City Hall (4) Leicester de Montfort Hall (5) Liverpool Empire (6) Bristol, Hippodrome (8) Reading University (9) Exeter University (10) Coventry Theater (11) Hammersmith Odeon (13) Swansea, Brangwyn Hall (14) Oxford, New Theater (15) Blackburn, St George’s Hall (16) Lancaster University (17) Stoke on Trent, Victoria Hall (18) Southport Theater (19) Edinburgh Odeon (20) Dundee Caird Hall (21) Glasgow Apollo (22) Manchester Free Trade Hall (23) Hastings Pier Pavilion (24) Croydon, Fairfield Hall (25) Torquay, Princess Theater (26) Bournemouth, Winter Gardens (27) Birmingham Town Hall (28) Dunstable, California Ballroom
The band performed KMH and Propaganda songs, plus ‘Wonder Girl’, ‘Girl From Germany’ and others from their debut album, and from A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing.
Sparks’ first ever gig in France at the Paris Olympia Theater on 30th November 1974 was triumphant. The short European Propaganda tour was followed by gigs in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
Confusion – ‘La Tati’
While in Paris, Island’s marketing / promotion coordinator, Peter Zumsteg introduced the Maels to Academy Award winning French film director Jacques Tati, who was developing a movie script titled Confusion. Filming was planned for later in the year. Ron Mael composed the title song. The Maels were also to have parts in the film. Tati’s idea was to expose the artifice of motion pictures with technical trickery, visual puns and out of context sound effects. The biggest disappointment of the Maels’ career was that the film was never made. (Tati died in 1982).
Ron Mael: “We were to be in Tati’s film Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company to help them out with some American technical expertise and input into how TV really is done. Unfortunately due to Tati’s declining health and ultimate death, the film didn’t get made.”
Propaganda’s US release was in January 1975. The album reached No. 63 on Billboard’s Hot 100. A U.S.A. Propaganda tour began in April 1975 with wildly appreciative audiences. Pre-show, Disney tunes were played to fire up the teens. The after-show parties were held at Burger King restaurants across America, rather than at exclusive hot spots. The Island Records invites read, ‘Black tie optional.’ The first-ever Sparks bootleg vinyl album, One And A Half-Nelson ‘The Instant Darlings Recorded Live’ was made at this time.
Joey Ramone attended the 9th May 1975 New York City gig at the Academy of Music, as did Linda Blair of The Exorcist. There was a Los Angeles show, and a brief tour of Europe in September/October then back to America.
(9) Portland Oregon, Paramount Theater (10) Seattle Washington Paramount Theater (11) Vancouver B.C. Garden Auditorium (14) San Diego CA, Civic Theater. More dates included Los Angeles, Rochester and Toronto. The final show was in Philadelphia.
Sparks gained the support of American music magazines with feature articles in Circus, Raves, Creem, Hit Parader and Rock Scene. When promoting Kimono My House, they had appeared on NBC’s late night music show The Midnight Special on November 15, 1974, and also Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, filmed on October 8 at New York City’s Beacon Theater and broadcast in November. “Something For the Girl With Everything”, “Talent is an Asset”, “Hasta Manana Monsieur”, “Thank God it’s Not Christmas”, “B.C.” and “Here in Heaven” were performed live.
In January 1975, Sparks made more television appearances in America including ABC’s Wide World In Concert, broadcast in November. Sparks were introduced by The Who drummer Keith Moon and Beatle Ringo Starr. The band performed several songs from Kimono My House and Propaganda on each show (highly contrasted amongst the most dreary American mega rock groups). Sparks made their second of what would be a total of six appearances on American Bandstand on July 12, 1975 performing ‘This Town…’ and ‘B.C.’.
Island Masters (1994) Includes B-sides ‘Alabamy Right’ and ‘Marry Me’.
The 21st Century Edition (2006) Includes Saturday Scene interview recorded in Nov. 1974.
Sparks – The Island Years (2015) Boxed vinyl set
Two Propaganda songs were re-recorded for Sparks’ Plagiarism album in 1997. The extended a’capella title track includes the omitted verses. Tony Visconti orchestrated strings for ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’.
In May 2008, Propaganda was performed in Islington UK. It was the fourth concert of their Sparks Spectacular – 21 albums in 21 Nights, during which Sparks presented their entire body of work – every note of their 250 + songs over their four-decade career – live. These shows climaxed with the live debut of their 22nd album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
Propaganda was the most difficult album thus far for the musicians. If they made a mistake, the quick pace of the complex songs would not allow a chance to fix it. Luckily, there were no mistakes! The ‘Propaganda’ / ’At Home At Work, At Play’ segue was rehearsed six times in the afternoon, so it would be flawless live. Ron uncontrollably erupted into his infamous shuffle during ‘Who Don’t Like Kids?’ and promised it wouldn’t happen again. Of course it did! ‘Lost And Found’ was the brilliant encore.
- Ron Mael – keyboards
- Russell Mael – vocals
- Trevor White – guitar
- Ian Hampton – bass
- Norman “Dinky” Diamond – drums
- Adrian Fisher – guitar
- Produced by Muff Winwood
- Recording Engineers – Richard Digby-Smith, Robin Black and Bill Price
- Concept and Photography – Monty Coles
The Propaganda album elaborately set the stage for Sparks’ next excursion…the inimitable Indiscreet.