SPARKS – The artists who would come to be known for posterity as Sparks commenced inventing their often-copied, seldom-equaled brand of music back around 1970, when pop was young and brash and the Southern California airwaves awash with a contingent of post-British invasion inspirations like The Kinks, Barretts Floyd, and The Seeds. The purchase of countless shiny-sleeved import LPs, and dogged pilgrimages to gigs by now-deified (or defiled) artistes, convinced young Ron and Russell Mael that this enticingly provocative presentation would be the ideal means by which to impress upon the public their idiosyncratic take on life, art, and everything. And so the brothers commenced banging around, first in separate groups, then together in Moonbaker Abbey and Urban Renewal Project (one of their first recordings being the presciently named Computer Girl.)
The birth of Sparks
Their efforts crystallized in 1971, with the addition of another pair of brothers, Earle and Jim Mankey, and drummer Harley Feinstein, incorporated under the uncommon name of Halfnelson. Produced by wonderboy and kindred spirit Todd Rundgren, the groups startlingly original, eponymously titled debut yielded a local hit (local being Montgomery, Alabama); then vanished from view, notwithstanding an American Bandstand appearance and a write-up in regional Texas newspapers (earned the hard way by the connection of Russells head with the business end of a prop sledgehammer.) Their label, with the mysterious logic that only record companies possess, decided that their sportcentric moniker was responsible for the albums less-than-stellar performance, and suggested a Marx Bros-inspired name change: thus Sparks was born.
Rereleased upon an unsuspecting nation, the appropriately altered (but no better-selling, alas) LP was to prove this marketing strategy decidedly spurious. Nevertheless, an excellent second album, the equally unprecedented A Woofer In Tweeters Clothing, was released as a follow-up, with high psychedelia-cred coming from helmer James Lowe of The Electric Prunes. Once again, clever nomenclature didnt translate to runaway revenues; and the group found itself at an impasse.
Massive fan hysteria
The icebreaker came from across the pond, where the band had been welcomed enthusiastically by Continental types on a brief 1972 transatlantic jaunt – albeit rather less so by The Old Grey Whistle Tests Bob Harris, who was privileged to host their first British TV appearance. Whispering Bob was shortly to regret his rush to judgement, for in quick succession the Maels parted ways with their LA compatriots; hopped a plane to Heathrow; recruited a group of London players-about-town to back them; and in 1974 began recording (with producer Muff Winwood) the album that would make Sparks a Kimono-My-House-hold name in the UK.
Within 8 months of emigrating, the group had infected the Isles with the melodic diabolism of the #2 hit This Town Aint Big Enough For Both of Us, regularly frightening the nations children with their Top of the Pops appearances and precipitating massive fan hysteria on their first major British tour. Propaganda, released mere months later, pushed pops margins yet further and saw more Sparks in the charts, with two singles emerging into the UK Top 30. By all appearances, the band was well and truly on its way.
But the musical climate was changing. Glam, with which Sparks had been jumbled in for lack of more accurate categorisation, was on its last gasp and besides, the Maels were getting restless. Constitutionally incapable of sticking with the tried and true, the brothers commissioned Tony Visconti, architect of numerous Bolan/Bowie opuses, to produce 1975s Indiscreet, which remains to this day an aptly named artefact of impressive and enduring strangeness. Big band, marching tunes and hoedown were all in the mix along with a goodly measure of flat-out hysteria: many of the Sparks faithful waxed ecstatic at the albums extremes, while others were exasperated, wearied by its over-over-the topness. Indiscreet made a solid showing in the charts, however, and the band spent nearly the entire year touring the US, North Europe, and England. Emboldened by the velocity of their UK conquest, fed up with soggy weather and soggier victuals, and with the back-to-basics approach of Punk looming in the middle distance, Ron and Russell (leaving the Brit band behind) cut and ran for the States, determined to make it at home.
Well. While musical revolution was not on the program in any comprehensive way, far more daunting obstacles barricaded US airwaves, namely AOR and MOR. The boys found themselves in a culture-wide musical vacuum. Optimistically speaking, Big Beat (1976) can be regarded as Sparks attempt thoroughly to break the mold of their perceived preciousity. But the albums badass intentions faltered under the disjunction of Babs Streisand producer Rupert Holmes matched to a backing band of NYC pop-punks. More tragically, while the famed wit stayed intact, Rons intricate lyrics and melodies seemed somewhat compromised by the effort to Rock. Things went from cod to odd on 1977s Introducing Sparks, Columbia Records attempt to present Sparks as radio-friendly product. Inflected by the chronic blandness of session musicians, the result became something of an uneasy cross between The Beach Boys and Randy Newman, its good ideas hamstrung by whimsical production. In retrospect, the more intuitive approach of the English band seemed all the more valuable.
Benchmark for electronic music
Once more, though, metamorphosis was in the offing. The Maels had recently been enthralled by the synthetic seductiveness of Donna Summers dancefloor hit I Feel Love, produced by Munichs mastermind of all things bleeping and looping, Giorgio Moroder. In a spectacular example of wish-fulfillment, Sparks and he crossed paths and set about inventing electronica by creating pop with a mechanized sensibility. 1979s Number One in Heaven is regarded as a benchmark in the development of the genre which soon grew into synth-pop and later into dance, trance, and techno. The following year, Terminal Jive added more structure to the mix and yielded the bands biggest success, the 750,000-selling When Im With You.
Boomeranging West again, still yearning for sunshine and something to eat, Ron and Russell moved home to California and smack into the zeitgeist. KROQ-FM, the only LA station that mattered, got hold of 1981s Whomp That Sucker, for which the guys had adopted an LA band appropriately named, in light of the Maels love of all things Hitchcockian and Herrmanian, Bates Motel. KROQ played the hell out of Whomp and its successors, Angst in My Pants (1982) and Sparks in Outer Space,(1983) turning the group into hometown heroes and nearly into national luminaries, prompting the perquisite Saturday Night Live appearance, packed-out tours and a Top 40 hit, not to mention one of their most prolific periods. Despite eventually petering out to a national case of tin ear, the early 80s were kind indeed to Sparks, who wound up as the third most oft-played artists of the decade on their champion station.
Sparks aptly surfed the wave generated in America by the fledgling MTV, which seemed to offer the promise of an audience for more offbeat pop acts; alas, corporate co-option and cheesification quickly undermined these prospects, and the offer was quickly rescinded. These periodic upheavals were by now routine to Ron and Russell, however, who continued gamely on: and following 1984s underrated Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat, they began again to retrench in more experimental territory. Music That You Can Dance To, (1986) in sharp contrast to the surrounding banality, dreamed up a landscape of sonic extremes; and along with 1988s Interior Design, saw their themes becoming more circumspect and emotional, evocative perhaps of the challenges of holding the musical course while navigating a sea of change.
In fact, (notwithstanding the odd single release,) Sparks were virtually to absent themselves from pops radar screen for nearly five years while they courted their perpetual mistress, cinema. Their flirtation with motion pictures stretched back through Russells film school tenure; the making of one of pops first promotional clips in 1974; collaboration with French legend Jacques Tati shortly thereafter; and a string of ingenious videos (not to mention soundtrack contributions) throughout the late 70s and early 80s. They determined to bring a version of Japanese manga comic Mai the Psychic Girl to the screen as a musical, and heavy-hitters like Tim Burton were variously attracted – and attached – to direct. Alas, the only racket flaky as the music business took its typical course, and the brothers entertained progressively less impressive proposals until the project expired, a casualty of studio bankruptcy. Perhaps the more familiar quixoticness was the more rewarding.
Having installed one of the first available in-home configurations of a professional recording studio to make Interior Design, the Maels resumed pop duties purely as a duo, with Russell handling engineering chores and with a little help from some friends. The Scottish collective Finitribe fortuitously proved to be solid Sparks fans and brought the boys to their label for 1993s National Crime Awareness Week, as well as shooting an eerie, mesmerizing promo clip on an admirably spartan budget. The song found the band exploring yet another new tangent, featuring spoken vocals over an aggressively electronic backdrop, reflecting Rons profound appreciation for the incendiary rap of Public Enemy as well as fascination with the sonic opportunities emerging from the burgeoning dance and rave scenes. It brought Sparks resoundingly into the 90s and started the stirrings of an appreciation for their body of work (in England, particularly), as well as the first real comprehension of how truly far-ranging their influence on pop has been. Groups queued up to pay homage; Sparks references began popping up everywhere.
Happily, the boys immediately justified all the attention by concocting an album deserving of the accolades. 1994s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins managed to marry the raw vitality of their dancefloor discoveries to their perpetually sumptuous melodies, trademark witticisms sharing space with ever-evolving emotional gravity. UK critics and audiences raved over the album and supporting tour; more surprisingly, however, the single, When Do I Get to Sing My Way, accumulated sales of over 450,000 in Germany, a country in which the band had had little previous exposure (and had never toured at all.) It was like 1974 all over again; suddenly Teutonic teenagers, completely unaware of the groups two-decade-plus history, couldnt get enough of Sparks.
Energized by this latest burst of recognition, the band aimed the next project at introducing the new fans to the material in their extensive catalogue. In essence a tribute album to themselves, the impeccably named Plagiarism(1998) encompassed a Sparks Greatest Hits of sorts, with the added attraction of the songs engaging and up-to-the-moment reworkings. Lavish orchestrations settled side-by-side with Weillian turns and aggressive electronica, certain enhanced presentations even evoking meanings alternate to the original versions. Longtime enthusiasts Jimmy Somerville, Faith No More and Erasure added texture with guest performances on their favourite Sparks tunes. The album was greeted with numerous and enthusiastic reassessments, and a sold-out, knockout L.A. show brought home the positive vibe.
The 21e Century
And so Sparks headed into the new millennium with their 18th album, Balls. (A single from the album, More Than a Sex Machine, received a positively reviewed airing on WEA Records in 1999.) Their first concert DVD, Live In London, captured not only much of the aggressive Balls spirit, but also showcased many of the Spark classics and the band’s exciting live performance.
2002 saw the band release their genre-defying opus, Lil Beethoven. Their 19th album constantly challenged and pushed the boundaries of smart-pop to a new level. The 9 mini-operettas offered a glimpse of the craft and care that the Maels relish in their recorded works. When Lil Beethoven hit the streets critics lauded and applauded, fans smiled smugly with overdue vindication and fellow musicians wept when faced with the reality that, once again, Sparks had raised the bar by which all other albums should be judged.
The live presentation of Lil Beethoven saw Sparks performing the album in its entirety accompanied by stylized projections. Originally performed in Londons Royal Festival Hall, Sparks went on to perform Lil Beethoven live on two tours taking in The Summerstage in New Yorks Central Park, West Coast America and Europe including the Meltdown Festival and several dates at Stockholms Sodra Teatern where the Lil Beethoven – Live In Stockholm DVD was filmed and subsequently released.
Three years on and Sparks completed work on the latest album Hello Young Lovers which is, quite simply an extraordinary masterpiece. To achieve such enormity and expansiveness Ron and Russell Mael worked in a limitless vacuum for the best part of 18 months. The only inspiration taken from any current music was the provocation to go as far as possible in the opposite direction. When writing and recording Lil Beethoven Sparks broke the rules, but in creating Hello Young Lovers the rule book has been thrown away.
Following superb reviews, Sparks embarked on a European and British tour in February in which Hello Young Lovers was performed in it’s entirety to amazed audiences. The second half of each gig saw the band perform songs from their previous 19 albums,
The summer of 2006 saw Sparks perform, for the very first time, live at festivals all over the world, which included headlining the Big Chill Festival in August. Following these critically acclaimed live performances the band hit the road again and played to their devoted fans throughout the UK and Japan where they completed a profoundly successful year.
When faced with the challenge of what to do next, Ron and Russell have, in the past, not just risen to the challenge but surpassed any expectations.So when asked what plans they had for their 21st album (yes you read it right 21st album) ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ their answer was typically audacious: “How do we best unveil our new album? How about playing in concert every single song off of every album that preceded it, all 20 albums on 20 consecutive nights, culminating in the premiere of our latest? Thats approximately 250 songs, or for you musicians, 4 million, 825 thousand, 273 notes. Come celebrate each and every one of those notes with us!” Sparks, Los Angeles Not many artists can claim to have 21 albums in their repertoire. Very few of those could say that their 21st album is as groundbreaking as their previous work. Only Sparks would have dared to take on this challenge, this mammoth undertaking, this melodious epic, this groundbreaking concept, this celebration of musical greatness past and present.
And still the story hasn’t ended, Album number 22 of Sparks concerns an imagined, fantastical journey of renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Soon after receiving a 1956 Cannes Film Festival award, Bergman steps out of a theatre in Stockholm and finds himself magically transported to Hollywood. Whisked away by a limo driver to a studio, executives try to convince Bergman to relocate to Hollywood to make movies. He resists and ultimately becomes the subject of a stereotypical Hollywood chase scene before ending up… well, it’s best to avoid spoilers.
This being a musical, the songs aren’t designed to function on their own—a refreshing approach in our iTunes world, but one that slightly obscures the strength of individual songs. Russell Mael’s falsetto remains intact after all these years, and the band seemingly references their own discography at various points. “Mr. Bergman, How Are You?” offers cock-rock shades of 1982’s Angst In My Pants and “Autograph Hounds” gleefully dips into electro a lá 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven. These moments offer delightful points of departure amidst the prevailing orchestral flourishes and act as sly winks to fans, each with their favorite era of Sparks in mind.
The band’s own Lil’ Beethoven Records will initially release the album on double vinyl and digital download only, and they hope to bring the musical to the stage at some point in the future.
At this very moment sparks are on a repeating world tour. After the first in 2012 “two hands one mouth” was such a success, they immidiatly started another “the revenge of two hands one mouth” both times the brothers perform their work without any support of a band. Why should they, the two of them are as brilliant as it can get.
To be continued………