Review: The Times (London)

TIMES 19 October 2002 Music profile: Sparks – Already into their fourth decade as the odd couple of synth-pop, the influence of Ron and Russell Mael is finally being recognized, explains Stephen Dalton ANYONE who lost their pop virginity in Seventies Britain still has a soft spot for Sparks. Ron and Russell Mael were the funniest, freakiest siblings ever to frighten a Top of the Pops audience. While the singer Russell preened and pranced like the anorexic love child of Marc Bolan and Karen Carpenter, his stone-faced big brother Ron played minimalist keyboards with all the deadpan wit of Blakey from On the Buses auditioning for Kraftwerk. Exiled Californians with finely honed Anglophile sensibilities, Sparks proved that Americans and irony sometimes do mix — with hysterical results. Former child actors and catalogue models who were raised in suburban Los Angeles, the Maels launched the proto-Sparks five-piece Halfnelson in 1970. They modeled themselves on classic British invasion bands such as The Who and the Kinks, but their arty cabaret style alienated American audiences in an era before Kiss and David Bowie took rock theatre to the masses. “We would have loved to be one of those mainstream bands, but due to something in ourselves we found that we couldn’t fit in,” Russell admitted recently. Fellow maverick Todd Rundgren loved the band’s edgy eccentricity, signing Sparks to the Bearsville label and producing their self-titled 1971 debut. Despite adopting a snappier name, the off-kilter operatics of early Sparks were still out of step with Seventies America. But they found a following in Britain, where their camp aesthetic echoed the arch, art-school histrionics of Roxy Music and Queen. The Maels were smart enough to ditch their LA band and move to London in 1973. In a nicely novelistic twist, they rented a flat from the legendary theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Signing to Island Records, the Maels scored a Top Five UK album in 1974 with Kimono My House. Shrill, playful and peppered with awful puns — a Sparks trademark — the album spawned two huge hit singles, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us and Amateur Hour. Unsung prophets at home, the Maels were embraced like prodigal sons by irony-saturated, pre-punk Britain. “We have always had a particular relationship with Englishness,” Ron claimed recently. “Pop matters to British culture in a whole different way — it matters more. British music is much more nasty, which is something I really like.” But Sparks enjoyed diminishing commercial returns with subsequent albums, especially the wedding-cake excess of Indiscreet in 1975, and found themselves dismissed as a camp novelty when punk purged rock’s old guard. In 1976 Ron and Russell returned to LA. But Europe would beckon again for the duo’s next inspired reinvention at the hands of the great German disco producer Giorgio Moroder. Their 1979 album Number One in Heaven and its 1980 sequel Terminal Jive spawned massive Euro-hits, including Number One Song in Heaven, Beat the Clock and When I’m With You, which sold 750,000 in France alone. The band’s most successful period climaxed with their biggest US single, Cool Places, a 1983 collaboration with the Go-Gos’ guitarist Jane Wiedlin. But the hits dried up again soon afterwards and the Maels spent a dormant half-decade dabbling in films and soundtracks. Resurfacing with their 1994 comeback album, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, the proto-techno duo picked up critical acclaim in Britain and a huge new audience in Germany. Once again, Europe rescued these oddball Americans from domestic doldrums. Touring and recording again since the mid-Nineties, the spookily ageless Maels are now widely recognized as influential godfathers of disco-glam and electro-cabaret. “Sparks brought, even in a very short period, such a contribution to music that it would frankly be inhuman to ask for more,” claimed Morrissey recently.