Tony Visconti Lets Sparks Fly

Jim Sullivan talks exclusively with the legendary producer about his history with the Mael Brothers

You know Tony Visconti, first and foremost as David Bowie’s producer and, in some respects, the carrier of the Bowie torch with his Holy Holy touring tribute band. (On hiatus, obviously.)

Aside from Bowie – with whom he produced 14 albums – Visconti’s CV is immense both in quality and quantity: T.Rex, Iggy Pop, Strawbs, Ralph McTell, Thin Lizzy. Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, the Moody Blues, Alejandro Escovedo, the Damned, Hugh Cornwell, Marc Almond, The Good, The Bad & the Queen. And loads more.

Including Sparks, namely their 1975 masterpiece Indiscreet, which is why we are here.

We did an email exchange at the end of April.

 

You worked with the Ron and Russell Mael on Indiscreet in 1975 and then, did, I believe three bonus tracks for Plagiarism in 1997 (including maybe the weirdest song in their catalog – and that’s saying something – “The Marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael”). What did it feel like diving into the Maels’ fanciful universe?

I was already a big fan of Sparks after I heard “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for The Both of Us.”  When Kimono My House was released, I bought it immediately. What struck me most was the titles of the songs – “Thank God It’s Not Christmas,” “Talent Is an Asset,” “Falling in Love with Myself Again” – these weren’t normal titles you would get from any normal pop group.  Sparks defied description with their looks, too. Russell was handsomely effeminate, like Marc Bolan of T. Rex was.  Ron looked like he stepped out of a 1930s German Expressionist film.  You couldn’t take your eyes off his trim mustache, reminiscent of that infamous German dictator.  But their music was so refreshing. It was keyboard-based and extremely advanced, a mix of pop and classical.  Russell was a genuine counter-tenor, a voice range I was already in love with. I never heard anything like it.

 

AUDIO: Sparks “Falling In Love With Myself Again”

What did you think about the nature of their subject matter (like the menace in “How Are You Getting Home”) and the idea that Ron created these little story-songs, most either in 3rd person (even if sung in 1st person)? In other words, Sparks didn’t sing songs about their world much at all, but other worlds. 

The stories in Indiscreet were so sharp-witted, a bit cruel at times, but always witty. So many words were crammed in such short space; this group certainly needed the lyrics printed.  I don’t know who Ron’s inspiration was, I’m sure he’s well-read. Sinclair Lewis comes to mind. 

 

Did you see Sparks as being “a hard sell” to most mainstream pop fans, albeit a total delight to myself and many fans of glam rock era? That Russell’s falsetto could be an automatic turnoff to the more macho end of the rock fan world.

Muff Winwood, their producer before me, knew they were a ‘hard sell’ but he had great pop sensibilities and got them hit singles!  I love Muff, and we often discussed our different approaches. He defined his style of production as ‘meat and potatoes’, which was quite different from mine.

Tony Visconti and Sparks (Photo from the Sparks Twitter page)

What do you recall the relationship between the brothers being during the recording process? 

Ron and Russell seemed to be inseparable; they had a sort of telepathy between them that could be communicated by looks.  They were foodies before that concept became popular.  They actually ate a ton of food despite being so thin.  Their secret was they’d skip breakfast, lunch and snacks, then they would spend each evening dining at highly recommended restaurant from the Egon Ronay guide to restaurants, an annual restaurant and hotel guidebook, very popular in the ‘70s. 

Ronay was so fussy, his highest grade was three stars, but even to get into his guide with no stars was highly regarded as good.  Some years there would be only one, or none who reached the height of three stars.  Anyway, this is how well the brothers got along, but I will add that they were not wine connoisseurs.  Soon after I met them, my wife and I were living by that book.

Sparks Indiscreet, Island 1975

As a producer, did you take an active role in shaping the sound – I’m thinking you did from what Russell said here, asked at some point to pick his favorite Sparks record: “If I have to pick one [album] I would say Indiscreet. Having worked with Tony Visconti, we think he’s an amazing producer and some of the orchestrations he brought to that album are really amazing. From using big bands in ‘Looks, Looks, Looks’ to having a marching band in “Get In the Swing,” and string quartets in ‘Under the Table with Her,’ there’s no-one else, other than a George Martin, that has that musical ability, to be able to incorporate those kinds of stylistic treatments to pop songs in that kind of way.” 

Well, unlike Muff, I fed into the Sparks desire to make art rock and get as far out as possible with their music.  George Martin was my idol and the only producer I identified with. They encouraged me and I encouraged them to push the boundaries of pop.  The other band members didn’t quite know what was going on, but they mostly enjoyed themselves. I was doing right by them too, except for Dinky Diamond, their drummer. He was quite critical of what I was doing, and he longed for the days of Muff being back in the studio with them.  

 

This is not really a question, but I loved it when Paul McCartney tipped his hat to Ron, by dressing up like him and playing the piano like him in the “Coming Up” video.

I remember that.  It was a wonderful gesture, respectful, I’m sure.

 

VIDEO: Sparks Indiscreet (full album)

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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