How Sparks became rock's biggest cult heroes
Writer and podcaster Paul Myers explains the eternal offbeat appeal of the brothers Mael
Depending on who you ask, Sparks are either the world's most popular cult act or the cultiest pop act — a band that has made a sport of tap dancing along the mainstream/underground divide for over half a century.
With a history that dates back to the late '60s, L.A.-bred brothers Russell and Ron Mael have amassed an incomparably eclectic and eccentric oeuvre that's seen them evolve from glam-rock hitmakers, to electronic disco innovators, to classical pranksters, to their current status as art-pop deities whose congregation of worshippers continues to expand. And, thanks to a recent run of star-studded documentary tributes, prestigious award-show victories and Cate Blanchett video cameos, Sparks' stock has never been higher.
This Friday (May 26), the Maels release their 26th album, The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte — a record that feels both classically familiar and alluringly alien as it overflows with insidiously catchy bionic-pop tunes sung from the perspective of depressed babies (Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is), unwanted party guests who deliberately overstay their welcome just to annoy the hosts (When You Leave), and devoted fans of Kim Jong Un's heretofore unheralded DJ skills (We Go Dancing).
To mark the release, as well as Sparks' imminent homecoming performance at the legendary Hollywood Bowl, Commotion's Elamin Abdelmahmoud checked in with author, host of the Record Store Day podcast, and life-long Sparks-ologist Paul Myers to talk about how this band has survived into its sixth decade — and why its popularity is still peaking.
We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.
Elamin: At the centre of Sparks are the brothers Ron and Russel Mael. How would you describe the dynamic between the two?
Paul: Ron is the keyboard player and kind of the musical genius of the band. I don't know how much of the music is written by both of them, but I get the sense that Ron is the evil scientist. He's got the little Charlie Chaplin moustache — or Hitler, if you're being less charitable. He's definitely what English people call a "boffin" — you know, the guy who figures out the synthesizers. But Russell, especially at the beginning of the career, was a poodle-haired rock star. He's the performer; he outwardly sings and he's very demonstrative.
WATCH | Trailer for Edgar Wright's documentary, The Sparks Brothers:
Elamin: A big part of the Sparks mythos is that they're American, but they've always been more popular in the U.K., largely because of This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us, a song that went to No. 2 in the U.K. in 1974, but didn't even chart in the U.S. And you never hear Sparks played alongside other glam-rock artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music or Queen on a classic rock radio station. Why do you think they've been shut out of the canon?
Paul: The first thing most people here ask me about Sparks is: "you mean those guys aren't English!?" They're surprised that these are two Los Angeles-raised guys who basically formed at UCLA's film school, and that might be a clue [as to why they've been excluded from the classic rock canon]. They are definitely a very cinematic band and they're way too smart for their own good, and that stuff is baggage as far as commerciality is concerned. Queen could do it, but Queen really pushed the rock end of it. There was also ... I don't want to say full-blown homophobia, but there was an uneasiness in the macho-posturing world of the '70s to have somebody who sounded flamboyant. Russell's very English-sounding — foppish, almost — and so I think that there was definitely a little bit of the same sort of resistance that came to the "disco sucks" movement, which is a whole other conversation we'll have some day!
WATCH | Sparks accepting the Cesar Award in France 2022:
Elamin: Well, let's get to the electronic music part of this conversation. A lot of rock bands dabbled in disco here and there for one or two songs, but in 1979, Sparks went in this direction of totally reinventing themselves as an electronic dance band on the album No. 1 in Heaven. Tell us about the impact of this record and the way it changed pop music.
Paul Myers: In 1979, they hook up with producer Giorgio Moroder, who had made huge hits for Donna Summer. David Bowie and Brian Eno both cited Donna Summer's I Feel Love as the future of music because it had that electronic insistence to it. Even though it was called futuristic then, it still sounds like the future now, which is crazy. And so Sparks, being smart guys, had pretty much exhausted their art-rock sound and they were looking for something new. They just latched onto Giorgio, and that was a shockwave. In England, it was a lot easier for rock people to go to [dance] clubs, compared to the "disco sucks" thing in America. That whole thing ghettoized dance music for a certain generation of [American] listeners of rock, but not in Britain. So again, Sparks, these two American guys, have a huge following in Europe because of this. They influenced Erasure, and I'm sure Depeche Mode, and all those bands that had that sound then and generations later. It was very influential.
WATCH | The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte video with Cate Blanchett (2023):
Elamin: That idea of having influence on later generations of music really stuck out to me watching that Edgar Wright documentary, The Sparks Brothers. There's this moment where someone says, "All pop music is just sort of copying Sparks" — and that someone is Jack Antonoff, who goes on to become Taylor Swift's producer. So there's something about the fact that Sparks have this deep influence on everyone, but then we don't talk about them nearly enough. Why do you think that is?
Paul Myers: In that movie that Edgar Wright did, you learn so much about who likes Sparks, and you learn so much about what they like, but you don't learn about them. And I love Edgar Wright, I think he's a really great filmmaker, and I think he did a great job paying tribute to the Sparks aura. But did you learn anything about their private life? ... There is a persona, and we love the persona; I'm a huge Sparks fan. But there's no sense of "what is it to be a Sparks"? They're kind of ghosts in the machine.
WATCH | This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us, 1974:
Elamin: Sparks are still kind of opaque, still kind of evasive; we don't really know much about them, but they're getting more and more popular. What do you think explains that?
Paul Myers: Persistence. They have just never stopped, and they're always reinventing. They just don't go away. They're like a snowball; they're gathering a different generation every time. So now, there's a multi-generational nation of Sparks fans. When they play the Hollywood Bowl, it's not only a homecoming for Sparks, but it's probably the place to be for every Sparks fan on the planet right now.
WATCH | Tryouts of the Human Race, 1979:
Elamin: I have to imagine there's someone who's heard a Sparks song here and there and goes, "Listen, I just can't get into it. His voice is too much for me. The arrangements are too much for me. Everything is so manic." What advice do you have for that person in terms of how they can train themselves to just settle in and listen to Sparks?
Paul Myers: The approach to the lyrics is: they're in on the joke. If you think they're being arch or funny, they know that they are. And they don't care about rock posturing, but they do care about things — and if you listen closely, you'll hear what they're complaining about. But musically, it's so packed with melody. It's so packed with visceral energy, whether it's rock guitars, or incessant drum beats and synthesizer blips, but at the same time, the chord shifts are like Euro opera. If you just listen closely to the music first, latch onto something and hold on as best as you can — because they're gonna drag you through the mud — they're gonna take you everywhere. That makes them relevant: they are everything, everywhere, all at once.
WATCH | Sparks latest single Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is:
You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Interview with Paul Myers produced by Stuart Berman.