Published Jan 01, 2006Former child models, L.A. brothers Ron and Russell Mael have recorded music for over 30 years ? 28 of them as Sparks. Theirs is one of the less visible, ongoing stories in first generation rock music. Their recently released Balls is the 18th album in the Sparks' chronology, a catalogue spanning manic glitter rock, high holy disco and preposterous pop radio hits. Russell's sexually ambivalent falsetto and Ron's comic expressions of an emotionally-suppressed psychopath make, in combination, a bitter pill to swallow in the male-dominated music scene. This, in tandem with their farcical album jackets and ludicrous lyrical subject matter, both trademarks, have ultimately created obstacles in gaining serious recognition. In a recent New York Times article on 70s pop music, Ron was quoted as saying that Sparks didn't just make annoying music, they made "extremely annoying music."
Yet relegating Sparks to the category of "novelty" act is too easy. For those who have taken the plunge into the Maels' insane world, such stereotypes are easily abandoned. Scratching the surface of a Sparks song, you find engaging lyrical ideas genuinely intelligent, always funny and often poignant observations on culture and society; insightful takes on reality and fantasy, gift-wrapped in au courant pop flavours. Over the years, the Maels' cinematic interests lead them to cross paths with the likes of Jacques Tati, Tim Burton and Tsui Hark. More recently, they have been accredited the label of "influential" by an impressive roster of artists, from the Smiths to Sugarcubes and U2, and are considered instrumental, for their work in the late 70s and early 80s, in shaping what is now called electronica.
1967 to 1969
The post-British invasion has America in a spin, stirring up musical urges in the teenaged Mael brothers ? incarnating as Moonbaker Abbey and later as Urban Renewal Project. The latter yields a quirky, visionary recording entitled "Computer Girl."
1970 to 1973
Donning the sports term Halfnelson, the Maels (with brothers Earle and Jim Mankey), release a self-titled debut album in 1971, with Todd Rundgren at the controls. While this bewilderingly original recording proves the Maels' pop music mettle, their tendency to indulge outlandish flavours ? like musicals and vaudevillian kitsch in combination with that innate sense of fucked-up eccentricity that is distinctively South Californian ? renders the album inaccessible to most of America. With record label encouragement, the band opts for a name change: Sparks.
In what remains a questionable label gesture, the Halfnelson album is re-released as Sparks with a new sleeve, but the retail results remain negligible. A similar fate awaits their second effort, 1972's A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing, produced by James Lowe (Electric Prunes). On the other side of the Atlantic, however, a burgeoning glitter scene is almost uncannily forging itself around some of the same sensibilities that are beginning to blossom in Sparks' music. In 1972, Sparks performances in England establish a moderate, though highly intrigued following. Ron's demonstrative on-stage eruptions and Russell's androgynous fluttering play naturally into the UK glam fold. Sparks get their first taste of popularity.
Sufficiently convinced by Britain's warm reception, the Maels dump their L.A. associates and board the first plane to London quickly casting a band out of flashy local upstarts. Almost immediately recording begins, with producer Muff Winwood, on the album that transforms Sparks from novelty oddballs to superstar oddballs: Kimono My House. It introduces new characteristics to the Sparks sound ? breakneck tempos and blistering trade-offs between guitars and Russell's operatically-charged falsetto. Britain's musical climate is perfectly suited to the Maels' sense of the absurd and "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us," a frantic, amphetamine-fuelled single from the album, reaches #8 on the UK charts. Mere months later, the band releases Propaganda, an album that expands on Kimono's chronic craziness. The album opens with the title track ? an insane, 20-second long, a cappella tongue-twister ? before launching into "At Home, At Work, At Play," an impossibly wordy send-up of crunching guitars and major attitude that leaves listeners breathless.
Searching for the antidote to glam's imminent demise, the Maels enlist producer Tony Visconti to stir things up ? a task Visconti embraces with vigour. Indiscreet sounds as peculiar and impressive today as it did in 1975. The album's unlikely mix of big band swing, fiddle-infused hoe-downs, polite string quartet vignettes and post-glam pomposity hits the market like a new cocktail at happy hour. Indiscreet both represents the Sparks aesthetic and stands the test of time, the perfect balance of outrageous genre-surfing, exquisite performances, a magnificent sleeve and enough of the unexpected to keep it fresh 25 years later.
Change is afoot in Britain and Sparks' intellectual witticisms and musical pranks are ill-suited to punk, now surfacing from the dregs of glitter. The Maels pack their bags and head home with expectations of conquering America. But the gap between British and American ears proves too great. England's propensity for the extreme, circa 1976, is matched measure-for-measure by America's adoration of the mainstream. Sparks' notoriety as a fashionable import doesn't translate on a direct level and Big Beat, their first attempt to capture a compromise, flops. The charm and musicality of their UK players is lost on the NYC punk poseurs hired for Big Beat and the choice of Rupert Holmes as producer is the kiss-o-death.
The release of Introducing Sparks does nothing to repair the Big Beat damage. The sleeve's clever parody of American pop-star idealism is matched too accurately by the album's contents: bland session player performances and lacklustre production. Even the Maels' lyrical prowess and knack for melodic cleverness is overwhelmed, leaving many fans to wonder: Is Introducing the end?
Sparks cast out an unexpected line with the album Number One In Heaven, hooking new fans and restoring faith in die-hards. This merger of Mael intuition and Munich's master of electronic sequencing, Giorgio Moroder, proves that old dogs can learn new tricks, and serves as the ideal host to Ron and Russell's infectious lunacy. Lyrics from "The Number One Song In Heaven" prove prophetic: "In cars it becomes a hit / In your home it becomes advertisements / And in the streets it becomes children singing." The disco revolution catches a second wind and dance floors on both sides of the Atlantic pulse to Sparks' heavenly opus. During the same year, the Maels pen and produce Is There More To Life Than Dancing?, a deliciously vacuous, disco diva-styled album for L.A. singer Noel.
Hot on the heels of Number One In Heaven, Sparks commence the 1980s with another danceable solution: Terminal Jive. Infused with more song-like content than its predecessor, Terminal Jive yields the band's biggest success to date with the single "When I'm With You."
1981 to 1983
The Maels return to L.A. once again with Euro hit power and launch into a prolific period, producing what will become the workhorses of the Sparks catalogue. Finding their 80s niche in off-the-wall pop songs, the Maels adopt a new line-up of players that stick for five albums over the course of seven years. Embracing the inventive lyrical style that is a Sparks staple, their new material carries an impressive instrumental polish ? due in part to the continued recording and production association with Moroder's people in Munich.
L.A.'s famed alternative radio station KROQ selects cuts from Whomp That Sucker (1981), Angst In My Pants (1982), and Sparks In Outer Space (1983), for heavy rotation. Sparks become national radio stars and, in L.A., are elevated to god-like status ? ironic, since the primary theme of their 80s oeuvre savagely critiques the L.A. lifestyle vacuum.
Sparks break from the Moroder machine with Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat. Themes of Hollywood façade and TV movie romance are given the full art-pop treatment on songs like "Pretending To Be Drunk" and the album's single, "With All My Might." Their acerbic take on love is epitomised in lines from "A Song That Sings Itself": "Young fools are we / We think we own the world and own the stars / And yet in fact we barely own our cars."
On the album Music That You Can Dance To, Sparks once again take to the dance floor, this time tongue-in-cheek. Commentary on L.A.'s shallowness reaches a zenith on "Shopping Mall of Love," "The Scene," and "Rosebud" ? the latter an allusion to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The album's closing track, "Let's Get Funky," is a disjointed, clumsy tale of obsessive love, climaxing with the title cliché. In sharp contrast, the album's single, "Change," is coupled with an acoustic guitar version of "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us." Sparks predict the unplugged revolution.
The Maels strip down to electro-basics with Interior Design. "So Important," the album's single, makes a minor dent on dance floor charts but Interior Design hits the delete bins without missing a beat.
The Maels pen the Euro-mega hit, "Singing In The Shower," for French alt-pop duo Les Rita Mitsouko proving once and for all that Europe is the number one haven for Sparks' distinctive brand of quirk.
National Crime Awareness Week EP is released on Finitribe's independent imprint ? merging post-Interior Design beats with an unexpected shift in singing style: rap.
Sparks surprise even themselves with Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins. Expressing a more sophisticated electronic approach, the album's defining moments ? "When Do I Get To Sing My Way" and "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing" ? herald a fine hybrid of glorious chorus melodies and sleek instrumentation. Gratuitous Sax also draws significant response from fellow musicians Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure are among the throng that turn out for the band's sold-out large-venue shows, openly declaring Sparks as major influences. In Germany, "When Do I Get To Sing My Way" sells in excess of 450,000 copies. Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins marks Sparks' triumphant return to the European scene.
"The halls are mostly packed with teenagers who weren't even born when Kimono My House was released ? and they're mouthing all the lyrics to the old songs like This Town Ain't Big Enough,'" Russell exclaims joyously of the scene in Germany. "At home, in L.A., seven people might show up ? three of them working the bar!" The dramatic shift in popularity inspire the Maels to reinvent their back catalogue: Plagiarism is born.
In effect a tribute album to themselves, Plagiarism comprises re-recorded versions and interpretations of Sparks' finest moments. Including hardcore Sparks fans Erasure and Faith No More, Plagiarism's finest moments feature Tony Visconti, who transports eight of the songs into the heavens with full orchestral and choral arrangements that cut somewhere between Orff's Carmina Burana and Handel's Messiah. Plagiarism is the icing on the Sparks cake: epic, silly and inspired. The album's single ? a massive orchestral version of "Number One Song In Heaven" ? is sung, duet-style with dance-pop's other queen of the falsetto, Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat, Communards), with astonishing, hair-raising results.
Ron and Russell, now operating as a competent engineering/production team, release Balls, the first product from their newly converted, all-digital studio. Balls picks up on the lyrical panic of Gratuitous Sax without missing a beat. "It's A Knock Off" parodies cliché Asian obsessions for high-end labels. Russell sings the part of a hustler/escort in search of recognition beyond his physical charms in the album's single "More Than Just a Sex Machine," and chants the lyrics ? "I heard the angels call your name / They feel ashamed / Because you look so fucking good" ? on "The Angels," a slick, subversive commentary on America's quest for aesthetic perfection. On Balls, Sparks strike a balance between the electronic, rhythmic-based formulas that pervade the charts and their own sense of the ridiculous. Like other artists in their peer group, the Maels now express a perspective and clarity that comes, as they say, with age. For the past 15 years, each new Sparks album has generally been met with a similar response: Sparks! They're still around? If Balls is any indication, Sparks are simply beginning another chapter in a very long story.