Sparks: Tryouts for the Human Race
f we weren’t sure before, we knew then. And all it took was a drumbeat. One snare hit. And it was over. Disco was not going to go away.
Despite having been a commercially viable genre since Donna Summer’s visionary “Love to Love You Baby", disco was still undercut by audience and critical belief of its essential inhumanity in its early years. Summer had been the human face attached to the genre and, for the most part, was looked at as mere sexpot. Her albums with Moroder were made strictly for dance purposes, as Moroder admitted in a 1978 interview with the NME: “Disco is music for dancing, and I know that the people will always want to dance.” Moroder was content, then, to continue to pump out hits with Summer and his other Black female singing working partner, Roberta Kelly, for as long as the genre remained in vogue. Disco, as Moroder made mention in the same interview, was the new rhythm and blues music popularized by Motown. And Moroder wanted Munich to become as well known as Detroit. A machine built for maximum hit potential.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. Ron and Russell Mael joined him.
The brothers Mael, the main members of Sparks, had already had a large amount of success with a string of albums that utilized a guitar-rich sound and incisively humorous lyrics. The three album stretch, beginning with Kimono My House may be as essential as any artists’ entire oeuvre in the 70s. The fourth album in this series, the generally acknowledged dud of the Sparks 70s catalogue Introducing Sparks, found the group hammering the same tropes as album’s previous, however. It became obvious that a change was needed.
And the sonar blips of the opening moments of “Tryouts for the Human Race” couldn’t be further from anything the group had previously recorded. These blips gathered up speed for nearly forty-five seconds, augmented only by a vocoded noise washing from the left channel to the right and back again, are pure Moroder. It moves ever closer to a recognizable rhythm throughout until finally we hear the fade-in of a bubbling proto-trance synthesizer line and the bombastic drums of the godlike Keith Forsey.
Wait. What? Keith Forsey, a key member of Moroder’s other major project of the time (Munich Machine), enters into the proceedings with muscular drumming that melds with the synthesizer backing of Moroder perfectly.
Its importance, for tired rockists, can hardly be understated. By incorporating many of the rock elements (drums, vocals that were already regarded as artistic) into a disco backing, Sparks overturned Moroder’s own claim that disco was only made for dancing and pointed towards new directions for the nascent genre. And, most importantly for Moroder and Sparks, it was profitable.