Band of the Week: Sparks

Resident sound-nerd thumbs through reams of musty vinyl so you don’t have to. Here are his weekly recommendations…

#21: Sparks

Who: Russell Mael, Ron Mael.

When: 1970’s-Present.

Where: USA.

Why: One of my official Top Ten favourite bands, Sparks have never garnered the respect they deserve. Brothers Russell and Ron Mael grew up in the Pacific Palisades during the most exciting boom for Californian pop music; The Doors, The Beach Boys and Love all playing gigs on their doorstep. Despite this, the boys, who were apparently at one point child models, weren’t too keen on their native scene, and obsessed over the music coming across the Atlantic from England. The Who, Pink Floyd, The Kinks – these were the bands that inspired the young Maels to form their initial foray into rock & roll; Halfnelson. Todd Rundgren saw the potential in their outfit (Russell on vocals, Ron on keyboards) and made sure they were signed to Bearsville Records. After releasing two fairly unsuccessful albums, they found themselves in their spiritual home, England, under a different moniker – Sparks – a play on the name of the Marx Brothers. It was here that they recorded their breakthrough LP, Kimono My House, with its hit single ‘This Town ‘Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, which remains a classic slice of glam rock despite Elton John then betting producer Muff Winwood that no-one would buy it.

Sparks on Top of the Pops would provoke the same reaction from viewers nationwide: ‘Mum! Hitler’s playing keyboards on TV’; such was the foolishness of Ron’s facial topiary. Moustache decisions aside, the band were now creating some of the most original music on either side of the Atlantic, unpredictable, wonderfully silly glam pop with wry, witty lyrics that hinted at a deep intelligence at work. Two albums later they released the Tony Visconti-produced Indiscreet, possibly their finest LP as a conventional band, which confidently flitted about genres in a wilfully bewildering way – from music hall to calypso, cabaret to baroque & roll; it seemed there was nothing that the two brothers couldn’t do. In 1979 the two showed that the project could go literally anywhere – firing their band and settling down as a synth-pop duo, collaborating with Giorgio Moroder to create an entirely electronic LP, No. 1 In Heaven, which foresaw the pop adventures of the 80’s spookily presciently. With song topics as diverse as Federico Fellini (‘La Dolce Vita’) and getting to the mindset of a sperm (‘Tryouts for the Human Race’), it was now obvious that Sparks were genii.

Not that the commercial world gave a toss. While there were a few hits here and there – ‘When I’m With You’ from disco attempt Terminal Jive was massive in France – the duo never reached the dizzy heights of their early singles again in terms of popularity. But, despite a few dodgy late 80’s records, they’ve always been brilliant. In 2002 they struck golden form again with the charming Lil Beethoven, songs like ‘Suburban Homeboy’ peddling hilarious and musically astute midlife crisis rock. 2006’s Songs For Young Lovers was even more brilliant, and was fortified by a cast of new musicians including members of Faith No More and Gnarls Barkley – like the Velvet Underground, this is a band that few have heard, but those who have formed great bands. With one recent project a concept album about Swedish film auteur Ingmar Bergman; Sparks are still streets ahead of the competition, forty years down the line.

Influences: The Beatles, Syd Barrett, Frank Zappa, Scott Walker, Giorgio Moroder.

Influenced: Morrissey, MGMT, Franz Ferdinand, New Order, Faith No More.

Sample Lyric: ‘For months, for years, tits were once a source of fun and games at home /
And now she says tits are only there to feed our little Joe so that he’ll grow’.

Which Record: Indiscreet (Island, 1975)

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