When it was released in 1974, critics hated Sparks' third record, Kimono My House. Gordon Fletcher reviewed it for Rolling Stone: "The already annoying chirping yodels of singer Russell Mael become a disappointing stab at intelligible vocals, sadly disguising the fact that Ron Mael is a composer with both a unique (if slightly warped) perspective and a volatile sense of humor."
Fletcher fucked up: Kimono My House didn't start a revolution, but without Sparks, the pop landscape would definitely be different today.
Before Bowie, America had no ears for the twisted, orchestral, intelligent glam of Sparks. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael—the only consistent members of the still-active group—first came together in L.A. as Halfnelson in 1968. They recorded an album with Todd Rundgren producing, but it sold poorly. Self-described Anglophiles, the Maels relocated to London, reformed as Sparks, and recorded A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing.
That record earned them a residency at the Marquee in London, where they were heckled consistently. They hired new band members (their ad for a bass player reportedly read, "Must be beard-free and exciting") and recorded Kimono My House in early 1974. Immediately, they scored the biggest British hit they would ever have with the opening single, "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us."
This was three months before Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado, A Symphony (that group's genius, Jeff Lynne, was a big influence with his former group the Move) and six months before Queen's Sheer Heart Attack (legend has it that Freddie Mercury attended almost every night of the Marquee residency, and that Sparks tried to hire Brian May at one point). "This Town" was ahead of its time, even if only by a few months, and it paved the way for mass acceptance of the burgeoning baroque-pop category.
The entire record almost falls prey to overliteracy. Foppish lyrical intensity is one of Sparks' trademarks, as the first lines of "This Town" attest: "Zoo time is she and you time/The mammals are your favorite type, and you want her tonight."
Did I mention they were horny? And that Ron Mael sports a Hitler-like moustache? And that they were both models as boys? Elton John bet Sparks' producer Muff Winwood that "This Town" would be a flop and had to pay up when the song attracted the fervent attention of young Brits.
Sparks are still critically hated and still make records. Their as-yet untitled, 21st record comes out this year, and they're releasing it in a typically extravagant manner—21 consecutive shows, each one featuring one of their albums from back to front. Night three—Kimono My House night—is sure to sell out first.