Ron Mael plays keyboards and writes lyrics. He studied industrial design in college and has a dexterous dementia on the ivories. Lyrically, he comes from the "school of Cole Porter," favoring caustic wit over trivial personal problems; his achingly clever lyrics seesaw between superficial gloss, profound sentiment and the incomprehensibly bizarre. Visually, Ron prefers neckties and a menacing glare to stage clothes and flailing extremities, although he has been known to smash his keyboard bench a la Pete Townshend. You may have seen his old mustache, framed, hanging near the ladies' lavatory at the Hard Rock Cafe.
Russell Mael doesn't merely sing, he wraps his roller-coaster falsetto over his brother's impossible lyrics. Russell has the voice of an angel sentenced to Earth for poking fun at his superior. He has sung from the point of view of sperm, Mickey Mouse, suicidal supermodels, a Liberace sympathizer and the suitor of a faded opera star.
But it's simply not that simple. Ron and Russell are underappreciated overachievers. If the advancement of pop music was a human-rights issue, they'd be swamped with honorary doctorates and Amnesty International accolades. Sparks kick-started new wave, inspired artists as disparate as Fear and Depeche Mode, did whatever you call what Devo, Ween and They Might Be Giants have done, and did it first. They count Joey Ramone, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand among their admirers, and they are directly responsible for Bjork and Morrissey choosing music as careers. Not too shabby.
Though they've found far more success in Europe, the L.A. natives have remained based in Los Angeles, perhaps because they're so attached to their cars (Ron has driven the same VW Thing since 1974; Russell won't drive his pristine '57 Thunderbird at night).
The Maels are as odd in person as they appear to be on their infamous album covers. Russell radiates the same gregarious, wide-eyed charm, while Ron curls away from conversation. Both are exceedingly witty and well-bred. They seem to spend more time together than most brothers.
Sparks came into being while Ron and Russell were attending UCLA in the early '70s. Surrounded by earthy vibes and walrus mustaches, they were often mistaken for Brits, and early gigs found them opening for the likes of Little Feat. "We had a miniature ocean liner made out of papier-mache, and I'd burst out of it wearing a sailor suit to begin our show," says Russell. "People didn't know what to make of us." Luckily, Todd Rundgren had the foresight to sign the band, then known as Halfnelson, to his own label, Bearsville. Their eponymous debut album went nowhere. When they renamed themselves Sparks, the album was re-released, as Sparks, on Warner Bros.
It too died a little death, but was followed by the successful and seminal A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing. "At the time," says Ron, "our road manager also had a mustache, and he walked into the office [at Warners]. They got up, shook his hand, saying, 'Great record, Ron.' That should've given us a hint about American record companies' general attitude toward us - no clue!"
Greater response in England gave the Maels the opportunity to live abroad. "We had always been huge Anglophiles," says Russell, "and to this day there's a greater acceptance of eccentricity in the music scene there." In England, with musicians found through an ad in Melody Maker, they recorded the first of four albums for Island. 1974's Kimono My House contained the frantic "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us," hailed by Melody Maker as "the most interesting single of the pre-punk era." Kimono was followed by Propaganda, which birthed two massive hits in the band's adopted homeland and nary a mention Stateside. Writing twisted lyrics and complex guitar rock before there was a snappy name for it, the Maels enlisted producer Tony Visconti to write star-spangled orchestral oom-pahs for 1975's Indiscreet.
But Sparks needed a change. The band's constants are a tremulous voice, a manic keyboard and two big, fussy brains, and it stands to reason that such heaving cerebra would tire of the same old plink plink plink. So, in 1979, they "went electronic," recording with producer Giorgio Moroder, the mastermind behind Donna Summer's groundbreaking "I Feel Love."
"We thought the combination of the vocal with a really cold electronic sound was amazing," Russell says, "and we were getting tired of our musical surroundings - not the songs, but the trappings of a band." No. 1 in Heaven hit like a bullet, setting the stage for '80s synthpop as the curtain fell on punk. Numerous bands including Depeche Mode, New Order and Pet Shop Boys cited that album as influential, as was the idea of being a duo, of challenging the conception of what a band is.