The Wonderful Weirdness of Sparks

AVRO, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

Before punk, before New Wave, before alt-rock there was Sparks, the most idiosyncratic, iconoclastic band of the 1970s, perhaps ever. They’re the ultimate pop cult band. In the 1970s, liking and listening to Sparks made you the member of small and dubious fan club. And, like The Velvet Underground or Big Star, their influence has always been greater than their record sales.

Unlike those two bands, Sparks are still around and still making new music. Twenty-five albums and counting. Annette, an original musical film starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, will be released this year. Best of all, there’s a Sparks documentary on the way (directed by Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver, just the man for the job).

Arriving in theatres Summer 2021. The Sparks Brothers directed by Edgar Wright.

In practical terms Sparks is a duo, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve hired different musicians as backing bands over the years. Ron plays keyboards and writes most of the songs while Russell plays frontman and handles the acrobatic vocal duties.

How to describe Sparks music? Hard to do since it changes so much from album to album, but I’ll try:

  • Kurt Weill meets The Who
  • Cole Porter meets Oingo Boingo
  • Randy Newman meets Roxy Music
  • Gilbert and Sullivan meet Monty Python

While other pop music of the seventies went deep with rootsy introspection or virtuosic jamming, Sparks took a tightly-crafted, absurdist approach to their song making. The titles alone give you an idea–Achoo, Pineapple, Everybody’s Stupid, Amateur Hour, I Bought the Mississippi River, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, Happy Hunting Ground, Angst in my Pants, I Married a Martian and When do I Get to Sing My Way, just to name a few. I mean what other pop act would reimagine Faust as a radio play where the ultimate art-house filmmaker sells his soul to Hollywood (The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman)?

Then there’s their disconcerting live presentation–Russell’s boy band curls and puppy-like energy contrasted with Ron’s intimidating deadpan glare and Hitler mustache (more pencil-styled now). It’s an earlier and more committed version of Cheap Trick’s glamor boy/goofball dichotomy. Here’s how I first saw them, on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert TV show in 1974.

Who the heck are these guys?

Where to start listening to Sparks? I’ll always be partial to the four-album run of Kimono My House, Propaganda, Indiscreet and Big Beat from the mid to late 1970s. Big Beat is their most straightforward rock and roll effort while Indiscreet boasts a startling mix of cabaret, rock, and slightly bent show tune styles. Lyrically, you can expect a wide range of character studies from sympathetic and strange to mildly revolting.

Glam rock, power pop, synth pop, electronic pop, art-pop, whatever you want to call it, Sparks have always obstinately followed their own quirky muse. Below are a couple of their more recent efforts, the first an unusually straightforward paean to a longtime love, the second a love song to a. . .lawnmower. I told you they were different.