Halfnelson Demo Album
Halfnelson Demo Album, 1969
Russell Mael - vocals & bass guitar
Ron Mael - keyboards
Earle Mankey - guitar (lead vocals on Big Rock Candy Mountain)
John Mendelsohn - drums
Ralph Oswald - bass guitar on some tracks
Mike Berns - drums on some tracks
Chile Farm Farney
Arts & Crafts Spectacular
The Animals At Jason's Bar & Grill
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Saccharin And The War
Join The Firm
Ever since I got involved in Sparks, somewhere in the second half of 1974, I have been fascinated by their very first American period. I'm not referring to the early 80's, during which Sparks were moderately successful in the States, with songs like "I Predict" and "Cool Places", but I'm talking about the time that the Maels' first cautious steps were made into the music industry.
The first official albums "Halfnelson" (later re-issued as "Sparks") and "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing" are surrounded with an atmosphere that the Maels never have seemed to capture again on any of the later albums. It's mystical, it's warm, it's weird, it's expecting the unexpected, it's serene and it's magical. There, I said it.
In 1975, I found out that Halfnelson had recorded a demo album prior to the official "Halfnelson" album. I was hooked! Dozens of questions came to my mind. Was it actually a proper album, how many songs were on it, were there any songs later used for the official album, what did it sound like, was it actually released or had it never surpassed the tape format, who had written the songs, what was the sleeve like?
Being a massive admirer of the Maels' talents, I must have tormented my poor parents, brother and sisters for the better part of the 70's, until I moved out of my parents' house. Sparks were played every day, record shops were visited regularly, radio stations called, music magazines bought and little by little I got involved in the Dutch Fan Club, which I finally took over in 1979, just on the eve of Sparks' first European comeback with "No. 1 In Heaven". I had a magazine to make and members to write to so I was very much involved in the daily activities of Sparks, be it from a distance.
Nevertheless, the thought of an unknown album, somewhere in America never lost its grip on me and I decided to make it my personal Quest for the Holy Grail of Mael to find this album and to be able to listen to it. It would take me 22 years before this quest was actually fulfilled.
In 1968, Ron and Russell Mael met Earle Mankey. Before that, they had been in a band called Urban Renewal Project and even earlier incarnations of Sparks were called Moonbaker Abbey and Farmer's Market.
Next to Ron, who was playing lead guitar and Russell on vocals and tambourine, Urban Renewal Project consisted of Ron's friend Fred Frank on rhythm guitar and his wife Ronna on harmony vocals. Other band members who were involved were Raymond Clayton on drums and Harold Zellman on bass guitar.
Urban Renewal Project has never formally released a record and has only played a handful of gigs, mostly at Battle Of the Bands venues, but one recording they made still sometimes appear on compilation albums even today. The song "Computer Girl" was recorded along with three other songs on January 14, 1967 at Fidelity Recording Studios in Hollywood. It was also included on CD with the Japanese semi-biography from 2006, which was compiled and released by Youchi Kishino.
The three other songs that were recorded on the same day but never released were "The Windmill", "A Quick Thought", and "As You Like It". The four songs were pressed and taken home by the band on two acetates. Of these four songs, "Computer Girl" is the least conventional, the other three songs are heavily influenced by the zeitgeist. Ron Mael played lead lead guitar at the time, which is particulary noticable during "A Quick Thought". Russell was the singer and also played tambourine and harmonica. On "A Quick Thought" he also plays the panflute. Ron and Russell's stepfather Oscar "Roggie" Roganson was the band's manager at the time.
There are various stories of how the Maels met Mankey. In the official Bearsville Biography from December 1972, it is claimed that the Maels followed an ad in which Earle had advertised for a recording studio and when they came over there, Earle also tried to convince the Maels to hire him as a guitar player (at $ 2.50 an hour).
According to other sources, it was the Maels who actually put a "guitarist wanted" ad and Earle Mankey responded to that. I realise these are all pointless details but what is important is the fact that this meeting resulted in the creation and making of music. It was obvious, that the Maels and Mankey were a perfect combination. Ron and Russell, the latter whom was quite active as a composer in these days as well, supplied the perfect melodies and lyrics for Earle to put into weird arrangements and several over-dubs, speed-up guitars and more refreshing recording gimmicks.
Russell and Earle recording the Halfnelson Demo Album, 1969
Mike Berns, drummer and manager of the band at the time and pursebearer of the recording sessions.
Around July, 1969, It was decided that an album should be recorded and for that reason, they badly needed a rhythm section. They did not want to continue with drummer/manager Mike Berns for several reasons. They didn't want to have a manager who was also part of the group and they weren't completely convinced of his drumming style. The third reason was that Mike resembled Charles Manson and they didn't think that would be a good image for the band.
A drummer was found in the person of John Mendelsohn, who was in Russell's class and a bass player was added, John's friend Ralph Oswald. It is however, very likely that Ralph was involved after the recordings for this demo had already begun and that most of the bass lines were actually played by Russell, who, still today claims that he started off as a bass player.
All the songs for the demo, which had no proper title, were written by the Maels. Two very persistent rumours kept flying around for years; the first one was that the demo album was also called “A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing”, just like Sparks’ official second album. The other rumour was that Ron designed the sleeve, depicting someone flying in front of the Eiffel Tower on a surfboard under a bright moon. This image has given some later artists (and Sparks fans) inspiration to design their own interpretation of this cover, which actually never existed, according to Harley Feinstein, the drummer on Sparks first two official albums, who joined the band as they were mixing the demo album.
Still, in an article as early as October 1970, there is really talk about both a sleeve as described above and the title "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing", two years before the release of the official one. This title must have been floating around in those early days but apparantly, never used until the second Bearsville album.
Harley Feinstein: “The acetate just had a plain white label on it. No art, graphics, anything just plain white. It was given to record executives in a box with pictures, promotional material, etc. The box was a large replica of an order pad that a waitress in a cafe might have. I guess the concept was you could check off the appropriate item on the order form and order up a steaming hot portion of Halfnelson. I never owned one of the boxes. And I never heard the phrase "Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing" until the second album came out. It wasn't intended to be a demo. It was intended to be an album. After completion they intended to find a record company to sign with. Mike Berns financed the production of the album.”
Halfnelson's main inspirations were English, or English-sounding bands of the mid-60's like The Kinks, The Move, John's Children, The Who, Tomorrow and Pink Floyd, sounds that are easily traceable on Halfnelson's official first album. However, the songs recorded for the demo album clearly indicate that the Maels had not listened to the above-mentioned bands only.
Music much closer to them, both geographically and culturally, had influenced them much more than they'd probably care to realise themselves. Traces of The Doors, The Mamas & The Papas, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Beach Boys and even Jimi Hendrix could easily be found on the twelve songs that were recorded for their early demo album.
This picture was taken right after the recording of the Demo Album, as it includes Harley Feinstein, who joined Halfnelson during the mixing of the album. Jim Mankey was not recruted yet as he only joined after they decided to do live gigs in preparation for a possible record deal. On the top row Russell and Harley Feinstein. On the front row Ronnie and Earle Mankey, 1970.
The original Bearsville biography speaks of three songs that were recorded for the demo album. "Do The Factory", later renamed to just "The Factory" and "Johnny's Adventure" are indeed on the album but a song called "Spider Run" was never used. However, I did obtain this very short instrumental track some years later and it fits right into that period.
Joseph Fleury, one of Sparks' earliest fans, who later ran the British Fan Club and even became their personal manager for many years, described the demo album as follows:
"The Halfnelson demo LP consisted of twelve tracks, all very interesting, if a bit dated. Russell played bass on many of the tracks, as Oswald joined in later on the recordings, while Ron's use of organ as a key instrument was
much more prominent. After this, Oswald and Mendelsohn were thanked for their services."
Oswald and Mendelsohn later formed a band called Christopher Milk and especially John is still quite active as a songwriter and musician. His music is still very interesting.
At the left, there's a fragment from Ron and Russell's mother, Miriam Rogenson, who was living in England in those days. She's writing to a relative in the US about Russell visiting England and France, the members of the band and the name Half-Nelson (sic). The letter is from December 26, 1970.
There's the mentioning of a possible record contract, which means that the young married couple must have been Earle and his wife Lisa. The contract mentioned was the one for Bearsville, which would release the official Halfnelson album and the subsequent "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing".
"Russell is here for a month - returning January 12. He's in France now visiting a friend. He's here with a young married couple - the fellow is in Russell's band - Half-Nelson is their name. Ronnie stayed home as he had an art exhibit of some of his photographic artwork. Also a contract for a record was pending."
On the right a rare colour picture from around 1969/70. From left to right: Larry Dupont, Elisa De Leon (wife of Earle), Earle Mankey, Mike Berns, Ron Mael and at the bottom row Russell Mael.
Rumour is, that about one hundred copies of the demo were hand-pressed onto vinyl and the album was sent out to record companies. None of them reacted positively, if at all.
Ron Mael about this: "We still thought that what we were doing at the time was really regular stuff. It wasn't until we sent it out that we discovered we'd been deceiving ourselves."
Joseph Fleury: "The album turned up on bootleg some time later, called "California Folk Songs" and it was really psychedelic. Tomorrow meets Syd Barret meets Frank Zappa."
In 1997, the album suddenly turned up at an English Sparks fan, who was a friend of mine. He claims that it was just there on his doormat one afternoon, burnt on a cd-r with no further message but accompanied by a white glove. After listening, he couldn't believe what he had just received and had no idea from whom. He decided to only share it with one other friend and me and for over two years, we had to keep it a secret, even to my closest Sparks friends, until one day, the cat was out of the bag and it turned up from various sides on the internet. Only then we decided it was time to share it with other Sparks friends as well but the origin is still a mystery.
Before I actually received it, the friend who gave it to me described it as "exactly the music that you would expect from an album recorded before the official Halfnelson album."
And it is. Sparks' earliest demo album is an amazing piece of work, much better and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. It actually does sound exactly the way you would have expected it to sound, only better. There are two songs on it, which are early versions of songs that we all know: "Roger" and "Saccharin And The War", both penned by Russell. All the other songs have never been released before or after, for that matter.
(Additional note: in 2001 my own band had the opportunity to play as a support act to the renewed John's Children at Camden Town's Dingwalls. Since Boz Boorer, the guitarist of Morrissey was a long-life fan of John's Children and happened to live across the street from John's Children's singer Andy Ellison, he was asked to join in as a guest guitarist. So it happened that I came to speak with Boz and since I'm a great admirer of Morrissey's music, this was a very special occasion to me. Knowing Morrissey's fascination with Sparks, we talked about them and Boz asked me to send some video tapes (this was before you could burn your own dvd's) to watch on the tour bus. So I did and I also mentioned the demo album and sent him a copy to give to Morrissey. Years later, Morrissey was asked to select an album with his favourite songs he grew up to and much to my surprise he had included "Arts & Crafts Spectacular". In 2008, Sparks played this song as an encore during the 21 x 21 Spectacular (during the "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing" performance). I'd like to think that it was me who introduced Morrissey to the Halfnelson demo album but I'm probably far too presumptuous. Nonetheless, it's an interesting thought..)
It is still not quite clear to me, how the recordings of this album turned up all of a sudden but it was suggested recently, that they were taken from the original acetate. American fan Tim Sewell was able to find out the official titles of the songs and Madeline Bocardo was able and patient enough to sit down and write down some of the lyrics, as she heard them. The rest of the lyrics I filled in myself although I can't be absolutely sure that they're 100% accurate.
If you have become a Sparks follower during the Moroder years, during the American success in the first part of the 80's, their comeback with "Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins", or an even as recent as "Lil' Beethoven" or the 2015 cooperation with Franz Ferdinand, and the two subsequent stupendous albums on BMG, the Halfnelson demo album might not be all that interesting to you.
If you are a Sparks fan however since the early 70's and you are fascinated by the Bearsville releases, then you would simply adore this album, like I do. Someone recently said to me: "Do you ever see the Maels bettering this?" Quite frankly, I've had my doubts.
Obviously though, Ron and Russell have reinvented and improved themselves many times through the years and my fascination with this particular album has probably been caused by the long time of looking for it and the mystique surrounding that era combined with my growing curiousity. The same goes, for instance, for the demo recordings they did in 1973, prior to Kimono My House. I was aware of these recordings very early on and when I finally heard them, they also represented something very special, probably for the very same reason.
With the release of several amazing albums during the first part of the 21st century, the Maels have proven once again their innovative genius. Nonetheless, this album stands as a unique historic document of the early Sparks days and to me, it will always be part of their most fascinating work.
Different interpretations of the Halfnelson sleeve. The very last one is Harley Feinstein's original copy of the album, without the sleeve/box.
Chile Farm Farney (1:27)
The album opens with a very cheerful song in which Ron's piano playing is very much like he'd later do on the Island albums and which turned out to be such a distinctive feature on Sparks songs. Russell's (?) bass lines are very much present as Earle's guitar's clearly there. The keyboard does not sound as an organ in this song, where it does in most other tracks on the album. Russell's voice is very recognisable and any fan would immediately pick out this song as typical Sparks. If there should be made a comparison to another era, I would have to say that this song probably sounds the most like what Sparks would do during their Island years.
Johnny's Adventure (2:52)
This song I instantly liked very much. It starts off with Ron's organ only, after which Russell joins in. For about 10 seconds, it's only Ron's organ and Russell's voice. A heavy bass line and a clearly speed-up guitar are added, the latter also appearing later in the song as a solo instrument. The song is built up by variations in tempo and ends in a cacophony of sounds with a prominent role for the guitar which sounds like a bomb exploding. The very last seconds of the song contain Russell's multiple serene voices slowly fading out. There are no drums on this song.
Russell on bass guitar during the recordings of the Demo Album
Roger is the first song that we all (at least most of us) will know. The version is not all that different from the later album version, although it is very easy to hear how Earle has played with his tape recorder to speed up his guitar to create funny sounds. The rhythm is, like on the official version, done by cymbals and the sounds of drum sticks on half-empty (or half-full, if you're that kind of person) bottles. The bass guitar is quite unnoticeable. With this original only being 2 seconds shorter than the official version, it is clear that Todd Rundgren did not change too much on this song. Todd recently said in the Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers, that he felt he should only made it sound a bit more hifi, but didn't want to mess with the actual arrangements too much.
Arts & Crafts Spectacular (2:33)
When I first heard this song and I didn't know the name of the tracks yet, I was convinced the title was "Lovely Claudine Jones". It wasn't. The first song of the album that actually contains drums, although I'm not so sure what kind of drums were used. The Maels later always claimed that they used cardboard boxes for drum kits and I'm inclined to believe them after having heard this song. This song is an absolute gem and it includes Russell's multi-vocals in such a way that it almost makes this song mystical. Again, they change regularly from up-tempo to a more modest tempo, and Ron's organ is very prominent indeed.
What strikes me most on this album is the fact that they never ever play the rhythm guitar. All instruments, with the exception of the keyboards are almost used fragmentally, like splintered sound bites coming together occassionally to create the perfect finishing touch. You hear a guitar when you least expect it and you're waiting in vain for the bass line to join in. Russell's vocals all over the album are remarkable and immediately recognisable. No other person could have sung the way he sang these lines.
Landlady starts off with a vocal cacophony in which probably even Ron joined in. The whole song is very atmospheric and mystical and it somehow reminds me of something that could have been played at the house of the Adams Family. Sinister and fascinating at the same time, with beautiful guitar riffs from Earle and a heavy bass line. And there's always Ron's organ, very, very noticeable. Beautiful song.
The Animals At Jason's Bar & Grill (2:36)
If one song should be mentioned as being influenced by The Kinks, it's probably this one. Cheerful, up-tempo with very funny lyrics. Again, hardly any drums but a lot of harmony vocals, probably all by Russell. Fragmental guitar riffs by Earle and Ron using his keyboard as a piano again, for a change. Lovely track.
Big Rock Candy Mountain (1:29)
Amazing song, this one. Didn't sound like Sparks at all at first. It's said that Earle actually is doing the lead vocals on this track, which is quite possible. Reminded me very much of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Mamas & Papas. The main instruments are actually Ron's keyboard and the bass line while it contains Russell's first attempt to match the sound of an opera singer, which he masters quite well. Modest applause has been included for that. One of my favourites.
Catchy, up-tempo tune but tends to get slightly monotonous after having heard it a number of times. This is probably also due to the fact that the recording is kind of shrill. The melody is lovely though and apart from all the regular instruments that were used for this album, I think I can hear marimbas as well. The lyrics are rather funny: "Your honour/We were actors in a drama/Millie's monologues were not too bad/My Greek tragedies were always sad".
Saccharine And The War (2:36)
This version of the song which also appears on the Halfnelson album is much more laid back than the later recording. It has a funny guitar riff and the bass guitar is also more noticeable. Again, Todd, did not change all that much from the original version, except for speeding it up a little and making it sound a bit more professional. Liked the song when I heard the official version and still like it now. Don't ask me which version I'd prefer however, as I genuinely wouldn't know.
Join The Firm (3:53)
Now this one really sounds a lot like some of the psychedelic Doors songs. Very prominent organ, heavy bass lines, some guitar riffs and a lot of multiple vocals. Mystical, atmospheric again. What the hell were they trying to prove? Great song though, one of my favourites. Hard to describe really, it should be listened to instead.
Ron really gets the chance to try out whether his piano lessons were any good to him. Although he's using the keyboard as an organ again, this was probably the most difficult song for him to play. Beautiful ensemble playing between him and Earle. This is a perfect example of how chaos and slight hysteria can be captured in a wonderful tune. Probably my favourite of the album, since, despite its chaotic approach, it strikes me as a very romantic song.
The Factory (2:32)
Despite its beautiful title, this song is hard to swallow and it's probably one of Sparks' (or Halfnelson, if you like) least accessible song ever recorded. The song seems to lack structure and if you hear it for the first time, you might consider it as just a bunch of noise. This song however, as the whole album is very typical for that specific time and place. It's ultimately dated and that's what probably makes it so beautiful as Sparks never did sound dated and they probably didn't when they were recording this. Harley Feinstein's favourite of the album.
Whether it was on purpose or unconsciously, Halfnelson has captured the spirit of the late psychedelic Sixties perfectly with the recording of this demo. It includes both chaos and harmony (Vietnam vs Flower Power), conventional and renewing sounds (influences by the above-mentioned bands vs Ron's refreshing piano techniques (mind you; not the organ)) and Russell's theatrical approach), And then there's the lyrics, which already hesitatingly indicate the true genius of Ron Mael that would clearly come out after his career as a composer/musician finally took off properly.
For real Sparks collectors, this album is indispensable. If you're not too fond of any pre-Moroder recordings, you shouldn't bother. Why and by whom this album was brought under the attention of my English friend, I do not know. I just would like to thank whoever made it possible to enable us to listen to it nowadays, including the musicians obviously, as for me, it has been and still is a walk on memory lane of a memory I never even was a part of.
Ruud Swart - 1998 (edited March 2023)
Edit December 28, 2021
During the making of The Sparks Brothers, the documentary about Ron and Russell by Edgar Wright, a meeting was arranged between the Maels and Todd Rundgren. At the meeting, Ron and Russell brought the original package of the Halfnelson Demo Album with them, a copy of which was still in Russell's possession. Below some photos of that meeting with the original box in which the album was delivered. Apart from the album, there were also small items included like popcorn, photos of the band, postcards and other small things. The back of the postcards reads "Halfnelson's swell". After 51 years, the mystery is finally solved.