A new documentary from director Edgar Wright brings the brilliance of the Brothers Mael to a new generation
It comes late in the two-hour twenty-minute The Sparks Brothers film and it’s spoken by late Rhino Records executive Gary Stewart: Don’t diss or dismiss any fan who comes late to the Sparks party. There are 21 studio albums to consider, music stretched over five decades, encompassing about a million different genres, sub-genres and wacky new genres, all sprung from a certain distinct mindset.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
So, if you’re a longtime fan and some eager newbie says, “Hey, I dig that weird ‘Lawnmower’ song by that new band Sparks,” you don’t want to roll your eyes and kvetch, “Where have you been?” You want to say what Stewart says: “Welcome aboard!”
Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Shaun of the Dead) has made an exhaustive documentary (out June 18) which offers us many potential entrance (and exit) points. Which is to say, as you may have guessed, Sparks’ trajectory is not all up, up, up. They’re the longest-running cult band in the world. SparksWorld is a zig-zaggy one, some hits, some misses, no apologies.
“We’ve had a style and sensibility we can’t change,” says keyboardist-songwriter Ron Mael.
“His songs and my singing are one in the same,” says younger brother, singer Russell Mael.
Cojoined forever, they are. Not like the brothers Davies in the Kinks, the brothers Gallagher in Oasis, or the Everly Brothers.
The Maels have re-created and re-invented themselves numerous times over the years, shedding fans, gaining fans, shedding band members, gaining band members, work-shopping their songs, beavering away with their heads down, risking indifference or scorn, being seen as terminally hip or past their sell-point. When old fans jump off the bandwagon and forget about them, a new song may pop into their world and after the “They’re still here!?” realization, they’re back on the train.
The Maels are completely at home with this.
My entry point (and same for more than a few others): It was on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, fall of 1974. I’d never seen or heard anything like it and I sat in front of the TV with my jaw figuratively dropped. It began with “Something for the Girl with Everything” – a jaunty/nasty, hurtling full-speed-ahead pop song of, to be polite, seduction. To be less polite, abduction.
VIDEO: Sparks on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert 1974
The lanky, bell-bottomed, curly-haired pretty boy Russell preened while singing this buoyant song in falsetto where the encounter turns to kidnapping that turns to … well, let your imagination run wild. Not the usual pop song fodder. Not at all. Meanwhile, Ron, with his slick-backed black hair and evil Hitler (or benign Chaplin) mustache, looked on with apparent scorn, tapping out toy piano lines. Maddeningly catchy. And then a scorching, hard rock guitar riff exploded behind them. (In the film, Ron explains the ‘stache – he saw Hitler and Chaplin both as comic figures. If it matters, the Maels are Jewish.)
Was Sparks funny? Yes, but the bright songs often took some very dark and malevolent twists. Others had Ron placing Russell in a state of perpetual confusion.
The Maels’ wit, often self-deprecating, runs through Wright’s film, no shock, really, considering their music. At the very beginning, sitting side by side, filmed in black and white (as is often the case here) they tell us they hate the film’s title. We later learn The Sparks Brothers was what a record exec wanted to rename them after their original name, Halfnelson, didn’t catch on with their first album. (The Maels bargained the name down to Sparks.) Director Wright joins in the self-deprecating fun. When he films himself as a talking head, the tag under him identifies him as “fanboy.” And that’s what he was, discovering Sparks in 1979 – at age 5! – with “The Number One Song in Heaven” on Top of the Pops and being immediately ensnared. As time marched on he did the backwards and forwards catch-up many of us do when we find bands we love somewhere in mid-career stream.
There are some personal Mael bits, mostly film clips and stills from when they were growing up with their parents in Pacific Palisades and stories about their upbringing. Nothing much about their personal lives except they seem to be workaholics, extremely dedicated to the music. (On-line research will tell you they’re both straight, unmarried with no kids.)
There’s a slew of famous and semi-famous commentators – from early producer/discoverer/believer Todd Rundgren to Flea to Andy Bell and Vince Clarke of Erasure to Nick Rhodes and John Taylor of Duran Duran, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order, to Beck to Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols (he saw them as a kid in London and recalls Russell as the “cutie pie” all the girls were screaming for) and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s. (The latter was briefly a paramour of Russell’s and the co-lead singer on Sparks “Cool Places.”)
“Sparks are a part of the ecosystem of music,” says Beck, noting Sparks has been “sowing seeds” across the music industry for decades.
Patton Oswalt goes rock critic-y, explaining about how you have to try figure out from what position Russell’s singing from – how many steps removed he is from the protagonist of the song, whether he’s playing a character and, if so, your challenge in puzzling out the biography or backstory.
Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos is one of the best voices. He praises their “creative recklessness” and talks (accurately) about the danger of “bands that stay too long or break up and come back to be tribute act of their own band.” Pitfalls Sparks side-stepped, pretty much. Kapranos’s band’s collaboration with Sparks, FFS, was the result of a chance meeting in L.A. and it resulted in a new wave of recognition for Sparks and an opportunity for Franz Ferdinand to jam with and salute musical heroes. And make some damn fine, skewed pop music, including the cheeky “Collaborations Don’t Work.”
As most everyone know, Sparks are the two Maels, but they most often had a band, with members who’ve been dismissed or hired frequently. Ron talks somewhat ruefully about sacking their Californian mates when they first went to England reinvent themselves with Brit musicians and the breakthrough LP, Kimono My House: “To betray the other people was a really difficult thing but to be a British band was a lifetime dream for us.”
When punk rock kicked in, Sparks were out of step (again). “The Sex Pistols album was one of the greatest albums of all time,” says Ron, “but that wasn’t where we should be going, so we had to find another direction so we would feel unthreatened.”
They ended up making another breakthrough album, The Number One Song in Heaven, which sat on the shelf for two years because record execs were baffled by the electro-disco sound Giorgio Moroder crafted. While a puzzlement for Sparks more rockist fans – most of us then – it put Sparks back on the map.
John Taylor calls it “one of the first electro-pop dance records of all time.” Suede’s Bernard Butler says, “As an electronic duo, they set the template.” Stephen Morris says that when Joy Division doing “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “the two records we were listening to were Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits and and the other was The Number One Song in Heaven.” Human League/Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware calls it “the apogee of electronic pop music for me. I can’t think of anything better.”
VIDEO: The Sparks Brothers official trailer
One thread that continues through the doc is the Maels interest in film. As kids, their father took them often – sometimes as the movie was half-way through, which Ron muses might have started them on their own jagged trajectory of songwriting. They were early fans of French new wave cinema and surrealism.
Later in life, as Sparks, there was an aborted film Tim Burton ended up not doing with them; a role in the middling 1977 thriller Rollercoaster (Sparks mimed to “Big Boy” and “Fill ‘er Up”); writing the screenplay for the upcoming Adam Driver-Marion Cotillard film, Annette (opening Aug. 6 in theaters, streaming Aug. 20 on Amazon Prime) and, now, this, where they’re the central characters.
AUDIO: Sparks feat. the cast from Annette “So May We Start”
What this doc and will do for Sparks is hard to gauge. (Same with Annette.) Fans will soak it up – even if the length is daunting and some of the commentary repetitive. If Wright’s name and reputation brings modern audiences to it, great. (Same with Cotillard and Driver.) If the Sparks-curious decide to spend the time, they’ll be well-rewarded. This is a very deep dive. The vast majority of American mainstream music fans – young and old – will probably ignore it, as has been done with Sparks music for years. Whatever happens, Sparks will carry on.
Well, actually, they already have done so. They just worked with original producer/Sparks fan Todd Rundgren and in April gave us “Your Fandango,” which actually will appear on Rundgren’s upcoming, collaborative Space Force album.
VIDEO: Todd Rundgren x Sparks “Your Fandango”