Who They Are: Eccentric California-bred brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael have been writing and performing together since 1966, first as Halfnelson, then as Sparks after the re-release and re-branding of their Todd Rundgren-produced debut album in 1972. Sparks have released 25 studio albums since that time, largely existing as a quintessential cult band in the United States, while achieving wild rock-star status in England, Germany, Japan and elsewhere. The duo have worked with a variety of collaborators over the years, most notably German producer-composer Giorgio Moroder and/or his in-house team in the late ’70s and early ’80s. After a couple of fallow spells while the brothers worked on theatrical and film projects, Sparks have achieved a series of stunning late-career musical highs with their recent studio output, and their fame and acclaim (such as they are in their home country) have been capped this year with the release of the Edgar Wright-directed documentary The Sparks Brothers (which I most highly commend to you) and the rock opera Annette, with screenplay and score by Ron and Russell, starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Hellberg, and directed by auteur Leos Carax. It offers a brilliant, often shocking movie experience, one of the most unusual, though-provoking and rewarding films I’ve seen in quite some time.
When I First Heard Them: 1980ish, on the radio while living in Rhode Island, as their first Moroder collaboration, the album No. 1 in Heaven, was burning up the charts on the other side of the Atlantic. I drifted in and out of their voluminous catalog over the ensuing years, while also exploring their previous records in a hit-and-miss fashion, but I really began paying active attention to them again after the release of Hello Young Lovers in 2006, largely in response to enthusiastic recommendations from my long-time fellow music-loving friend Adam. I’m deeply glad that he brought Sparks up to me around that time, because for all the scattershot brilliance of their earlier catalog, everything they’ve done since then has been spot-on amazing, soup to nuts, just bouncing from high point to high point with each new track and each new album release.
Why I Love Them: The Mael’s music is lyrically rich and engaging, often funny (but rarely silly), and the duo are blessed with some truly world-class chops when it comes to writing irresistible ear-worm hooks and melodies. Listen to them for a half hour, and I’ll all but guarantee that your brain with glom onto some chorus and play it on repeat inside your skull for days, if not weeks, to follow. The pair write in a variety of idioms, ranging from Donna Summer-style disco to brash guitar-based glam rock to orchestral grandeur to simple singalong chansons to Terry Riley-esques excursions into repetition, repetition, repetition, truly hammering their words, concepts, and sounds into your soul. As wonderful as their music is, Ron and Russell are also delightful interview subjects and eminently watchable on video and stage, quirky showmen capable of big gestures, and fond of sharing memorable imagery. Russell (who Sex Pistol Steve Jones repeatedly refers to as “Cutie Pie” in the Sparks Brothers documentary) does indeed exude pop star charisma of the highest order, while also possessing an incredible, versatile, distinctive voice. Ron, for his part, is just, uhhhh . . . different: his stage visage tends to be scowling, and he’s worn either an Adolph Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, or John Waters mustache throughout the group’s career, in recent years topped with stylish and cool round glasses. Ron often pantomimes elements of the duo’s songs on stage, then deftly steps back to his keyboard (usually Roland-brand, with their logos having been altered to say “Ronald”) to add his virtuoso tinkly touches. As a fine example of his delightful eccentricities, Ron brightened early COVID days by creating a video to share the large collection of hand sanitizers that he’d collected over the years while touring the world. I watched it more than once, happily enthralled. I’ll be a most happy camper if I can claim to be even a tenth as cool and interesting and spry as Ron Mael is now, when I reach his current mid-70-something age. Something to aspire to there, right? I’ve been so high on Sparks in recent years that I think I am approaching a personal musical inflection point in terms of how I answer the dreaded “Favorite Band” question that originally inspired this whole series of articles. Sparks FTW? I think that just might be the case at this point . . .
#10. “The Number One Song in Heaven,” from No. 1 in Heaven (1979)
#9. “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song,” from Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)
#8. “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?,” from Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)
#7. “Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat,” from Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984)
#6. “Lawnmower,” from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020)
#5. “Dick Around,” from Hello Young Lovers (2006)
#4. “Nothing Travels Faster Than The Speed of Light,” from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020)
#3. “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” from Lil’ Beethoven (2002)
#2. “So May We Start,” from Annette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (2021)
#1. “What The Hell Is It This Time?,” from Hippopotamus (2017)