If there’s a band that’s a larger conundrum than Sparks, I challenge you to name them.
There’s a reason to say this without equivocation because, honestly, my own experience and grasp of the Mael brothers and their oeuvre has always remained just beyond my reach to express. I’ve interviewed the gnomic siblings from Los Angeles at least four times, and only once (when commissioned to write the sleeve notes for their third Island label album, Indiscrete) did I feel I got anywhere near the real soul of the pair. Usually the questions which I thought so incisive and understanding of their frankly unclassifiable music, bounced off them like golf balls flung at some cultural Godzilla.
During one email Q&A I was asked whether I’d even unwrapped the new CD and listened to it (I had: about 20 times. And there aren’t many bands I would ever do that for). Sent their last album (the live Two Hands One Mouth) I got about two-thirds through a review and just gave up.
The problem is not only that absolutely no one else sounds like Sparks, it’s that even they, throughout their 40-year plus career, haven’t sounded like themselves, constantly shifting, reinventing and morphing into something entirely different. A bit like David Bowie split into two, and with a better sense of humour.
If you WERE to try and identify their consistent elements it would, of course, be the moustache of Ron Mael, the falsetto of Russell Mael, the sardonic, ironic, witty (no, HILARIOUS) and uber intelligent lyrics… And the great tunes. Beyond that, it all depends on which point of their existence you joined the Sparks train ride: the glam punch of their earliest albums; the proto techno of their Giorgio Moroder phase; the minimal classicism of the last decade? It all bears repeated scrutiny and luckily for me (otherwise why would I even be bothering here) it’s all contained in their new compilation, about to be unleashed for the Xmas market: New Music For Amnesiacs.
Following the release of their hefty box of the ENTIRE back catalogue, Music For Amnesiacs, this ‘greatest hits’ (or, more accurately Biggest Hits from an Alternative Universe) cherry picks obvious highlights (ie: the actual hits – possibly more than you remember or know about) while presenting any listener with the almost impossible job of reconciling such an odd, disjointed collection as coming from the minds of the same two men.
Sure, as stated, we have the wit and that voice to remind us that it could only be Sparks, but still…
So, which Sparks floats your boat? Most people know the timeless classics of their first chart assailment. I was a teenager when I first saw the band (at that point a five piece) destroy all comers on Top Of The Pops with ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’. In a golden age when most weeks could unwrap some new transgression from the world of pop they still stood out, if only for Ron’s Hitleresque upper lip and his creepy stare, counterpointing Russell’s curly-headed boyishness.
But that single (and its parent album, Kimono My House) burst at the seams with musical difference. Staccato electric piano that faded in from nowhere, razor sharp timing and lyrics that ran counter to anything offered by Slade or The Sweet. This wasn’t androgyny, it was perversion. And the follow–up, ‘Amateur Hour,’ really spelled that out (if you were grown up enough to work it out. Like Steely Dan, they make you work for your laughs).
Raised in the seedier, more worldly environs of Hollywood, the brothers knew exactly how to be louche and dangerous without ever sacrificing themselves entirely to the heathen god of rock ‘n’ roll in a way that Bowie or Alice Cooper would. There was something strangely sophisticated and, well, European, about the Mael brothers. Which is why they undoubtedly appealed to the man who first discovered them in their original guides as a band called Halfnelson: Todd Rundgren.
While Todd’s efforts to produce the band were not entirely successful, you could tell that his own knowledge of British and European culture allowed him to glimpse their qualities long before the rest of the Western world caught on. In fact, it took a move to England to really see them get their just rewards, being paired first with Muff Winwood and then the great Tony Visconti as the producers who oversaw their maturation.
This doesn’t mean that after their shock tactics on TOTP they went on to unmitigated success. Such a rarified treat was always going to keep them at arm’s length from the crowd. More hits followed (all here: ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’; ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ etc.) but such sardonic smarts made them more cult than teen smashes. For a GREAT example of this I recommend that you check out their Youtube clip of their appearance on the Bay City Rollers Show performing ‘Get In The Swing’: Russell in the shortest shorts known to man. It’s the very definition of incongruous (it looks as if it’s been removed, but the clip here of them on TOTP is equally odd). God knows how the Roller’s pubescent female fanbase reacted to it. The album that it was taken from (the one I wrote the notes for) is simply stunning. By this point they wrote songs about breasts and betrayal, pineapples, childhood sexuality and terrible pick up lines.
Such intelligence demands change, and the pretence at Glam rock was stripped away to make way for a series of stylistic and locational changes that won them a truly hardcore following but lost them widespread acceptance. And thank God for that… Sparks never really made a terrible album, no matter how badly some of them sold. They just kept working.
It wasn’t until the pair teamed with the aforementioned Moroder that they swam back into view. And again, beneath the glorious, dizzy disco electronica of ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ and ‘Beat The Clock’ were dark hearts beating with thoughts of mass consumption and child prodigies (a theme that pops up a LOT in the boys’ repertoire – which is hardly surprising).
Fifteen years later and they were now being name-checked by Morrissey (although, to be fair, he’d also written to the NME when 15 to praise Kimono…) and making darker, even MORE sardonic records based on Reichian repetition* and the deconstruction of popular music itself. Songs like ‘The Rhythm Thief’ (from the utterly brilliant Lil’ Beethoven) and ‘Perfume’ (from its follow-up, Hello Young Lovers) used a wholly unique template of hypnotic loops and classical tropes, while their stage craft now had advanced to an amazing degree. Shows were multimedia extravaganzas that were self-mocking and warm towards their loyal fanbase (how many bands can you name that start their shows with a song about the fact that it’s a show by them?). And they were still laugh-your-ass-off funny. Critical plaudits were finally cemented.
And still they continue. They performed all 21 of their albums to date in one residency in London. And following the equally hilarious Exotic Creatures of The Deep they made the typically odd concept album/musical The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (about the director’s adventures in Hollywood). Never let it be said that they lacked ambition.
So here it is: distilled into one baffling smorgasbord of cunning and contradiction. And still I don’t feel like I’ve done them justice.
Sparks, I give up. You just ARE…
*To clarify: In my original review of this album I state that ‘The banality of repetition is like Steve Reich in a fever' dream' - I still stand by this statement. It's a remarkable record.
Sparks - New Music For Amnesiacs: The Essential Collection is released on December 2nd.