Sparks - Biography
By Michael Keefe
The brother team of keyboardist/composer Ron and singer Russell Mael have been performing as Sparks for the better part of four decades. Over that time, their band has seen many line-up changes, stylistic progressions, and peaks and valleys in popularity, but the Maels' artistic vision has held strong, leading them to a long career as cult level pop stars. Sparks have also enjoyed their share of chart success, placing albums on the Billboard 200 in the 1970s, '80s, and 2000s.
Ron and Russell Mael grew up in Pacific Palisades, near Los Angeles. In 1970, while studying film and art at UCLA, they formed Halfnelson, with John Mendelsohn on drums and two other brothers, Earle and James Mankey, on guitar and bass, respectively. Todd Rundgren produced the group's self-titled debut (1971 Bearsville), which introduced the world to the Mael brothers' theatrical songwriting, off-kilter sensibilities, and Russell's near-operatic tenor. After that first LP received little notice, the group changed their name to the catchier Sparks moniker. Their second LP, the more stylistically diverse A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing (1972 Bearsville) missed the charts, but its single, "Girl from Germany," was an underground hit.
Following a highly successful European tour, Ron and Russell Mael left their bandmates behind and relocated to England. There, they placed an ad in Melody Maker and recruited a new and arguably far more capable backing band: drummer Norman "Dinky" Diamond, bassist Martin Gordon, and guitarist Adrian Fisher. They provided a revved-up, punchy, frenetic energy to Ron Mael's increasingly sophisticated pop/rock compositions, birthing a sound that would influence many future new wave acts. The mid-'70s marked the commercial high point for Sparks, and one of their strongest bursts of creativity, as well. In one year alone, Sparks issued two classic LPs, Kimono My House (1974 Island) and Propaganda (1974 Island). The first reached #4 in the UK, while the latter hit #9 there and #63 in the US. The high-octane single "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" earned the band a #2 UK hit and a spot on UK TV show Top of the Pops. Showing their range, Sparks' gorgeous ballad "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" hit #13 in England and remains one of the band's best-loved songs. On Sparks' fifth album, Indiscreet (1975 Island), the band lean toward more complex arrangements that reference rock musicals, cabaret, chamber pop, and even marches. After the release of Indiscreet, the Mael brothers headed back to America.
Utilizing a new trio of studio musicians, Sparks' Big Beat (1976 Columbia) was the band's first disappointing release. Sounding like castoff ideas for the Rocky Horror soundtrack, the music is plagued by clunky Rock 101 guitar vamps, while Russell's vocals quaver in his low register like a poor Dracula imitation. Amazingly, their next album was equally disappointing. Recorded with a host of session musicians, Introducing Sparks (1977 Columbia) sounds flat and so sleek that it quickly slips in one ear and out the other.
This floundering led to a reinvention of Sparks' sound. Switching labels yet again and hooking up with electronic composer and disco producer Giorgio Moroder, Sparks' eighth album, Nº 1 in Heaven (1979 Virgin), is among synth pop's pioneering albums. Though Human League and Gary Numan get all the credit for birthing that genre, Sparks masterfully combine the spacey, pulsating analog synth tones of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk with the basic songwriting elements of smart, catchy pop music. Though rewarded with a peak of only #73 in Britain, Nº 1 in Heaven featured three singles that charted well in the UK and is a clear inspiration for Pet Shop Boys and their synth pop peers.
The turn of the decade saw the band taking another dip in quality with the Moroder-produced Terminal Jive (1980 Virgin), whose Devo-lite style was not compelling. Following this release, Sparks assembled their third legitimate line-up, with Bob Haag on guitar, Leslie Bohem on bass, and David Kendricks on drums. Helmed by Queen producer Reinhold Mack, Whomp That Sucker (1981 Virgin) finds the Maels moving in the right direction, offering Sparks' unique voice to the early '80s juggernaut of new wavy pop/rock. They improved further with the smart and energetic Angst in My Pants (1982 Atlantic), which was again helmed by Mack and peaked at #173 in America. The single "I Predict" made #60 on Billboard, while both the title track and the wonderfully goofy "Eaten by the Monster of Love" were featured in the classic 80's film, Valley Girl. Their next LP, In Outer Space, (1983 Atlantic) did even better, peaking at #88.
The following year, Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984 Atlantic), sees the group again stumbling badly. The music is tinny and unimaginative, while Russell sounds sedated and distant. The mid-'80s were not kind to Sparks. They released mostly disappointing records: the aforementioned Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat, Music You Can To (1986 MCA), Interior Design (1988 ) and a lackluster greatest hits release, A great band had become forgettable at best; a casualty of changing times and an elusive marketplace for any act not clearly tailored to the Top 40.
After taking a stab at filmmaking in the early '90s, the Maels returned from their recording hiatus with <i>Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins</i> (1994-Logic). Recorded and produced by Ron and Russell, their contemporary and smartly arranged synth pop brought new life to Sparks. Its singles "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'" and "When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)" both went Top 40 in the UK and Top 10 on the US Hot Dance chart. They followed with the fairly insignificant <i>Plagiarism</i> (1997-Roadrunner), wherein Sparks remade their old material using their new sound. However, the duo's teaming with Faith No More on a re-tooled "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" hit #40 in the UK.
In the 2000s, the group truly got rolling again, with the Maels adding drummer Tammy Glover into the mix. <i>Balls</i> (2000-Recognition) is similar in feel to <i>Gratuitous Sax</i> and nearly as good. The group's collaboration with Faith No More paid off in a new way when that band's former guitarist, Dean Menta, joined Sparks, consolidating their 21st century lineup. <i>Lil' Beethoven</i> (2002-Artful) is one of the band's best and won rave critical reviews. Throughout the disc, Sparks maintain the orchestrated dance pop of recent efforts, but add in organic elements like rock guitar, real drums, and piano, resulting in a combination of minimalist composition and keyboard-heavy art-pop that would carry them through their next couple of releases. <i>Hello Young Lovers</i> (2006-Gut) got Sparks back on the UK charts, landing them at #66. The single "Perfume" reached #80 in England.
<i>Exotic Creatures of the Deep</i> (2008-Lil' Beethoven) finds the group in fine form yet again. Sparks inched a little higher up the UK charts, reaching #54, and won more high marks from critics. Caustic and playful as ever, "Lighten Up, Morrissey" is a highlight, as is the meta-conscious "I Can't Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song." Rather than a standard tour, the band opted for a "Sparks Spectacular." Throughout May and June, they performed each of their 21 studio LPs in order, delighting hardcore fans and new recruits at London's Carling Academy Islington.
Today, Sparks are semi-big in England once more, and winning new US fans with their critically acclaimed albums. Regardless of where they live, with whom they work, or how strongly their records sell, Ron and Russell Mael have shown themselves to be among pop music's quirkiest outsiders and greatest innovators. Truly, there is no other band like Sparks.