|Russell (l) and Ron Mael|
Variously called the most “successful”, “underrated”, “influential”, “criminally overlooked” and even “the best British Band to come from America”, Sparks have simultaneously confused and exhilarated audiences and critics alike for half a century.
Originating in Los Angeles where they still live, Spark sare the brothers Russell Mael on vocals and Ron Mael, keyboardist and songwriter. They claim their earliest influences to be Hollywood matinees and the National Football League.
They have toured relentlessly for 50 years and in 2008 even performed all 21 albums they had released to that date during 29 nights in London. Despite one financially fallow period of six years, they have now released 27 albums and written over 300 songs, the latest being the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s Annette (2021), a film they also wrote.
Film projects that fell over include Confusion, a film with Jacques Tati during the early 1980s and Mai, the Psychic Girl, an adaptation of a manga comic for Tim Burton in the late 1980s. In 2009, they released a radio musical for the Swedes called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, imagining the great director had been enticed to work in Hollywood.
Despite the prodigious output, Sparks have never managed “to make it” in the USA, a lament that runs continuously throughout The Sparks Brothers.
David Chiu in Forbes magazine has a go at citing their continuously transforming musical genres – glam rock, art rock, power pop, disco, synthpop, house, techno and chamber pop, all featuring Russell’s operatic singing.
Their influence on electronic music during the 1980s is profound and bands cited include The Human League, New Order, Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Franz Ferdinand and Faith No More. They have been produced by Tony Visconti, Todd Rundgren and Georgio Moroder and admired by Bjork, Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney, Def Leppard, Beck and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols.
Their eccentric and satiric take on life includes titles for their albums such as Gratuitous Sex and Senseless Violins, Balls,Angst in My Pants and Whomp That Sucker. Then there’s the song titles including Lighten Up Morrissey, When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’, I Married Myself, What Are These Bands So Angry About?, Missionary Position, I Thought I Told You To Stay In The Car, Dick Around, Tips For Teens, Everybody’s Stupid and Throw Her Away and Get a New One.
One genius not mentioned in The Sparks Brothers but whose satiric music and biting lyrics veer close the Maels is Frank Zappa. Edgar Wright’s exhaustive detailing of his subjects’ lives has a great deal in common with Alex Winter’s Zappa (2020), documentaries really made for both die-hard fans and inquisitive newcomers to Sparks and Frank Zappa.
At 2 hours 10 minutes Zappa is actually shorter than The Sparks Brothers which rolls around at 2 hours 20 minutes (the exact same length as Carax’s Annette). The biggest difference is that Edgar Wright’s subjects are alive and happily self-reflexive and self-deprecating about being interviewed, while Zappa’s posthumous interviews were very much of their time and dated.
Annette isn’t getting great reviews in Australia. Both David Stratton and Christos Tsiolkos seem to have found it insufferable, despite Carax’s Best Director gong at Cannes. It’s true Annette’s operatic arc doesn’t show off Sparks’s versatility and intellectual wit but it would a pity if Annette detractors therefore decided to avoid The Sparks Brothers.
They might be missing out on the greatest band they have never heard of.