“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.
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 near-by 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.
Sparks have been cited as a major influence by a varied slew of musicians including Morrissey, Bjork, 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.
After 24 studio albums, they have now garnered enough interest to be both the subjects of a Leos Carax movie (which the band wrote), and the forthcoming Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers. Below, we’re looking at the six best ways to tackle the otherworldly puzzle that the “best British group ever to come out of America” present.
The six definitive Sparks songs:
‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ (1974)
The band’s first big hit proves to be the most easily palatable place to start. Not to dismiss their first two records, Halfnelson (reissued as Sparks) or A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, but it was clear that they were still an act finding their feet in the early days. It takes a lot of confidence to be as weird as Sparks, and their brash bravura was lacking to some extent at their inception. It wasn’t until there their third record that they fully harnessed their mutant pop potential.
This lead track announced a new dawn for the band and sealed their fate as the weirdest duo clinging to the underbelly of synth-pop, like barnacles of wacky but harmless intent. The band had recently moved to England, relocating their parents and a piano to a small flat in Clapham Junction, where this manic opera was conceived. The song is a controlled explosion of adrenalised sound with one of the most rhythmically chaotic outros in music.
‘The Number One Song in Heaven’ (1979)
In 1979 the band teamed up with the ‘Godfather of Disco’ Giorgio Moroder and produced the uber New Wave hit ‘The Number One Song in Heaven’. The song and its success heralded in the evolution of their synth sound and affirmed their status as a cult favourite.
As ever, Sparks achieved a sound that seemed very much ahead of its time, although that would suggest that its time has since come. Running counter to the punk of the era, the melody is about as polished as they come. It also continued Ron’s propagation of surrealist lyricism and his songwriting flair for making the absurd seem just about passable.
‘Angst In My Pants’ (1982)
After years of sound heading forever closer to total synth-pop oblivion, the found the necessary equipment a bit too bulky for touring and thus a style as close to the Sparks could get to ‘more conventional’ returned. The synth was still the driving force in this early ’80s era but duelling guitars had also made a comeback.
‘Angst In My Pants’, the titular opener to their 1982 album exhibited the John Cooper Clarke school of lyricism to “say smart things about stupid subjects as opposed the far worse reversal”. The track is a toe-tapper of the highest order with a cracking drumbeat hook and its certainly one of their best from this period.
‘When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’’ (1994)
By the mid-1980s the band had become far less prolific with their output, meaning that the brilliantly named album Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins represented somewhat of a comeback. Whilst their popularity may have waned a little bit in the interim, the fact that ‘When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’’ still reached 32 in the UK charts was testimony to their undying cult love.
The record saw the band embrace the emerging techno and house sounds and marry them with their now-iconic synth sound. The track is silly and light-hearted but with a self-evident undercurrent of intelligence that assures you that yes, indeed, this thing is one big joke, but in the best possible way.
‘Lighten Up, Morrissey’ (2008)
“She won’t have sex with me, no, she won’t have sex, ‘Less it’s done with a pseudonym” is the sort of lyric that only really Ron Mael could lucid dream into song. The track documents the distorted narrative of a man who believes that the only reason a woman won’t have sex with him is that he’s not as dower as The Smith’s frontman.
The song is a fine example of the wit and playfulness that runs throughout their back catalogue. The side note to that song is that a pre-fame Morrissey apparently used to be such a fan of Sparks that he once allegedly collected a piece of a discarded bread roll that one of the brothers had had for breakfast.
‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ (2017)
Whilst a lot of bands operating half a century after their inception may well have seen their best days sail by them, Sparks’ 2017 record Hippopotamus may well have been the most critically acclaimed of their entire career.
This endurance of quality is testimony to their unwavering artistic integrity that doesn’t just bubble under all of the fun but fundamentally meddles with it. The surrealist brothers once again showed eclectic menagerie of influences off in another stellar tune that probes, self-referentially, at pop-culture. Never boring and always eviscerating banality with a humorous trope trumping originality, Sparks are a weird but somehow essential offshoot of alternative music and art culture. ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ is another triumph example of the whacky duo musical wizardry.