Due to English director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz) recent cinematic hagiography The Sparks Brothers, 2021 has become the year of Sparks. Variously described as “the best British band to come from Los Angeles,” “your favorite band’s favorite band” and “the greatest band you’ve never heard of,” it’s high time. After all, it’s only been 49 years since the ever-shifting lineup helmed by singer Russell Mael and keyboardist brother Ron began working under the name Sparks—54 years if you count first band Urban Renewal Project.
Not that Sparks haven’t seen periods of commercial success. In their early ‘70s glam era, they became huge stars in the U.K. on the backs of massive hits such as “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” and “Amateur Hour” and the accompanying album Kimono My House. “Amateur Hour”’s promo clip, filmed live at the height of their popularity at Fairfield Halls, hilariously depicts the Beatlemania-style reactions they inspired.
As they evolved and followed their internal muse, their popularity waned. By decade’s end, they essentially invented techno pop by working as an electronic duo with Eurodisco producer Giorgio Moroder, again scoring European hits with singles such as the title track to their No. 1 In Heaven album.
In 1983, they finally achieved U.S. chart success with the new-wave single “Cool Places,” a collaboration with Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin. As always, their easy boredom with what they were doing at the moment meant the Maels quickly moved on from whatever was currently commercially successful for them. They’ve never been able to sustain any chart victories.
Yet, for all of their constant evolution, their ever-changing moods and sounds? Sparks have always been recognizably Sparks. It’s always been centered around the brothers’ quirky humor; Russell’s trilling, operatic vocals and pretty boy image; and Ron’s mock stern stage presence, neo-classical compositions and boogie-woogie-to-Bach keyboard playing. Then there’s Ron’s 50-year-old man fashion sense—down to a Charlie Chaplin mustache that evolved into a pencil line—which he’s affected since he was in his 20s. All this from a love of old Hollywood and bombastic British pop a la the Who and the Move.
The Sparks Brothers sees a cavalcade of rock greats staring straight into Wright’s cameras and praising this band that have been these stars’ secret favorite all these years—everyone from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to a number of early ‘80s synthpop acts to Beck. In between, the Maels’ recollection of their history, told in their characteristic dry wit, makes this the slapstick comedy of the summer. Now comes Annette, a Sparks-helmed musical directed by Leos Carax, starring Adam Driver and Simon Helberg that realizes one of lifelong cineastes Ron and Russell Mael’s longstanding dreams: to make movies. You can discover Sparks’ continued musical potency in person when they barnstorm America early next year.
Please enjoy the Spotify playlist the Maels curated to accompany The Sparks Brothers, to appreciate the breadth and depths of Sparks as you read our appreciation.
Modern-day listeners may be forgiven for thinking Queen when hearing “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” But maybe we should be thinking “Sparks with no sense of humor” when we hear “Killer Queen”? This writer interviewed Ron Mael in 1997 to promote Plagiarism, an album of newly recorded versions of some of Sparks’ most famous songs, in collaboration with such acolytes as Erasure and Faith No More.
Noting the combination of English power-chord rock and neo-classical elements, I brought up that Queen must have been listening. After a brief pause, Ron curtly replied, “No comment.” But when The Sparks Brothers details the band’s first visit to the U.K. in 1973, an ad for their Marquee Club residency indicates one of the opening acts was Queen. Perhaps Freddie Mercury and crew waited in the wings, taking notes? Not unimaginable.
Who-like blast rock, Beatles-esque pop, eccentric wit, a pretty boy singer and a wacky songwriter with an off-beat appearance masterminding the entire show—take your pick. Are we talking about Sparks? Or Midwestern power–pop heroes Cheap Trick? Ron Mael? Or Rick Nielsen? Russell Mael? Or Robin Zander? “Zoo time is she and you time/The mammals are your favorite type, and you want her tonight”? Or “Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right/They just seem a little weird”?
It’s fairly evident that Sparks paved a path with their early glam-rock albums such as A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing that Cheap Trick traveled to late ‘70s stardom. Except Sparks couldn’t make it pay off for them in America the way Cheap Trick did. Not to say CT were unoriginal. But they were surely picking up Kimono My House on import, the good Anglophiles that they were.
The Quick are the great lost band of L.A. rock history. And they aren’t coy about the Maels’ influence. “I wanted to be like Kimono My House-era Sparks, and I had a whole band doing it,” chief songwriter and lead guitarist Steven Hufsteter told L.A. Weekly in 2018. “But I wasn’t good at copying, so it came out different. It took us a couple years to really find ourselves.”
It’s easy to hear Ron and Russ all over such key tracks on 1976 LP Mondo Deco as “No No Girl” and a brilliantly dainty rearrangement of the Beatles’ “It Won’t Be Long.” (Engineer/co-producer on that album: former Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey.) By the time the power poppers got around to writing punkier material such as the lost 1978 classic “Pretty Please,” they were done for. Singer Danny Wilde later fronted the Rembrandts. Yes, he’s the guy singing the Friends theme song, “I’ll Be There For You.”
The Quick were instrumental in Van Nuys wise-guy punks the Dickies’ genesis. Hufsteter went to high school with Dickies singer Leonard Graves Phillips and introduced him to his guitar pupil, Stan Lee. Various Quick members, stifled by Hufsteter’s dominance in the songwriting department, filtered their castoffs to the Dickies, including early fave “Shadow Man.” Then there’s the fact that “Pretty Please” was revived, as “Pretty Please Me,” for 1983 EP Stukas Over Disneyland, forever becoming as associated with the Dickies as with its originators. Hence, it’s no wonder that plenty of Sparks influence is audible in every note the Dickies play, not the least being Phillips’ very Russell Mael vocal delivery.
It may be hard to believe, listening to the hard-charging political punk of Dead Kennedys, or Guantanamo School Of Medicine, his most recent band. But listen to Jello Biafra sing—that voice and delivery is pure Russell Mael, with an occasional growl or scream. That pseudo-operatic tenor? The quivering vibrato? The clearly enunciated phrasing? Don’t tell us Biafra doesn’t own multiple copies of Kimono My House, Propaganda and Indiscreet. One listen to “Kill The Poor” or “Let’s Lynch The Landlord” should be all the evidence you need. He might be simultaneously Russell’s least likely and most obvious acolyte.
Sparks’ effect on the original synth-pop pioneers, especially in England, is unsurprising. Every last one of those musicians bopping two fingers off early Casio keyboards already had the Maels in their DNA. Most were teenage glam fans before electronics made minstrels out of them, staring raptly at the family TV the Thursday that Sparks introduced Top Of The Pops to “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” Early Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke is among those testifying to No. 1 In Heaven’s influence. Their breakthrough hit “Just Can’t Get Enough” could have been an outtake from that album.
Clarke’s Depeche Mode tenure was brief. He passed through Yaz, with R&B-based wailer Alison Moyet, before closing out the ‘80s in Erasure with Andy Bell. It stands to reason he’d bring those “The Number One Song In Heaven”-bred chops with him through everything he did. It’s audible on such Erasure goldies as “A Little Respect” and “Oh l’amour,” with their four-on-the floor disco beats and electronic washes. Bell hardly had Russell’s beautiful neo-operatic quality, but few singers do. Clarke eventually paid his debt off in full, remixing Sparks’ 1994 comeback single “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way,’” not to mention the Erasure/Sparks collaboration on Plagiarism.
Birmingham male pinups Duran Duran may have been the bridge from “Wonder Girl” to “Beat The Clock,” in terms of Sparks influence. This might be because, Nick Rhodes’ synth-heavy keyboards aside, they were a glam-influenced, guitar-based pop-rock outfit. Simon Le Bon’s vocal style may have been a lot more Bryan Ferry-as-Irish-tenor than Russell’s lilting Enrico Caruso-like tones. But like every other English musician of their generation, Le Bon, Rhodes and all the various Taylors in the group had to have owned Kimono My House. And Rhodes’ seven-inch single of “Beat The Clock” certainly must have been scratched all to hell.
In the first few moments of The Sparks Brothers, acclaimed musical eccentric Beck Hansen stares down Wright’s cameras and proclaims, “Throughout all the years that I’ve been making music, if you get on a tour bus with a bunch of musicians, eventually the conversation will go to Sparks.” It should hardly be surprising, considering the Maels are the patron saints of musical willfulness, and Beck’s harder to pin down stylistically than a decomposing moth. Sparks are somewhere in the cut-and-paste weirdness of “Devils Haircut,” even if it’s hardly overt. Plus, Beck’s father David Campbell produced noted Sparks acolytes the Quick.
If ‘00s Scottish post-punk rockers Franz Ferdinand didn’t appear in The Sparks Brothers, it still would be easy to hear the Sparks-ness at the root of quirky hits such as “Take Me Out.” But the Maels did join Alex Kapranos and crew for a 2015 album called FFS, which of course was an abbreviation for “Franz Ferdinand/Sparks.” As the Maels tell it, it all came about from a chance meeting on the street, in which they invited the collaboration. In typical Sparks fashion, the first song Ron and Russ sent the band to embellish was titled “Collaborations Don’t Work.” Thankfully, FFS did work, serving as an even better bridge between Sparks’ early Gibson-blasting glam and their 1979 proto-techno. At times, it’s hard to tell whether it’s Russell or Kapranos singing.