“They don’t really look like a band,” British talk show host Jonathan Ross declares, “They just look like people who’ve been let out for the day.”
Sparks are one of the great anomalies of popular music, with a Mark Bolan lookalike frontman thrusting about like Jagger and a motionless artist sporting what can only be described as a ‘Hitler moustache’ on the keyboards, pumping out theatrical sonic mayhem disguised as synth-pop. To the naked eye, they’re certainly not the most conventional group. The appearance of the band is as enigmatic as their story, even the fact that they’re American and not British is surprising to some, but perhaps most surprising of all is their sound.
There’s no telling what sort of music you’d expect a band like Sparks to make from aesthetics and name alone, but a sort of Pet Shop Boys on acid with the intelligent satirical lyricism of a more dada-ist Randy Newman, all wrapped in a hue of DEVO-Esque art-rock, would not be the first guess.
Equally suspiring is that the origin of the band stretches all the way back to 1967 when the two brothers Ron and Russell Mael (who look absolutely nothing alike) formed a band called Halfnelson in their Los Angeles bedroom. The brothers then slowly transitioned into Sparks.
Paul McCartney, with an ever-keen eye on the happening music scene around him, soon became aware of the oddball brothers blazing a trail of sui generis pop hits and became somewhat of a fan. Always ahead of the curve, even since these early days, they have not only inspired Paul McCartney but they have also been cited as a major influence by a varied slew of musicians, including Morrissey, Björk, The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Arctic Monkeys, Beck and Nirvana, to name but a few. They are not merely a favourite of musicians but have also amassed a cult of fans all over the world, although more notably in Europe as opposed to their native USA.
In their early days, the idiosyncratic stylings, stage persona, falsetto singing, and rhythmic melodies were already in place. The sound and instrumentation were more akin to what was coming out of the nearby Whiskey a Go Go rock club that inspired them to be musicians. However, by the time of their first big hit, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’, which charted at number two in the UK, their unique sound was essentially fully formed. Gradually they became more and more New Wave, but it also has to be noted that they were a central proponent in spawning the New Wave in the first place.
For Paul McCartney’s ‘Coming Up’ video in 1980, he seemingly went in full parody mode as he took on the roles of a full band laden with familiar looks, but none more noticeable than his take on the wild ways of most peculiar keys player since Moondog and his pouting brother Russell Mael.