It's our last month celebrating KEXP’s 50th anniversary. Each week in 2022, KEXP has paid homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, KEXP's Janice Headley looks back at Sparks' breakthrough 1974 hit and the power of television to propel a single.
For an up-and-coming artist, a single television performance can launch your career. Who can forget Samuel T. Herring’s guttural, impassioned stage presence when Future Islands appeared on Late Show with David Letterman in 2014. Or Frank Ocean’s television debut with an intimate, stripped-down take of “Bad Religion” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2012.
Well, way back in 1974, you had Sparks, lighting up the stage on the BBC TV series Top of the Pops.
Formed in Los Angeles in the mid-'60s, the sibling duo of Ron and Russell Mael are often referred to as “the best British band to come out of America.” As Ron explained to future-Club MTV host Downtown Julie Brown in an 1985 BBC interview, "We had had a couple albums out in America and they were what are known as Bombs, Duds, Losers in the States. And so out of desperation, we decided to come to England. We'd always been Anglophiles."
Upon relocation, they quickly assembled a new backing band, and began recording their third LP for Island Records, titled Kimono My House. The debut single was a quirky one with the confrontational title “This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us.”
While the song retained the glam rock stomp that was in fashion at the time, it also showcased Russell's unique falsetto, carrying a heavy load of lyrics in a staccato fashion. The lines in the song were inspired by clichéd movie dialogue, and they doubled down on the cinematic feel by mixing in gunshot sound effects from Western films. It was also an introduction to Ron’s humorous songwriting, with lyrics of “tacky tigers” and a “khaki-coloured bombardier.” He writes: “As 20 cannibals have hold of you / They need their protein just like you do.”
In 2020, Edgar Wright directed a documentary about the duo called The Sparks Brothers. In it, Russell acknowledges that Island Records was taking a pretty big leap of faith with them. "Everybody at Island was really ecstatic about the album and really supportive. Especially in picking 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us' to be the first song because it was, you know, was taking a chance. It was going for something that was really extreme.
Not everyone believed in the single, though. In fact, Elton John made a bet with Sparks’ producer Muff Winwood that the single would never crack the top-five on the UK Singles Chart.
The band’s luck changed once they appeared on the BBC TV show Top of the Pops. "Everyone at the record label said it's going to become a big hit if we can just get you on Top of the Pops," Russell reflects in The Sparks Brothers. "The producer of the show is a very dapper gentleman and he said, 'Hello, my name is Robin Nash. Nice to meet you.' I said, [in an American drawl] 'Hi, my name is Russell.' He was taken aback a bit that I was an American and he made a phone call and had taken us off the show because we hadn't gotten work permits. So everyone at Island was just distraught." He adds, "Finally, the British Musicians Union relented. And there we were."
As Ron remembers it, "I think there were 60 million people at that time in the UK and and 15 million of them were watching Top of the Pops."
Their performance was luminous. Russell, bare-chested, marching across the stage with his long curls bouncing, singing expressively doe-eyed into the camera. And in stark contrast, his brother Ron, sitting mostly solemnly behind his keyboard, sometimes sneering or arching an eyebrow towards the audience. He had a perfectly groomed mustache reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin… Or maybe Adolf Hitler. Rumor has it, John Lennon was one of the 15 million people watching. As the Sparks Brothers film tells it, Lennon called up Ringo Starr to say, "You won’t believe what’s on the television. Marc Bolan is performing a song with Adolf Hitler." (His former bandmate Paul McCartney later paid tribute to Sparks by dressing up as Ron in his video for "Coming Up," imitating his intimidating glares to the camera perfectly.)
Future musicians were all watching TV that night, too — Sparks’ performance entranced and inspired people from bands like Duran Duran, Erasure, Squeeze, New Order, and more.
The next day, the Sparks performance was all anyone could talk about. Sales of their record went up dramatically. As producer Muff Winwood remembers in the Sparks Brothers documentary, "The following day, I remember going in and one of the sales guys saying, 'We've done 200,000 singles today already!' The vans are out everywhere and there were people buying boxes of them. That is a fantastic feeling."
“This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us” shot to number 2 on the UK singles chart. Its album Kimono My House ranked at number 4 on the album charts. Which means, of course, Elton John lost the bet. Here in the US? It didn’t even break the Top 100. It just goes to show that television can really help propel a single.
Sparks took advantage of the momentum of that Top of the Pops performance, heading out on tour in the summer of ‘74, and releasing a second album that year in November, titled Propaganda. Since that career-making television performance, Sparks have gone on to make 24 total albums with a new LP and consequent tour in 2023.
Suffice it to say, Sparks continue to fly.
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