Ron and Russell Mael have remained the driving force behind the timelessly idiosyncratic pop mastery of Sparks for an astounding 40 years. While only an underground cult have been paying any attention in their native United States over most of this time, the group has had off-and-on outbursts of pop chart activity around the world right on up until to the present. Probably their most successful period, as far as hits are concerned, was a run of chart action in the U.K. in the 1970s, after the group decided to take their heavily British-influenced sound and move to England in 1972.
The one predictable constant in the group's career is that one should never predict what they'll do next. With the benefit of hindsight, it makes sense that Sparks would end their time in England by changing direction for a couple albums with a more standard American rock sound, Big Beat and Introducing Sparks. As described in their bio:
While musical revolution was not on the program in any comprehensive way, far more daunting obstacles barricaded U.S. airwaves, namely AOR and MOR. The boys found themselves in a culture-wide musical vacuum. Optimistically speaking, Big Beat (1976) can be regarded as Sparks' attempt thoroughly to break the mold of their perceived preciousity. But the album's badass intentions faltered under the disjunction of Babs Streisand producer Rupert Holmes matched to a backing band of NYC pop-punks. Things went from cod to odd on 1977s Introducing Sparks, Columbia Records' attempt to present Sparks as radio-friendly product.
The change in Sparks' sound not only didn't attract much attention in the U.S. at the time, it also earned some negative notice and stopped their chart run in England (though, interestingly, not in Sweden, if the info on Wikipedia can be trusted). So what's the deal with these two mostly-ignored and obscure Columbia LPs? (Though for historical accuracy, Big Beat was an Island album overseas.)
One thing is for certain: These discs are both certainly far more straightforward than the near art-rock of direct predecessor Indiscreet. On Big Beat, the guitars are in the forefront and the keyboards pushed into a mostly textural role. Song structures follow more standard verse/chorus arrangements, and the lyric sheet is also quite a bit less dense. However ... this is still Sparks, with the same snarky, slightly kinky humor. While it may have flummoxed the group's fans at the time, Big Beat today rests comfortably in a catalog of music that has generally followed its own muse, even when tangentially related to current trends. And I have to admit, it's hard for me to believe that these songs are not at least partly actually parodying the music critics accused Sparks of aping for commercial considerations. I mean, the song titles include "I Want to Be Like Everybody Else," "Everybody's Stupid," "Confusion," "Screwed Up," "Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)," etcetera.
Introducing Sparks, however, is somewhat of a different animal to this listener. The more outré areas of their earlier '70s albums may still be buffed out for an easier to follow, more radio-ready sound, but compared to the ham-fist-pumping production by Rupert "Pina Colada Song" Holmes on Big Beat, this sounds like a Sparks album. The keyboards are again the bedrock of the music, and the complex background vocals have returned as well (including, of all things, the straight-up Beach Boys pastiche "Over the Summer"). It's an album that the group's audience missed at the time but seems to be finally finding one; despite the quick dismissal in the band's biography, the Maels rescued the album from limbo by reissuing it on CD a couple years back.
The Maels doubled down on the unpredictability factor for their next album, enlisting disco producer Giorgio Moroder for the proto-synth-pop No. 1 in Heaven -- and putting themselves back on the U.K. charts. The band finally broke through to the U.S. charts in the early '80s with "I Predict," "Cool Places," and some dance chart hits later in the decade. The Maels latest project is a Swedish-commissioned radio musical envisioning a visit to Hollywood by Ingmar Bergman, with a film version in the works. Seriously. (Columbia, 1976-77)