Born and raised in Pacific Palisades the ocean children Ron and Russell Mael were of the eccentric Californian breed – Hollywood kiddies for sure but with a weather eye set on Anglophile territory and acts they revered like The Kinks, The Who, The Move, Beatles and Stones. Both brothers studied at UCLA and their combined interests in graphic art, theatre and cinema was evident from early days when they entertained the family with song and laughter, especially when Ron wheeled his lil bro on stage in a wheelbarrow, Russell dressed in a cheeky sailor suit.
In 1968 they signed to Bearsville Records and were produced by Todd Rundgren for the eponymous debut, Halfnelson whose single “Wonder Girl” garnered interest in So Cal but nowhere else to speak of.
Renaming themselves Sparks (Marx Brothers, Sparks Brothers) they continued to experiment with lo-fi equipment and strange rhythms on A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing but also enlisted a group consisting of the brothers Earle and Jim Mankey and Harley Feinstein and toured the UK, nabbing a residency at the Marquee Club where they confused the punters no end. This being the post-Ziggy era and with glam still a fixture they did begin to assemble a proper army of dedicated fans and even supported Queen. What a double bill!
After appearing on The Old Grey Whistle Test Sparks status began to rise significantly and their third album, for Island Records, would be their breakthrough. Kimono My House was made with British musicians and Muff Winwood behind the desk. A pure pop extravaganza this disc is vital listening 40 years on. The singles “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and “Amateur Hour” still have such resonance that they sum up the glam era with as much panache as Bowie, Eno or Transformer period Lou Reed. With celebrity endorsements from Morrissey and Kurt Cobain the Kimono experience was never likely to be a well-kept secret but its witty charms are well worth rediscovery. Check the 21st Century Edition with bonus tracks “Barbecutie”, “Lost and Found” and a 1975 live version of “Amateur Hour” from Fairfield Halls, Croydon.
Propaganda (1974) spawned the successful single “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and has been re-issued and remastered for the 21st Century edition, including an interview from Saturday Scene that captures their inimitable humour. Key tracks here are “Who Don’t Like Kids” and “At Home, At Work, At Play”, lyrical gems with irresistible melodies.
Tony Visconti produced Indiscreet (cover showing the brothers emerging from the wreck of a light aircraft) and the tune ratio is upped again by “Looks, Looks, Looks” and “Get In The Swing”, grand pop unlike anyone else’s variation on that genre. Visconti added subtle orchestral arrangements and in retrospect it’s apparent that this album should have been a monster, if only for its thumping power pop punch. If America wasn’t yet fully attuned to the delights of art rock Europe certainly was, ditto Japan, and the Maels returned home to create Big Beat with producer Rupert Holmes. Another goody bag Big Beat is stacked with pop finery: “Big Boy", “I Like Girls” and “Everybody’s Stupid” are prime time Sparks. The 21st Century Edition adds their cover of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, the hymnal “England” (thanks, guys) and “Looks Aren’t Everything”. Weirdly the disc didn’t chart high but it should never be overlooked.
After a label change seventh album Introducing Sparks (originally only issued on vinyl) also slipped through the net but that was rectified by No. 1 in Heaven (1979) where they team up with Giorgio Moroder and move into the synth and disco arena with longer tracks, very early programming (by Moroder) and their most eclectic repertoire to date. The title song – or “The Number One Song in Heaven” - took them back to the charts while “Beat the Clock” – a homage to Donna Summer – is an enduring masterpiece. The 2013 Repertoire Records European bonus tracks version includes all the single mixes, an extended “La Dolce Vita” and an early example of the 12” mix on “Tryouts For the Human Race”.
Moroder and Harold Faltermeyer produced Terminal Jive (1980) whose hit “When I’m With You” became a sensation in France (six weeks at #1) and can be seen as a vanguard disc in the New Wave movement with a real melting pot of styles and sounds concocted on Russell’s keyboards and in the studio with Giorgio and Harold. The fine “Rock’n'Roll people in a Disco World” sums up the project to a tee.
A move to Musicland Studio, Munich for the Mack produced Whomp that Sucker (cover featuring Ron flooring bro Russell in a boxing ring – unlikely) and more sweet treats like “Tips for Teens”, ”Suzie Safety” and “Wacky Women”. More 1980s discs worth discovery are Angst in My Pants, In Outer Space and Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat but the world began to catch on to Sparks again once Music That You Can Dance To emerged in 1986 and became a firm dance and club favourite, an area that always suited the Maels.
Following a hiatus Sparks landed in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, self-producing in their own LA studio. The change of environment paid off since “When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”” was a substantial Euro-hit that chimed with the tongue-in-cheek mood of the Eurotrash years.
In typically audacious fashion the Maels offered their own greatest hits remodelled by themselves as Plagiarism, collaborating with Faith No More, Erasure and Jimmy Somerville, evidence of their wraparound appeal to clubbers and rockers alike. The return of Visconti and his expert arrangements make this a must-hear.
Critical acclaim greeted Lil’ Beethoven and the conceptual Hello Young Lovers and interest began to pique again with Exotic Creatures of the Deep and The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, both albums that push boundaries and exert influence – you figure The Scissor Sisters and MGMT must be fans.
Their first and only live album, recorded as a duo - is the double CD Two Hands, One Mouth. They caused a stir with this European tour artefact, drawing in new fans and bringing older followers back into the family.
So to FFS which includes the got there first number “Collaborations Don’t Work”, the feisty “Piss Off”, some extraordinary lyrics and a marriage of electro, rock opera and synth pop that warms the heart. Try it as the Deluxe edition for extra satisfaction.
Given a roll call of admirers that runs from Paul McCartney and Ween to The Human League, Abba and New Order it might be stating the bleeding obvious but these guys have got class and staying power. Join the club: it’s not exclusive and the perks are endless. Discover Sparks and hours of innocent and not-so-innocent pleasure lies in wait.
Words: Max Bell
Arguably one of Sparks' best albums, 1974's Kimono My House finds the brothers Mael (Ron wrote most the songs and played keyboards, while Russell was the singing frontman) ingeniously playing their guitar- and keyboard-heavy pop mix on 12 consistently fine tracks. Adding a touch of bubblegum, and even some of Zappa's own song-centric experimentalism to the menu, the Maels spruce up a sleazy Sunset Strip with a bevy of Broadway-worthy performances here: as the band expertly revs up the glam rock-meets-Andrew Lloyd Webber backdrops, Russell sends things into space with his operatic vocals and ever-clever lyrics. And besides two of their breakthrough hits (the English chart-toppers "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" and "Amateur Hour"), the album features one of their often-overlooked stunners, "Here in Heaven." Essential.
Words: Stephen Cook
What better way to promote Sparks' spinning blender of demented pop than Propaganda? The band's fourth album (and second with producer Muff Winwood) is chock-full of great ideas, including the overseas hits "Something for the Girl With Everything" and "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth." With Russell Mael delivering the lyrics in his rapid-fire falsetto, the lyric sheet is a necessary compass, as the clever wordplay is a key to discovering what these pranksters are up to. Ron Mael's skewed take on relationships ("At Home, at Work, at Play," "Don't Leave Me Alone With Her") are nearly upstaged by the hyperactive arrangements, but when the words and the music click, it's pure magic. In fact, "Bon Voyage" might be the most sublime song they've ever written, teetering between genuine pathos for and lampooning of the plight of those left behind by Noah and his ark. Other highlights include "Achoo" (about, you guessed it, catching a cold) and "Who Don't Like Kids," in which Mael uncorks the opening lines "You got a cigar, here's a couple more/Because the offspring are springing through swinging doors" in a few seconds. The torrential outpouring of words and ideas, underscored by guitars and keyboards with oft-shifting rhythms, either repels or attracts listeners. Though the similarities to Queen are sometimes striking, they eschew that band's seriousness and epic guitar work, favoring hit-or-miss observations that suggest a cross between 10cc and the power pop of the late '70s. Propaganda remains one of Sparks' brightest achievements, brimming with a loopy charm that continued to captivate the open-minded English listeners, if not their close-minded countrymen in the U.S. [Note that European CD reissues in the late '90s include non-album B-sides from the record's two U.K. singles as bonus tracks: "Alabamy Right" and "Marry Me."]
Words: Dave Connolly
In the '70s and '80s, Sparks' American fans couldn't understand why the Mael Brothers weren't as big in the United States as they were in England. "Why don't more of our fellow Americans realize just how great these guys are?" was the question that Sparks addicts in the U.S. often found themselves asking. Whatever the reason, British audiences really connected with Sparks' goofy, insanely clever lyrics -- and the fact that Russell Mael sings like he could be an eccentric upper-class Englishman (although he was born and raised in Los Angeles) probably didn't hurt. Indiscreet, which was the Mael Brothers' third album for Island and their fifth album overall, is state-of-the-art Sparks. The power pop melodies are consistently infectious, and the lyrics are as humorous as one expects Sparks lyrics to be -- nutty gems like "Pineapple," "Happy Hunting Ground," "Tits," and "Get in the Swing" will easily appeal to those who like to think of Russell and Ron Mael as the pop/rock equivalent of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Like other Sparks releases of the '70s, Indiscreet did much better in England than it did on the North American side of the Atlantic. In the U.S., this 1975 LP appealed to a small but enthusiastic cult following -- in Great Britain, Indiscreet was a big seller and appealed to a much larger and broader audience. Over the years, Sparks has experimented with everything from hard rock to Euro-disco. But power pop is the primary focus of Indiscreet, which went down in history as one of the band's best '70s albums.
Words: Alex Henderson
Most of this album finds Sparks doing what they do best: spewing out clever, mile-a-minute lyrics over solid-rocking accompaniment (this time, provided by a superior group of studio musicians). Drummer Hilly Michaels and guitarist Jeffrey Salen lend the Mael brothers' songs considerable rock & roll authority. Standouts include the opening blast, "Big Boy" (which was featured in the film Rollercoaster), the propulsive "Fill-Er-Up," and the falsetto-delivered proclamation "I Like Girls," apparently a leftover from their previous album, Indiscreet. Generally, however, they eschew the elaborate arrangements of Indiscreet and go for a powerful, stripped-down sound. As titles such as "Everybody's Stupid" and "Thrown Her Away (And Get a New One)" suggest, the album brims with decidedly politically incorrect (and often hilarious) lyrics.
Words: James A. Gardner
It may not have been the most natural match in music history, but the marriage of Sparks' focus on oddball pop songs to the driving disco-trance of Giorgio Moroder produced the duo's best album in years. From the chart hits "Number One Song in Heaven" and "Beat the Clock" to solid album tracks like "La Dolce Vita," No. 1 in Heaven surprises by succeeding on an artistic and commercial level despite the fact that neither the Mael brothers nor Moroder tempered their respective idiosyncrasies for the project. Moroder's production is just as dizzying, chunky, and completely rhythm-driven as on his best work with Donna Summer, and the Mael brothers prove on "Tryouts for the Human Race" and "Academy Award Performance" that their bizarre songwriting wasn't compromised.
Words: John Bush
Woofer... starts with another killer opening track, musically and lyrically, with "Girl From Germany," a chugging number detailing the problems the narrator has with his parents over his girlfriend, given their lingering wartime attitudes. The album builds upon the strengths of the debut to create an even better experience all around. The same five-person lineup offers more sharp performances. Album engineering veteran James Lowe takes over production reins from Rundgren, with, happily, no audible sense of trying to make the album more commercial. If anything, things are even wiggier this time around, from the naughtily-titled sea chanty which turns into a full-on rocker "Beaver O'Lindy" and the strings-plus-piano "Here Comes Bob," to the album's completely wacked-out, dramatic centerpiece "Moon Over Kentucky." Melodies start approaching the hyperactivity level which would flower completely on the band's subsequent releases. Ron and Earle Mankey trade off or play against each other, while the rhythm section of Jim Mankey and Feinstein executes the kind of sharp tempo changes which would become de rigueur for thrash-metal bands of the '80s, but fit in perfectly here with the spastic pop being played. Russell soars and croons over it all like an angel on deeply disturbing drugs, wrapping his vocals around such lines as "We surely will appreciate our newfound leisure time" from "Nothing is Sacred." The long-time live favorite "Do-Re-Mi" -- indeed a cover of the number from The Sound of Music -- first appears here as well, taking Rodgers and Hammerstein to a level Julie Andrews might be hardpressed to follow. Anyone wondering why Faith No More appeared on Sparks' self-tribute album Plagiarism need only listen to Woofer to understand -- as a full-on purée of musical styles in the service of twisted viewpoints, it's a perfect album.
Words: Ned Raggett
Within the first track of their debut album -- the crisp, minimal pounder "Wonder Girl," featuring Russell Mael's falsetto already engaged in swooping acrobatics and Ron Mael's sparkling piano work to the fore, singing ever-so-slightly-weird lyrics about love that couldn't quite be taken at face value -- Sparks established themselves so perfectly that arguably the rest of the brothers' long career has been a continual refinement from that basic formula. Even more striking is realizing how astoundingly prescient it was; what must have sounded indescribably strange in 1972 now feels like the precursor to nearly all of new wave, a fair chunk of synth-pop, and just about any music with a brain. As it stands, the original Sparks group, with brothers Jim and Earle Mankey on bass and guitar and Harvey Feinstein on drums accompanying the Maels, was as tight and accomplished as the classic Alice Cooper lineup, but given to their own brand of clever insanity (the fact that there's a loud-rocking original on here called "(No More) Mr. Nice Guys" makes you wonder if that other band wasn't listening in). Todd Rundgren's production is generally spare but very effective, with snippets of cymbal and keyboard leaping out from the speakers at odd moments. The twisted, '50s piano-rock loper "High C" practically invents Queen in both shuffling rock-out and heavy rockabilly camp phases; "Fletcher Honorama" slides and slinks along in a wickedly dreamy way; and "Slowboat" combines show tunes, cabaret, and rock to magnificent effect. With other songs like "Biology 2," "Fa La Fa Lee," and the brilliantly titled "Saccaharin and the War," Sparks remains a wonderfully entertaining listen and an honestly unique debut.
Words: Ned Raggett