For the briefest of moments in the mid-’70s, Sparks could have been mistaken for conventional pop stars. Their latest single was all over the radio in the UK and challenging to reach No.1, while they had become regular fixtures on the BBC’s mainstream music TV show Top Of The Pops.
But the strange appearance of the band with their hyperactive, falsetto-singing frontman and the deadpan keyboardist who resembled Charlie Chaplin (or was it Hitler?) would have strongly hinted these guys were far from typical artists. As for their music, it might have initially been lumped in with the parade of glam rockers crowding the British Top 20, but this group operated in a world entirely of their own making.
Decades later, they still do.
Formed by the eccentric brothers Ron and Russell Mael, Sparks hold a unique place in popular music that is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down by musical approach or style. Combining Russell’s stunning and extensive vocal range, Ron’s keyboard dexterity, and their clever and sophisticated songwriting, the group have created an outstanding body of work that absorbs countless genres of music. While it has lifted them to cult status among a devoted fanbase, their incredible recordings remain largely under-exposed and under-appreciated, especially in their native US.
However, the self-confessed Anglophiles have enjoyed far more attention and commercial success in the UK and Europe. This began with the 1974 breakthrough hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” continued with a hugely-successful partnership with electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and continued on with A Steady, Drip, Drip, Drip, which in 2020 reached the British Top 10.
The indelible influence they have had on several generations of artists not only includes glam rock contemporaries such as Queen, but the likes of The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, New Order, Bjork, and Franz Ferdinand. (They released an album with the latter group in 2015.) In short, the list of artists they have inspired is as eclectic as their music.
(Moon Over Kentucky, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, Amateur Hour, Your Call’s Very Important To Us Please Hold, Dick Around)
The best songs from Sparks have a gift for taking mundane and everyday situations and blowing them up both musically and lyrically. An early example of this is “Moon Over Kentucky,” the tale of an adolescent breaking the ties of his controlling mother and experiencing independence for the first time. With its eerie opening, haunting vocals, and an intense sense of drama, the track served as a powerful, albeit dark highlight of the group’s second album A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing.
By the time of their fourth release Kimono My House, the brothers had signed to Island Records and relocated to London, parting ways with the group’s other members. The city was the perfect setting for Ron and Russell, given their love of pioneering British bands like Pink Floyd and The Kinks, and the resultant album was a commercial triumph in the UK. Featuring a new backing band recruited from the pages of Melody Maker, the Muff Winwood-produced set was released at the height of the British glam rock movement, but Sparks provided their own take with a mix of experimentation and theatrics.
A key moment of Kimono My House is the uncompromising opener “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Us,” on which Russell’s energetic falsetto vocals soar over a musical backdrop of operatic proportions. Although sounding like nothing else around, it climbed to No. 2 on the UK singles chart in the spring of 1974, while the album reached No. 4. Sparks then landed a second UK Top 10 hit from the album with the ultra-catchy “Amateur Hour.”
Nearly four decades later, Sparks were still taking humdrum subjects and dramatizing them. Part of the 2002 release Lil’ Beethoven, “Your Call’s Very Important To Us Please Hold” turns a frustrating conversation with a phone operator into a mini-opera. Its repetitiveness is not unlike the feeling of waiting on the line for what feels like forever, although with far superior hold music.
Initially banned by the BBC because of its title, “Dick Around” from the 2006 album Hello Young Lovers found the group at their over-the-top best with an epic that combines opera, punk, and metal, underpinned by hints of Queen, Monty Python, and Gilbert & Sullivan.
Smart and Witty Sparks Songs
(Girl From Germany, Here In Heaven, Something For The Girl With Everything, I Can’t Believe You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song, Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me))
Sparks do love songs, but not like anyone else. Take “Girl From Germany,” the opening track of their sophomore album A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing. Released nearly three decades after the end of hostilities, the song examines post-war prejudices when the protagonist brings home his girlfriend to meet his disapproving parents.
On listening to “Here In Heaven” on Kimono My House, you know straightaway why Sparks had such an influence on Morrissey. The lyrics and subject matter of “Here In Heaven” could have come straight from a Smiths song, recounting the tale of a suicide pact in which only Romeo jumped. From heaven, he ponders whether Juliet now thinks of him as “dearly departed” or “that sucker in the sky.”
Then there is the energetic, excitable “Something For The Girl With Everything” in which a lover tries to stop his girlfriend from revealing damning information about himself by offering her ever-more extravagant gifts, including Frank Sinatra in a crate. Part of their second Island Records album Propaganda, it gave the group another UK Top 20 hit.
Like their super-fan Morrissey, Sparks conjure up titles for songs that draw you in before you even hit play. A case in point is the stomping “I Can’t Believe You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song,” found on 2008’s Exotic Creatures Of The Deep. It deftly marries their early glam output with their later electronic adventures.
Their first UK Top 10 album in more than four decades, 2017’s Hippopotamus marked another contemporary shift in their ever-evolving sound. It features the elegant “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” about a man sharing the French music icon’s philosophy of having no regrets. The twist? He’s done nothing with his life, so there’s nothing to be regretful about.
Electric Sparks Songs
(The Number One Song In Heaven, Beat The Clock, Cool Places, When Do I Get To Sing My Way, Johnny Delusional)
During the 70s, Sparks wrote songs that effortlessly ranged from glam rock to power pop, but by the end of the decade, they were looking for a new direction. The result was the 1979 release No. 1 In Heaven, which paired them with disco and electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder. Working with the producer behind Donna Summer’s ground-breaking “I Feel Love,” they set aside the guitars for a new electronic approach that would help shape their musical direction over the next four decades.
Four of the album’s six songs became hits, including “The Number One Song In Heaven,” which peaked at No. 14 in the UK. Clocking in at just under seven-and-a-half minutes, the song builds over two very distinct movements. After a dreamy, atmospheric start, its beats per minute then accelerate as it transforms into a dance floor anthem. Even more successful was the out-and-out disco cut “Beat The Clock,” the group’s first UK Top 10 single in five years. The album has been cited as a major influence by countless electronic acts, including Joy Division, Pet Shop Boys, and Human League.
Although the group switched back to rock for a bit, they returned to an electronic sound for the 1983 synth pop release In Outer Space. “Cool Places,” one of two collaborations with Go-Go’s rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist Jane Wiedlin, sounded a bit like the New Wave songs that were all over radio and MTV. It delivered the group a new level of appreciation in the US as they climbed into the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time.
Having issued 15 studio albums in 18 years, Sparks waited an uncharacteristically-long six years before returning in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins on which they embrace house and techno. Among its highlights is the euphoric “When Do I Get To Sing My Way,” which was a hit across Europe and a Top 10 dance smash in the US.
Over the years, Sparks have worked with some of the acts they inspired, including Franz Ferdinand, with whom they recorded the 2015 album FFS. It opens with “Johnny Delusional,” which combines the collective musical strengths of the two acts on a song about unrequited love.
(Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth; Looks, Looks, Looks; Get In The Swing; I Predict; Sherlock Holmes)
Few acts have covered as much musical ground as Sparks. Around the time the group were making bombastic records like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” they also came up with something as minimalist as the gorgeous piano ballad “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” that appeared on the 1974 album Propaganda. It addressed environmental issues long before it was fashionable.
On the following year’s Tony Visconti-produced Indiscreet they displayed their versatility with marching band music, swing, a string quartet, and a choir – all on the track “Get In The Swing.” The album also includes “Looks, Looks, Looks,” an old-fashioned swing number featuring post-war British big band The Ted Heath Orchestra and which became a UK hit.
Sparks were also at the vanguard of the power pop movement, including on the 1982 album Angst In My Pants on which the brothers dressed as a bride and groom on the cover. Performed on Saturday Night Live, “I Predict” from the album became the group’s first-ever Billboard Hot 100 chart entry and featured the repeated chant “the song will fade out” only – with typical Sparks humor – for the track to suddenly stop dead.
The same album also includes the love song “Sherlock Holmes” about a man trying to woo a woman by offering to pose as the master detective. It is one of the prettiest works in the band’s catalogue.
Sparks are impossible to pigeon-hole. But it is that desire never to play it safe, combined with their spectacular creativity, that have made them one of the smartest, most influential, and original acts of all time.
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