You know you’re getting old when your love for a band hits middle age. Yikes. It’s forty-two years since I was first heard Sparks’ single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” on the radio. A couple of weeks later I caught them on Top of the Pops—the bottom-wiggling Bolanesque lead singer Russell Mael and the stern, strange, Hitler-mustachiod pianist Ron Mael. The differences of the brothers’ iconic images very much suited the joyous one-upmanship of their performance—the battle between Russell’s impressively soaring vocals and Ron’s cleverly structured music.
Sparks evolved out of another band called Halfnelson (which was the Mael brothers and guitarist Earle Mankey, bassist Jim Mankey and drummer Harley Feinstein) formed in 1968. They were mainly popular with the brothers’ relatives and friends, though they did attract the attention of musician Todd Rundgren who produced their brilliant eponymous debut album. It didn’t sell well. A problem of perhaps having too small an extended family or a limited number of friends. But still there was enough interest to give the brothers a new record deal.
The record company suggested the band rename themselves the Sparx Brothers—in reference to the zany comedy troupe the Marx Brothers. Ron and Russell agreed to to keeping the “Sparks” but dropping the brother bits. It was obvious enough anyway.
A second album (the rather superb A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing), a move to England, a new band line-up (Martin Gordon on bass, Adrian Fisher on guitar and Norman “Dinky” Diamond” on drums) led to the the superlative album Kimono My House and a legendary career began.
With age comes maturity and sometimes good sense. I’ve stopped evangelizing about the utter genius of Ron and Russell Mael sometime ago. Well, about an hour ago—to be exact. As sadly there comes a point when attempting to convince other people to listen to something you like becomes a bit like the well-meaning Hare Krishna pestering a passersby to shout “Gouranga!”
Sparks don’t need a plug. They’re too good, too brilliant, to need anyone shouting their genius from the rooftops. If you are a fan (or have been paying attention) then you’ll know what I mean. Sparks have kept evolving, developing and progressing—their music today is as great, if not greater than the work they produced forty-five years ago.
Most bands after their fifth decade together just hash out the greatest hits for the stadium audience. Not Sparks—they are still writing, producing and performing new, audacious and original material. Last year the Brothers Mael collaborated with Franz Ferdinand to form the supergroup FFS—one of the best (if not the best in this reviewer’s opinion) albums of the year. Their show was certainly the best gig I saw in 2015. I know you’re busy but if you could just say “Gouranga..!”
This little selection of Sparks’ live appearances on Musikladen show the big shift in the brothers progress from classic Kimono My House and Propaganda-era art-rock-pop to the minimalist-experimental-electronica of the Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins album—that eventually led to their masterpieces of Lil’ Beethoven and The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. As a band Sparks are tight—something they never quite got the credit for—and as a way of life—hell, there’s nothing to beat ‘em.
Track Listing: “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both Of Us,” “Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil,” “Something for the Girl with Everything,” “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’,” “Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn,” “BC,” “(When I Kiss You” I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” and “Senseless Violins.”