The second half of our exclusive chat with Ron Mael
Ron Mael – half of Sparks, the odd-looking fellow, the stern keyboardist, the primary songwriter, the one who used to sport a Hitler/Chaplin mustache – is on the phone from L.A.
We’re talking, of course, about COVID-19 and enforced isolation. Specifically, how it’s affected the creative world of Ron and his younger brother, singer Russell, who lives close by.
“It’s difficult for everybody,” Ron says. “At the beginning of this whole thing, it was paralyzing, but I’m really trying to fight through it and write a little bit every day. There’s a general quarantine in Los Angeles so even though I go out walking with my face mask and my hand sanitizer, I haven’t been able to go up to Russell’s to work which we do on most days, whatever we’re doing. I’ve been writing a little bit at my place and just trying to fight through the whole thing. It’s so deflating as far as getting the energy to do things and I really don’t want to succumb to that so I’ve been doing all I can.”
This netherworld is, I say, makes every day feel like Sunday.
“That’s pretty much it,” says Ron. “You think, surely the days would go really slow, but in a way, they seem to go really fast. I don’t understand that exactly.”
Ah! But will great songs arise out of this misery? This history of art has shown this to be often so. How about for Sparks?
“It isn’t something I want to remember in any sense,” says Ron.
The spark for Sparks was struck in the late ‘60s. But it really got rolling in the early ‘70s and the two Mael brothers are now in their 70s. That means over half a century of music-making. And pre-COVID-19 they were pretty damn active, still making some of the best music of their lives. They have a new album, A Steady Drip, Drip Drip dropping (haha) May 15, and a couple of film projects, Annette (starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, directed by Leos Carax) and an as-yet-untitled documentary (directed by Edgar Wright of Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead fame) in the can (haha again).
VIDEO: Sparks “One For The Ages”
Sparks began as Halfnelson in Palisades Park, Cal, where the Maels grew up. Things began to gestate in the late ‘60s. They released two albums on Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville imprint, one eponymous and the other A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. They a curious entity, certainly out of step with everything else going on and, no surprise, they were not successful, entering the world as the blue-jeaned and blues-based Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band were what rock ‘n’ roll meant to loads of people.
Halfnelson was an American band with an Anglophilic bent. By 1973, the brothers had changed the band name, actually moved to England, shed the American guys – Earle (guitar) and Jim (bass) Mankey and drummer Harley Feinstein – and acquired a British backing band, guitarist Adrian Fisher, bassist Martin Gordon and drummer Dinky Diamond.
Most fans never knew the band during their early era, but they exploded – in a manner of speaking, which is to say the UK – in 1974 with Kimono My House, featuring the dizzying madcap rush of a single, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” which went to No. 2.
VIDEO: Sparks “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”
That’s when I first saw them – not live, of course, but on TV. 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 nasty, hurtling full-speed-ahead pop song of, to be polite, seduction. To be less polite, abduction.
The lanky, bell-bottomed, curly-haired pretty boy Russell preened while singing this buoyant song 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 mustache looked on with apparent scorn, tapping out toy piano lines. Maddeningly catchy. And then a scorching, hard rock guitar riff exploded behind them.
The set capper was the insanely infectious, hysterical “Talent Is an Asset,” where poor young Albert Einstein is pretty much held captive by his parents who want to keep his genius intact and shield him away from life’s indignities, or relationships, or anything and everything.
VIDEO: Sparks on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert 1974
Was Sparks funny? Yes, but the bright songs often took some very dark twists. Others had Russell in a confused state. In “Equator,” he bemoans the fact that he and his love promised to meet again at the equator – and there he is, but no her! Why?! How can you screw up an equator meet-up?
Then, there was that image thing. I talked to Russell years later what he and his brother had conjured up. “I don’t think of it so much as a joke,” he said. “It’s just a real contrast.”
Sure, it was an “act,” but an act unknown to rock ‘n’ roll, even in the outre glam rock field which the Maels dove into with their new band. The most obvious musical barrier people had to get over? The falsetto Russell employed. He sang in upper registers most male rock singers of the day would never risk. (Well, not Freddie Mercury – doncha think he was a Sparks fan?)
Sparks quickly proved themselves brilliant pop avant-gardists and social satirists, deceptively clever and subversively malevolent at times. Three albums from that “classic” mid- ‘70s period – Kimono My House, Propaganda and Indiscreet.
Tony Visconti worked with them during this era: on Indiscreet and then reunited in 1997 for three tracks for Plagiarism including the weirdest song in their catalog (and that’s saying something), “The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael”.
Over time, they moved from being quirky progenitors of an as-yet-undefined, witty, prog-inflected, glam-rock genre to mainstream rock hopefuls (the 1975 Columbia albums, Big Beat and Introducing Sparks) to Euro-disco strivers, No. I in Heaven, to new wave jumpers (Whomp That Sucker, Angst in My Pants) and beyond. There was full-blown orchestration and there was a stripped-down self-explanatory live album, 2013’s Two Hands, One Mouth, Live in Europe.
Ron relished clever wordplay, in songs (“Angst in My Pants,” “Hasta Manana, Monsieur”) and album titles like Gratuitous Sax and Violins. They exulted in the mundane (“Achoo,” “Complaints,”), mock pomp (“Hospitality on Parade”) and the ridiculous (that Kennedy wedding). Sparks didn’t sing songs about their world much at all, but other worlds, some quite fanciful.
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Coming Up”
Sparks may not have had a huge audience in America, but some pretty important folks liked ‘em. Homage was paid by Paul McCartney to Ron in his “Coming Up” video from 1980 (Paul played stern, stoic keys like Ron and dressed like Ron in his white shirt and black tie.) Collaborations came with Erasure, Faith No More, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Malcolm McDowell (!), the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin, Les Rita Mitsouko, the Darkness, and Franz Ferdinand. For the latter, the two combined forces for FFS and a tour.
When we talked back in the mid- ‘90s, Russell said he looked at the Sparks commercial success success/failure seesaw this way: “We’ve managed to be lucky in a certain sense in that we’re always able to find patrons of Sparks who continue to support us.” If America turned its back, “We’ve had commercial success in other parts of the world that has allowed us to sustain ourselves.”
If humor is considered Sparks’ first calling card, that was not the case with “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World,” the advance single from the new album and now its closing track.
It’s straight-out sincere and it’s so beautiful it aches. It also follows, thematically, the early environmentally aware Sparks song, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.”
Sparks has occasionally used “fuck” in the past – and there’s another (repeated usage) on the new album where Russell implores “Put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me.”
They’ve most certainly dropped a few naughty, wink-wink references, but to have the f-word be the title and the refrain … Pretty risqué.
I also posit that it is the most serious, non-ironic and sincere song in Sparks catalog.
“Yeah,” says Ron. “I would agree. We were trying to decide even about the use of ‘parental discretion advised’ language in a song, but it seemed like the strength of the song, the message, really required that. It seemed natural and I do think it’s the strongest. Russell sings it in such a sincere way which is really necessary, that it comes across that the intention is really what is on the surface. So, we’re really proud of that song.”
There is, though, a more radio friendly version of the song. Somewhere.
“We were thinking ‘Do we need to do one of those alternate versions for radio?’ so we did a version with, I’m not sure what the alternate word was, maybe ‘screw up’ or ‘mess up my world.’ So those are there, but it isn’t the same at all. We’re kind of hiding those versions. It doesn’t work at all. Someday, we’ll stick ‘em on another compilation, the bad versions of that song.”