Sparks is an Overnight Sensation. At Last.
By Tim Stegall
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How do you introduce Sparks – the Los Angeles-based pop/rock cult act led by brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell Mael (vocals) since their 1968 incarnation as Halfnelson – to the unconverted?
“Known for their quirky approach to songwriting,” says their Wikipedia page, “Sparks’ music is often accompanied by sophisticated and acerbic lyrics, often about women or Shakespearean literature references, and an idiosyncratic, theatrical stage presence, typified by the contrast between Russell’s animated, hyperactive front man antics and Ron’s deadpan scowling. They are also noted for Russell’s distinctive wide-ranging voice and Ron’s intricate and rhythmic keyboard playing style. They have been much more successful in Europe than in their native US, though they maintain a loyal cult following in the States.”
Goddamn, that’s dry. Watching house paint crack and peel’s more thrilling. It won’t likely compel you to see Sparks make their local debut on March 22nd at the Ryman Auditorium. The gig’s part of a U.S. tour capitalizing on that cult’s overnight growth, which followed The Sparks Brothers documentary. From Edgar Wright – director of Baby Driver, Shaun Of The Dead, and the new Last Night In Soho – it’s a cinematic Valentine to the Maels and the outsized influence they’ve had on rock ‘n’ roll, glam rock, synth-pop, New Wave, punk, and genres yet to be invented.
“There’s interviews with 88 different people, most of them not associated with Sparks, that are musicians or writers or film people or TV people,” marvels Russell, 73, during a Zoom call from the brothers’ Los Angeles studio this past autumn. “They’re all discussing Sparks’ influence on a lot of things, musically and sociologically. So I think the documentary is something that’s really good for people who aren’t aware of the band, especially to see where Sparks fits in the grand scheme of things in pop music.”ADVERTISEMENT
Sparks play Ryman Auditorium tonight, Mar. 22, at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets remain available at ryman.com/event/sparks.
But Sparks has never exactly fit in. They constantly evolved: from the near-operatic glam of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” and its attendant LP Kimono My House, both of which briefly made Sparks teen-scream sensations in England; to the proto-technopop of the Giorgio Moroder-produced No. 1 In Heaven album; to brief US New Wave stardom on the back of the single “Cool Places,” a duet with Go Gos guitarist Jane Wiedlin that hit #49 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983; to whatever place the Maels wanted to take the band. They stripped the stylistic gears regularly, jamming the stick shift into new positions. Each time, a resultant new radical departure in sound emerged. Yet it remained pure, 100-proof Sparks.
“That’s one thing we have, for better or worse,” agrees Russell. “We have a distinctive character. Despite whatever alterations we might do, both the personality of the music and the lyrics remain firmly in place. Our stamp is there in every sort of way with what we do with Sparks, whether musically and lyrically, our personas, our characters on stage, and with videos. So despite any musical shifts that we might do stylistically, the stamp of Sparks is there very strongly on everything we do. We’re proud of that.”ADVERTISEMENT
Oh, yes – the Sparks stage presence. Throughout history, the televised image of the Maels could be jarring, thrilling, or hilarious, usually simultaneously. You have Russell, the pretty boy singer strutting flamboyantly up-front, mic gripped firmly. Then there’s Ron, his weirdo brother with the slicked-back hair and Charlie Chaplin mustache. He wore the wardrobe of a 55-year-old man when he was in his 20s, looking on with comical disapproval from behind his keyboard. An oft-repeated, possibly apocryphal anecdote referenced in The Sparks Brothers has John Lennon calling Ringo Starr as the band made its Top Of The Pops debut in 1974: “Hitler’s on the bloody telly with Marc Bolan!”
But what of that distinctive musical character? A large chunk is owed to the neo-classical influences drenching Sparks’ music since their Halfnelson days. This was no mere three-chord bashing, what with Russell’s operatic trilling and Ron’s complex keyboard mastery. It likely stemmed from their love of bombastic-yet-craftsman-like English bands of the mid-60s, such as the Who or the Move. Verily, Bach is audible in Pete Townshend’s 12-string suspensions on “Substitute.” Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” is quoted in the Move’s “Night Of Fear.”ADVERTISEMENT
“Whenever we would get compared to a famous composer with one piece that we did, we would always research and find out more about that person,” says Ron, 76. “Our whole background is pop music. That’s what we grew up on, and that’s basically what we’re still doing today – pop music. But those kinda classical elements, I’m not exactly sure where those came from. They were there from the very beginning. They’re not an essential part of what we’re doing, but they’re one kind of stylistic flourish of what we put out.”
Check out the exceptionally well-done official video for the collaborative song “Your Fandango” by Todd Rundgren & Sparks, released April 23rd, 2021 on Cleopatra Records.
The other trademark is their sense of humor, often evinced in witty wordplay (album titles like Kimono My House or Angst In My Pants) or visual puns. Or practical jokes like asking Franz Ferdinand to collaborate on an album, FFS. The first song sent the Scottish post-punk revivalists to complete “Collaborations Never Work.” The jokes at times appeared to be on the singer, such as the video featuring ventriloquist Ron pulling out a Russell puppet to sing the 1980 single “When I’m With You.” Then there’s UK breakout glam hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us.” Ron did not write it in Russell’s key. Then he refused to change it.
“I don’t have a key!” laughs Russell.
“I wrote it in a way that felt comfortable on the keyboard,” chuckles Ron. “Part of the reason why our music sounds may be different from a lot of other bands is that there are some pieces written on the keyboard – not written singing with the keyboard, but actually played. So, there’s kind of a rigidity to it. But then there are those moments like ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,’ where the key of A and A minor felt comfortable on the keyboard, but probably not so comfortable to a vocalist.”ADVERTISEMENT
“So May We Start,” from the soundtrack to Annette performed by Sparks, Adam Driver, & Marion Cotillard feat. Simon Helberg. Stream/download Annette – Cannes Edition (Selections from the Soundtrack) here.
“But at the time, I also did not even know that it was uncomfortable,” explains Russell. “It just was what it was, as a song. It wasn’t something that I said, ‘Oh, that’s too high!’ That was just the song.
“So, unfortunately, we didn’t make any alterations to the key,” he laughs.
Well, you handled yourself admirably, Russell.
“I just did as I was told,” he sighs.
“This Town” also offers plenty of evidence backing the maxim The Sparks Brothers film repeatedly underlines: Sparks is your favorite band’s favorite band. It’s hard not to hear “This Town” and think, “Damn, Queen stole everything from Sparks!”
“Pretty much,” says Ron.
I mentioned this when interviewing Ron in 1997. He paused then and curtly remarked, “No comment.”
“Well, then I’ll go back to my original statement and say, ‘No comment.’ I think answering ‘no comment’ to that question speaks louder than anything else I could say.”
“I think that Edgar Wright’s documentary kind of touches on that subject, among other things,” says Russell. “And those are the best answers for that kinda statement because it’s a lot of other artists speaking about that issue, a lot of great musicians. It’s better for them to be able to assess the situation than for us to do it.”
During a Sparks Brothers sequence addressing a 1973 residency at London’s Marquee Club, all the evidence needed to convict Freddie Mercury and Co. appears on the big screen: Wright’s cameras zoom in on an ad either from Melody Maker or NME. One of the opening acts listed? Queen.
Russell: “We rest our case, Your Honor!”
If your ear or eye is trained, you can see or hear Sparks all over most worthwhile pop or rock since their ’70s emergence. Paul McCartney is portraying Ron in his “Coming Up” video. Oh, here’s both Dickies singer Leonard Graves Phillips and Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra sounding suspiciously like Russell. You can’t tell me Biafra doesn’t have at least a well-worn copy of Kimono My House on his record shelves. Name your fave techno-pop outfit – Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, Erasure, whoever. They certainly wore out No. 1 In Heaven. Now, how about Cheap Trick? A slammin’ old school rock ‘n’ roll band clearly in love with the British Invasion. But there’s an oddly-dressed weirdo in the corner writing all the songs and a pretty boy lead singer out front.
Does any of this sound familiar?
“Jello’s told us of his affection for Sparks personally,” says Russell. “Rick Nielsen has made clear to us also. It’s nice to know that you have had some impact on other bands, that what you have done has reached a lot of people. I think that’s what’s so great about the documentary.”
Ron reflects, “The main reason we agreed to the documentary, after being approached so many times and refusing, is that we felt what we were doing now was as important as anything we had done previously. He was willing to keep a balance of that through the whole documentary. So whether it’s correct or not, it’s the way we perceive what we were doing ourselves.”
Indeed, The Sparks Brothers includes the latest album, 2020’s A Steady Drip Drip Drip. It features “Lawnmower,” probably history’s first pop single about a lawn service employee.
Ron: “Yeah, that’s …”
Russell: “… really swell!”
“If you find any others, let us know,” grins Ron.
The Maels have two movies out now, the other being the fantastic Annette, basically a nouvelle vague pop opera. The Sparks Brothers reveals film buffs Ron and Russell have longed to make movies their entire lives. French director Leos Carax (Holy Motors, Bad Blood) succeeded where Jacques Tati and Tim Burton failed over the years in realizing their vision. Carax took a storyline and music the Maels developed for what they thought would be a new album and created this off-kilter musical: A nihilistic Bill Hicks-style comedian (Adam Driver) marries a famed opera singer (Marion Cotillard), producing an infant daughter with phenomenal singing ability. Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg co-stars as a conductor not-so-secretly in love with Cotillard’s character.
“We had given it to Leos after meeting him at Cannes nine years ago,” enthuses Russell. “It evolved into something even bigger than we could have imagined, then it’s the opening night film at the Cannes Film Festival. For us, that was a dream come true.”
And come March 22nd, Sparks takes a victory lap at the Ryman.
“It’s really humbling,” admits Ron. “But we’re excited about that, and we’re excited just to be able to play in places we haven’t in the past. Part of the benefit of both the Edgar Wright documentary and Annette is that there has been more exposure to Sparks in general. People have gone back and researched. So we’re able to play more places and find, to us, more suitable venues. So, we’re really looking forward to that.”