Pictures of Lily play "Judy"

Althoug this blog is dedicated to professional artists, it goes without saying that I shouldn't neglect the opportunity to plug my own band by including at least one of our songs.

This is a demo recording of an original that we recorded around 2004 on a Vostex 8-track hard disk recorder. It was virtually recorded live and it doesn't contain any overdubs, apart from the vocals which were recorded separately. The band consists of a rather basic and conventional line-up, with two guitarists, a bass player and a drummer.

After a pause of more than a year, we have recently started to rehearse again with the original line up but with a new drummer. We hope to start gigging again in the Summer of 2009.

For more information, please feel free to contact me at;

Thao Nguyen

I'm rather impressed by this young lady. She's released three albums so far; "From The Linen" and "We Brave Bee Stings And All" and "Know Better Learn Faster". This is an acoustic performance at NPR Music.

Sparks at Paradiso, Amsterdam, March 2006

Sparks at Paradiso, Amsterdam, March 2006
Ron and Russell Mael

Title Sparks' new album announced!

Sparks' 21st album will be released on May 19th. Its title will be "Exotic Creatures Of The Deep", which is even by Sparks standards, a rather unusual album title. There will be 13 tracks this time. A single off the album, "Good Morning" will be released on May 12th. The album coincides with the 21 concerts they are giving in London in May during which they will perform all of their albums chronologically, ending with the new one on May 21st.

This is the track list:

'Good Morning'
'Strange Animal'
'I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song'
'Let The Monkey Drive'
'Intro Reprise'
'I've Never Been High'
'(She Got Me) Pregnant'
'Lighten Up, Morrissey'
'This Is The Renaissance'
'The Director Never Yelled Cut'

vrijdag 1 juli 2016

Halfnelson Demo Album (1969)

Halfnelson Demo Album, 1969
Russell Mael - vocals & bass guitar
Ron Mael - keyboards
Earle Mankey - guitar (and lead vocals on Big Rock Candy Mountain)
John Mendelsohn - drums
Surly Ralph Oswald - bass guitar on some tracks
Mike Berns - drums on some tracks
Chile Farm Farney
Johnny's Adventure
Arts & Crafts Spectacular
The Animals At Jason's Bar & Grill
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Saccharin And The War
Join The Firm
Jane Church
The Factory
Ever since I got involved in Sparks, somewhere in the second half of 1974, I have been fascinated by their very first American period. I'm not referring to the early 80's, during which Sparks were moderately successful in the States, with songs like "I Predict" and "Cool Places", but I'm talking about the time that the Maels' first cautious steps were made into the music industry. 
The first official albums "Halfnelson" (later re-issued as "Sparks") and "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing" are surrounded with an atmosphere that the Maels never have seemed to capture on any of the later albums. It's mystical, it's warm, it's weird, it's expecting the unexpected, it's serene and it's magical. There, I said it. 
In 1975, I found out that Halfnelson had recorded a demo album prior to the official "Halfnelson" album. I was hooked! Dozens of questions came to my mind. Was it actually a proper album, how many songs were on it, were there any songs later used for the official album, how did it sound like, was it actually released or had it never surpassed the tape format, who had written the songs, what was the sleeve like? 

Being a massive admirer of the Maels' talents, I must have tormented my poor parents, brother and sisters for the better part of the 70's, until I moved out of my parents' house. Sparks were played every day, record shops were visited regularly, radio stations called, music magazines bought and little by little I got involved in the Dutch Fan Club, which I finally took over in 1979, just on the eve of Sparks' first European comeback with "No. 1 In Heaven". I had a magazine to make and members to write to so I was very much involved in the daily activities of Sparks, be it from a distance.

Nevertheless, the thought of an unknown album, somewhere in America never lost its grip on me and I decided to make it my personal Quest for the Holy Grail of Mael to find this album and to be able to listen to it. It would take me 22 years before this Quest was actually fulfilled. 
In 1969, Ron and Russell Mael met Earle Mankey. Before that, they had been in a band called Urban Renewal Project and even earlier incarnations of Sparks were called Moonbaker Abbey and Farmer's Market.

Next to Ron and Russell, Urban Renewal Project consisted of Ron's friend Fred Frank on guitar and his wife Ronda on drums, being it only one snare drum. Here's a fragment from Ron and Russell's mother, Miriam Rogenson, who was living in England in those days. She's writing to a relative in the US about Russell visiting England and France, the members of the band and the name-change to Half-Nelson (sic).

"Russell is here for a month - returning January 12. He's in France now visiting a friend. He's here with a young married couple - the fellow is in Russell's band - Half-Nelson is their name. Ronnie stayed home as he had an art exhibit of some of his photographiic artwork. Also a contract for a record was pending."

Two things are interesting here. First of all, she is talking about Russell's band, not Ron and Russell's band, which confirms the fact that in the earlier days, they were not active within the same band and Ron was more occupied with his photography. There's the mentioning of a possible record contract, which means that the young married couple must have been Earle and his wife Lisa. The contract mentioned was the one for Bearsville, which would release the official Halfnelson album and the subsequent "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing".

There are various stories of how the Maels met Mankey. In the official Bearsville Biography from December 1972, it is claimed that the Maels followed an ad in which Earle had advertised for a recording studio and when they came over there, Earle also convinced the Maels to hire him as a guitar player (at $ 2.50 an hour).                                                                                                                                                                                         

The picture on the right was taken right after the recording of the Demo Album, as it includes Harley Feinstein, who joined Halfnelson during the mixing of the album. Jim Mankey was not recruted yet as he only joined after the contract with Bearsville was realised. On the top row Harley Feinstein and Russell Mael . On the front row Earle Mankey and Ronnie Mael, 1970.

According to other sources, it was the Maels who actually put a "guitarist wanted" ad and Earle Mankey responded to that. I realise these are all pointless details but what is important is the fact that this meeting resulted in the creation and making of music. It was obvious, that the Maels and Mankey were a perfect combination. Ron and Russell, the latter whom was quite active as a composer in these days as well, supplied the perfect melodies and lyrics for Earle to put into weird arrangements and several over-dubs, speed-up guitars and more refreshing recording gimmicks. 

It was decided that an album should be recorded and for that reason, they badly needed a rhythm section. A drummer was found in the person of John Mendelsohn and a bass player was added, named Surly Ralph Oswald. It is however, very likely that this bass player was involved after the recordings for this demo had already begun and that most of the bass lines were actually played by Russell, who, even nowadays claims that he started off as a bass player. 

All the songs for the demo, which had no proper title, were written by the Maels. Two very persistent rumours kept flying around for years; the first one was that the demo album was also called “A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing”, just like Sparks’ official second album. The other rumour was that Ron designed the sleeve, depicting someone flying in front of the Eiffel Tower on a surfboard under a bright moon. This image has given some later artists (and Sparks fans) inspiration to design their own interpretation of this cover, which actually never existed, according to Harley Feinstein, the drummer on Sparks first two official albums, who joined the band as they were mixing the demo album.

Still, in an article as early as October 1970, there is really talk about both a sleeve as described above and the title "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing", two years before the release of the official one. This title must have been around in those early days but appearantly, never used until the second Bearsville album.

Harley Feinstein: “The acetate just had a plain white label on it. No art, graphics, anything just plain white. It was given to record  executives in a box with pictures, promotional material, etc. The box was a large replica of an order pad that a waitress in a cafe might have. I guess the concept was you could check off the appropriate item on the order form and order up a steaming hot portion of Halfnelson. I never owned one of the boxes. And I never heard the phrase "Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing" until the second album came out. It wasn't intended to be a demo. It was intended to be an album. After completion they intended to find a record company to sign with. Mike Berns financed the production of the album.”

Halfnelson's main inspirations were English, or English-sounding bands of the mid-60's like The Kinks, The Move, John's Children, The Who, Tomorrow and Pink Floyd, sounds that are easily traceable on Halfnelson's official first album. However, the songs recorded for the demo album clearly indicated that the Maels had not listened to the above-mentioned bands only.
Music much closer to them, both geographically and culturally, had influenced them much more than they'd probably care to realise themselves. Traces of The Doors, The Mamas & The Papas, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Beach Boys and even Jimi Hendrix could easily be found on the twelve songs that were recorded for their early demo album.

Sounds, October 17, 1970

The original Bearsville biography speaks of two songs that were recorded but which cannot be found on the original demo album, unless the titles have been changed. For one, that's very likely as where Bearsville is mentioning a song called "Do The Factory", there actually is a song on the album called "The Factory". Another song; "Spider Run" was never used. However, I did obtain this short and instrumental song years later and it fits right into that period. Furthermore, Bearsville also does mention the song "Johnny's Adventure" which is, indeed featuring on the demo album. 

Joseph Fleury, one of Sparks' earliest fans ever, who later ran the British Fan Club and even became their personal manager for many years, described the demo album as follows: 
"The Halfnelson demo LP consisted of twelve tracks, all very interesting, if a bit dated. Russell played bass on many of the tracks, as Oswald joined in later on in the recordings, while Ron's use of organ as a key instrument was much more prominent. After this, Oswald and Mendelsohn were kicked out of the band.

Oswald and Mendelsohn later formed a band called Christopher Milk and I still have an EP with four songs by John Mendelsohn's The Pitt, which sounds, in retrospect very much like the original Halfnelson demo. 
Earle Mankey and Russell Mael, recording the Halfnelson demo album, 1969

Rumour is, that about one hundred copies of the demo were hand-pressed onto vinyl (financed by then manager Mike Berns) and the album was sent out to record companies. None of them reacted positively, if at all. 

Ron Mael about this: "We still thought that what we were doing at the time was really regular stuff. It wasn't until we sent it out that we discovered we'd been deceiving ourselves."
Joseph Fleury: "The album turned up on bootleg some time later, called "California Folk Songs" and it was really psychedelic. Tomorrow meets Syd Barret meets Frank Zappa.

In 1997, I was given a copy of the album on cd and I couldn't believe it. Before I actually received it, the person who gave it to me described it as "exactly the music that you should expect from an album recorded before the official Halfnelson  album." 

And it is. Sparks' earliest demo album is an amazing piece of work, much better and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. It actually does sound exactly the way you would have expected it to sound, only better. There are two songs on it, which are early versions of songs that we all know: "Roger" and "Saccharin And The War", both penned by Russell. All the other songs have never been released before or after, for that matter.  
 (Additional note: in 2001 my own band had the opportunity to play as a support act to the renewed John's Children at Camden Town's Dingwalls. Since Boz Boorer, the guitarist of Morrissey was a long-life fan of John's Children and happened to live across the street from John's Children's Andy Ellison, he was asked to join in as a guest guitarist. So it happened that I came to speak with Boz and since I'm a great admirer of Morrissey's music, this was a very special occasion for me. Knowing Morrissey's fascination with Sparks, we talked about them and Boz asked me to send some video tapes (this was before you could burn your own dvd's) to watch on the tour bus. So I did and I also mentioned the demo album and sent him a copy to give to Morrissey. Years later, Morrissey was asked to select an album with his favourite songs he grew up to and much to my surprise he had included "Arts & Crafts Spectacular". In 2008, Sparks played this song as an encore during the 21 x 21 Spectacular (during the "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing" performance). I'd like to think that it was me who introduced Morrissey to the Halfnelson demo album but I'm probably far to presumptuous. Nonetheless, it's an interesting thought..) 

It is still not quite clear to me, how the recordings of this album turned up all of a sudden but it was suggested recently, that they were taken from the original acetate. American fan Tim Sewell was able to find out the official titles of the songs and Madeline Bocardo was able and patient enough to sit down and write down some of the lyrics, as she heard them. The rest of the lyrics I filled in myself although I can't be absolutely sure that they're 100% accurate.

If you have become a Sparks follower during the Moroder years, during the American success in the first part of the 80's, their comeback with  "Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins", or an even as recent as "Lil' Beethoven" or the 2015 cooperation with Franz Ferdinand, the Halfnelson demo album might not be all that interesting to you. 

If you are a Sparks fan however since the early 70's and you are fascinated by the Bearsville releases, then you would simply adore this album, like I do. Someone recently said to me: "Do you ever see the Maels bettering this?" Quite frankly, I've had my doubts. But with the release of several amazing albums during the first part of the 21st century, the Maels have proven once again their innovative genius. Nonetheless, this album stands as a unique historic document of the early Sparks days and to me, it will always be part of their most fascinating work.

Different interpretations of the Halfnelson sleeve and a picture of the alleged label. The very last one is Harley Feinstein's original copy of the album.

Chile Farm Farney (1:27)
The album opens with a very cheerful song in which Ron's piano playing is very much like he'd later do on the Island albums and which turned out to be such a distinctive feature on Sparks songs. Russell's (?) bass lines are very much present as Earle's guitar's clearly there. The keyboard does not sound as an organ in this song, where it does in most other tracks of the album. The voice of Russell is very recognisable and any fan would immediately pick out this song as typically Sparks. If there should be made a comparison to another era, I would have to say that this song probably sounds the most like what Sparks would do during their Island years. 

Johnny's Adventure (2:52)
This song I instantly liked very much. It starts off with Ron's organ only, after which Russell joins in. For about 10 seconds, it's only Ron's organ and Russell's voice. A heavy bass line and a clearly speed-up guitar are added, the latter also appearing later in the song as a solo instrument. The song is built up by variations in tempo and ends in a cacophony of sounds with a prominent role for the guitar which sounds like a bomb exploding. The very last seconds of the song contain Russell's multiple serene voices slowly fading out. There are no drums on this song. 

Roger (2:28)
Roger is the first song that we all (at least most of us) should know. The version is not all that different from the later album version, although it is very easy to hear how Earle has played with his tape recorder to speed up his guitar to create funny sounds. The rhythm is, like on the official version, done by cymbals and the sounds of drum sticks on half-empty (or half-full, if you're that kind of person) bottles. The bass guitar is quite unnoticeable. With this original only being 2 seconds shorter than the official version, it is clear that Todd Rundgren did not change too much on this song. It kind of makes you wonder why they needed Rundgren in the

 first place and whether he was just the name they needed rather than a producer as their own production doesn't differ that much from the ones apparently done later by Todd Rundgren.

Arts & Crafts Spectacular (2:33)
When I first heard this song and I didn't know the name of the tracks yet, I was convinced the title was "Lovely Claudine Jones". It wasn't. The first song of the album that actually contains drums, although I'm not so sure what kind of drums were used. The Maels later always claimed that they used

cardboard boxes for drum kits and I'm inclined to believe them after having heard this song. This song is an absolute gem and it includes Russell's multi-vocals in such a way that it almost makes this song mystical. Again, they change regularly from up-tempo to a more modest tempo, and Ron's organ is very prominent indeed. 

What strikes me most on this album is the fact that they never ever play the rhythm guitar as it is done nowadays. All instruments, with the exception of the keyboards are almost used fragmentally and although on quite a regular basis, nearly always in a different form. You hear a guitar when you least expect it and you're waiting for the bass line to join in, in vain. Russell's vocals all over the album are remarkable and immediately recognisable. No other person could have sung the way he sang these lines.

Landlady (2:41)
Landlady starts off with a vocal cacophony in which probably even Ron Mael joined in. The whole song is very atmospheric and mystical and it somehow reminds me of something that could have been played at the house of the Adams Family. Sinister and fascinating at the same time, with beautiful guitar riffs from Earle and a heavy bass line. And there's always Ron's organ, very, very noticeable. Beautiful song. 

The Animals At Jason's Bar & Grill (2:36)
If one song should be mentioned as being influenced by The Kinks, it's probably this one. Cheerful, up-tempo with very funny lyrics. Again, hardly any drums but a lot of harmony vocals, probably all by Russell. Fragmental guitar riffs by Earle and Ron using his keyboard as piano again, for a change. Very good. 

Big Rock Candy Mountain (1:29)
Amazing song, this one. Didn't sound like Sparks at all at first, except for Russell's vocals. Reminded me very much of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Mamas & Papas. The main instruments are actually Ron's keyboard and the bass line while it contains Russell's first attempt to match the sound of an opera singer, which he masters quite well. Modest applause has been included for that. One of my favourites.

Millie (2:07)
Catchy, up-tempo tune but tends to get slightly boring after having heard it a number of times. This is probably also due to the fact that the recording is kind of shrill. The melody is lovely though and apart from all the regular instruments that were used for this album, I think I can hear marimbas as well. Not my favourite song from the album but I still feel priviliged I can listen to it now and then and it has grown on me during the years.
Saccharine And The War (2:36)
This version of the song which also appears on the Halfnelson album is much more laid back than the later recording. It has a funny guitar riff and the bass guitar is also more noticeable. Again, Todd, did not change all that much from the original version, except for speeding it up a little and making it sound a bit more professional. Liked the song when I heard the official version and still like it now. Don't ask me which version I'd prefer however, as I genuinely would not know. 

Join The Firm (3:53)
Now this one really sounds a lot like some of the psychedelic Doors songs. Very prominent organ, heavy bass lines, some guitar riffs and a lot of multiple vocals. Mystical, atmospheric again. What the hell were they trying to prove? Great song though, one of my favourites. Hard to describe really, it should be listened to instead. 

Jane Church (3:27)
Ron really gets the chance to try out whether his piano lessons were any good to him. Although he's using the keyboard as an organ again, this was probably the most difficult song for him to play. Beautiful ensemble playing between him and Earle. This is a perfect example of how chaos and slight hysteria can be captured in a wonderful tune.

The Factory (2:32)
Despite its beautiful title, this song is hard to swallow and it's probably Sparks' (or Halfnelson, if you like) least accessible song ever recorded. The song seems to lack structure and if you hear it for the first time, you might consider it as just a bunch of noise.
This song however, as the whole album is very typical for that specific time and place. It's ultimately dated and that's what probably makes it so beautiful as Sparks never did sound dated and they probably didn't when they were recording this. Harley Feinstein's favourite of the album.

Whether it was consciously or unconsciously, Halfnelson has captured the spirit of the late Sixties perfectly with the recording of this demo. It includes both chaos and harmony (Vietnam vs Flower Power), conventional and renewing sounds (influences by the above-mentioned bands vs Ron's refreshing piano techniques (mind you; not the organ)) and Russell's theatrical approach) and then there's the lyrics. 

The lyrics already hesitatingly indicate the true genius of Ron Mael that would clearly come out after his career as a composer/musician finally started properly. 

For real Sparks collectors, this album is indispensable. If you're not too fond of any pre-Moroder recordings, you shouldn't bother. How and when this album has ever been rediscovered, I do not know. I just would like to thank whoever made it possible to enable us to listen to it nowadays, not including the musicians obviously as for me, it has been the most important album for the last ten years by any artist.

Ruud Swart - 1998, edited 2016.

dinsdag 2 april 2013

Thao Nguyen

I'm rather impressed by this young lady. She's released two albums so far; "From The Linen" and "We Brave Bee Stings And All". This track, "Big Kid Table", is an acoustic live version from he latter.

donderdag 5 maart 2009

Sparks Biography

Here, I plan to publish a brief biography on Sparks. Until it's finished, I will be placing a small selection of rare photos, articles and single sleeves, since I thought it would be nice to share it with other Sparks fans. I'm not sure whether I'm allowed to do so but if I'll get some notificications to remove them, I will. Should you be interested, please also check my rare recordings of Sparks further below this page. Click on the images to enlarge.

Reprinted newspaper article that appeared in the Japanese Guide Book on Sparks. I suppose the original article dates from around 1953.
A teenage Russell and Ronnie Mael caught at a movie theatre, 1966.
Young Russell as quarterback at UCLA, 1966.

Sparks' first appearance at Dick Clark's American Bandstand, 1972. Dick Clark, Harley Feinstein, Ronnie Mael, Russell Mael.

Sparks' first single. This was rush-released in Holland on November 10, 1972, due to their one-off appearance in The Hague.

Sparks at the Marque Club in London, November 1972. Ronnie Mael, Jim Mankey, Harley Feinstein, Russell Mael, Earle Mankey.

An interesting article on Sparks in Music Scene, November 1972.

One of the adds the Maels ran in Melody Maker to select an English back-up band. The ones that were chosen eventually were Adrian Fisher, Martin Gordon and Dinky Diamond.

An article from Dutch magazine Muziek Express with the original line-up; Adrian Fisher, Ron, Dinky Diamond, Russell, Martin Gordon, just before Adrian and Martin were released from their duties.

The sleeve of the hard-to-find American single Achoo, that was released in 1974.

The sleeve of a rare and French-only single, released in early 1975.

Record Mirror, UK, 1975.

The Japanese sleeve of Looks, Looks, Looks, released in 1975.

Finland 1976.

The French sleeve for Big Boy, 1976.

Bravo magazine, Germany, 1976.

The Japanese sleeve for I Want To Hold Your Hand, 1976.

Freizeit Magazine, Germany, 1977.

Muziek Express, Holland, 1977.

Holland, 1977.

Joepie magazine, Belgium, 1977.

Holland, 1977.

A review on No. 1 In Heaven in Sounds, 1979.

The German sleeve for Beat The Clock, 1979.

A review on Terminal Jive, Melody Maker, UK, 1980.

One of three photos that appeared in the book "Rockstars in Underpants", circa 1980.

The German sleeve for Tips For Teens, 1981.

Russsell, Ron and me outside the dressing room at a cancelled gig in Arlon, Belgium, 1981.

An official promo shot for Whomp That Sucker, 1981.

Bam magazine, USA, 1981.

An article in an American music magazine, 1982.
The French sleeve for Modesty Plays, 1982.

Ron and Jane Wiedlin, USA, 1983.
Ron and Russell with Sparks fan Stephen Duffy, 1986.

The Belgian sleeve of Music That You Can Dance To, 1986.

Ron and Russell with Sparks fan Morrissey, 1989.

The unreleased demo recordings, pre-Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, that were discovered and made available by a fan.

The English sleeve for National Crime Awareness Week, 1993.

The USA promo release of When Do I Get To Sing My Way, 1994.

A review on Sparks' come back gig at London's Shepherds Bus, reviewed by ex-Sparks bass player Martin Gordon.

MixMag, 1994.

Sleeve of the unreleased Let's Go Surfin' single that was considered to be released in France.

European schedule, March-April, 1995.

Promo shot, 1997.

An article on Ron's collection in a Hamburg newspaper, Germany, 1999.

Sparks drummer Tammy Glover with my two eldest daughters Marie-Claire and Whitley-Ann, Cologne, 2000.

Männer magazine, Germany, 2000 (1/2).

Männer magazine, Germany, 2000 (2/2).

Flyer for the Australian tour, 2001.
Southbank, UK, October 2002.
Record Collector, 2003 (1/13)

Record Collector, 2003 (2/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (3/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (4/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (5/13)

Record Collector, 2003 (6/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (7/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (8/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (9/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (10/13)
Record Collector, 2003 (11/13)

Record Collector, 2003 (12/13)

Record Collector, 2003 (13/13)

Times Magazine, UK, March 2003 (1/5)

Times Magazine, UK, March 2003 (2/5)

Times Magazine, UK, March 2003 (3/5)

Times Magazine, UK, March 2003 (4/5)

Times Magazine, UK, March 2003 (5/5)

Announcement for the gigs at the Ocean, 2004.
The Word, UK, 2006 (1/6)
The Word, UK, 2006 (2/6)
The Word, UK, 2006 (3/6)
The Word, UK, 2006 (4/6)

The Word, UK, 2006 (5/6)

The Word, UK, 2006 (6/6)

Ron spotted in his jeep in Los Angeles by the car in front of him, 2009.