GENIUSES IN FOOL’S CLOTHING
By Madeline Bocaro ©
After more than a quarter century as musical manipulators, nobody in the business has formally paid Sparks homage. It almost seems that people are ashamed to admit they like something as deviant, innovative, diverse, clever and fun-loving as Sparks. As a young fan in the 1970’s, Morrissey raved about them in his letters published in the British press. Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Pet Shop Boys, Bjork and Erasure all admit to a strong Sparks influence. However, there are numerous other records which would have been drastically different had Sparks not left America for Europe in 1972 to become a subliminal, steadfast, non-conformist fixture on the worldwide pop music scene, crossing over and reinventing every musical style imaginable across three decades. And this from two anglophiles who unwittingly heralded Britpop twenty years early!
Sparks’ music is as fun as the Marx Brothers on a romp through Disneyland — about thirty minutes of music and lyrics compressed into three-minute songs. Complementing Sparks’ image and charm, their songs have a speedy Gilbert & Sullivan like quality – mini pop operettas complete with intricate melodies, overlooked historical characters and wise, insightful and amusing lyrics about odd subjects.
In the 70’s, Sparks’ elaborate songs, mostly penned by Ron Mael, were sung in a high flawless falsetto by his younger brother Russell, quickly and articulately over a fast infectious beat, unpredictable keyboards and driving guitars, which defined Sparks’ 70’s sound. You either loved Sparks or hated them. Most Americans have never heard of them since their biggest successes were in Europe. Ron Mael once said, “You need six feet to dance to our music.” Whenever he wrote a great song he would sarcastically say, “All of our three fans are gonna love this!” Back then, having only three fans and some groupies meant more to Sparks than having millions. Despite their elitist attitude, they’re still around. Sparks’ early fans were into Roxy Music, early Bowie, and Glam rock. Their new fans are into Britpop, Morrissey, Pulp, Bjork, Placebo and the like, and have no idea that Sparks have such a long history.
After fifteen diverse albums recorded with a succession of efficient, yet dispensable musicians, Ron and Russell Mael went solo in 1994 with the addition of a female drummer. Their most recent hit was in Germany, the dance single “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” (from the album Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins). German teens thought Sparks were a new band. Hence their 1997 album Plagiarism, a means to introduce their new German fans to Sparks’ long and incomparable history. The album, jam-packed with nineteen tracks, spans their 20 year catalogue. Plagiarism is the ultimate covers album. It’s Sparks paying tribute to themselves, and why not? Sure, countless other bands should have, and eventually would have done it, but the Mael brothers are the perfect guys for the job. In fact, they auditioned themselves just to be sure!
The Beginning: Half A Nelson Is Better Than None The mysterious Mael brothers like to bend the truth. Doris Day is not their mother, and neither is Julie Andrews. Ron & Russell Mael were born and raised in L.A., modeled for clothing catalogs as children and attended UCLA studying art and film. The brothers’ main interests have always been music, movies and food! Most of their interviews with the press, usually conducted in cafes or patisseries, inevitably turn to the subject of cuisine. After decades of consuming countless delicacies in massive quantities and dreams of opening their own restaurant, Ron and Russ manage to remain pop-star slender. Ron Mael admits to a former job as an ice cream truck driver. He had nightmares about being found dead in the truck with that annoying jingle playing over and over again. They are both quite charming, unique and worldly guys who must have been European in a former life.
The brothers are influenced by the films of Jacques Tati, Fellini, Orson Welles and Tsui Hark, the music of Serge Gainsbourg, the Beach Boys, The Seeds, Peggy Lee and the Shangri-Las, the style of Isabelle Adjani, and the allure of kitsch. They admired the eccentricity of others, and incorporated this into their own sound and style. They gained a reputation as outlandish characters when in reality, Ron and Russell couldn’t be more normal, and therein lies their charm. Their classically honed schtick has proved to be quite convincing on-stage. It’s the old simple show biz approach; the straight man and the comic – it never fails.
After a brief live stint as Urban Renewal Project, the Maels formed a new band in 1970, committing commercial suicide before recording their first note by calling it Halfnelson, after a wrestling hold. Both handsome charismatic brothers had long, curly hair, and Ron already had his trademark Hitler moustache and maniacal stare. John Mendelsohn joined them on drums, Earle Mankey played guitar, and Russell doubled on vocals and bass. They produced an acetate, containing the strangest recorded sounds ever made – supposedly the result of the Mael brothers emulating their idols, the early Who and the Kinks (whose clever lyrics were sung over a powerful, thrashing sound). The result was none too similar, but it sounded fine to the Maels.
The acetate, financed by manager Mike Berns was a complete album. It included twelve songs, only two of which (“Roger” and “Saccharine and the War”) in completely different versions, later appeared on the Halfnelson LP. The subjects ranged from an evasive landlady, and women competing for a prize at a crafts fair, to a song about Jason’s Grill where a moose, a dog, a mouse and a deer appear at the door and startle the dining patrons. Everyone drops their burgers in panic and suspense as the moose simply asks for change of a quarter. The only reason these tracks resembled psychedelia is because they sounded like the band members were on acid. The debacle here is that they were not. One hundred copies were pressed and sent to American record labels, and collecting rejection notices became the band’s favourite pastime.
Todd Rundgren was convinced by his girlfriend (Miss Christine of the GTO’s — whose affair with Russell probably slightly swayed her opinion of their music) to produce the Halfnelson LP for Bearsville Records. Actually, Todd liked the strange four song demo he received, and when he flew to Hollywood to meet them, was enamoured by the live show the band performed just for him, complete with props and canned applause. The final Halfnelson lineup consisted of Russell on vocals, Ron on keyboards, brothers Earle and Jim Mankey on guitar and bass, and drummer Harley Feinstein. The band’s name and album’s title upon re-release in February of 1971 were both changed to Sparks, prompted by Bearsville’s Albert Grossman. (He’d originally suggested the Marx Brothers). “Wonder Girl” hit #1 in Montgomery County, Alabama. The band played at Mormon dances, high schools and delicatessens across America, and a stint at L.A’s Whiskey A Go Go.
Bearsville’s bio on the band begins, “Mostly, Sparks are somewhere else entirely.” It prophetically continues, “American Bandstand will never hold them. Instead, someone will have to resurrect Ready, Steady, Go. That “somewhere else” turned out to be England.
In late 1971, Sparks played live in the US (five nights at Max’s Kansas City was their New York debut) and the UK, made more TV appearances and gained a substantial following . A performance clip of “Wonder Girl” on Hits A Go Go (Germany) shows a mischievous rivalry between pretty boys Russell Mael and Earle Mankey, who was also quite a poseur. Ron straddled the borderline between glamour and parody (the latter soon prevailed) with his moustache and mascara. Sparks performed “Wonder Girl” on American Bandstand.
A second album for Bearsville, A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing followed in March, 1972 produced by the Electric Prunes’ singer, James Lowe. Lowe had also engineered their debut LP and had worked with Todd Rundgren in the Nazz. Even less commercial than the unconventional first album, it was decided that no U.S. single would be released from Woofer, the first in a succession of senseless marketing strategies that were to plague Sparks throughout their career, though some of them were surely deliberate. “Wonder Girl” from the first LP was released instead, although their new cover of “Do-Re-Mi” would have sufficed. Sparks appeared on the UK’s Old Grey Whistle Test to great acclaim. Queen supported Sparks’ headlining gig at London’s Marquee, and obviously carried away some of their infectious influence. But back in the states, their manager regretted that there was nothing more he could do for the band. Then, upon Island Records’ show of interest in Ron and Russell, the U.S. band members were left behind and the Maels moved to England.
London Calling Returning to England in 1973 at the crescendo of the Glam Rock era, Sparks placed an ad in Melody Maker for new band members with a preference for those who “possess sleek appearance”. They found drummer Dinky Diamond in a pub band playing Sparks cover tunes! Martin Gordon and Adrian Fisher joined on bass and guitar in the recording of the new album, although this unit never performed live. A three month tour of the UK, Switzerland and Holland followed with two new band members, Ian Hampton and Trevor White. John Hewlett (of John’s Children) became their tour manager.
Ron now sported a new look, which was the opposite of Russell’s pop star image. With hair cut shorter than your dad’s, bedecked in neat trousers and a starched white shirt and tie, Ron portrayed the antithesis of rock n’ roll, a confusing semblance indeed, with his Chaplin moustache still intact. He admits to having once owned silk trousers and high heeled boots, but felt like an idiot wearing them. In his opinion, “Clothes make the man warmer, they don’t necessarily make the man.” The brothers’ visual polarity made them pin-up faves in all the British teen mags.
The next LP was with a new label (Island Records) and a new producer (Muff Winwood). The first single from Kimono My House, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” hit #2 in the UK after being performed live on Top Of The Pops. Sparks became instant darlings and teen idols. The song has since been covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees (1987), and in a duet between Sparks and Faith No More (1997). But it’s greatest success was in a 1999 UK car advert. For the Kimono tour, Ian Hampton and second guitarist Trevor White (both former members of the UK band Jook) replaced bassist Gordon. With songs about Albert Einstein’s parents (a twist on the theory of “relativity”), language barriers (“Hasta Manana Monsieur”), a stood-up date at the “Equator” and about narcissism (“Falling In Love With Myself Again”), it couldn’t go wrong! The Brits embraced Sparks as their own. UK’s Sounds wrote, “It’s got the musical extravagance of Wizzard, the sophisticated feel of Roxy and the menacing power of the Third Reich.” NME called it, “An instant classic.” The Kimono album reached the UK top 10. It’s second single, a manual for teenage sexploits, “Amateur Hour” rose to #7. Sparks’ live performances caused mass audience hysteria. Disney tunes were played before each gig, firing up the teens who tore at Russell’s clothing during every show.
The same lineup recorded Propaganda, released in 1974. The album’s sleeve launched a succession of hilarious cover shots, presenting the frail Mael brothers in extraordinary predicaments, usually helplessly victimized in some way. Here they are abducted, bound and gagged at the back of a speeding boat, and on the back cover, held hostage in the rear of a car. Despite the Maels’ intentions to take a completely new direction ignoring the successful formula of Kimono, it segued right into Propaganda. The two albums were like a pair of bookends. Songs were sung in varied narratives; the voices of animals left off of Noah’s ark (“Bon Voyage”), a kid who likes taking candy from strangers but can’t understand why he shouldn’t (“Thanks But No Thanks”), a girlfriend being bribed by abundant eccentric gifts to keep her from divulging incriminating information (“Something For The Girl With Everything”). 1974 brought Sparks four hits in the UK top twenty within nine months (the UK singles from these two albums all contained non-LP B-sides), and their first Bearsville LP was reissued. Another successful live UK tour followed, and a subsequent U.S. tour found wildly appreciative audiences.
Ron and Russell appear in the midst of a small plane wreck on the cover of 1975’s Indiscreet, produced by Tony Visconti (of Bowie and T-Rex fame) who still heralds it as one of his favourite records. This album was highly unique and uncommercial even for UK standards, and didn’t fare well. However, its brilliance is still recognized today by fans. Strings and orchestral flourishes lend a polished classicism to Sparks’ steadfast lyrical mayhem, a contradiction if there ever was one. A march, a hoe-down and a minuet are sprinkled among authentic 1930’s swing and some genuine Sparks rockers. It heeded Sparks’ motto, “Expect the unexpected.” For their performance of “Looks, Looks, Looks” on Top of the Pops, Ron appeared in a tuxedo wearing blackface and a relentless, deviant smile. The hysteria of their third British tour was captured on film at the Fairfield Halls gig. Europe and Sweden were also conquered. So what did the Mael brothers do? They exercised their bad marketing intellect, fired their band and moved back home to America. Whenever the boys were on a successful path, they would veer off the paved road onto one more treacherous. It was as if their brains were implanted with self-destructive computer chips, programming them to do things the hard way. Although the Maels strove for success, it had to be on their own explicit terms. In many ways, their blind faith paid off.
Meanwhile, Back in the States… 1976 yielded Big Beat — Sparks’ American “rock n’ roll” album, again with a completely different band and their final record for Island. Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson was considered for the album and had rehearsed with Sparks, but this collaboration never materialized. Some considered Big Beat to be Sparks’ stab at punk rock, however, it’s sleekness and crisp, clean production by Rupert Holmes (of Barbra Streisand fame) was far too pretty for punk. Yet most of the songs rocked, and provided fantastic live material. Ronald abandoned his Roland for a grand piano on the album and tour. Sparks’ severely edited live performance of two Big Beat songs appears in the dismal Sensurround film Rollercoaster, released in 1977. Holmes also produced an orchestral arrangement of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for a single with Russell on vocals (Marianne Faithful bowed out of a duet project), which only saw European release.
In 1977, Introducing Sparks (Columbia) was recorded with yet another batch of hired musicians to little fanfare. The result sounded like the Beach Boys had stayed out in the sun too long and gotten their brains fried. nonetheless, there are some gems here, and the promotional videos were quite cute.
The Next Phase By 1979, rock music had become more synthesized and Euro-flavoured, ever since the Giorgio Moroder produced Donna Summer hit, “I Feel Love” (1977) inspired experimentation within dance music. This was usually reserved for New Age or Jazz, but Ron and Russell envisioned that pop could be electrified as well. Sparks’ ground breaking No. 1 In Heaven LP (Virgin Records, UK) was the joint effort of the Maels and Giorgio Moroder. (Twenty years later, the title track was gloriously re-worked on Plagiarism)! Ron expanded his keyboard repertoire by utilizing the Yamaha DX-7 and a Fairlight Roland JP-8. The lyrics were about fast-paced society (“Beat The Clock”), the first song you would hear in heaven (their own “No. 1 Song In Heaven” of course, which peaked at #14 on earth), and Sparks even gave a voice to those down trodden armies of sperm cells in “Tryouts For the Human Race,” mixing sexuality and science with a disco beat. Russell’s soaring falsetto vocals prevailed over the new synthesized Sparks sound.
Perhaps Sparks’ thought-provoking lyrics and shifting rhythms were too complex for the mindless dancing masses. Ultimately, the result of Sparks’ stab at disco only remotely resembled the redundant genre. Russell told Melody Maker in 1979, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a disco!” Their special peculiarity predominated and a new form emerged, providing Sparks with two more UK hits. They performed “Beat The Clock” on Top Of The Pops, which made the top 10. Although many singles were issued from the album, it did not chart well, peaking at #73 for one week only.
Years later, Blondie would collaborate with Moroder on their smash hit “Call Me.” New bands emerged in the UK as if on cue; Duran Duran, Human League, Gary Numan, Spandau Ballet. First labeled New Romantic, this sound translated in the U.S. as New Wave. European bands were now successful on American radio. Sparks, of course, still were not.
The Maels began to seek out collaborators whom they admired, and also discovered new talents to produce. The first was a singer named Noel. To date, the Maels have worked with Les Rita Mitsouko (France), Canadian acts Lio and Bijou, Japan’s Salon Music, Scotland’s Finitribe, Adrian Munsey for C’est Sheep” (a parody of Chic’s “C’est Chic,”) the Ramones, Cheap Trick, The Go-Go’s, Erasure, Telex, film directors Jacques Tati and Tsui Hark, Jimmy Sommerville, and Faith No More.
A New Wave Sparks rode the new wave of the 80’s with Terminal Jive, also with Moroder producing. This was their least personal favorite LP since Ron didn’t even play the keyboard bits – it was strictly the producer’s “baby”. Moroder carefully selected the songs for an American market, yet the album was never released in the states. In October, 1980 the lyrically simplistic single “When I’m With You” hit #1 in France and held that spot for six weeks. It was Sparks biggest selling record, however it went unnoticed in the UK.
Whomp That Sucker (May, 1980) picked up with a fast-paced new-wave sound produced by Moroder protegee Mack, utilizing the Bates Motel band. The single, “Tips For Teens” got airplay in their home town of L.A., prompting three sold out gigs at the Whiskey.
With their focus now on America, Angst In My Pants (Atlantic Records) and an appearance on Saturday Night Live garnered airplay with “I Predict” in 1982. Returning to a rockier, guitar oriented sound imbued with danceability, Angst was their first U.S. top 100 album. Sparks supported Rick Springfield on his U.S. tour and headlined some club dates of their own. Ron, the mysterious, deadpan figure (usually firmly planted behind his keyboards) now began to nurture his inner child, which emerged in a scary, full drag strip-tease in the David Lynch directed “I Predict” video (not a pretty sight), in a wedding gown on the album’s cover and in several quirky stage routines including a wacky shuffle and tap dance, and a mime to Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” with a stuffed toy dog. Things were looking up!
In 1983, the video for the single “Cool Places” (a duet with former Go-Go Jane Weidlin) from In Outer Space aired on MTV, making this LP their best selling record in the U.S. Electronics and a dancier beat crept back in to Sparks’ sound. Ron appears pie-faced on the album cover, and suffered more creamy ka-reemings throughout the video. Songs were also recorded for movie soundtracks; Fright Night, Heavenly Bodies, Get Crazy, Bad Manners and Where The Boys Are.
The self-produced Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat, Sparks’ final album for Atlantic, yielded a few minor American dance chart hits in 1984. It’s cover with Ron manipulating a Russell puppet was classic. On Sparks’ third American Bandstand appearance, Ron wrestled the microphone from Dick Clark and did a stunning parody of the host. Clark later sent Ron a letter saying, “Thank you for having me on your show!”
A stray single was released in the UK in June, 1985. “Change” was a complete musical contained in one song with at least seven movements and elaborate orchestrations. Purposely evocative of the Shangri La’s “Past, Present, Future” it was a Mael masterpiece, backed with an acoustic version of “This Town…” The single surprisingly failed, and the brothers were gravely disappointed.
In 1986, Music That You Can Dance To (Curb) brought another uneventful U.S. tour. Interior Design (Fine Art) reverted to Sparks’ pop roots in 1988. Five years later a lone single appeared, opening with the horrific shrieking strings heard during the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. In “National Crime Awareness Week” a criminal feels celebrated to have a week named in his honour. The Maels had taken a five year hiatus from music to work on a soundtrack for an animated Japanese film called Mai the Psychic Girl. To date, the film has not been released. Upon their return after this long silence, the Maels found some of music’s current luminaries and producers asking to work with them.
A New Beginning Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (Logic) was their first album of the 90’s. A whole new Sparks sound emerged, incorporating danceable synth tinged grooves and deranged subject matter with electronica. It deviates from techno in that its repetitive sequences are more Phillip Glass than Chemical Brothers. The album is jam packed with celebrity name-dropping (Liberace, Scarlett O’Hara, Frank Sinatra, Sid Vicious, Rupert Murdoch, Charlie Parker, Charles Dickens, and Hillary Clinton all share the spotlight) and celebrity guest, Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark has a song of his own. The album was a smash in Germany, and their 1994 live gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in the UK was attended by rock’s past and present dignitaries (including Bernard Butler of Suede joining them for the encore). It was heralded by critics as the best UK show of the decade.
In 1997, Plagiarism started out as a tribute album, but it became Sparks’ own tribute to themselves. Collaborations with Erasure (“Amateur Hour”), Jimmy Sommerville (“No. 1 Song In Heaven”) and Faith No More (“This Town…” and “Something For the Girl with Everything”) made it onto the album, but others did not, for various reasons. For the remaining re-workings of Sparks tunes, the Maels hired a fifteen piece string ensemble as their backing band, arranged by Tony Visconti (producer of 1975’s Indiscreet). The results were the ultimate exercise in self indulgence, which only Sparks can pull off with style. Live gigs were sparse, only two in the UK in 1997, and a triumphant gig in their home town L.A. in 1998. The Maels also scored the film Knock Off starring Jean Claude Van Damme
Various CD collections have been compiled in different countries, most notably Profile, Rhino’s double retrospective set, and Island’s UK re-issues of their masters, with b-side bonus tracks. All of Sparks’ albums are available on CD except for Introducing Sparks which is still owned by Columbia. Hopefully, new fans will search out the older albums and give them a listen. And hopefully, Ron and Russell will open a restaurant one day soon.
Special thanks to Russell Mael, Frank Famiglietti, JoAnn Solders and Lisa Gitter.