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50 Years Of Sparks: The World Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Them

Jun 18, 2021
Originally published on June 18, 2021 2:35 pm

The band Sparks – really a duo, of L.A.-born brothers Russell and Ron Mael – is marking its fifth decade as a living enigma this year. As director Edgar Wright wonders in his new documentary, The Sparks Brothers: "How can Ron and Russell Mael be successful, underrated, hugely influential and overlooked, all at the same time?" (You can hear my review of the film in the audio player above.)

The pair has long been celebrated from L.A. to London, Paris to Tokyo. And there's no shortage of reverence for the group from its musical descendants, too: "All pop music is rearranged Sparks," Grammy-winning producer Jack Antonoff, who has worked with Lorde and Taylor Swift, says in the film.

And yet, you say you can't place the name? Can't quite hear a song of theirs in your head? As beloved as the Maels are, you're not alone. But let's fix that. We don't have the time to explore all of their 24 full-length albums, so instead, below, are seven spectacular Sparks songs to help get you acquainted.


"This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" from the album Kimono My House

YouTube

When the Mael Brothers sang this tune on Britain's Top of the Pops in 1969, they caused a sensation, mostly because of Ron's toothbrush mustache, which could be charitably characterized as Chaplinesque. Appearing on a talk show the next day, actress Shelley Winters said "there was somebody dressed like Hitler playing piano on the BBC." Pete Townshend, of The Who, set her straight: "He was born looking like Hitler, actually."


"Whippings and Apologies" from the album A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing

YouTube

From their second album, produced by Todd Rundgren – who said of his 1960s search for new talent that it was "sometimes like butterfly hunting. You're looking for some species that nobody has ever discovered before." Sparks definitely qualified.


"Angst in My Pants" from the album Angst in My Pants

YouTube

This title song from their eleventh album was used in the 1983 romantic comedy Valley Girl, which starred Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman, and was loosely based on Romeo & Juliet... well, very loosely, as Shakespeare's version wasn't a romantic comedy.


"Big Boy" from the album Big Beat

YouTube

When Kiss turned the gig down, Sparks got tapped to play the theme park ride's opening concert in the 1977 Sensurround disaster flick (and general all-around disaster) Rollercoaster. A wildly overenthusiastic crowd's onscreen reaction notwithstanding, they later mentioned that appearance when asked about their biggest career regrets.


"The Number One Song in Heaven" from the album No. 1 in Heaven

YouTube

A hit in the U.K. in 1979, this song was released as a single, produced and co-written by Italian electronic composer, godfather of disco and recent Daft Punk collaborator Giorgio Moroder.


"When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'" from the album Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins

YouTube

An electronic-dance riff on Frank Sinatra's signature tune "My Way," this was a minor hit single in 1994 – and sports a ridiculously fun, noirish goof on the "backstage saga" films of the '40s.


"So May We Start" from the movie Annette

YouTube

As lovers of experimental cinema, the Mael brothers spent years collaborating on projects with filmmakers Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, only to have them fall through. But this song was just released, coming from a film musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, directed by Leos Carax and set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on July 6 – with a score by Sparks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Music documentaries are generally pretty straightforward, but critic Bob Mondello says, "The Sparks Brothers," a rockumentary (ph) about the group Sparks, feels as if it's trying to reinvent the form.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: If you're going to begin with a fanfare, and you're Sparks, you sing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

SPARKS: (Singing) Fanfare.

MONDELLO: And you clear your throat...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

MONDELLO: ...And clarify it a little.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

SPARKS: (Singing) Documentary film fanfare.

MONDELLO: And mention the director.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

SPARKS: (Singing) Edgar Wright film fanfare.

MONDELLO: Edgar Wright is the guy who made the comic zombie flick "Shaun Of The Dead." He's always pushing whatever envelope is handy with cinematic tricks. And for his first documentary, he's got a lot of celebrities to help him, including singer-songwriter Beck.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

BECK: Throughout all the years that I've been making music, if you get on a tour bus and you sit on a long drive with a bunch of musicians, eventually the conversation will go to Sparks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My good friends, Sparks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sparks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Sparks.

(APPLAUSE)

MONDELLO: Sparks is glam rock - the brothers and back-up - arguably every band's favorite band, says indie producer Jack Antonoff.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

JACK ANTONOFF: All pop music is rearranged Sparks. That's the truth.

MONDELLO: They are celebrated worldwide, says Beck.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

BECK: They may have given birth to other bands who don't even know that the lineage goes back to them.

MONDELLO: They've had a five-decade career, were at one point billed above the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a concert tour, and yet you say, you can't place them?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

JANE WIEDLIN: They were a bit much for most people.

MONDELLO: Well, you're not alone, as the director himself acknowledges at the outset.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

EDGAR WRIGHT: How can Ron and Russell Mael be successful, underrated, hugely influential and overlooked all at the same time?

MONDELLO: To provide an answer, he takes us through their 25 albums chronologically, from the first, produced by Todd Rundgren, a producer for whom their weirdness was a big plus.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

TODD RUNDGREN: It is sometimes like butterfly hunting. You're looking for some species that nobody has ever discovered before (laughter).

MONDELLO: This unleashes a flurry of butterfly imagery, probably to cover a lack of footage from that period but also because it's just fun. Later, when there's concert video, the director gives us lots, including their breakthrough moment in Britain. Russell, the willowy androgynous vocalist who Icelandic singer songwriter Bjork remembers strutting around in pastel mod suits...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

BJORK: I loved his voice. You know, I guess it was quite feminine, yes? It definitely wasn't like rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS TOWN AIN'T BIG ENOUGH FOR THE BOTH OF US")

SPARKS: (Singing) Zoo time is she and you time.

MONDELLO: And on keyboards, scowling and motionless, older brother Ron, with a distinctive toothbrush mustache that, if you were feeling charitable, made him look like Charlie Chaplin. On a 1960s talk show, Shelley Winters had a different take.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELLEY WINTERS: There was somebody dressed like Hitler playing the piano on the BBC.

MONDELLO: The Who's Peter Townshend clarified.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER TOWNSHEND: He was born looking like Hitler, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: The thing is, everybody in Britain watched the show they'd been on - "Top Of The Pops." And these two California brothers were suddenly on top of the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The following day, I remember going in and one of the sales guys saying, we've done 200,000 singles today already. We...

MONDELLO: Didn't last, but, hey, stardom is a roller coaster - cue jump cut to their song in the movie, "Rollercoaster." And these guys are nothing if not the comeback kids. There were disappointments along the way. Big fans of art films, they spent years working on ones with directors Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, only to have them fall through. But by being weird, artsy, sardonic and very funny, they managed to stay ahead of the curve for five decades and sometimes ahead of their audiences, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SPARKS BROTHERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: People think they're making fun of something when they're deadly serious. But they're kind of inscrutable, those guys (laughter).

MONDELLO: Never far away in this portrait is the feel of Christopher Guest's "This Is Spinal Tap," a mockumentary about a fake band. But the brothers in "The Sparks Brothers" are demonstrably, tenaciously real, from that fanfare they created for the start of the picture to the coda the director has fashioned for the end of it about "Annette," a movie musical that will open the Cannes Film Fest in July, starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and a score by Sparks.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO MAY WE START")

SPARKS: (Singing) So may we start? May we start? May we, may we now start? So may we start?

SHAPIRO: And if you're feeling Sparks curious, you can check out the seven Sparks song playlist at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO MAY WE START")

SPARKS: (Singing) So may we start? May we start? May we, may we now start? So close all the doors, and let's begin the show. The exits are clearly marked, thought you should know. The authors are here, so let's not show disdain. The authors are here, and they're a little vain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.