Get to know Sparks, your favorite band from your favorite band: NPR
Features of Anna Webber / Focus
Influential, underestimated and ignored – this has long been the dominant opinion of musical duo Sparks, who count among their most ardent fans Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Stephen Morris of Joy Division / New Order and pop producer Jack Antonoff. Sparks’ story begins in the 1960s in Los Angeles, where the music scene was dominated by the Californian sound popularized by the Beach Boys and folk rock artists of Laurel Canyon. While they were students at UCLA, Ron Mael and his younger brother Russell were drawn to totally different sounds.
“We were passionate about British bands like The Who, The Kinks and The Move,” Ron recalls. “The music was really flashy, and the visuals were something really important.”
Ron was an aspiring keyboard wizard. Russell could sing, possessing a distinctive falsetto and a formidable vocal range. Calling themselves the Urban Renewal Project, then later Halfnelson, they recorded original demos that eventually caught the attention of Todd Rundgren, who produced their self-titled 1971 debut album.
While the effort was critically acclaimed and produced some minor success, it was not a commercial success. Renaming themselves Sparks, the Mael brothers decamped for England in 1973, where they hoped to find a more receptive audience.
The group’s exit in 1974 Kimono My House was a critical and commercial success, spawning two of the top 10 UK singles. When Sparks appeared on the BBC The top of the pops, filmmaker Edgar Wright says they made a distinct impression.
“Russell is conventionally good-looking but quite androgynous and likes to strut around like a woman’s blouse, which would have been something at the time,” Wright said. “Ron has that Chaplin-style toothbrush mustache, and his hair slicked back, so he looks a bit like a creepy substitute teacher who has walked around in front of the TV. And on top of that, he’s watching the audience in the lens. at home, without smiling. “
Although the Sparks managed to attract a significant number of followers, Wright says it’s no surprise that they failed to reach the mainstream: “They were kind of provocateurs in a sense. . There was something a little shocking about it, and coupled with their sound, it was too much for some people. “
The Mael Brothers returned to the United States in 1976, exploring heavier rock sounds before changing course and hiring producer Giorgio Moroder for their 1979 electro-pop effort, N ° 1 in paradise.
Critic David Fear says the album influenced a whole generation of British bands, including synth and electro pop duets like Erasure and Pet Shop Boys. In 1983, Sparks scored his first American Top 50 hit, “Cool Places,” a new wave-inspired collaboration with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s. From there it was electronic pop dance, then classically influenced pop art, and even a radio musical commissioned by Swedish Public Radio.
Rather than just staying ahead, says Fear, Sparks has always “built the curve,” relentlessly innovating in new terrain, sometimes at the expense of the recognition they’ve earned. Indeed, in a career spanning five decades and 25 albums, beyond their status as a beloved band, Sparks has remained largely unknown.
However, this summer, Sparks finally seems to have his time. Edgar Wright’s new documentary, The Sparks Brothers, is a star-studded love letter celebrating Mael’s quirky originality. It’s now in theaters and streaming on demand. Sparks has also partnered with French director Leos Carax on the unconventional musical film Annette, with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Following the opening of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it will hit theaters in the US on August 6 and air from August 20.
While some Sparks superfans may be ambivalent about the appearance of their favorite “secret” band, Russell Mael says he hopes the wave of attention will expand the reach of their audience. Where to start delving into the band’s vast eclectic discography is a challenge, but, thanks to NPR’s Bob Mondello, here are a few suggestions.