Sparks aren’t just any old pop band. Formed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the former child models were just too weird for the macho chest-beating alpha male loving American rock scene of the 70s, Sparks have always enjoyed far greater success in Europe. Following some tentative steps as Halfnelson, the brothers would form Sparks with English musicians and slowly but surely make their way towards some serious chart action, all while sporting a unique image that was a blend of slightly sinister glam rock and more serious art-rock tendencies. Russell as the flamboyant frontman vocalist would often raise the eyebrow of the more conservative parents watching Top of the Pops that week, but it was Ron, barely moving behind his keyboards while glowering at us, and sporting a toothbrush moustache that scandalised the easily offended.
While “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” remains the biggest hit single of Sparks lengthy career, they would continue their arch art-rock ways well into the late 70s, when the Mael brothers took time out challenge music fans’ concept of what a band was by slimming down to a duo and working with Giorgio Morroder to create No.1 in Heaven, and thereby accidentally creating the blueprint for the synth pop that would become so popular throughout the 1980s. The 80s and 90s would see Sparks continue to forge a unique path, albeit one that saw progressively less in the way of commercial success.
Things were looking pretty dire by the turn of the millennium, with Sparks sounding far too much like the acts that had themselves claimed Sparks as an influence earlier in their career. While this approach provided a nice ouroborous indebted symmetry as they consumed the acts that had consumed them, it showed an uncharacteristic lack of originality on the part of Sparks. Something had to change. And change they did.
Kimono my House
While Spark’s first pair of albums recorded for Island Records met with indifference, they did at least give the Mael brothers chance to bed in their band before a full on assault on the pop charts. Released at a time when Glam Rock dominated the singles chart, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” was an irresistible serving of art pop wrapped in a fashionable glittery cape. An iconic promotional appearance on Top of the Pops, which saw Russell mugging and capering around the stage, while the Charlie Chaplin moustache sporting Ron sat eerily motionless, glowering behind his keyboard, suitably freaking out any parents that happened to be watching. The television appearance inevitably saw the single reach the upper end of the charts, dragging the fine Kimono my House album in its wake as it did so.
The most commercially successful Sparks album released while they were a full band, as opposed to just the Mael Brothers, Kimono my House just edges out Propaganda and Indiscreet as the best Mid 70s Sparks album, simply because it is the one with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” on it. Not that the band’s signature number dominates Kimono my House, instead it just raises the album to the next level, so it stands as a monument to arch and knowing art rock without seeming unnecessarily smug about it in the same way that so many of their contemporaries were.
Kimono My House was the album on which Sparks became the band that Roxy Music always wanted to be.
No.1 in Heaven
By the late 70s, the Mael Brothers had realised that the traditional rock band format was no longer working for them. Each of their album releases since Kimono my House had seen diminishing returns, so it was obvious that changes were needed.
With Sparks having slimmed down to the Mael brothers duo, through a combination of dumb luck and chicanery, they hooked with disco super-producer Giorgio Moroder, who managed to provide the shot in the arm that Sparks’ career needed. The resulting album, No.1 in Heaven found them creatively refreshed, with four of the six songs released as singles, and three of them, “Try Outs for the Human Race”, “No.1 Song in Heaven” and “Beat the Clock” being phenomenal pop songs.
Sparks late 70s comeback was well deserved, and it went a long way to popularis the keyboard player plus vocalist duo format of synth-pop bands for the next decade. In that sense No.1 in Heaven is not only one of Sparks strongest albums by some margin, but also one of their most influential, though the importance of Giorgio Moroder in the whole process can never be overstated.
Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins
By the early 90s Sparks appeared to be at a point of no return. Their last album, the less the enticing Interior Design had been released in 1988 to zero reaction, and they had since gone uncharacteristically quiet. Had they quietly thrown in the towel and walked away from music? No one really seemed to know.
Then, seemingly without warning, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins was released. It’s awful title matched by its done-in-Quark-Express-in-half-an-hour artwork, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins initially didn’t seem to offer anything new from Sparks until you heard “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?”, a song which was a cut above the material Sparks had been releasing as singles for a while. It proved to be a sizeable hit in Germany, and generated interest in the album, which was an update to The Sparks sound, albeit one that was drawing a little too much inspiration from the acts that had confessed to being inspired by Sparks themselves. “Now That I Own the BBC” saw Sparks try contemporary dance-pop and it oddly suited them.
While it didn’t revitalise Spark’s career, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins hinted that The Mael Brothers weren’t devoid of inspiration, they just needed to find their audience again.
After a few more years of exploring the same electro-pop cul-de-sac, Sparks hit the reset button, and returned with an album that was so arresting and unique that it pretty much reinvented them. Gone was the reliance on electronic beats, to be replaced with grand orchestrations and repeated lyrics.
If you want to pinpoint where Spark’s current career renaissance started, then look no further than Lil’ Beethoven, the opening track of which asks “Where did the groove go?”, and encourages us to “Say goodbye to the beat”.
Lil’ Beethoven is an album that manages the neat trick of sounding important while not sounding self-important. Ronald’s piano playing took centre stage, backed up by synthetic orchestrations, while Russell sang cyclical lyrics and the whole combination was specifically designed to capture the ear of music fans who knew a sophisticated pop sound when they heard one.
Few acts ever manage to make an album as good as Lil’ Beethoven, and even fewer manage to do so thirty years into their career.
Hello Young Lovers
Hello Young Lovers is the album that proved that Lil’ Beethoven was no one-off fluke, and that the return of Sparks as a major creative force was in full swing. Oh yeah, and there are big guitars on this one too. Songs like “Dick Around”, “There’s No Such Things as Aliens”, and “Perfume” are modern classics, and are highlights of a career not short on highlights.
The Mael Brothers ensured that there was a measure more production polish on Hello Young Lovers compared to Lil’ Beethoven, confirming that this was no simple retread of an album which revitalised them creatively. Hello Young Lovers was the next step in the evolution of The Sparks sound, and subsequent albums have continued to expand on that.
Like Lil’ Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers manages the fine balance between being genuinely clever music, and brilliant entertainment. There’s no po-faced precious artist posturing here, this is Sparks being Sparks, and no one does being Sparks better.
The Very Best Of
Quite simply, there are far too many cheap and cheerful Sparks compilations out there, and they’re of variable quality. One of the better ones is 2000’s The Very Best of, which cherry picks material from the 70s and early 80s, a period in which Sparks albums were variable in their quality.
This compilation highlights that even when Sparks were not enjoying commercial success, they had an ear for a great tune. Songs like “I Predict”, “Eaten by the Monster of Love” and “Pretending to be Drunk” might easily be overlooked by those concentrating on Sparks’ 70s output or their career renaissance since the start of the millennium, however this inexpensive and easy to find collection makes the case for them as brilliant pop entertainment, which really is what Sparks whole career has been about.