Sparks, a quirky rock band consisting mainly of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have found popularity overseas by consistently creating clever, satirical, and often catchy songs since their debut in the early 1970’s. Despite some early success, however, the U.S. charts and critics remained more or less indifferent to the duo over the next several decades, regardless of their international fame.
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael were born in southern California and began their careers in show business at an early age. At their mother’s urging, both modeled for clothing catalogs for over a year as teenagers. Their combined artistic talents found a musical outlet in 1970, when the brothers and some friends from school formed the band Halfnelson, with Ron writing the songs and playing keyboards and Russell providing vocals. While studying graphic design, literature, and film at UCLA, the group recorded a demo tape and presented it to every major and minor record label, only to be met with indifference. A friend then mailed one of their tapes to rock artist Todd Rundgren, who had just recently began to explore music from the production side. Rundgren was sufficiently impressed to agree to go to Los Angeles to produce Halfnelson’s first album.
The band’s formative years were characterized by rough-edged guitar and primitive instrumentation. Ron Mael described some of their early percussive effects to Melody Maker: “We used to beat on cardboard boxes with reverb on and run it through amps.” Their first album was completed in 1972, but was virtually ignored until their label recommended that they change their name and put a photo of the band members on the cover. Thus Sparks were born. Sparks included the Billboard U.S. top ten hit “Wondergirl,” and the band was invited to perform on American Bandstand to promote the single. Unfortunately, American audiences were disinterested with their 1973 follow-up A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, so, at their label’s urging, Sparks traveled to Europe.
The band embarked on a whirlwind tour of England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, where they were met with open arms. The visit left an indelible mark, and Sparks would eventually find that their unique sound could only find true success in the open-minded European market. Following the tour some of the original band members moved on to new projects, and Sparks became simply Ron and Russell backed by different set musicians for each album. In 1974 the duo signed with Island Records and released Kimono My House and
For the Record…
Members include Ron Mael, born August 12, 1948, in Culver City, CA; and Russell Mael, born October, 1953, in Santa Monica, CA.
First album as Halfnelson produced by Todd Rundgren, 1971; released U.S. Top Ten hit “Wonder-girl” and were invited to perform on American Band-stand, 1972; embarked on a whirlwind tour of England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, where they attracted a considerable following, 1973; signed with Island Records and released Kimono My House and Propaganda, the first of many albums to become hits in Europe but little notice in the U.S.; released No.1 in Heaven, an album often credited with having planted the seed for the New Wave sound of the 1980s, 1979; began a trend toward New Wave, dance-oriented tunes, 1980s; reemerged in Europe with Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, 1994.
Addresses: Fan club —Sparks International Fan Club, P.O. Box 25038, Los Angeles, CA, 90025; Management— D.E.F., P.O. Box 2477, London NW6 6NQ, England.
Propaganda, produced by Muff Winwood (brother of Steve). In a pattern that repeated itself throughout their career, both albums became hits in Europe but barely received notice in the U.S. Sparks were beginning to develop a cult American following, however, that would remain devoted to them over the years.
The band’s lack of recognition in the U.S. may have been attributable to Sparks often off-the-wall lyrics and Russell’s falsetto, which, when combined with traditional rock instrumentation, was too unusual for American tastes. Songs like “Talent Is An Asset,” which viewed Albert Einstein’s genius from the vantage point of his overbearing relatives, or “Reinforcements,” a love song in the guise of military maneuvers, were BBC favorites but never received airplay in Sparks’ home country.
Undaunted by American critics, Sparks went on to release Indiscreet (1975) and Big Beat (1976), both of which featured a sound that predicted the widespread use of keyboards and drum machines. They had hoped that the more straightforward Big Beat would be more accessible for American audiences, but their appearances on BBC’s “Top of the Pops” still vastly outnumbered those on U.S. radio. Russell later opined to Melody Maker: “You need the sledgehammer approach here (in the U.S.) and people had to think a little too much about what Sparks were doing… The quaintness was really acceptable in England, …[where] that charming sound was what people came to expect from us.”
At each stage of their development the Maels found themselves on the forefront of the next big pop trend. In the late 1970s, after hearing a disco album produced by Giorgio Morodor, they recruited his assistance for 1979’s No.1 in Heaven. One of the first albums to utilize synthesizers to create a dance beat, No. 1 in Heaven is often credited with having planted the seed for the New Wave sound of the 1980s and arguably influenced groups such as Depeche Mode, the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and Morrissey. Although some in the British press decried the band for converting to disco, their public still loved such quirky, catchy tunes as “Beat the Clock” and the album’s title track, which both hit the charts immediately.
The next decade of Sparks’s career was characterized by a feverish pace of releases. 1980’s Terminal Jive (featuring the No. 1 French hit “When I’m With You”) and 1981 ‘s Whomp That Sucker finally created a stir amongst U.S. critics. New songs like “Tips for Teens” (“Soon, you will lose all your zits/Tight sweaters no longer fit”) garnered the band a reappearance on American Bandstand, and even one Rolling Stone reviewer sent a wake up call: “These guys should be someone’s heroes by now…. These borderline wacko cases are probably the most intriguing yin-yang brother duo in rock & roll.”
“1982’s Angst In My Pants furthered Sparks’ conversion to New Wave dance-oriented tunes and featured some of their most literate and rhythmic songwriting. The hit title track, a classic tale of sexual frustration, is cleverly contrasted with “Sextown U.S.A.,” where if “you try to abstain, they’ll send you to the prison for the criminally insane.” “I Predict” derides the often overzealous tabloids (“Lassie will prove that Elvis and her/Had afleeting affair”) and “Moustache” profiles Ron’s controversial facial hair (“When I trimmed it real small/My Jewish friends would never call”). Their next releases, Sparks In Outer Space (1983) and Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984), didn’t produce as many hits, but were still wellreceived in Europe.
By now Ron and Russell were well established as a two-man band, so for Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat and 1986’s Music That You Can Dance To the brothers decided to maintain firm control over their recordings by becoming their own producers. They took some of the best elements from their previous albums and produced dance-club hits like “Music That You Can Dance To” and “Modesty Plays,” which earned them a place on the hip Fright Night soundtrack. After setting up their own home studio for 1988’s Interior Design, the brothers took an extended break before returning in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. The band’s reemergence on the music scene was well-received in Europe, where listeners found the trademark Sparks sound still intact in satirical songs like “Now That I Own the BBC” and the self-reflexive “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way, ‘” which can be read either as a send-up of Frank Sinatra, or, more significantly, of Sparks themselves.
“When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” became the ninth Sparks single to hit the Top 40 overseas. The U.S. continued to elude them, mainly due to their resolve in maintaining the dance-club sound, which was at the time very unpopular with American radio programmers. Still, the British and German press welcomed their return to the music world. Q called Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins a “triumph,” adding that “this majestically punned collection is further proof of the injustices of their continued lack of commercial success.” Melody Maker referred to the album as a “wicked fantasy of revenge for years of unforgivable airplay deprivation” and “a magnificent flight of berserk imagination.”
Sparks represent a rarity in the popular music industry. Although they were never successful in their native country, they found immense popularity in Europe and continued to release offbeat, enigmatic albums despite commercial pressures to conform. The duo’s tongue in-cheek lyricism and unfailing ear for hummable melodies have allowed them to survive several decades of record-industry turbulence without sacrificing their commitment to themselves or their music. The Mael brothers’ imperturbable, self-mocking wit has prevailed over any disappointment they felt regarding their lack of success in the U.S. top 40. As Russell told Attitudein 1994: “We must be the only band to reach their sixteenth album and still be trying to crack it.”
(As Halfnelson) Halfnelson, Bearsville, 1971.
Sparks, Bearsville, 1971.
A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, Bearsville, 1972.
Kimono My House, Island, 1974.
Propaganda, Island, 1974.
Indiscreet, Island, 1975.
Big Beat, CBS, 1976.
Introducing Sparks, CBS, 1977.
No. 1 in Heaven, Virgin, 1979.
Terminal Jive, Virgin, 1980.
Whomp That Sucker, RCA, 1981.
Angst in My Pants, Atlantic, 1982.
Sparks in Outer Space, Atlantic, 1983.
Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat, Atlantic, 1984.
Music That You Can Dance To, MCA/Curb, 1986.
Interior Design, Fine Art/Rhino, 1988.
Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection, Rhino, 1991.
Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, Logic/Arista, 1994.
Attitude, November 1994.
Melody Maker, April 13, 1974; June 8, 1974; January 8, 1977;November 27, 1993; March 2, 1996.
Q, October 22, 1994.
Rolling Stone, October 29, 1981.
"Sparks." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sparks
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Sparks, city (1990 pop. 53,367), Washoe co., W Nev., just E of Reno; inc. 1905. The Southern Pacific RR was the major employer until the dieselization of railroad engines forced the closing (1957) of the railroad shops there. The city still has railroad activities, and tourism is a major industry. Manufactures include medical supplies; modular structures; machinery; transportation equipment; concrete, paper, and wood products; electrical and electronic equipment; and restaurant equipment. There is also printing and publishing and minerals exploration. Sparks is in the Reno metropolitan area, one of the fastest-growing areas of the United States. Points of interest include a planetarium and a monument honoring the Chinese who built the railroad.
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