My Sparks Sputter

By Binky Philips

Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks
Photo by Linda Danna

The summer of 1974 was a big one for me. I was 21; a fling with an older woman (an A&R executive, yet!) that had begun as an impromptu one-night stand in late June had quickly turned serious.

I must confess to harboring studly feelings about moving in with someone 10 years my senior, but no one else who knew me was happy about it. They had all correctly seen my new paramour as a just-barely-legit music business person with overt dollar signs in her eyes. And, sure enough, within a month of hooking up, she’d made herself my band’s manager. Being young, dumb and smitten, I went along like a puppy on a leash.

My band, the Planets, having attained some stature in New York City over the previous year-and-a-half, had just ended a stretch of several months without a lead singer. Our original vocalist had left over personal issues, and I had selected his replacement, frankly, because he looked a lot like my hero Pete Townshend and seemed like a nice (malleable) guy. In mid-June, during a remarkable tête-à-tête in his ultra-fancy hotel suite, I had the occasion to be able to tell Pete himself that my band’s new singer looked like him. Without a trace of humor or irony, Townshend said, “That’s not good, Binky!”

In mid-September, as the summer wound down, I got an outta-the-blue call from an acquaintance in the music business with some wild news.

Ron and Russell Mael had cast off the other members of Sparks and moved from LA to London about a year earlier, reforming the band there with British musicians. The subsequent release of Kimono My House and the hit single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” that summer had made Sparks, in an overnight-sensation sort of way, absolute gods in England and Europe. My music biz acquaintance informed me that, despite their exploding success, they had just ditched guitarist Adrian Fisher.

Ross, the man on the phone, had some kind of relationship with their manager, an Englishman named John Hewlett, who had once been in John’s Children with Marc Bolan (their one big song, “Desdemona” is pretty darn fab, actually). Ross, it seems, had talked me up to Hewlett. (Amusingly enough, one of the selling points was that, besides my alleged guitar prowess and Townshend-inspired stage moves, Sparks’ current drummer was named Dinky and I was… Binky! Oooooooo!)

I was invited to fly to London for an audition. With a mix of regret and excitement, I broke the news to the other Planets and, a few days later, carrying my Gibson Les Paul, boarded a plane at JFK en route to Heathrow.

When we landed, I took a cab to the dingy Earl’s Court B&B I’d been booked into (imagine the hooker/drug dealer/homeless hippie/porno shop area of your town… I actually caught ringworm from the sheets in that dump!). The room was beyond depressing — maybe 8 x 12, with a window opening onto an air shaft, a narrow bed, a chair, a lamp, a shared loo, no TV, no radio. The kind of room an Eric Ambler character winds up dead in.

For the next two days, I wandered the streets of London waiting for the call to come to meet the band, the manager and audition.

On the third day, I was finally invited up to John Hewlett’s office at Island Records to meet the Maels. It was all very pleasant. It turned out that, for some reason, every studio and soundstage in London was booked solid that week. So they fixed the audition for the basement of a remote pub where the band had first gotten together a year earlier when they were all broke and miserable. While Ron and Russell were both gracious and friendly and obviously happy to interact with another American, it was also evident that they were disgusted about returning there for my try-out. Strike one.

The next afternoon, on a clichéd foggy, rainy London day, I arrived at said pub, went down a damp staircase and found, in the dank gloom, the Brits who comprised the Maels’ backing band at the time already set up and ready to go. Two of the three – the guitarist and bassist — had been in another Hewlett-managed group called the Jook, a faux-skinhead knockoff of Slade, who’d had some recent success in England. They seemed instantly guarded. It suddenly occurred to me that I was yet another American entering their world. Strike two.

I plowed ahead with my hellos and plugged into the full Marshall stack that had been procured for my audition. Without really thinking about it, I cranked every knob to 11, turned to the three of them and started blasting a simple Zepp-ish/Live at Leeds-ish riff in B that I’d improvised on the spot and coaxed them to join in.

They started tentatively following me, and within about 90 seconds, we were all having an organic ball. I mean, we were rocking! Huge grins all around. Wow, these guys were good! Distinctly better than the Planets (gasp!). And they were digging me. The caution and suspicion had melted away. We were just tearing it up at stadium volume.

I was getting lost in cosmic-musician-bliss playing my Jimmy Page/Pete Townshend-style lead guitar when, without warning, the three Brits stopped dead. I came out of my soloing trance and looked at them with a “Huh?” They were all sheepishly staring past me toward the staircase. I turned around and there, in matching oversized overcoats, stood Ron and Russell, neither of whom looked happy. Or friendly. Strike three.

“Oh, hello, Ron. Hello, Russell. We were just warming up,” I perkily explained.

Undisputed leader Ron disdainfully replied, “Yes, well, let’s get this over with. I can’t stand being back in this cellar.” So, without any preliminaries, he sat down at his keyboard and Russell took his place by the mic. Ron counted off and we ran through five songs from Kimono My House that I’d learned the day before I’d left New York.

It sounded great! I was thrilled! At the end of the fifth song, I looked at Russell. He was practically levitating, bouncing on his toes about ten feet from me, a huge dazzled smile on his face, clearly totally jazzed by my playing.

Barely glancing at me, Ron said in a cold, dismissive and prissy tone, “Well, you’re certainly overpowering, aren’t you?” Russell’s smile instantly evaporated and he literally started backing away from me. The three Brits were all staring at the floor, silent. Strike four.

Ron stood up, put on his coat, nodded to the rest of the guys and made some perfunctory thanks in my general direction as Russell scrambled into his coat. Without another look back, the brothers Mael vanished up the stairs, never to be seen again.

The next day, at John Hewlett’s office, I was told that, while he would pay for the four nights at the Ringworm B&B, the band was going to stiff me for the airfare. Pure class!

Back in New York a week later, I reconvened the Planets, replacing the Pete lookalike with the first black rock singer to play the glam scene.

Tally Taliaferrow of the Planets, 1975
Photo by Linda Danna

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