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The sedan-size electronic instruments of the time prevented Sparks from touring, so they returned to a rock-band format and a slicker, new-wavier sound, releasing Whomp That Sucker!, Angst in My Pants and Sparks in Outer Space, the latter featuring their biggest American hit, "Cool Places," a duet with the Go-Go's' Jane Wiedlin, which not-quite-rocketed to No. 49 in 1982. These were the halcyon days of early KROQ, a period when Sparks toured and was "as important to L.A. radio as Depeche Mode or the Cure," as one fan put it.
Sparks' almost arrogant disregard of trends may have got them ostracized by the American music biz, but it's made for an odd agelessness in their work. Practically everything they've recorded in the last two decades sounds as if it could've been released at any point therein. They've been more likely to start trends than follow them. "We've never tried to make timeless music like, say, Bruce Springsteen," says Russell. "But we've come to realize that maybe we've had more of an influence on pop music than we thought."
Like counterfeit-watch salesmen, Sparks have been forced to display their wares in many different locations. Their 18 records have been released on almost as many labels - Island, Curb, RCA, Atlantic, CBS and Elektra, for starters. This is how the American major labels nurture homegrown genius. Yet Sparks marches on.
"We knew we were on the right track when the record frightened our manager," Russell says of Plagiarism (Oglio Records), a 1997 career-spanning collection of 19 songs. Rather than ease out a greatest-hits package, they re-recorded the tunes, either in London with Tony Visconti and a 10-piece orchestra, or electronically in Russell's home studio, surrounded by ceramic busts of Elvis.
Few bands besides Sparks could subject decades of material to wildly opposed styles while remaining faithful to the originals. "When things are sequenced really hard, it has an effect similar to the one power chords had in the '70s," explains Ron. Plagiarism's electronic versions fluctuate from the raucous, nearly gabber techno of "Angst in My Pants" to the Eurodisco flares of "Popularity" and the Erasure collaboration "Amateur Hour." Bronski Beat's Jimmy Somerville duets on "The No. 1 Song in Heaven" (battle of the falsettos), while Faith No More makes a rather loud appearance on "This Town" and "Something for the Girl With Everything."
The grandness of Sparks' music has always sounded appropriate for film, but Plagiarism's orchestrated renderings seem especially so. The dramatic melancholy of "Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat," the ragtimey stylings of "Change," and the marshmallow billows of "This Town" and "Something for the Girl With Everything" could have costume capers, films noir and even romantic comedies fashioned around them.
"We asked Tony Visconti to write the string arrangements," says Russell. "He kept coming back to us and asking, 'Is this too strange?'" Guess so, because "One violinist went home the first day literally in tears." (Ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler bowed out as well.) They even redux the wistful sophistication and catchiness of their recent European smash "When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'?" from their last proper studio album, 1994's Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (Logic), which Germans and U.K. pop fans had the good sense to go crazy over.
Sparks fans tend to fall on the obsessive side. Last year, the president of a Dutch fan club disappeared, his visage flashed all over Euro news in a Sparks tour shirt. "They found him floating in a dyke, wearing the same shirt," says Russell. Their American fans have a justified mania - Sparks haven't played the States in more than a decade, and have had to make do with overpriced imports, Rhino Records' retrospective Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection and an Internet charade game known as the "Sparks Fantasy Karaoke Contest."
A few Yank fans traveled to England to catch last year's appearances; the same fans are flying to Los Angeles to catch Sparks' upcoming as-of-yet only U.S. appearance (as are others from England and Germany). Ron and Russell would be pleased with a reaction like they've received in Europe, but they want to test the waters before investing in an Airstream.
The brothers promise an eclectic live mix. "It's just a question of emphasis, really," Ron says. "There's been something of a time gap, and since Plagiarism is a retrospective of sorts, we don't mind mixing the really old with the really new."