I came to life early by about two weeks, as I understand it, but still very late in 1974. I was just in time for Halloween, which you’d think would be my favorite holiday, but it isn’t. To this day I still don’t like hearing the doorbell ring.
I wasn’t hearing much of anything in 1974. Just guessing based on the region of the US in which I was born, if there was any music playing in the hospital, it was probably country. To this day I still don’t like country, unless you count Johnny Cash, Jim White, or REM.
Point being, every record I’ll write about leading up to 1981, and a number of those following, will be post facto, music I discovered and got into long after it was released. In my early years I listened to my parents’ records: Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas. I liked a Tom T. Hall 45 about a snake, because I liked snakes. I was fascinated by a Nancy Sinatra 45, “Lightning’s Girl,” because I thought it was about a girl who was dating actual lightning rather than, I guess, some tough jealous punk in a leather jacket. I remember “Aladdin’s Lamp,” another 45 of my mom’s, one of the first records whose lyrics I couldn’t really make out properly, so I couldn’t figure out what the guy was wishing for and why he had to hold some girl’s kite. Just imagine how confusing Bookends was for me as a kid. He’s talking to a raisin?
I came to Propaganda in a retro direction too. I’d never heard Sparks, but I’d heard Siouxsie and the Banshees cover them, and round about 1998 or so I was in LA for the first time ever. Of course I had to stop into Tower Records, because at the time I was living in Rochester, NY, and though we had several really good independent record stores, we didn’t have a Tower. As I’m wandering around the aisles, what comes on the speakers but the following utterly mystifying lyrics:
Zoo time is ‘she and you’ time
The mammals are your favorite type, and you want her tonight
Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat
You hear the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers
This town ain’t big enough for the both of us
And it ain’t me who’s gonna leave
I can’t even tell you how enchanted I would have been as a young kid. I loved zoology. Clearly that’s what this was about, right? Some kind of rumble in the jungle.
Truth is, I was riveted even as a young adult. First, clearly that wasn’t Siouxsie Sioux singing, but some other woman (named Russell, I found out later). Second, it sounded amazing, perhaps the only song on Through the Looking Glass the Banshees hadn’t bested. I’d vaguely heard of Sparks, and now it was time to investigate.
I don’t know if I got my hands on Kimono My House, the Sparks album that kicks off with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” that night. I think it might have been later on, because I had to pay import prices for it, and I seem to think I got Propaganda first. And look, they’re both incredible. None of the Sparks albums after it have really stood up to them in my book. Unless you listen to Propaganda on vinyl or cassette, you can go straight from the a capella title track through the stomp of “At Home, At Work, At Play” to the frenzy of “Thanks But No Thanks” and into the hysteria of “Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her” and “Something for the Girl with Everything,” broken only by the eco-horror lullaby “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” (which I also heard as a cover first, in this case by Martin Gore of Depeche Mode). I’m not sure I ever need to hear “Achoo” or “Who Don’t Like Kids” again, but look, if your stock in trade is pedal-to-the-metal classical glam cabaret, you’re lucky if you’re only annoying part of the time.
Sparks aren’t my favorite band by a long shot, and if this were a different kind of list Propaganda wouldn’t even crack my top 40, but I do love it. When I think about it, Sparks circa 1974 had a lot of the qualities I still like today: a slightly unsavory mix of wit, insight, and horniness set to music that sounds like it was beamed in directly from whatever planet Bowie fell to Earth from in that movie where Bowie was The Man Who Fell to Earth. We’re going to talk about Bowie, but all in good time. For now, well, we’re going to end weird, so why not start off weird?
Sparks, Kimono My House
If you took about half of this album and married it to half of Propaganda you might have a shot at cracking my top 40. In addition to “This Town,” still by far my favorite Sparks song, there’s “Amateur Hour,” “Falling in Love with Myself Again,” and the sublime “Hasta Mañana, Monsieur.”
David Bowie, Diamond Dogs
Fun fact: of the three albums pictured here, only Propaganda was released after my birth rather than earlier the same year. That’s one reason I didn’t write about Diamond Dogs, in addition to the fact that it’s not even close to my favorite Bowie album, and that its cover is unbelievably grotesque.
- Big Star, Radio City
- Roxy Music, Country Life