The 2021 Sparks Spectacular

As a new documentary on Sparks appears in theaters, let’s take a moment to celebrate the unique band's tremendous 50-year music career.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from David Buck, who calls this one the final entry in a trilogy—and given the fact the last two entries rocked so hard, there’s a lot to look forward to. Anyway, here’s Sparks!

Today in Tedium: I can’t recall the first time I heard the music of Sparks; they’ve always just sort of been around my musical orbit for the past few decades. My first exposure to the band may have been through “Cool Places” on a Rhino Records Sampler disc that was used to demo old Sony musical equipment (and was subsequently included with the awesome stereo we eventually bought). It may have been a recording of “Batteries Not Included” I once heard on The Dr. Demento Show. Or perhaps it was from a dusty, almost new copy of Whomp That Sucker I got from a Denver record store many years ago. It’s hard to say, really. But one thing is clear: I’ve been a huge fan of this enigmatic, artistic group for as long as I can remember. With Edgar Wright’s just-released documentary about the band hitting this week, we felt it was a good time to dive into the wonderful world of Sparks, the Tedium way. Since “history lessons” on the band permeate the internet landscape, we’ll focus more on their overall sound. In today’s Tedium, we’re taking a look at the one, the only Sparks. — David @ Tedium

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25

The number of albums released so far by the band Sparks. Beginning in 1971 with Halfnelson (later re-released as Sparks), the band kicked off a long career that transcended and reinvented genres over subsequent albums. No Sparks album is the same as what came before or after it, and they never seem to stay in the same thematic or melodic place for very long. They shifted between labels (Bearsville, Island, Warner Bros, Rhino, and Columbia just to name a few) throughout their long career and are still creating bold, experimental, and magnificent work today.

Sparks band

A Sparks press photo from the ’70s, with primary members Russel (left) and Ron Mael. (via Pop Culture Scrapbook/Fandom)

The band of a thousand formats

Sparks are a truly magnificent and prolific band. Their music is at once captivating, perplexing, and sharply satirical. They transcend genres and constantly reinvent themselves. In their discography, listeners will find hard rock, glam rock, punk, pop, disco, new wave, avant-garde, and even a little bit of comedy. They’ve remained relevant all these years by maintaining a sense of innovation in their music, reinventing their sound and adapting to changing music distribution models, and keeping their music fresh.

Indeed, this penchant for switching up their musical style every few albums is one of many things that puts Sparks into a very exclusive musical category. Which makes perfect sense. After all, their initial inspiration came not from the music scene, but from cinema. Per Time Magazine, their musical sensibilities are likely based on their love of cinema. When the brothers were growing up, their mother took them to the cinema often. Sometimes they’d walk in during the middle of a movie, which didn’t bother them at all. It’s possible this may have been the impetus for some of the sweeping narratives in their songs or their cerebral, non-linear qualities. Either way, one cannot deny the cinematic quality of the Sparks oeuvre. It’s part of their overarching, yet niche, appeal.

The two brothers that essentially make up the band—Ron and Russel Mael—are the key components of what makes the group work. From the early iterations of the group to the modern-day, Ron’s always been the keyboard player and lead songwriter behind Sparks’ output while Russel has always been the wide-ranging vocalist and frontman. They’ve recruited various musicians over the years to fill out their band and famously worked with producer Georgio Moroder on some of their post-rock work.

Their concerts are an absolute delight as well, with Russel putting on an exuberant performance while Ron plays the keyboard with a straight, staring deep into the souls of the audience. That is until he breaks character with a smile or the occasional dance. Their stage antics are certainly fascinating. Early in their career, Russel decided to take a sledgehammer on stage. After he threw it in the air, it fell on his head. The onlookers thought the blood was part of the act, but Russel really was injured and spent some time in the hospital afterward. Ron would occasionally break his piano bench on stage, similar to Pete Townsend smashing a guitar on-stage. Those early shows must have been a blast.

The trivia surrounding the band is sort of insane and is a fun part of being a fan. For instance, there was a rumor at one point that the “I Predict” video was directed by David Lynch. Of course, it turned out to be untrue. The video was actually directed by Steven Doug Martin and pays homage to Lynch’s inimitable style. Elton John famously bet against the success of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both of Us,” and Brian May from Queen once supported the band at a gig in 1972. Ron himself is an interesting enigma. The mustache notwithstanding, he’s the idiosyncratic keyboard player and lead songwriter of the band, and boasts an impressive collection of Air Jordans, cereal boxes, and movie posters. He also collected snow globes and hand sanitizers. But don’t worry; Ron wasn’t hoarding them at the onset of the pandemic. He’d already been collecting them for years.

Sparks has always been considered “ahead of their time” by various music critics. In 1975, Ron became frustrated with this notion regarding the band. Per a 2020 article in the Los Angeles Times, Ron Mael previously lamented this fact to Times reporter Robert Hilburn at one point, saying: “but it kept going from one year ahead of our time to five years ahead of our time to ten years. We just kept waiting for that ‘time’ to come.” It’s interesting to see their evolution over time. The brothers seem to take it all in stride throughout various radio, video, and print interviews. They’re clearly committed to the goal of realizing their artistic vision without compromise. And that’s the true essence of Sparks.

“That moment arrived as a result of Albert Grossman, the owner of Bearsville Records. He loved our first album but was disappointed that it didn’t sell as much as he’d hoped—that it deserved to sell more. He thought the name Halfnelson was holding it back, that it was so obscure as to cause a problem. We didn’t see that, but we didn’t own the label. He said that we were humorous people, that we reminded him of the Marx Brothers, and why didn’t we call ourselves the Sparks Brothers, but we didn’t like that idea.”

— Russell Mael, lead singer of Sparks, during a 2017 interview with Magnet Magazine on the origin of the band’s name. Ron Mael—always reliable for a cool quip during an interview (watching Sparks interviews is as entertaining as listening to their records)—added that they told Grossman they’d “meet him halfway, eventually taking on their new moniker.

Sparks Covers

Just a few of Sparks’ many album covers, in vinyl format. (David Buck)

A musical British invasion (in reverse)

Early in their career, the band became a hit in England, relocating there for a bit before eventually returning to the States. In an early radio interview (included as a bonus track on the most recent CD version of Propaganda), Russel tells the interviewer about the origins of the band, its new name, and their nascent British fame:

“Both of us are from Los Angeles, CA in the good old USA. We had been doing various projects and formed a band about five years ago. It was called Halfnelson at the time and we had two albums out on an American label …”

Ron interjects, asking, “Russel, did they sell?” To which he replies, “No! They didn’t sell at all! We changed our name to Sparks, thinking it would sell more records.”

Ron then asks, “Russel, did your name change to Sparks have an effect on sales?”

Russel replies in the negative and it goes on like this until they talk about how well their record was doing in England and decided to base themselves in the country for the time being. Then they discuss potentially taking on acting roles and talk a bit about their catering business. At one point, Ron says, they planned to write a cookbook—but that never seemed to pass.

Sparks became quite popular in Britain, hitting the charts quite a bit in the early 1970s and several times thereafter. They would sadly not duplicate this success in the US.

Indeed, when they first came to Britain, they liked to have fun with interviewers—something that never really changed—and built up several myths around their lives. Later, in a 1985 interview with Julie Brown of Music Box, the band reiterated how they found success across the pond, but mentioned the most recent albums at the time hadn’t done well (except, as Russel noted, one of them performing well in France). The highlight of the interview is when Ron talks about how he tried out for a part in Airplane II, but lost out to Sonny Bono and they read about a music critic fawning over Ron’s songwriting, ultimately comparing him favorably to Lennon-McCartney. Ron must’ve made quite the impact on Paul McCartney, since McCartney impersonated him in the music video for his 1980 song, “Coming Up.”

Sparks spent a career creating some amazing work dictated by their own interests. Russel Mael told Billboard during an interview for their most recent album:

I like to think as little as possible about all the years involved in this career. But it’s really heartwarming that it’s been so long since Halfnelson and we’re still doing stuff now that we think is really special -- not just an album but also the peripheral projects. That’s pretty special for us.

It’s not just special for them, either; it’s quite wonderful for the fans. Sparks have a remarkable number of high-profile fans as well. While it’s clear they heavily inspired such acts as The Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Soft Cell, and Erasure (among others), they left an undeniable impact on quite a few prominent musicians. Clearly, Todd Rundgren and Edgar Wright love Sparks. R. Stevie Moore is definitely a fan. Morrissey is a very famous Sparks fan. Even “Weird Al” Yankovic was inspired heavily by them over the years.

Just like “You Make Me,” from 1989’s Even Worse, is a detailed pastiche/tribute to Oingo Boingo, “Virus Alert,” from 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, is a loving tribute to Sparks. The opening sounds similar to “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” and goes on to incorporate several musical odes to other Sparks albums from the era—especially Propaganda, Indiscreet, and Big Beat. It’s remarkable and should not be overlooked.

So, how did “Weird Al’’ Yankovic manage to bring the Sparks audio aesthetic to the masses? Yankovic always spends a great deal of time meticulously examining and crafting his pastiches, but with the Sparks pastiche, he really outdid himself. His love of the band continues to this day, with Al even going so far as to tell Rolling Stone about how much he adores A Steady, Drip, Drip, Drip, saying, “I’ve always loved those guys, and I’m inspired and amazed by the fact that they’ve been consistently releasing brilliant albums since the ’70s. They’ve never lost a step.”

Al’s not wrong. Over time, Sparks managed to not only produce a number of great albums and thrill fans worldwide, but they’ve accomplished something few other bands ever have or will: performing the entirety of their full discography live on stage, leading up to the debut of Exotic Creatures of the Deep. They even went the extra mile to perform a special song to commemorate the series of shows they played.

Lots of bands play full albums in live, but Sparks is probably one of the only bands who’s done it for 21 chronological releases! The shows took place in May and June of 2008 at Carling Academy, Islington, with the final show debuted at Shepherd’s Bush.

£20

The cost (in British pound sterling) to attend a single show of the 21 x 21 Sparks Spectacular. Some lucky folks could purchase a golden ticket for £350, which came with a CD of the exclusive song. The 21 x 21 Sparks Spectacular wasn’t even the first time the band performed a few of their own records live. They’d previously played Kimono My House and Little Beethoven live in the past. Sparks have truly gone where no other band has before. Finding performances from that time period is difficult, but there’s an entire sector of fans clamoring for their official release, while other fans try to preserve bits and pieces of existing footage from these shows and create more cohesive performances for posterity.

Halfnelson

The cover for the self-titled album by Halfnelson, the band that became Sparks. The album was based on an Oldsmobile press photo which the band got permission to use—but was replaced with a more boring cover later on after the band changed its name.

Music that you can dance to

According to the “Sparkography” page on their website, the brothers teamed up with Jim and Earle Mankey (on bass and guitar) and Harley Feinstein (on drums) to form the band Halfnelson in the early 70s. The band caught the attention of producer/musician extraordinaire Todd Rundgren, who produced their self-titled debut album. Halfnelson was released on Rundgren’s Bearsville records in 1971. It saw a release under a different name in 1972, after the band changed its name.

That version became the Sparks album and featured different, much more bland artwork compared to the original, which was based on an Oldsmobile ad from 1959. Russel wrote a letter to Oldsmobile asking for permission to use it, to which they replied “we have no objection, but can’t we provide you something better? If not, go ahead.” Now, that’s the essence of Sparks!

A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing followed in 1973. It was amazing if a slightly bizarre record that didn’t garner the band much attention in the US. It did pique some interest in Britain, leading to a live appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and some additional performances there. Both albums are all over the place but represent plenty of fun rock and roll with a bit of whimsy on the side. Both albums have a few almost novelty songs in “Biology 2” from Sparks and both “Here Comes Bob” and “Batteries Not Included” from the second album. They’re both worth checking out, even if you’re not a diehard Sparks fan.

The albums Kimono My House, Propaganda, Indiscreet, and Big Beat followed soon after. Each album captured a unique sound and direction. Kimono My House—the title being an obvious play on Rosemary Clooney’s hit “Come On-a My House” (which was, incidentally, penned by Ross Bagdasarian)—is simply a masterpiece from start to finish. Propaganda and Indiscreet have a glam rock/punk/pop hybrid feel to them and flow extremely well together. I often listen to them back-to-back. Big Beat, on the other hand, is a vastly different experience. It’s more of a straight-ahead rock (mixed with elements of punk) album with a major punk rock vibe, but featuring the Maels’ quick wit and satire in what would prove to be a liminal space in the transition of their sound from rock to something else entirely. There’s really nothing like it elsewhere in the catalog.

Sparks performed a few songs from the record in the 1970s film Rollercoaster (purportedly after KISS backed out of the role). The songs are quite strong. From the goofiness of “Fill ‘Er Up” to the irreverence of “Everybody’s Stupid” and beyond, the album simply rocks. Rupert Holmes (yes, that Rupert Holmes) and Jeffrey Lesser produced the album, but it ended up being a commercial flop.

After Big Beat, came Introducing Sparks, which takes some of the same rock tropes and wry lyrical sensibilities, then adds a layer of harmony vocals a la The Beach Boys to create an overall satisfying experience. The various releases of this album are a source of some interest as well. Apparently, some later CD and digital releases of Introducing Sparks were mastered from a needle drop of the vinyl LP, greatly altering the sound of the album. I think it sounds fine, personally, but maybe I have a different version of the CD.

The band felt Big Beat was somewhat of a failure artistically as well and decided to change direction, eventually leading to them deciding to change their sound. This transition in their career is unique because it marks the beginning of a partnership with Georgio Moroder that culminated in a drastic change in their sound.

At one point the brothers decided they needed a change in musical direction. Starting with No. 1 In Heaven, the group went in a decidedly synthesizer-based direction and went a bit heavy on the dance beats. Songs like “Beat the Clock,” the title track, and “La Dolce Vita” are so layered and intricate that they can stand comfortably among classics like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.”

Another Georgio Moroder-produced record, Terminal Jive, arrived in 1980, but it wasn’t released in the United States. The album features a lovely pop tune called “When I’m With You” — the music video for which features a smiling Ron Mael making a living dummy version of Russel Mael sing the song. It’s a trip:

Several albums released in the 1980s brought a new wave aesthetic to Sparks’ work. Whomp That Sucker —featuring cover art depicting Russel and Ron engaging in a boxing match—contains some of their most whimsical material. It was also promoted with a real boxing bout between the brothers. Per Ron Mael:

The cover was shot at a gym in LA, however, we did a promotion in London for the release of the album where we actually did fight each other in a 5 round bout at the Hilton Hotel. We had several weeks of intense training at a seedy south London gym by a former English boxer.

Angst in my Pants kicks off with an angsty, punk track and proceeds to cover everything from fun pop tunes (“Mustache”), ruminations on life and collecting frozen pizzas (“The Decline and Fall of Me”), the life cycle of a cigarette (“Nicotina”), brash predictions (“I Predict), and some romance here and there (“Sherlock Holmes”). They even went on American Bandstand to perform a few tunes from the record:

In Outer Space brought the world an amazing duet between Russel Mael and Jane Wiedlin, along with several other irreverent, dadaist tracks that offered the apotheosis of the 80s sensibility while disguised as pure 1980s sound. Incidentally, these two records feature the only two tracks that ever charted for the band in the US. “I Predict” and “Cool Places” both hit the Billboard charts and peaked at #60 and #49 respectively.

Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat merges new wave with electronica to create a fascinating record. As a teenager, I’d play several tracks from Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat—especially the title cut, the instrumental “Sparks in the Dark,” and “Everybody Move” quite often. My parents didn’t care for the album; they dismissed it as “repetitive.” But it was a great record.

Music You Can Dance To and Interior Design headed in more of a dance direction. The latter’s CD version is notable for featuring versions of the track “Madonna,” sung in English, French, German, and Spanish. After this, the band went on hiatus for six years. When Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins came out, it marked a turning point for the group’s sound, with the remarkable album Balls following it in 2000.

Sandwiched between them was that time Sparks made an entire album of covers...of their own songs, called Plagiarism. The difference between these tracks and the original album versions is staggering, challenging, and unique all at the same time.

2002’s L’il Beethoven is perhaps the band’s crowning achievement. It marks a back-to-basics approach to their music and resulted in a new interest in the band. It’s probably one of their best records. Its follow-up, Hello Young Lovers, is a concept album (of all things) about love.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep arrived in 2008. The album debuted live during the 21 x 21 Sparks Spectacular event and at the time of the concert, had yet to receive its title. Exotic Creatures of the Deep kicked off with the lively and tongue-in-cheek “Good Morning” and proceeded to bring the charming mix of weirdness and wonderfulness that only Sparks can deliver. Highlights of the record include “Let The Monkey Drive” and “Lighten Up, Morrissey.”

They even did an album with Franz Ferdinand (called FFS), wrote a radio play (The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman), and did a live acoustic concert tour (Two Hands, One Mouth). Their most recent album (as of this writing) is 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, the witty and acerbic follow-up to 2017’s amazing Hippopotamus.

During the pandemic, Ron started performing lyrical readings of his various song lyrics in a 52-episode series entitled “Lyrically Speaking.”

But the fun doesn’t stop there: soon we’ll probably see a soundtrack album for their upcoming musical, Annette, and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers hits theatres on June 18, 2021. To say Sparks may be experiencing a bit of a renaissance is both delightful and exciting. It’s about time!

“There’s so much opportunity in the marriage of music and film that hasn’t been fully explored; In our modest way we’d really like to be a part of that revolution. We’re not great schmoozers, but we hope to be able to talk to somebody at Cannes, where people are receptive to our ideas. It doesn’t happen very often, so we want to take advantage of it.”

Ron Mael, piano player/songwriter for Sparks, discussing their interest in movie musicals and ruminating on his hopes for the future with Billboard. Following the debut of their documentary and upcoming musical, they’re looking toward the future for their musical ideas. We can’t blame them; Ron writes compelling stories and the world needs more Sparks-penned/performed musical theater.

Music is an amazing thing and being a fan of Sparks gives it a little extra value. All of us undoubtedly have our own favorite bands, songs, genres, and albums. But for me, Sparks will always remain a favorite and I’d like to take a moment to mention how delighted and grateful I am to have the opportunity to write about them.

This is actually the third installment of a recent trilogy of pieces about unique music artists. Writing them has helped me recover from some difficulties we faced earlier this year. I like to think of They Might be Trailblazers, A Tailgate for the Ages, and The 2021 Sparks Spectacular as a cohesive trilogy that weaves a truly tedious tale deeply rooted in some of the music I love. I think we finally found the end of the long tail on this one.

Special thanks to Ernie for convincing me to actually write about Sparks! And to Jessica for always putting up with the weird music I insist on playing all the time! Sparks will always have a place there.

As popular music continues to change and new artists come along every day, it’s comforting to think that Sparks will remain as relevant and incredible as they always have. They’re the type of band that will likely inspire an entirely new generation of musicians and fans (hopefully) as more people discover or revisit them in the future.

Admit it, you were hoping to see the trailer in here somewhere.

As for the band themselves, they’re in a unique position for a group five decades into its career and who knows? Maybe they’ll see a significant resurgence on the heels of The Sparks Brothers documentary and their upcoming musical, Annette. Either way, we hope this prime entices you to check out the documentary and the band’s music.

You’ll love their music, at least that’s what I Predict

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Thanks again to David for going deep on Sparks—he’s so good at this, isn’t he?

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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