The Strange World Of: Sparks
, May 29th, 2008 00:00
Simon Price guides the Quietus through notable moments in the world of Sparks
Everyone’s got one. We all have our favourite great underrated band we love to ramble on about, fuming at the injustice of their omission from the accepted version of events, angered at their absence from the grand narrative of rock history, outraged at their exclusion from the hall of fame. Sparks, surely, are the ultimate.
Oh, the Mael brothers had their moment. One huge hit, a couple of follow-ups, and - thanks to Russell’s pretty-boy looks, if not Ron’s unsettling Victorian serial killer demeanour - the fickle fluttering hearts of the Jackie generation (including a young Steven Morrissey, who famously stalked the brothers to the extent of collecting uneaten toast from their hotel breakfast plates). Which is why, to the masses, Sparks - if the name triggers any recognition whatsoever - will always be the band who sang 'This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us'. Those who are a little more in-the-know, however, will be aware that in the early 1970s, Sparks were neck and neck with Eno’s Roxy as art-glam pioneers, and right up there with Queen for rock operatics.
What few people other than hardcore adherents of Sparxism recognise, though, is that over the last four decades, Ron and Russell Mael have been superior even to Bowie in terms of long-term consistency. Their current record-breaking London residency, the 21-date Sparks Spectacular (in which they play every album from their career, one per night), is presumably intended to go some way towards redressing that injustice. It seems to be working. Suddenly - while they still remain underrated in relation to the true level of their genius - the Mael brothers are right back on the agenda.
Sparks are, in Taylor Parkes’ brilliant phrase, “straight, American band with a gay, European aesthetic”. In whatever subgenre of pop they choose to operate (and they’ve tried most of them), the Maels exhibit an exquisite archness, playfulness, intellect and wit that is far beyond that of anyone else working in the medium.
Their fellow artists know this. If they haven’t been a hugely successful band in terms of sales, they’ve been a highly influential one. They’ve been covered by artists ranging from Siouxsie and New Order to Justin Hawkins, they provided the prototype for pretty much every synth duo of the 1980s (although not, as Neil Tennant sniffily asserted at a recent talk, Pet Shop Boys), their falsetto hysteria can he heard through The Associates, Suede and Pulp, and they’re an acknowledged influence upon the likes of The Dresden Dolls, Fischerspooner and Franz Ferdinand.
One reason why their ouevre is under-appreciated is that legal complications arising from their frequent label-hopping means that with the arguable exception of 1997’s Plagiarism (in which Sparks, aided by guest vocalists, ’covered’ their own hits), there has never been a satisfactory career-spanning best-of. With such a huge body of work to grapple with, Sparks can appear daunting to the beginner. Where to start? An easy ten-point primer|
'This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us' (Island single, 1973)
An obvious choice, but deservedly so. There can never be too much said about the song which bears what is arguably the greatest pop lyric of all time. Russell, interpreting Ron’s words (the older Mael has written the vast majority of Sparks songs), plays the paranoid suitor in a voice that’s constantly on the edge of helium hysteria. “The thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers”, and then some.
'Something For The Girl With Everything' (Island single, 1975)
The second-greatest single from Sparks’ chartbusting days, essentially a sly updating of the Christmas carol 'A Partridge In A Pear Tree', with Russell almost tripping over himself in his haste to bestow ever more extravagant gifts upon the object of his desire, and containing the immortal couplet “Careful with that crate/You wouldn’t want to dent Sinatra”.
Indiscreet (Island album, 1975)
Tony Visconti, the architect of glam rock, hooks up with the Maels for one album, and runs riot with an insane neo-Vaudevillean folly. Rather than rock’n’roll, Indiscreet is informed by Charleston swing and Weimar cabaret, and even (on 'Get In The Swing') the exuberant sound of carnival marching bands, and has lyrical themes ranging from a Parisian hotelier getting maimed in a terrorist attack to the the desexualisation of breasts after childbirth. A commercial disaster which baffled their teeny-pop fans (the sleeve, tellingly, features Ron and Russell crawling from the wreckage of a private jet), but an artistic triumph.
Number One In Heaven (Virgin album, 1979)
Impressed by his work with Donna Summer, the Maels hook up with Giorgio Moroder for a shuddering, shimmering suite of synthetic futurism. Six songs long, six long songs (in keeping with Moroder’s modus operandi). It’s not without Sparks’ trademark wit, either, for example the precocious protagonist of 'Beat The Clock': “Too bad there ain’t ten of you/Then I’d show you what I’d do/I could cheat on five of you/And be faithful to you, too/But there’s only one of you|” A turning point in musical history: white intellectuals engage with electro-disco, and the world is never the same again.
'Funny Face' (Why Fi single, 1981)
Life And Loves Of A She-Devil in reverse. A beautiful model with a perfectly symmetrical face cannot find happiness, and decides that the only way to achieve it is to jump from a bridge and sustain severe facial disfigurements. One of the Maels’ most extreme juxtapositions of happy pop melody with deeply dark subject matter.
'Change' (London single, 1985)
A film noir-style spoken word monologue over an episodic and almost preposterously dramatic backing track, in which Russell rakes over the embers of a recently-extinguished affair. It’s in turns deliciously funny (“The rain is falling down/And I feel like a dog that’s been kicked out into the street/I know that dogs can’t drive cars/But that’s about the only difference between us now|”) and heartbreakingly poignant (“You know, I’ve been thinking maybe we’ll get back together some day/And your hair will be some weird colour by then|”). Incredibly, this was performed on Wogan.
'Singing In The Shower' (Virgin single, 1988)
A collaboration with French art-pop loons Les Rita Mitsouko, with Russell duetting with former porno star Catherine Ringer, 'Singing In The Shower' is a mother of an earworm (despite, or perhaps because of, the passing resemblance the melody of the verses bears to that of 'We Are Detective' by The Thompson Twins). Hear it once, and try getting it out of your head.
'National Crime Awareness Week' (Columbia single, 1993) A great lost single, even by Sparks standards: a furious house track over which a serial criminal taunts the police and the media, telling them how honoured and flattered he is by headlines like ’Unknown Caucasian Strikes One More Time’.
Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins (Logic/BMG album, 1994)
Lead-off single 'When Do I Get To Sing My Way?' has the bittersweet autumnal mood of 'September Song', 'Is That All There Is', 'It Was A Very Good Year' and (yes) 'My Way' itself rolled into one: a dignified, defeated (and danceable) auto-elegy from a singer who knows his future is in the past. The rest of Gratuitous Sax is equally smart, self-aware and hook-happy. A hell of a comeback from Sparks’ semi-hiatus.
Lil' Beethoven (Artful album, 2002)
One of Sparks’ most ambitious works, Lil’ Beethoven is a true opus, built largely from looped samples and repeated mantras. Vignettes include Russell imagining a 'Rhythm Thief' nicking off with dance culture’s drum track ('Oh no! Where did the beat go? Lights out, Ibiza!') and, on 'Your Call Is Very Important To Us| Please Hold', inflating something as mundane as being kept in telephonic limbo by a call centre into a melodrama. The live performance was accompanied by specially made film clips and humorous mime routines to accompany each song, lending credence to the idea that Ron’s famous moustache was inspired not by Hitler, but by Chaplin.