Ron and Russell Mael grew up in Pacific Palisades, California, surfing and modelling for mail order catalogues. They both studied film in college, but gravitated to music, recording their first record as Halfnelson in 1971, with Todd Rundgren producing. The brothers moved to England in time to catch the glam-rock wave, forming a new band of backing musicians, and fitting in alongside Queen and T-Rex.
Sparks were on a tear in 1974. They released two of their best records – Kimono My House and Propaganda. And they still had gas in the tank for a couple of quality b-sides in the Propaganda era – ‘Marry Me’ and ‘Alabamy Right’. It’s bizarre that they weren’t on Propaganda to start with – the record’s barely over half an hour, and they’re both high quality. There’s plenty of note without them – there’s the killer opening combo of ‘Propaganda/At Home, at Work, and Play’, and the lead single ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’, later covered by Neko Case.
‘Alabamy Right’ is built around a Ron Mael piano riff that harks back to pre-rock and roll styles – it’s music hall and ragtime. It’s packed with ideas, frenetically packing a lot in a two-minute running time. Russell Mael’s androgynous voice hits high notes. I’d never registered the lyrics before, but it’s about a 5 pm rush for ice cream – “scaling the mountain of frozen delights”. There’s an informative lyric video that unpacks the lyrics a little more.
Sparks have continued their wayward journey through popular music, from the disco of 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven with Giorgio Moroder to impressive 21st century comebacks like Hello Young Lovers. But 1974 was arguably their peak, and ‘Alabamy Right’ is one of their best songs from that year.