What The Hell Is It This Time
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 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.
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 debut yielded a local hit (local being Montgomery, Alabama); then vanished from view. 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.
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 didn’t translate to runaway revenues; and the group found itself at an impasse. The icebreaker came from across the pond, where the band had been welcomed enthusiastically by Continental types on a brief 1972 transatlantic jaunt. 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. Propaganda, released mere months later, pushed pops margins yet further and saw more Sparks in the charts. 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. Constitutionally incapable of sticking with the tried and true, the brothers commissioned Tony Visconti to produce 1975s Indiscreet, which remains to this day an aptly named artefact of impressive and enduring strangeness.
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. Things went from cod to odd on 1977s Introducing Sparks, Columbia Records attempt to present Sparks as radio-friendly product.
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. Sparks and he crossed paths and set about inventing electronica. 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.
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,. 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.
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.
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. The Scottish collective Finitribe fortuitously proved to be solid Sparks fans and brought the boys to their label for 1993s National Crime Awareness Week’. It brought Sparks resoundingly into the 90s and started the stirrings of an appreciation for their body of work.
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.
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.
And so Sparks headed into the new millennium with their 18th album, Balls’. Their first concert DVD, ‘Live In London,’ captured not only much of the aggressive ‘Balls’ spirit, but also showcased many of the Sparks’ 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.
Three years on and Sparks completed work on their 20th 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 was thrown away.
Following superb reviews, Sparks embarked on a European and British tour in which Hello Young Lovers was performed in its entirety to amazed audiences. The summer of 2006 saw Sparks perform, for the first time, live festivals all over the world, which included headlining the Big Chill Festival in Britain. Following these critically acclaimed live performances the band hit the road again and played ton 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 ‘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? That’s 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
And so, in May and June 2008, Ron, Russell and their band of LA musicians played each of Sparks’ 20 previous albums, one each night, at the Islington Academy in North London. The sheer preposterous nature of the undertaking attracted media attention throughout the world. On June 13 Sparks performed album number 21 ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ to a packed house and rave reviews at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Further live dates followed including an astonishing performance of the album at the band’s alma mater UCLA and a show-stopping headline performance at FujiRock in Japan before Sparks returned to London to play two nights at the Forum.
Sparks’ career then took an unexpected but perhaps not surprising turn when Sweden’s national radio station Sveriges radio commissioned them to write and produce an original radio musical. Sparks created, “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman,” a musical fantasy based on the internationally acclaimed film director Ingmar Bergman.
The part-Swedish version of the recording was broadcast in Sweden in August 2009 accompanied by a limited edition CD of this original Swedish version. The international English-language version of ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ was broadcast in Britain on BBC 6 Music in November and released in November 2009 as a double vinyl, limited deluxe boxset and souvenir CD on the band’s own label Lil’ Beethoven Records. Reaction to the musical was nothing short of astonishing. Sparks are developing the musical for cinema.
2012 saw Ron and Russell touring as a duo for the first time. The Two Hands One Mouth world tour was so successful that this was followed by The Revenge Of Two Hands One Mouth tour in 2013 and the release of the Two Hands One Mouth live album.
While at the Cannes Film Festival, in connection with The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, Ron and Russell met the French film director Leos Carax, who had previously included How Are You Getting Home in his film Holy Motors. Leos agreed to direct a film of a new musical they had written called Annette – the story and all music is written by Ron and Russell. This is due to start filming in 2017 with Adam Driver in the lead role.
The deluxe boxset ‘New Music For Amnesiacs – The Ultimate Collection’ was released in 2013. Compiled by Ron and Russell, the Ultimate Collection tells the story of Sparks through the band’s music. The 4 CD boxset collection was accompanied by a book and assorted collectibles and was followed by a 2 CD ‘best of’ ‘New Music For Amnesiacs – The Essential Collection’.
In December 2014 Sparks teamed up with the Heritage Orchestra and conductor Jules Buckley to perform Kimono My House, with new arrangements by Nathan Kelly, for 2 nights at the Barbican Hall in London. In February 2015 they performed the album with a local orchestra conducted by Suzie Katayama over 2 nights at the Ace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. In 2015 Sparks collaborated with Franz Ferdinand to form the group FFS and release an album of the same name on Domino Records, followed by a world tour.
Having focused on writing and recording the two narrative projects (The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman & Annette) Ron and Russell returned to the studio in 2016 to write “3 and 4 minute pop songs”. They subsequently revealed the album title as Hippopotamus, announced they would be performing at the BBC 6 Music Festival 2017 in Glasgow on March 24th, as well as a world tour, and signed a worldwide record deal with BMG. The band line up for the BBC 6 Music Festival includes previous Sparks drummer Steve Nistor, Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford of Mini Mansions, Michael Shuman of Mini Mansions and Queens Of The Stone Age, and Evan Weiss of Junk.