Sparks are still burning brightly into their sixth decade in pop music - The Leamington Observer

Sparks are still burning brightly into their sixth decade in pop music

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Leamington Editorial 14th Aug, 2020 Updated: 13th Dec, 2020   0

BROTHERS Ronald and Russell Mael have melded their intelligent and sharp lyrics with a smorgasbord of musical styles since they burst on to the pop music scene with ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ in the 1970s.

Keyboardist and chief songwriter Ronald is famed for his deadpan scowl (and moustache!) – contrasting with the wide-ranging falsetto vocals and animated antics of younger brother Russell, the lead singer.

Together as Sparks they have fought the zeitgeist for five decades, trading pop conventions for their own unique – but always entertaining – sound that has afforded them high status with connoisseurs of arty pop.

‘S’ is for Sparks

TWO pop stars – one stood stony-faced behind an electronic keyboard, while the frontman is left to compensate for their partner’s stasis by presenting their songs as flamboyantly as possible.

It’s a popular pop formula that worked for Erasure, Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys and Euryhthmics to name but a few.

But Sparks did it first, and, in the process, went on to influence not just the aforementioned synth pop duos, but also an eclectic list featuring the likes of Bjork, New Order, Faith No More, Depeche Mode and even Nirvana.

They even joined forces with Franz Ferdinand, recording an album together under the moniker of FFS (Franz Ferdinand Sparks), in 2015.

Since they started out in the 1970s, Sparks’ sound has embraced genres as diverse as glam-rock to synth-pop and new wave, from baroque pop to West Coast, from disco to orchestral, and even vaudeville, along the way.

The constant force underpinning all of these switching styles has been Russell’s distinctive vocals teamed with Ronald’s rhythmic piano keyboard playing and their intellectual and often acerbic lyrics that give them an instantly recognisable appeal.

Beating the clock – Ronald, now 75, and Russell, 71, are back and bursting with their usual energy on their latest LP. Picture by Anna Webber.

Sparks have proved once again they remain at the cutting edge of art pop with this year’s new LP – the No.1 independent album chart-topper ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’.

Meanwhile film-maker Edgar Wright, the director of Shaun of the Dead, Ant-Man and Baby Driver, has been entrusted with creating the first ever Sparks documentary movie, also due for release this year, which includes their 2018 concert at the O2 Forum Kentish Town.

And Sparks are the screenwriters and composers for the forthcoming musical movie ‘Annette’, directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.

James Iles takes on the unenviable task of talking about ten top tracks that will seduce you into falling in love with Sparks – no mean feat given their prolific back catalogue…

‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ (1974) – Setting the benchmark for longer pop song titles later favoured by The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys, ‘This Town’ hit No. 2 in the UK singles chart for two weeks and was produced by a Brummie, Muff Winwood, who had been in the Spencer Davis Group with his brother Steve in the 1960s.

Perhaps their most famous song, it also outlined their quirky appeal and was taken from the brilliant 1974 LP ‘Kimono My House.’

The theme came from an idea to write a whole song based on several movie dialogue cliches but they ended up sticking to just this one, inspired by Westerns, hence the gunshot sounds on the recording.

‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ (1974) – Many people’s favourite Sparks song, ‘Never Turn…’ has been re-recorded and covered by a wide variety of artists including Martin L Gore of Depeche Mode who included it on his ‘Counterfeit’ EP in 1989.

This gorgeous ode to our natural planetary home was recorded by the “glam rock” era Sparks band for the 1974 ‘Propaganda’ LP, and the single version reached No.13 in the UK charts.

‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ (1979) – After reaching a crossroads in their career after two “Westcoast” LPs ‘Big Beat’ (1976) and ‘Introducing Sparks’ (1977), the LA duo hired legendary Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder.

This perfect partnership created their seminal 1979 album ‘No.1 in Heaven’ from which the single ‘The Number One Song in Heaven’ (written by Sparks with Moroder) became a No.14 UK chart hit.

Swapping their usual guitar, bass and piano band format for the layered sequencers, synthesizers and classic disco drum sound that Moroder was famed for on hits like ‘I Feel Love’, Sparks hit on a winning formula that went on to inspire bands that followed.

Stephen Morris and Peter Hook both cited it as a major influence on the sound of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and for introducing them to Moroder’s production style, which also later inspired New Order.

‘Beat The Clock’ (1979) – The follow-up single to ‘The Number One Song…’, ‘Beat The Clock’ fared even better, reaching No.10 in the UK charts.

It became one of their classic hits and was later re-recorded for their 1997 ‘Plagiarism’ album that revisited Sparks’ popular recording history for a new audience.

Number ones – Sparks have been a hugely influential pop duo for nearly half a century now. Picture by Anna Webber.

‘When I’m With You’ (1980) – A No.1 hit in France, with the legendary Keith Forsey returning on drums, it’s disputed who produced the single – with Harold Faltermeyer and Giorgio Moroder both claiming credit for it as well as the 1980 album ‘Terminal Jive’ which saw Sparks sashay into the 1980s with a disco vibe, adding more guitars, making it a new wave sound.

It’s hard to forget the classic video with Ron as a rather sinister grinning ventriloquist to Russell’s singing puppet. Maybe it was the inspiration for the horror movies of James Wan?!

‘When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”’ (1994) – A personal favourite of mine, having loved the CD ‘Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins’ this single was taken from.

It was also the era I first saw Sparks perform live when, together with 27,000 others, I watched them support Blur who were at the peak of their powers when they played Mile End Stadium on June 17, 1995.

Sparks played a stellar set that day, and Blur’s decision to invite them on the bill was another nod to their influence on latter day bands.

Their performance was as lively and energetic as ever while the album, which was not too dissimilar from Pet Shop Boys in its production (and that’s no bad thing), was a welcome return for the Mael brothers after a six-year hiatus after the poorly received 1988 LP ’Interior Design’.

The single hit the UK Top 40 as did the equally brilliant follow-up ‘When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)’.

‘Amateur Hour (feat. Erasure)’ (1997) – While the original release of ‘Amateur Hour’ (taken from the classic album ‘Kimono My House’) hit No.7 in the UK in 1974, I will go out on a limb here and state I prefer this version which Ron and Russell re-recorded with Erasure for the 1997 Sparks LP ‘Plagiarism’.

Giving it a synth-pop makeover, Andy Bell’s additional vocals, together with Vince Clarke’s trademark ‘blip-blop’ sequencer-driven production really polishes up and reinvigorates this great song.

‘Suburban Homeboy’ (2003) – Part Rodgers and Hammerstein, part chamber pop, this is a real gem in the vast Sparks back catalogue.

It is included on their 2002 self-proclaimed “career-defining opus” ‘Lil’ Beethoven’ which saw a move away from synth-pop to a more classical-influenced sound.

A social satire, it is a joyous uplifting song with typically witty lyrics but sadly it didn’t chart.

Such a shame. If Paul McCartney (another major artist they have influenced) had released it it would have been a big hit.

‘Hippopotamus’ (2017) – Certainly the only track ever to reference not only Hieronymus Bosch and Titus Andronicus but also a Volkswagen ‘58 Microbus in the same lyrics, ‘Hippopotamus’ tells the strange tale of objects being discovered in Sparks’ LA swimming pool.

The repetition of lines like “How did it get there? How did it get there? I don’t know” set to potent pizzicato strings and a breakbeat drum track are both sinister and hypnotic.

It’s little wonder this magical song, taken from the No.7 hit album of the same name, places those who have marvelled at its original subject matter and brilliant simplicity under its spell.

Brothers in art – The inimitable Russell and Ron Mael are back with their 24th Sparks studio album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’. Picture by Anna Webber.

‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’ (2019) – Preceding their latest critically-acclaimed 24th album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ (2020) – and the first time they’ve dropped the ‘F bomb’ in nearly half a century of recording – Sparks returned to the pop scene last year with a simple plea to help save the planet.

Majestic and anthemic, a children’s choir adds power to this sincere message of hope for the future pleading “Please Don’t F*ck Up My World, I’d have nothing to live for” as Sparks strode confidently into their sixth decade of releasing music together.

Ronald, now 75, and Russell, 71, are back again and ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ shows they are defying their senior years with enough energy, sharp wit and original ideas to continue for many years yet.

Sparks have never sold out or coasted off the back of their early hits, rather they are always seeking to push boundaries, try new ideas and redefine popular music their own inimitable sound and style.

* Check out James’ ‘S is for Sparks’ playlist on Amazon Music at

  • James’ book “Talking About Pop Music: An A to Z of Hit Artists” is £9.99 via Amazon

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