Sparks Halfnelson in the early seventies - Bearsville

Halfnelson-Sparks live in L.A in the early 70's
Halfnelson/Sparks on stage somewhere in America
The boys performing in the early seventies
Halfnelson's music was designed in the recording studio whose intricate arrangements was nigh-on impossible to perform in concert. Sparks approached things from a recording standpoint and not a "live" one.
After the release of their first album on Bearsville Records, Halfnelson/Sparks played some live gigs but the boys had some trouble in attempting live versions of some of their songs, and you could do well without hearing the "Simple Ballet" piano line played on guitar at full volume.
One of the very first Halfnelson's concert was at Gregar's Delicatessen in Hollywood, where the band had to condent with customers who prefered meals to music. Other illustrious venues followed, such as a Mormon dance in Salt Lake City, and near residency at the "Whiskey A Go-Go" on L.A' Sunset Strip.

Surrounded by earthy vibes and walrus mustaches, they were often mistaken for Brits. Because of their weird tunes Sparks was banished from its primary live venu at Whiskey A Go-Go, but later they were sharing the bill with groups like Little Feat or Edgar Winter Band (!)...
At this point Russell Mael's hair had grown alarmingly, making him look like some cross between a crazed Beau Brummell and Betty Boop. Russell Mael's Shirley Temple manner and ruffled shirts only served to confuse audiences. Ron Mael, meanwhile, had let nature take it's course, and curls too, sprouted forth from his head.
Sparks became as well known for Ron’s rigid stance behind the keyboards as for their music. A black suit and short moustache wasn't quite enough. Ron Mael accented his huge eyes with eyeliner, and would roll them profusely while on stage. His lips would confort in a sinister fashion, and his slight body would prove static behind his Farfisa organ. Ron Mael's act consisted of taking various poses for several seconds each, thereby carefully avoiding any contact with the audience. This however, resulted in a lot of laughing.
Russell Mael : "Ron's earliest listening influences were the Kinks, the Move and the early Who. He liked flamboyant, outgoing rock stars like Pete Townshend, but he couldn’t emulate them on the keyboard, so he stayed stoic and calm and he became the trademark of the band.’’
It was during that period that comparisons between Adolf Hitler/Charlie Chaplin and Mr. Ron Mael were connected even if he had yet to cut and slick back his hair to complete that controversial Hitler look.

Earle Mankey guitar player with Halfnelson and Sparks

Guitarist Earle Mankey would wear glitter suits, and attempted to be everyone's favourite English poof guitar player. Funny thing was, Earle Mankey's suits were always a size too small. His blond hair would hang in an exaggerated Rod Stewart shag.
Earle Mankey knew every move in the book : the Marc Bolan pout, the Pete Townshend leap, the calculated pretty swish, and the aggressive Jeff Beck posturing but with a Gibson SG standard instead of a Fender Stratocaster. Earle Mankey would also push young Russell Mael out of the limelight with unnerving relish. Earle Mankey appeared to be a parody of every fad that existed. Very endearing.
Long haired Jim Mankey practiced standing still with a white Fender Jazz Bass, as it worked for John Entwistle from The Who, while drummer Harley Feinstein sweated a grand deal, but Harley Feinstein had the looks and suave to do it well.

In their early performances the band had also very strange scenic behaviours : Sparks got a miniature ocean liner made out of papier-mache, and Russell Mael had burst out of it wearing a dark sailor suit to begin the show. In the name of props Russell Mael had a roadie who pushed him accross the stage in the boat on wheels during the song "Slowboat". Then the singer showered the audience with confetti ! The idea of the miniature ocean liner made out of papier-mache was inspired by Lucchino Visconti's "Death In Venice" movie (from the Thomas Mann's novella).
Later on, Ron Mael would use the confetti trick for the Sparks' rendition of "Do Re Mi" from "The Sound Of Silence", where the keyboardist threw clumps of it into a nearby fan, hoping to achieve the effect of snowflakes - well... it didn't work...
Audiences really didn't know what to make of the band in those days...

Sparks Halfnelson on stage with the slow boat
Russell Mael from Sparks at the Houston Hospital, Texas.

The far more impressive Russell Mael's performance was the sledgehammer accident : During a show in Houston, Texas, Russell Mael went on stage with a sledgehammer. Sparks' singer threw the hammer up, the mallet came down on his head and there was blood everywhere. People though it was part of the act and thought it was fake blood but Russell Mael went to hospital... When Sparks appeared on "American Bandstand" Russell Mael still wielded his huge wooden sledgehammer. - read more...
Sparks always felt kind of different in Los Angeles - Sparks were an L.A. band, but not part of the L.A. scene. That scene didn't quite know what to do with a long-haired rock band with a penchant for the absurd and a pronounced art-rock sensibility, one that's often forced the listener to determine what the joke is and who's the butt of it.

By the time of their New York debut at Max's Kansas City in October '72, Sparks looked quite different : Pierre Cardin suits, with drummer Harley Feinstein dying of heat prostration in a tie, and Russell Mael trying to tuck his white shirt into his trousers. Earle Mankey looked even funnier in a formal suit - the neighborhood clumsy kid at his sister's wedding. The frantic movements of Russ Mael came off as some sort of rich schoolboy, lost in a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
The sound of the set was metallic and rushing, a transistor radio the size of a football field. Most of the set consisted of songs from the Lp "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing", which although finished three months prior to the Max's stint, wouldn't be released by Bearsville Records until February, 1973.
The audience in New York was appreciative but a little bit strange. It consisted of a handful of hard core fans, a few critics who felt they'd discovered their own personal little cult band, and a bunch of Manhatten peudo-decos. The first row of Max's, one night, was made of muscle men in tight jeans and flannel shirts. A rather unnerving experience for innocent Sparks, to be confronted by a line of hustlers, who thought the band to be part of the "decadent new wave" and thinking "Whippings & Apologies" was a joyous ode to sado-masochism !
Shortly after their New York debut at Max's Kansas City club Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Earle Mankey, James Mankey & Harley Feinstein attempted their first assault to Europe. -

Sparks became a British band
SPARKS 1969-1973
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the glorious British years

Most of informations regarding the very first Halfnelson/Sparks live gigs on this webpage were obtained from The Rock Market Place Review by Joseph Fleury (Sparks manager in the 70's) printed into "2 Originals Of Sparks" booklet. Other ones came from a Mael's interview by Jim Wilson (, Cd reissue booklet notes by Paul Lester of Uncut Magazine and Ruud Swart & Carl Van Breukelen's Sparks website.

©2006 by XAVIER LORENTE-DARRACQ / GRAPHIK DESIGNS - FRANCE duplication strictly prohibited