Sundance 2021 Composer Spotlight: Sparks
Film: The Sparks Brothers
Everyone's got one. Every music lover's heart burns with a searing sense of injustice that one favorite artist isn't sufficiently widely adored, aggrieved that they are denied their rightful place in the pantheon, routinely relegated to a footnote by hessian-eared historians. An artist about whom they evangelize, and of whom they make mixtapes for deserving friends who just might 'get' them. An artist who, should they encounter a fellow fan, becomes the subject of intense discussion for hours, to the bafflement of onlookers.
For me, and for thousands, Sparks are the ultimate “why aren't they huge?” band. In any sane universe, academic studies would be devoted to Ron and Russell Mael, as they are to Dylan, Bowie or The Beatles. Municipal buildings and parks would be named after them. Statues would be erected in their honor. In the mind of the convert, Sparks are that significant.
It's a mismatch the band themselves address in the gorgeously elegiac “When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'?,” a song which tacitly acknowledged Sparks' unfair exclusion from the Hall of Fame. To paraphrase Sunset Boulevard – and Sparks are, in many ways, a very Sunset Boulevard band - Sparks are big. It's pop that got small.
It would be untrue to say that Sparks have never experienced success. It's just that they've never had a prolonged period of it, in any one place. Their triumphs have been sporadic and episodic. Sparks pop up here and there like musical Zeligs, gracing and enlivening the popular cultures of assorted countries at separate times. Their seventies UK breakthrough with the exuberant Kimono My House. The Swedes falling for the Art Deco charms of Indiscreet just when the British lost faith. The Moroder-produced electronic resurgence. “When I'm With You,” little-known in Britain but a smash in France and Australia, becoming their biggest selling single to date. “I Predict” and “Cool Places” restoring them to the American charts after a decade's absence. “When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'” bringing them back to the UK Top 40 and the German Top 10. Another return to the British charts with Franz Ferdinand collaboration FFS, also a seller in Netherlands and Germany. And Hippopotamus surprising everyone by hitting the UK Top 10 for the first time in 43 years. These sudden resurgences are Sparks' unique lot in life. Therefore, the perception of Sparks, from any one country, will never be the full picture. For example, if you're British and previously thought the eighties were Sparks' wilderness years, just listen to 1988's insanely catchy “Singing in the Shower,” a one-off collaboration with French eccentrics Les Rita Mitsouko, and try getting it out of your head.
“We're always re-convincing people over and over again” Russell told BAM magazine in 1983. In short, if one country isn't listening to Sparks, another usually is. With luck, they'll catch you at the right place and moment. Just as they did with me. You never forget the moment you were Sparksed.
Popular music can play myriad tricks on human emotions. It can inspire love or lust. It can offer solace and succor. It can provide cathartic release, or catalyze revolt. And, sometimes, it can even cause terror. Such was my own reaction, aged 11, when I first saw Sparks on Top of the Pops. The year was 1979, the single was “Beat the Clock”, and I was transfixed.
Oh, there was a singer. He was hyperactive, and he repeated the title in a high, histrionic voice. I registered that much, in my peripheral vision. But my attention was focused on the keyboardist. Ron Mael was immobile, catatonic almost, like a Komodo dragon in the sun waiting for passing prey. Apart, that is, from his fingertips, jabbing at the keys in time with the gleaming synth stabs which propelled the song. And, crucially, his eyes, which would swivel suddenly and stare at you down the camera with a blood-chillingly sinister leer, attacking the Fourth Wall in a way which made you pray it had built-in prison bars. "The only reason I adopt that act on stage,” Ron once told Nick Kent, “is because I've always been intrigued with the idea of upstaging someone with the minimal amount possible.”
The menacing effect was completed by the toothbrush mustache covering his philtrum, frequently compared, I would later learn, to either Hitler or Chaplin, or both. As a summary of Ron Mael's persona, I would discover that, duality was perfect: horror plus comedy, not only in the same human being but above the same upper lip. Whole essays could be written about Ron's mustache alone.
Instead of either Hitler or Chaplin, I kept thinking of Dr Crippen, the Victorian serial killer whose wax likeness I'd recently seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's. No apparition on a screen - neither the Daleks nor The Child Catcher - had unsettled me quite like Ron Mael on Top of the Pops. But here's a funny fact about children: when they're scared of something, they're sometimes compelled to move towards it. I bought the single, and never looked back.
Were I five years older, my initial exposure to that double act - the impassive and the impassioned - might have been “This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us,” the song which precipitated what Ron would later lyrically characterize as “those Crackerjack years,” that brief and improbable interlude when the Maels were neck and neck with the Bay City Rollers and David Essex in the affections of Fab 208, Look-In and Jackie-reading screamagers, and Russell would have chunks of his hair torn out by fans, leaving bandmates hospitalized in the crush. “This Town” is one of those rare hit singles which immaculately describes itself, not once but twice (first with “Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat” then “The thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers”). But my discovery of Sparks' past was still in the future. What I beheld, right then, was this irreducible and arresting spectacle, impossible to process, compute or assimilate. Which, I would learn, was always, and will always be, Sparks' role.
The reasons to cherish Sparks are manifold (This, indeed, may be their undoing: the impossibility of pinning them down). For one thing, they've always been innovators. In the early seventies, they – more than anyone else with the possible exception of Roxy Music - pioneered Art Rock. In the late seventies they explored the verboten possibilities of electronic disco, and invented the synth duo. In the eighties they finessed smart New Wave pop when everyone else was still playing catch-up. In the nineties, ever forward-looking, they embraced techno and Europop, but also found novel ways of recharging their own back catalogue. In the 21st century they pioneered the electronic opera, wrote a radio musical, and found out what happens when you weld two Art Rock bands of different generations together. And they aren't finished with us yet: at the time of writing, not one but two ambitious cinematic/musical projects are in the pipeline.
For all their reinventions, there are, however, common threads throughout their career. Sparks are truly, as John Peel famously said of The Fall, “always different and always the same.” One repeated trope is Ron Mael's method of taking a minor human situation and swelling it, both lyrically and musically to the point of preposterousness: not so much Reductio Ad Absurdum as Augmentum Ad Absurdum. One example is 2006's “Dick Around,” in which a highly motivated man's slump into indolence following a break-up is given a sense of quasi-Wagnerian import. Another example came a full 32 years earlier.
“This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us” itself - let's tackle the (stampeding) elephant in the room - possesses simply one of the greatest pop lyrics of all time. The opening verse's non-sequitur from the mammals at the zoo to “and you want her tonight” recalls the switch in Jimmy Webb's “Wichita Lineman,” from the mundanity of the telephone engineer's day job to “I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time.” Like many Sparks songs, perhaps a numerical majority, “This Town” is effectively a mini-movie in audio form (it's no coincidence that both Maels studied cinema at UCLA), complete with ricocheting gunshots and Russell's approximation of a Wilhelm Scream. It evokes, in turn, Westerns and war movies: the suitor's determination to succeed in his quest implicitly compared both to a Wild West shootout and the bombing of Hiroshima.
Secondly, there's the reverse trick, in which genuine life-or-death situations are given a queasily jaunty musical context. The deceptively cheery, radio-friendly “Funny Face,” for example, in which a blandly beautiful woman tires of her symmetrical perfection and throws herself from a bridge in order to add character to her features. Or “Here in Heaven,”in which two lovers strike a suicide pact but only one goes through with it.
Thirdly, there are also the more conventional cases where form perfectly matches content. There's no finer example than “Change,” their mid-eighties masterpiece. Listen to the heartbreaking shift in modes between disconsolate divorcé Russell's spoken Film Noir monologue (“The rain is falling down/And I feel like a dog that’s been kicked out into the street/I know that dogs can’t drive cars/But that’s about the only difference between us now...”) to the optimism of his rhapsodic sung parts (“There's a rainbow over the freeway/And I think I feel the morning sun/Another song is Number One/Golden days have just begun”), like sunlight piercing through the clouds. It's all set against dramatic Trevor Horn-style whizzbangs from Ron's Fairlight CMI which complement, rather than contradict, the message, like musical Pathetic Fallacy.
Purely as a lyricist, Ron Mael has few equals. A scattering of favorite excerpts would also need to include the verse in “Beat the Clock,” that wry comedy of precociousness, when Russell sings “Too bad there ain’t 10 of you/Then I’d show you what I’d do/I could cheat on five of you/And be faithful to you, too/But there’s only one of you...” It would also have to include the moment in “Something for the Girl with Everything,” Sparks' rebooting of The Twelve Days of Christmas, when he warns “Careful, careful with that crate/You wouldn't want to dent Sinatra...”). And the couplet in “National Crime Awareness Week,” an apparent missive from a Ripper-style murderer flattered by media attention, in which he taunts the chief of police with “I'll put it to you this way, I love the headlines: Unknown Caucasian Strikes One More Time.” Not forgetting “Amateur Hour,” with its droll depiction of clumsy sexual awakenings: "It's a lot like playing the violin/You can't start off and be Yehudi Menuhin..."
Critics will forgive many things, but rarely an artist who is demonstrably cleverer than themselves. In 1895, Oscar Wilde pre-emptively defended The Importance of Being Earnest by explaining that “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” 80 years later, this could have functioned more than adequately as a mission statement for Sparks, whose playfulness, wit and frivolity was often mistaken for shallowness. Sparks, it was repeatedly hinted, were too clever for their own good.
On this charge, Ron Mael was unrepentant. "These days nobody's primitive,” he told NME's James Johnson, “and l don't think you can set out and pretend you are. Once you've lost your innocence, you can't go back. If we tried a naive approach, it would come off really contrived so we really make contrived songs so it's eventually less contrived."
Allied to this unashamed intellectualism was Sparks' overt and implacable refusal to conform to rock'n'roll cliché. Amid the excess, debauchery and ostentatious outrage of seventies rock, Sparks were dignified, genteel, and civilized. Guitarist Adrian Fisher soon learned that the Maels' opposition to rockist cliché was serious when, during rehearsals, he stuck a lit cigarette on the end of a guitar string, and was told in no uncertain terms that Sparks were not that type of band.
Lyrically, Sparks defied the imperative that serious songwriters needed to bare their souls and externalize personal demons. Ron Mael disliked “the tortured artist syndrome.” Sparks songs were implicitly third-person, once-removed. Nothing was autobiography. Their "real" selves were none of our business.
Vocally, Russell Mael escaped the bonds of his own gender. Although generally singing from a male point of view, he did so in a manner which vaporized gender divides(Morrissey, a noted early devotee who famously collected a half-eaten bread roll from Sparks' breakfast table, initially mistook Russell's voice for that of a woman). His is a voice that’s constantly on the edge of helium hysteria, not so much a falsetto as a natural castrato, if that's not an oxymoron. "I have no screech threshold;” he told Trouser Press in 1981. “I can go way up."
They even rebelled against their own nationality. Long-time Anglophiles (they'd grown up loving The Who and The Kinks), they were also Europhiles more broadly. In 1994, when I asked them to choose their ten favorite tracks for Melody Maker's Rebellious Jukebox section, three were French, two Italian and one Belgian. Writer Taylor Parkes described Sparks as "a straight, American band, with a gay European aesthetic." Another wag called them “the best British band to come out of America.” Decades after the fact, Ron would confirm that Sparks spent the seventies attempting to “rebel against being from LA.”
Almost uniquely among their seventies peers, Sparks succeeded in excising every trace of the blues, therefore America, from their music. Instead, Ron Mael's songwriting drew upon classical music, the mannered operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan, and the Weimar cabaret of Brecht & Weill. In the midst of boogie-based Glam Rock, Sparks were the Lieder of the Gang.
Sparks' un-American activities reached a pinnacle in 1979. Ron and Russell had been impressed by the shuddering futurism of Donna Summer's “I Feel Love,” and a German journalist put them in touch with its Italian producer Giorgio Moroder. The resulting album, No. 1 In Heaven (1979), was groundbreaking. Just six tracks long (as per Moroder's established modus operandi) and entirely synthesizer-based, it was a stunning work of electro-disco which included the sublime “Number One Song in Heaven” and the aforementioned “Beat the Clock.” The Maels were zealous about their new anti-guitar stance. In an interview, Ron railed against rockism: “any band that has got a guitarist is just a joke.”
Critics, apoplectic with Disco Sucks outrage, were uncomprehending. Melody Maker's Tony Rayns called No. 1 In Heaven “pathetic,” Trouser Press's Ira Robbins called it “fruitless,” and NME's Ian Penman got it spectacularly wrong by arguing that “Moroder's production is essentially irrelevant.” But a whole generation of musicians understood. No. 1 In Heaven-era Sparks laid the template for every synth-based duo of the eighties – Soft Cell, Yazoo, Associates, Yello, Blancmange, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure – as well as any arty New Wave act who wanted to embrace electronica and disco.
Russell saw this coming. "Just wait six months from now,” he told Melody Maker's Harry Doherty, “and watch all of the new-wave, synthesizer, disco bands which will be popping up, and disco music becoming very respectable in hip circles. And then somebody else will capitalize on what we've done.”
Of course, if Sparks had influenced literally no-one, their value would remain undiminished. Their legacy is not a list of other bands who owe them a debt: it's their own still-evolving body of work. But they are an observable and (mostly) acknowledged influence on successive generations of artists including Depeche Mode, New Order, Pulp, Suede, Morrissey, Siouxsie, The Darkness, Faith No More and The Human League.
There is no traditional bell curve in quality with Sparks, no simplistic rise and fall. My personal favorite Sparks longplayers – Indiscreet (1975), No. 1 In Heaven (1979), Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994), Lil' Beethoven (2002) – are dotted randomly across their timeline, and the same is probably true of any devotee, albeit with completely different albums (and there are 25 from which to choose).
If proof were needed of Sparks' unfailing excellence, one has merely to consider 2017's Hippopotamus, whose chart success was no fluke. Sales of Hippopotamus - not only their first Top 10 album for decades but their first with a major label since 1994 and their first with a full band since 2008 - were driven by sheer quality, not by sentimental affection for artpop's elder statesmen. The FFS collaboration had reignited the Maels' love of the three-minute pop song, and inspired them to deliver a record which was, with Ron's symphonic arrangements and staccato piano, Russell's heavenly falsetto, and the usual lyrical wit and back-references to popular culture (“Edith Piaf Said It Better Than Me” being this album's “When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?”), quite simply classic Sparks. As Russell put it at the time, “We wanted an album that would excite someone with no knowledge of the band as much as a fan who discovered us in our earlier periods. A distillation of everything that is Sparks.” Hippopotamus accomplished that mission in style. It's literally impossible to think of any other artist who could deliver an album that good, that late.
In 2019, the career-spanning collection Past Tense provided a near-perfect beginners' guide to the duo's oeuvre. They enter the 2020s, however, not merely as a venerated heritage act basking lazily in the glow of former glories, but as two men with an intense work ethic. This year alone sees a new studio album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, a UK and European tour, not one but two ambitious film projects in the pipeline, and an eagerly-anticipated Sparks documentary by Shaun of the Dead/Baby Driver director Edgar Wright.
The career of Ron and Russell Mael is an immaculate lesson in how to stay consistently interesting for 50 years. Perhaps the best policy, for the rankled fan, is to make peace with the injustice. After all, Sparks are still here, still creating superb work.
Mother Earth may frequently turn her back. Sparks are always the Number One Band In Heaven.
Simon Price, 2020