Written by Trent Jones
The eclectic 50+ year band and why I love them
The first of a series of articles of where to start with seemingly impenetrable discographies.
Some bands you can distinctly remember growing up with. Some bands through word of mouth from friends telling you that you just have to hear this song by so-and-so and you’re hooked. But for Sparks, at least in my case, I was intrigued both by their relative obscurity and by how well-loved and lauded they are by big hitters in the music scene:
Kurt Cobain borrowed some guitar riffs from them for Bleach. Morrissey said that they made one of his favorite records of all time. Peter Hook credited them as a major influence in the evolving sound of New Order. Paul McCartney gave homage to them in the video for his single “Coming Up”. Johnny Marr loved them too, as did Thurston Moore, Joey Ramone, Bjork, They Might Be Giants, and Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees (to the point of covering one of their songs).
In June of 2018, Edgar Wright announced that he was making a documentary about the band. This particularly resonated with me, not only because I’m a fan of Edgar Wright, but because I had just gotten into them a few months previously, so to have Edgar Wright drop this news during one of my favorite podcasts (R U Talkin’ REM Re: Me? On the Earwolf network, hosted by Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott aka Adam Scott Aukerman), it felt like fate telling me that I was on the right path.
Sparks is the brainchild of Ron and Russell Mael. Originally playing as Halfnelson, the band changed their name shortly after releasing their first LP. The name change reflects the band's clever, although sometimes obfuscated, humor (By renaming the band, they know some people would refer to them as the Sparks Brothers).
Their sound during their early days in the 70s was very reminiscent of Queen; sailing guitar licks and Ron’s keyboard playing lining up perfectly with the operatic vocals of Russell, whose vocal range fluctuates wildly during songs. But the greatest weapon in Sparks' arsenal is the acerbic wit of lead songwriter Ron. Playing with the conventions of music, he can be sarcastic, fey, blatant, subtle. Although, well, sometimes subtle and Ron don’t always mix.
To address the elephant in the room, yes, Ron does have THAT mustache. And in fact, he has had it up until the late 80’s when he decided to switch it up to a pencil-thin mustache. As far as I’ve been able to read, he’s never outright addressed his choice of mustache, and I’d hate to put words into someone else’s mouth, but seeing as Ron is of Jewish descent and was born in 1945, I would have to assume the choice was deliberate.
(One humorous bit from this is when they performed on the BBC’s Top of the Pops. The station received numerous letters from parents saying their kids ran into the room, crying “Hitler’s on Top of the Pops playing keyboard!”)
It was in 1974 when Sparks released their breakthrough album, Kimono My House (further proof of their humor is the fact that I had no idea the joke in the title being a reference to a Rosemary Clooney song Come On-a My House) with the hit single “This Town’s Not Big Enough for the Both of Us." Just for a little taste:
I love this clip because seeing this audience being absolutely confused by what they are seeing and hearing; with the flamboyant lead singer Russell hitting his falsetto high notes and stoic Ron calmly playing along. An experiment in playing with clichés, the song is both entrancing and confusing, not quite sure what is being sung. A glance at the lyrics show a comical hodge-podge of comedic scenes:
Daily, except for Sunday You dawdle in to the cafe where you meet her each day Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat As 20 cannibals have hold of you, they need their protein just like you do This town ain't big enough for the both of us And isn’t me who's gonna leave
This lead single and first track kicks off what I think is one of the best albums of the decade, and my personal suggestion for getting into Sparks. Each track is a delight without ever feeling repetitive. It’s also an album that benefits from not only repeat listens, but from carefully studying the lyrics of Ron Mael.
From the reflection of just how bad teen boys are at sex when that’s all they can think about in “Amateur Hour," to the flowing waltz of narcissism in “Falling In Love With Myself Again,” each track tackles a different topic with some of the blackest humor possible, like a song from the perspective of a man going through with a suicide pact while his lover backs out:
Juliet, you broke our little pack Juliet, I’m never coming back … Up here in heaven without you It is hell knowing that your health Will keep you out of here for many, many years
To a treatise of a loveless marriage in “Thank God it’s not Christmas” (Thank God it’s not Christmas/When there is only you and nothing else to do). In what I have to assume is a dig at the Beatles' song “Michelle” is “Hasta Mañana Monsieur”:
Hasta Mañana Monsieur Were the only words that I knew for sure Hasta Mañana Monsieur Were the three little words that I knew you'd adore
(Okay, I can’t go past this song without this, my favorite lyric on the album: You mentioned Kant and I was shocked/ You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues.)
“Talent is an Asset” is a song sung from the perspective of a doting member of Albert Einstein’s family, “Complaints” will definitely ring true if you’ve ever worked customer service, “In My Family” is a fun little song about well, his family, and the album ends on “Equator,” a wonderful song that’s the journey of a guy who doesn’t know that he’s getting the brush-off from a girl and travels the ends of the world to meet where she said:
Kimono My House is one of my favorite albums to put on and listen to all the way through. I find that every song is fun and nothing feels like filler.
As the decade rolled on, Sparks continued to put out albums but in 1979 made the biggest move of their career by shifting their sound away from the gliding rock sound to a blend of disco, rock and pop. Teaming with disco producer Giorgio Moroder, they put out No. 1 In Heaven, a radical departure very far ahead of its time.
When you watch the video and listen to the song, it’s hard to keep in mind that this was done a full two years before MTV was even a thing. A wonderful song about, well, being early (and also about picking up a girl), “Beat the Clock” fits perfectly with the synthpop/new wave sound that would dominate the 80s.
As their career continued, Sparks continued to combine their sharp lyrics with inventive videos and an evolving sound. In 1983, they collaborated with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos to put out “Cool Places," their biggest hit to date.
Having been around since the late 60’s, it’s both a testament to their willingness to try new sounds and their ability to keep fan interest by trying new things. They are still putting out music today, and even did a supergroup of sorts with Franz Ferdinand (calling themselves, of course, FFS).
The question is: for a band that’s been around for 51 years, why are they relatively obscure from popular culture? Partially, I think it has to do with the fact that while I think their music is both clever and catchy, it can be a bit hard to get the mainstream into the weirdness of this band. When you look at other bands that I consider to be in a similar vein, such as Devo, it can be the luck of the draw that separates a song like “Whip It” from “I Predict.” (Trust me, I’ll be talking about Devo in a later article).
Edgar Wright pointed out that you don’t really hear their songs in movies, because the rapid fire lyrics are so specific that you can’t really pull the meaning away from the song to get it to fit into the narrative of the film. Of course, if you have a TV show that has rapid fire, specific dialogue, it might just fit in perfectly:
Kimono My House Big Beat
No. 1 In Heaven
Angst in my Pants
Growing up in Atlanta, GA, Trent was never much for music. Until suddenly, he was and oh boy, did he dive in hard. He has over 1400 vinyl albums and is afraid he’ll run out of space to keep them at some point. He likes music that evokes feelings and emotions, even if those feelings are sadness or anxiety. It wasn’t until he was thirty that he realized that Loveless by My Bloody Valentine had actual instruments and vocals done by people and not just music created by the Gods.