2 brothers, 23 albums, 50 years of freedom
“There’s a lot of love in the air,” says Sparks’ Russell Mael, referring to the band’s recent run of emphatically received shows. In fact, their early evening day one Primavera set was an enduring highlight of the festival; one that was loaded with idiosyncratic charm, oddball theatrics, pink suits, soaring vocals, glistening pop and euphoric disco. Watching Mael and his brother Ron on stage – Russell shooting up and down the stage manically and Ron sitting generally motionless looking like a disgruntled accountant behind his keyboard – it’s hard to believe they have been doing this for fifty years. And they’ve crammed 23 albums into that half-century period. “The Primavera show was really exceptional,” Russell adds, looking back. For Ron, playing festivals has factored into Sparks’ on-going modus operandi: constant evolution. “We’re really happy that it’s working in festivals because the people that come to our shows are pretty die hard, by and large, but with festivals you’re playing to the unconverted a lot of the time, or a younger audience. That is something that matters strongly to us – we want to go beyond people that are just the usual fanatics.”
The brothers began performing together under Halfnelson in 1968. One of their first recordings was a song called ‘Computer Girl’ that the pair remembers being recorded in one of those pay-by-the-hour places where you get a finished vinyl copy of the song at the end. Growing up in L.A., they were exposed to the late 1960s boom of music that played out on Sunset Strip, with groups like The Doors and Love becoming local staples. However, it was the British invasion that caught the band’s ear and they became self-described Anglophiles. Their 1971 debut, produced by Todd Rundgren, touched upon the stomp of T-Rex and the strut and melody of many of the groups from that era such as The Kinks. However, what followed soon became the defining sonic characteristic of Sparks: reinvention.
By 1974 they’d released their third record, ‘Kimono My House’, which contained the hit single ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’; a bonkers piece of pop music so unique in structure, layering and ambition that it was arguably something of a precursor to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. There’s even a longstanding rumour (some suggest that was perpetuated by the band itself) that Elton John placed a bet with producer Muff Winwood that the track couldn’t break the top 5, given its oddness. It charted at number 2 in the UK.
By 1979 the British fascination had melted away and Sparks collaborated with electronic pioneer Giorgio Moroder for a truly staggering record in ‘No.1 In Heaven’, one that vibrates with pulsating synthesizers, disco rhythms and Russell’s typical falsetto vocals to create a landmark record of the disco era and one that sounds like another band from the one that existed only five years prior. Vastly different records followed, some more successful than others. Their self-described “career-defining opus” ‘Lil Beethoven’ arrived in 2002, and in 2015 they collaborated with Franz Ferdinand on the project FFS.