Brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been called eccentric more times than Dali waxed his mustache. Though born in the U.S.A., a country where one can't be serious if one possesses a sense of humor, they have kept their wits and produced one of the most idiosyncratic oeuvres to have never been appreciated in one place. As Sparks, Ron and Russell have navigated the temperamental, murky waters of pop music for the past quarter-century - winning, losing and occasionally capsizing.
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.
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."
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The Maels believe idle hands are the devil's playthings. During the year it took Virgin to decide not to release Plagiarism here, the brothers completed a score for Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's summer escapade Knock Off (TriStar) and recorded an entirely new album.
So, in their own peculiar way, Sparks are everywhere. Besides their considerable influence on plenty of new music, there's a forthcoming biography, A Song That Sings Itself. Russell has just finished a duet with up 'n' coming U.K. duo Mulu, and the orchestral version of "This Town" can be heard in a sports utility vehicle commercial in the U.K.
But they're putting all that aside. Sparks are here and now, armed and dangerous. Show some respect - and don't mistake them for an English band.
Sparks performs at the Key Club on Saturday, November 14; (213) 480-3232. Fans will meet on Friday, November 13, and Saturday, November 14, for the first L.A. "Sparks-O-Rama" at the Red Rock Bar and Eatery (8782 Sunset Blvd.; 310-854-0710) from noon until 4 p.m. Check out www.visioncar.com/info/sparks for more information.