Since the late 60s the Mael brothers have been releasing music together under the label of Sparks. They played the LA club scene in the early 70s, weren’t very popular, toured England, and were huge in Europe. Pioneers of glam rock , pop, power pop, and electronic dance, they are constantly reinventing themselves. Well into retirement age, they have not slowed down. They are known for their quirky approach to their lyrics and music, both of which are provided by Ron, and sung by Russel in an incredible falsetto.
Their work explores the absurdity in rock, pop, and popular culture. I’ve heard their live shows are something to behold. With Ron’s pencil thin mustache, scowling demeanor, and Russel’s bubbly, happy personality, they are the perfect contrast. (Not to mention completely enthralling).
‘In retrospect, Ron’s moustache was probably another mistake. He probably regrets it. When he did it, he was quite naive – he thought he was copying Charlie Chaplin. We went to France to do a TV show and the presenter refused to go on with, us so we had to pull out. At that point he changed it to a pencil-style one. We like controversy and provocation but not in that way.’ – Russell Mael
Sometimes I wonder why Sparks, an American group, aren’t as commercially successful in the US as they are in Europe and Asia. Maybe it’s because their music has a sense of humor, and lyrical wit that is not often found in commercial music. (Their 1994 album was titled “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins”). Commercial success aside, Sparks are undeniably popular in the realm of fellow musicians. Even Paul McCartney paid his tribute to Sparks by dressing up as Ron Mael for a photo shoot.
What is really incredible about Sparks is that they are arguably the only artist who has been active for 40+ years, and is producing their best work now. In 2002, they released a complete masterpiece, Lil Beethoven, where they dropped their ‘electro’ schtick for a pseudo-classical one. This album is a modern take on classical music, and is heavily reliant upon Ron’s piano lines, and repetitive lyrics. The first track off of the album The Rhythm Thief introduces the main themes of the album, namely the lack of percussion, and repeated motifs often found in classical music.
With such a long career, I am constantly surprised that Sparks have not received a great deal of attention, so I am always glad to spread the word about them, although somewhat hesitantly, as I’ve realized most people find them difficult to handle. I feel like you can’t always take them seriously. They are very snarky, very willing to push their listeners. If you are looking for a great introduction to Sparks, here are 5 albums that give a good overview + a Spotify playlist of these albums (sans Halfnelson), if you’re lazy.
- Kimono My House, 1974
- Lil’ Beethoven, 2002
- Propaganda, 1973
- Exotic Creatures of The Deep, 2006
- Halfnelson, 1975 (My personal favorite. It is silly, but gloriously so).