Before punk, before New Wave, before alt-rock there was Sparks, the most idiosyncratic, iconoclastic band of the 1970s, perhaps ever. They’re the ultimate pop cult band. In the 1970s, liking and listening to Sparks made you the member of small and dubious fan club. And, like The Velvet Underground or Big Star, their influence has always been greater than their record sales.
Unlike those two bands, Sparks are still around and still making new music. Twenty-five albums and counting. Annette, an original musical film starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, will be released this year. Best of all, there’s a Sparks documentary on the way (directed by Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver, just the man for the job).
In practical terms Sparks is a duo, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve hired different musicians as backing bands over the years. Ron plays keyboards and writes most of the songs while Russell plays frontman and handles the acrobatic vocal duties.
How to describe Sparks music? Hard to do since it changes so much from album to album, but I’ll try:
- Kurt Weill meets The Who
- Cole Porter meets Oingo Boingo
- Randy Newman meets Roxy Music
- Gilbert and Sullivan meet Monty Python
While other pop music of the seventies went deep with rootsy introspection or virtuosic jamming, Sparks took a tightly-crafted, absurdist approach to their song making. The titles alone give you an idea–Achoo, Pineapple, Everybody’s Stupid, Amateur Hour, I Bought the Mississippi River, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, Happy Hunting Ground, Angst in my Pants, I Married a Martian and When do I Get to Sing My Way, just to name a few. I mean what other pop act would reimagine Faust as a radio play where the ultimate art-house filmmaker sells his soul to Hollywood (The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman)?
Then there’s their disconcerting live presentation–Russell’s boy band curls and puppy-like energy contrasted with Ron’s intimidating deadpan glare and Hitler mustache (more pencil-styled now). It’s an earlier and more committed version of Cheap Trick’s glamor boy/goofball dichotomy. Here’s how I first saw them, on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert TV show in 1974.
Where to start listening to Sparks? I’ll always be partial to the four-album run of Kimono My House, Propaganda, Indiscreet and Big Beat from the mid to late 1970s. Big Beat is their most straightforward rock and roll effort while Indiscreet boasts a startling mix of cabaret, rock, and slightly bent show tune styles. Lyrically, you can expect a wide range of character studies from sympathetic and strange to mildly revolting.
Glam rock, power pop, synth pop, electronic pop, art-pop, whatever you want to call it, Sparks have always obstinately followed their own quirky muse. Below are a couple of their more recent efforts, the first an unusually straightforward paean to a longtime love, the second a love song to a. . .lawnmower. I told you they were different.
Officer Jake Stirling parked his patrol car on the sharp bend of Camino de la Costa, glanced at the house across the street and wondered if the man inside had managed to kill himself yet. He opened the car door and climbed out. Waves crashed on the rocky shore below, where skeletal silhouettes of abandoned artillery batteries loomed against the purpling sky, remnants of a U.S. Navy training facility from the Second World War. The guns had gone silent after the bombing of Hiroshima ten years earlier. The Japanese invasion of La Jolla, California had never arrived.
The above paragraph is from the opening of my novel-in-progress, Esmeralda by the Ocean. I knew some of San Diego’s WWII history when I started my research for the book, but the story of these artillery guns was new to me. The facility was known as the Naval Anti-Aircraft Gunnery Training School.
The facilities included anti-aircraft guns, ammunition magazines, storage buildings, barracks, and gasoline pumps. The first rounds were fired on September 2, 1942 and continued day and night until the facility closed down on November 3, 1945. Over 300,000 men and officers were trained there over the course of the war. Needless to say, if you lived in the area, it was not a pleasant experience.
When the “big guns boomed” at Bird Rock, they damaged the houses and buildings, breaking windows as their “millions of rounds of ammunition” were expended.
The training center was located between Bird Rock and False Point (known then as Gunnery Point).
The Navy maintained the site as a surplus supply center for a short time after the war, but facilities were demolished and the property decommissioned in the late 1940s. The post-war building boom soon overran the area and nothing remains of the facility today. You can get a great view of the area and imagine what it might have been like from Calumet Park.
During the the most recent COVID shutdown, I started playing around with some of the mastering software that’s out there. For those of you that don’t speak audio geek, mastering is the final tweak of a recording that gives it that nice sheen. Previously the domain of mystical audio wizards, mastering is now a one-button (mostly) software plug-in. So I tried it on a couple of recordings from my old bands. And, gosh darn, it did make the tunes sound even better.
Then I got inspired and made a video to go along with this particular tune – Back to the Sun. Seemed relevant to our world’s current troubles. Hope we all can get back to the sun soon.
You can also listen to just the audio below or download the files for your digital collection.
I can feel my heart pounding And the engines open wide As we fly out of darkness And across the great divide Back to the Sun, Back to the Sun we go When I see you at the station I will kiss you at the gate I will hold you in the morning In a long cold, sweet embrace Back to the Sun, Back to the Sun we go We are dancing over mountains We are floating on the rain We are drifting in the slipstream Out of loneliness and pain Back to the Sun, Back to the Sun we go
If you happened to be in San Diego on May 14, 1955, you might have felt the earth move. It wasn’t an earthquake however. It was the residual shockwave from the U.S. Navy’s underwater atomic bomb test, officially known as Operation Wigwam. The test took place in the Pacific Ocean 500 miles west/southwest of our fair city.
The location was selected by scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who identified an area that would have the least affect on shipping channels and fisheries, a “biological desert far from seat lanes”. The test was designed to assess the lethal range of underwater nuclear explosions on submarines. You can see the Navy’s official film report below (skip to the 21-minute mark if you just want to watch stuff blow up).
Oceanography was a relatively new science at the time and Scripps Institute began its rise to prominence in the field shortly after the Second World War. Some of the earliest experiments confirming the possibility of global climate change were conducted at the institute in the 1950s (and continue to this day). I’m including the institute and two of its employees (one real, one fictional) in my work-in-progress historical novel, set in the 1950s. Fascinating stuff.
The “radio drama” podcast version of Desert City Diva has come and gone, but I’m making it available here for anyone’s who’s interested in listening. Play from this page or download the MP3 files for later. Includes all four episodes plus a roundtable discussion with some of the creative folks involved. Enjoy!