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I Audition for Sparks in London, 1974

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The Summer of 1974 was a big one for me.



I was 21 and a fling with an older woman (an A&R executive yet!) that had begun with an impromptu one-night stand in late June had quickly turned into something serious.



I must confess to feeling fairly studly moving in with someone 10 years older than me. 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.

But, my band, The Planets, in the meantime, while having attained some real stature in New York City over the previous year-and-a-half, had just spent the last few months singer-less. Having lost our founding member to some serious personal issues, we were now trying to make lemonade out of a lemon with a sandpapery five note range who I'd just hired against the other two Planets' protests, frankly, because he looked a lot like my hero, Pete Townshend, and seemed like a nice (malleable) guy.



In mid-June, during a remarkable tete-a-tete in his ultra-fancy hotel suite (a separate story...), 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!"



As the summer wound down into mid-September, about a week after I'd been Dust-dosed by Hell's Angels at a Waylon Jennings gig, I got an outta-the-blue call from an acquaintance in the music business with some wild news.



Sparks, having been stripped down to just the Mael Brothers, Ron (he of the Chaplin/Hitler mustache) and Russell (he of the Pretty Poodle hair), had moved from LA to London about a year earlier. And with the release of their album, Kimono My House, and their Number One single "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" that summer of '74, Sparks had suddenly, in an overnight-sensation sort of way, become absolute gods in England and Europe. My music biz acquaintance informed me that, at the height of this Sparksmania, they had just ditched their lead guitarist.



Ross, the man on the phone, had some kind of relationship with their manager, an Englishman named John Hewlett, who back in the heyday of Mods, had been in a band with T. Rex's Marc Bolan called John's Children (their one big song, "Desdemona" is pretty darn fab, actually). My acquaintance, Ross, had talked me up, trans-Atlantic-ally, with great enthusiasm to Mr. Hewlett. Amusingly enough, one of the big selling points was that, besides my alleged geeetar prowess and Townshend-inspired stage moves, Sparks' drummer was named Dinky, and I was... Binky! Oooooooo!



The decision was made to fly me to London for an audition. And so, with real regret and optimistic excitement, I broke the news to the other Planets, and a few days later, got on a plane at JFK to Heathrow with my Gibson Les Paul. 



When we landed, I took a cab to a deeply dingy bed & breakfast I'd been booked into in the Earl's Court area of London (imagine the hooker/drug dealer/homeless hippie/porno shop area of your town... I actually caught my life's only case of ringworm from the sheets in that dump!). The room was beyond depressing; maybe 8-feet wide, 12-feet long, 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 in the Island Records building to finally meet the Mael brothers. It turned out that for some reason every studio and soundstage in London was booked solid that week. So, it was decided that the audition would take place in the basement of a pub somewhere off the beaten paths of London where the band had first gotten together a year earlier... back 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 having to go back to this pub's basement for my try-out. Strike one.



The next afternoon, on a cliched foggy, rainy London day, I arrived at said pub, went down the damp bleak staircase, and there, in the dank gloom, already plugged up, were the three Brits who comprised the Mael Brothers' current backing band. All three, guitar/bass/drums, had been in a group together called The Jook, a faux-skinhead knockoff of Slade, who were also huge in England at the time. 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 my Les Paul 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 ex-Jooks, 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 now 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/Jimi Hendrix-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 basement staircase. I turned around and there, in matching oversized overcoats, stood Russell P. Poodle and Ron C. Hitler. Neither one of them looking 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 eight feet from me, a huge dazzled smile on his face, clearly totally jazzed by my playing.



Then, Ron Chaplin Hitler, barely glancing at me, said in a cold, dismissive, and prissy tone, "Well, you're certainly overpowering, aren't you?" Russell Poodle'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, made some perfunctory thanks in my general direction as Russell scrambled into his coat, and then, with neither of them looking at me again, the Brothers Mael walked up the stairs, never to be seen again.



The next day, I went to John Hewlett's office where I was told that, while he was willing to pay for the four nights at the Ringworm B&B, the band was going to have to renege on repaying me for my airfare. Pure class!



A week later, I was back in New York. I reconvened The Planets, without the Pete-lookalike, auditioned and chose the first black rock singer to play the Glam scene, got thrown out of Coventry Club by the Mob, rehearsed with Scientologists, drove by a new bar on the Bowery called CBGB's, opened for The Ramones... To be continued (see my other Huffington Post blogs).