Thursday, June 09, 2011


I've been intending to post on Sparks for some time when I stumbled upon a discussion between two American ladies who were wondering where on earth the 1970's pop-music duo had disappeared to. That shared query was  impetus and  motivation enough to merrily tap away at the keyboard today.

The brothers Ron Mael (b.1945) and Russell Mael (b.1948) are long-time residents of Los Angeles, California USA. They released their 22nd  album in 2009, the  experimental operetta, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. In 2010 they achieved the unique act of performing in chronological sequence one of their 20 albums every night for 20 nights at the Islington Academy and Shepherd's Bush Empire, London. They may have performed their  last ever live gig in America on December 1, 2010 at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. Although there's been occasional years of hiatus between album releases, Sparks have effectively been in the music business for over 40 years .

Ron and Russell Mael first cut their teeth and found fame during the early 1970's  when resident in England. Their big hit  in England was  This town ain't big enough for the both of us (1974). The hit introduced the world to Russell's  hall-mark falsetto voice and quirky lyrics and Ron's dead-pan yet scary, facial posturing.With the poetic, teen-age sensibility of a Holden Caulfield (of The Catcher in the Rye), Russell has retained a unique and beautiful voice.  His more reserved elder brother Russell, a 1920's Igor Stravinsky look-a-like,  has developed a powerful rhythmic drive and unique melodic line on keyboards  to accompany his brother. Incidentally its mostly older brother Ron who writes their music, while Russell supplies and sings the quirky lyrics.

Doggedly ignoring all musical trends, styles, fashions and crazes, Ron and Russell Mael  have carved their own idiosyncratic style, a kind of 70's techno-vaudeville, suitable to accompany a Buster Keaton adventure comedy, a true hybrid of American and British pop. According to Wikipedia Sparks have created their own unique musical universe; that's debatable but the brothers Mael have been enjoying a Renaissance in the first decade of the 21 st century. Indeed the 21st century has seen a distinct new creative drive by Sparks and growing critical acclaim with each new album release Their last few albums have built upon the style and success of each previous release. The realm of light opera in often comic has  been a fertile arena for their creativity.  Abandoning their Giorgio Moroder techo-style of the 80's and 90's, ever since the arrival of L'il Beethoven in 2002 their new operatic style has gathered new fans world-wide. There's no opportunity to demonstrate their music  here other than to enthuse over it, but their lyrics are worth quoting for his often acerbic and off-the-wall word-play, witticisms and social observations . Their  humour is  up there with the odd-ball wit of the Marx brothers -
                       How do I get to Carnegie Hall ? Practice man, practice.

Sparks' distinctive humorous album art-work includes one  cover depicting a recent after-math, a light plane crash landed in a back-yard; in another the brothers are seen hands bound  in an out-of-control motor-boat, in yet another, Russell  lays prone having  hit the deck in a boxing-ring. in the other corner Ron, wearing boxing gloves, raises his  arms in triumph. The brothers like to express their decades long working relationship in their art-work.Other long-term sibling or male duo artists which immediately spring to mind include the British artists Gilbert and George and the film-makers the Brothers Quay, directors of the wonderful Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.

If you grew up during the golden decade of 1970's pop music, when the world was a slightly more innocent place, or simply enjoy hearing great 70's style pop music, then Sparks music often frantic and intense yet funny, rhythmically inclined with gorgeous harmonies especially the last four or five albums this century, are well worth hearing. Young listeners may also enjoy. Lovingly and painstakingly recorded in  sophisticated layered production, well worth hearing ! Pass me my Space-hopper ! What is there left for the  American Grandmasters of Pop, Ron and Russell to achieve with 21 albums to their credit ? However they  do like to defy and surprise expectations !

Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)

* Strange Animal  - "What a strange animal we are".
 Anyone who seriously contemplates the species arrives at this conclusion quite swiftly.

* (She got me) Pregnant - So how would a fragile male ego cope with finding after a one-night stand that they were pregnant ?

"And then you learn that though she is several thousand miles away/ there is a part of you she's given you and now you have to deal with it."

* Lighten up Morrisey - Sound  advice to some sometime famous Brit. pop star who the Mael brothers admire.  
 "She won't go out with me 'cos my intellect's paper-thin/ She won't have sex with me unless it's done with a pseudonym".
*  This is the Renaissance -  "If you like to read, man you are in luck/ Gutenberg is cranking up a Bible with a centre-fold...Science is here , nothing left to fear"

*  Photoshop - There's some very dramatic multi-track vocals going on here
 "Baldness or aloofness removed without a trace. Photoshop me out of your life".

* I can't believe that you would fall for all the crap in this song
   More lampooning of  the music industry.

Hello Young Lovers (2006)

 * Perfume  -Russell names and sings the names of dozens of  perfume brands. 

*  (Baby, Baby) Can I invade your Country -  A  bold statement on Foreign policy.

* Metaphor  -  a track with superb multi-track harmonies by Russell.
"Chicks dig D -I -G metaphors, use them wisely, use them well and you'll never know the hell of loneliness".
*  As I sit down to play the organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral - A track which allows Ron to show-case his keyboard virtuosity, he must be playing at least five keyboards here.

" I got Faith, I got a deep abiding Faith, that in this Sea of faces, this sea of believing faces, there's always one face that's here to escape the rain".

On June 25, 2011 as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Sparks will present the World Premiere live performance of  The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.



-E- said...

had not heard of them before. good info.

Laurie M. said...

A fun look at a couple of very fun guys!

Anonymous said...

I ve a couple of theres ,I m a recent converta friend lent me some and I love it ,the carniege hall song is a real earworm ,hear it in the morning and its with you all day ,all the best stu

Hydriotaphia said...

Stu, my man, long-time no hear, that's a really great phrase 'a real ear-worm' and for me there's about another 10 songs by Sparks which can be called the same. So you have a copy of 'Lil Beethoven' from 2002 (How do I get to Carnegie Hall, practice son, practice). The 2 albums I reviewed are later from 2006 and 2008.

Their cover version of their own songs the 1997 'Plagiarism' seems to be the big change in direction from electronica to a more operetta-like style. Recommend as a greatest hits album cos' the songs were chosen and re-recorded by the Mael's.

Indeed On June 25, 2011 as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Sparks will present the World Premiere live performance of 'The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman', which is being called a Chamber Opera.

All the best, now to take a look at what you've been up to, ah yes what an informative list of fiction you've posted. I like Cees Nooteboom's 'In the dutch Mountains' its good, as is your idea to look at this neglected national pocket of culture . All the best, Stu, Kevin