I have to admit that Sparks are my most favorite band in the whole wide world. But you don’t really need to know that. All you need to know is that Russell Mael visited a karaoke parlor in Tokyo last year during Sparks tour of Japan, when he noticed they carried the Mael brothers’ classic hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” What else could Russell do but have a go?
Mr. Mael’s rendition is certainly superb, and would definitely pass any audition for a Sparks tribute band. He may also have hit upon a new trend for touring bands: visit karaoke bars and sing along to their hits. Russell Mael has certainly thrown down a gauntlet that will be difficult to better with this performance.
I’m rather delighted to hear that Sparks are to release New Music For Amnesiacs, a five-disc “ultimate box set collection” on October 21st.
The Brothers Mael themselves have curated this definitive guide to Sparks’ extraordinary career, which includes a four-CD set, containing 81-songs from 21-albums that “are the most significant in terms of their career (which spans four decades) or that resonate with them on a more personal level.” There is also a 64-page hardbound coffee table book featuring photographs and memorabilia (much of it from the band’s own archives), which in accompaniment with the music tells Sparks story from the late 1960s (when they were first the Urban Renewal Project and then called Halfnelson) to present day.
Think of it as a mixed-media autobiography, as told by Sparks.
The box set also includes some of Ron’s never before seen handwritten lyrics; an oversized envelope stuffed with a proof-sheets of photo outtakes of the Big Beat photo session shot by renowned photographer Richard Avedon; and a second envelope filled with memorabilia that “you can proudly pin on yourself or stick on your wall to flaunt your fandom and totally irritate your still-not-converted friends.” If all this weren’t enough, there is a bonus CD containing new studio tracks commemorating two of Sparks’ unique live events, “Islington N1” from the Sparks Spectacular (21 albums in 21 nights), and Two Hands One Mouth from the tour of the same name.
Fun with Ron and Russell Mael, interviewed by Julie Brown on Music Box in 1985. Ron (as one commentator notes) is particularly “perky,” perhaps due to the excellent review in Sounds that claimed he was a better song-writer than Lennon and McCartney. Ron disagrees, but admits he is maybe a better song-writer than George Harrison.
I never knew this existed until now, and I wonder what Ron Mael thinks of it?
I assume McCartney is a Sparks fan if he is willing to spoof Mael in his own video, or maybe it was just an easy impression, even if he does it well. He also does Hank Marvin, but not so well, and I assume some of the other “band” members—they’re called The Plastic Macs, geddit?—are spoofs of other musicians from the period, too.
I’m not a McCartney fan really, but this IS a cracking tune:
Sparks, the great brothers Mael themselves, performing “When I’m With You” on a French kids show in 1980. Odd that the set shows the duo standing in front of a “sex shop.” The French!
The number, from their underrated Giorgio Moroder and Harold Faltermeyer-produced Terminal Jive album, spent six weeks at the #1 spot, but only in France (The album was largely ignored everywhere else, so Sparks spent a year there promoting the album).
I do love Sparks, those delightfully talented brothers Ron and Russell Mael, whose music has made the world so much better. They arrived in my life at the moment The Bonzos left, and offered a similar wit and sophistication with a syncopated beat. This documentary is made from found footage, for a journalism class in 2010, by jedenobel. It’s seems somehow right that Sparks should have a homemade fan documentary, and this one doesn’t disappoint, being both entertaining and informative, and with plenty of clips.
Ian Dury looked like he could have been your Dad. Well, that is if your Dad was cool enough to front a band, and write songs that stuck in the head like a needle in the groove. I suppose it was because he looked like an old geezer and sounded like a cab driver that made him look like your Dad, but in truth Ian Dury was the Poet Laureate of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The Cor-Blimey Bard of Pop Poetry, whose exuberant lyrical dexterity at writing short memorable couplets, made him one of music’s best loved and most respected writers and performers.
In 1977, it seemed everyone had or had heard a copy of New Boots and Panties!!, the album that gave Punk and New Wave its very own T S Eliot, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edward Lear or W H Auden. We went in-and-out of class rooms reciting “Clevor Trever”:
“Just cos I ain’t never ad, no, nothing worth having
Never ever, never ever
You ain’t got no call not to think I wouldnt fall
Into thinking that I ain’t too clever
And it aint not having one thing nor another
Neither, either is it anything, whatever
And its not not knowing that there ain’t nothing showing
And I answer to the name of Trever, however.”
Or, singing “Billericay Dickie”:
“I had a love affair with Nina
In the back of my Cortina
A seasoned up hyena
could not have been more obscener.”
It made a change from singing “Sha-na-na-na-sha-na-na-bop-de-diddle-de-bop, baby.” And if there had been an O’Level in the lyrics of Ian Dury, then we all would have passed ‘A’ band one. It wasn’t just that The Blockheads’ songs were the bollocks, it was Dury, who was the most literary thing that had happened to music since Ron and Russell told us about “Khaki-colored bombardiers…” over Hiroshima, or, Vivian sang “Sport, Sport, masculine sport. Equips a young man for society.”
Here is Ian Dury and The Blockheads with ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson in the line-up giving it their all and then some in Paris 1981.
01. “Wake Up (And Make Love To Me)”
02. “Sink My Boats”
03 “Delusions of Grandeur”
04. “Dance of the Crackpots”
05. “What a Waste”
06. “Hey! Hey! Take Me Away”
07. “Hit Me (With Your Rhythm Stick)”
08. “Sweet Gene Vincent’
Opening with “Happy Hunting Ground” and finishing with “Suburban Homeboy”, this is fifty minutes of sheer bloody joy, as brothers Ron and Russell Mael take us and an audience, at the Isle Skye Festival, from June 2006, through the glorious history of Sparks.
Yes, it’s an original 1974 promo clip for Sparks’ classic glam-era chart topper! Not enough people know that this video exists, which includes even a lot of Sparks fans - I only discovered it myself quite recently. It’s not amazing but it is fun, and is worth a watch to see Russel’s uber-camp flying leap at 0:35. Not to be too down on Queen, but a lot of people assume that “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both Of Us” was a cash in on the opera-pop of “Bohmenian Rhapsody”, which is not the case. “This Town…” was released a whole year before Queen’s smash, and this video pre-dates their “Bohemian Rhapsody” promo too - in fact Queen supported the Mael brothers on some of their first ever UK dates in 1973, so it’s pretty safe to assume the influence was the other way around. But, hey, this isn’t a competition, both bands were high-class acts, I’m sure Queen fans will find a lot to like in this clip:
Man I love Sparks! They are simultaneously the geekiest AND coolest band in the history of rock. We need to be showing more love to the brothers Mael and their highly literate, fun, sexy and intelligent music here on DM - they are California boys after all. This bizarrely brilliant short concert film is the perfect excuse to post about them.
Sparks always move with the times, and frequently they were well ahead of it. In 1974 they took baroque opera-pop to the top of the UK charts, a whole year before Queen did the same thing to more acclaim. In 74/75 they pretty much invented New Wave (the proof lies in this film) and 4-5 years later when it had caught on Sparks had already moved on to inventing that staple of 80s pop, the synth-duo (through their incredible work with Giorgio Moroder). That’s not even taking into account the theory that 1976’s Big Beat album paved the way for power-pop. By the early 80s the brothers had settled down and repositioned themselves as perhaps THE quintessential New Wave band, hooking up with uber-fan Jane Weidlin of the Go-Gos along the way, and delivering the MTV staple “Cool Places”. Sparks were on the ball with their music videos too, recognising that the moving image was going to be key to music in the coming decades, and hiring a certain director called David Lynch to helm the promo for their classic 1983 stomper “I Predict”.
And that brings us back to this concert film. It is of course a brilliant look at the Sparks live set-up of the mid-Seventies post-glam era, but it also gives us some unintentionally funny moments too. It must have been a bit of a nightmare for the record company to position this brainy, sarky, odd-looking band as being another teeny-bop pop product, but boy did they try. See the over-enthusiastic reaction from the crowd to every single move the band make! Hear the roars that sound like they were from a different concert! Feel the prodding from assistant directors for bored audience members to get up and dance! Still, none of this hides the true, what-the-hell weirdness that shines out of Sparks, and particularly Ron Mael. Just check the moment at 1:40 when Ron gives a wry smile to an audience member and we see her shocked reaction.
This film is pretty short and only features four songs (“Something For The Girl With Everything”. Talent Is An Asset”, “B.C.” and “Amateur Hour”) and pop spotters will also be interested to see that Sparks are given an introduction by none other than Keith Moon and Ringo Starr:
You can picture the scene, lunch somewhere, another glass, and then the producer says. “I know this band, they’re hot, they’re what the kids want, let’s get them in the movie.”
It’s a win-win situation. Surely? The band starts their film career and receive major media exposure; while the movie has cachet from the group’s fans. This, of course, all depends on the quality of the film and the songs.
Does anyone remember what The Yardbirds were playing in Blow-Up? All I recall is Jeff Beck going Pete Townshend on his guitar, while a white trousersered David Hemmings intently joined a rather bored-looking audience.
Amen Corner had topped the UK pop charts with “If Paradise is half as Nice” and must have seemed a perfect call for the Vincent Price, Christopher Lee schlock fest, Scream and Scream Again. Singer Andy Fairweather-Low is beautifully filmed in the background as loopy Michael Gothard prowls a nighclub in search of fresh blood. The trouble is the song’s a stinker.
Sparks were allegedly second choice to Kiss for the George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Richard Widmark dull-a-thon, Rollercoaster. The brothers Mael had moved back to the US after four successful years in the UK, and had just released their album Big Beat, from which they played “Fill Her Up” and “Big Boy” to a wildly over-enthusiastic crowd. The audience obviously hadn’t read the script, as the film is turgid, and the band’s cameo is its only highlight. When asked about the biggest regret in their career, Sparks said appearing in Rollercoaster. Understandable.
Brian De Palma stopped copying Hitchcock form a few minutes in Body Double to make a pop promo for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, right in the middle of the movie. Surprisingly, it works. But perhaps the best, almost seamless merging of pop singer / artiste in a film is Nick Cave in Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire. Cave is perfect, as is the film, and he was a resident in West Berlin at the time, writing his first novel And the ass saw the Angel.
Of course, there are plenty of others, (Twisted Sister in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, The Tubes in Xanadu, anyone?), but oddest may be Cliff Richard and The Shadows in Gerry Anderson’s puppet movie Thunderbird Are Go. Difficult to tell the difference between puppet and the real thing.
Michelangelo Antonioni originally wanted The Velvet Underground for ‘Blow-Up’ (1966), but a problem over work permits led to The Yardbirds, with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck playing “Stroll On” in the cameo.
This should have been something: When Sparks met Jacques Tati in 1974, to discuss Ron and Russell Mael’s’ starring roles in the French comedy legend’s next feature Confusion. N’est-ce pas incroyable, non? As the brothers explain over at the fabulous Graphik Designs website:
Russell Mael: “We were discussing with a guy from Island Records in Europe fun things to do that weren’t involved with being in a rock band and how to just kind of expand the whole thing… JacquesTati’s name was brought up and we just kind of laughed it off. Anyway, he approached Jacques Tati and somehow got him to come meet us. Jacques Tati didn’t know anything about Sparks because he was 67 years old and doesn’t listen to rock music.”
Ron Mael: “We were to be in Tati’s film Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company to help them out with some American technical expertise and input into how TV really is done. Unfortunately due to Tati’s declining health and ultimate death, the film didn’t get met.”
Confusion was to be a “visionary project” in which Tati offered a critique of the encroaching globalization of the world through advertising and television. It was planned as a follow-up to his masterpiece Playtime that dealt with the damaging alienation caused by modern corporate life. Tati had even decided on a shock opening to his new feature. In the first reel, his famous comic alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot would be killed off, in a mix-up with a real and prop gun.
The film had Hulot working in a rural TV station and his death leads to the arrival of two young American TV execs (Ron and Russell), who have plans to modernize the TV station.
What should have been one of the greatest pop-comedy films ever made, sadly never happened after Tati went bankrupt and his declining health put the project on hold. However, Sparks did write a song for the film, Confusion, which appeared on their Big Beat album. Instead of starring roles, the brothers made a cameo appearance in the 1977 blockbuster Rollercoaster. Plans to film Confusion lingered on for a few years, until Tati’s death in 1982 brought the project to a close.
Bonus clips of Sparks, plus their demo ‘Landlady, Landlady, Turn-up the Heat’ after the jump…