“Throughout all the years I’ve been making music, if you get on a tour bus with a bunch of musicians, eventually the conversation will go to Sparks,” Beck says in the trailer for Edgar Wright’s new documentary, The Sparks Brothers.
Over the past 50 years, brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been at the forefront of a variety of popular music trends, from glam rock to power pop to electronic music to new wave and beyond. Their peers respect their constant musical innovation, while teenagers of all ages see themselves in Ron’s poignant, self-deprecating lyrics, but their records have never caught on with a wider audience. Until now.
Two movies—Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers and Leos Carax’s musical Annette, which the Mael brothers wrote with Carax—that debut this summer could bring Sparks to a wide array of new listeners. If you’re interested in learning more about Sparks but don’t know where to begin, these 10 fast facts will bring you up to speed.
1. Sparks found some early fame in the UK, but were formed in California.
Sparks first became popular in England; they would later record a string of dance and new wave albums in Germany, and singer Russell Mael would sometimes sing in a French accent. Casual fans might think they’re from Europe, but Ron and Russell are proud Los Angeles natives. In an early scene in The Sparks Brothers, Ron spoke of how his father’s artistic talent played a formative role in how he viewed his hometown: “When I think of Venice Beach, my father’s painting is what comes to mind.”
Growing up in Los Angeles played a huge role in the Mael brothers’s early years, both in fact and in band mythology. As children, they modeled for the Sears catalog, and they’re visible in the audience of the 1960s concert movie The Big TNT Show. While the rumor that their mother was Doris Day turned out to be false, their mother used the pseudonym Mary Martin when she served as the secretary of the Sparks Fan Club.
2. Ron and Russell Mael found pre-Sparks success as part of a quintet.
Ron and Russell enrolled at UCLA in the mid-1960s, with Russell in the theater department and Ron in film. (In The Sparks Brothers, Ron recalls running Fritz Lang’s film M upside down “so then it would be called W”—an early example of the band’s trademark absurdist sense of humor.) After school, the brothers fronted the bands Farmers’ Market and the Urban Renewal Project, both of which played gigs on the Los Angeles club scene.
The brothers would eventually gain some success with Halfnelson, a proto-Sparks quintet that merged witty first-person narratives, ambitious arrangements, and studio trickery with melodies that got stuck in your head for days. Their elaborately packaged demo—which Russell designed to look like a restaurant check—landed on Todd Rundgren’s desk, and the iconic musician and songwriter produced the band’s debut album for Bearsville Records.
While recording Halfnelson’s album, Bearsville Records owner (and Bob Dylan’s manager at one point) Albert Grossman suggested that the Maels change the band name to the Sparks Brothers, because they reminded him of The Marx Brothers. “We shortened it to Sparks,” Russell recalls in The Sparks Brothers.
3. Sparks’ appearance on Top of the Pops was a pre-internet viral video.
After landing a contract with Island Records, the Maels relocated to London in the summer of 1973 and assembled a backing band of British session musicians. They promoted their breakthrough album Kimono My House with a truly bizarre performance of the single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” on the BBC’s Top of the Pops. With his black velvet suit and head of tendrils, Russell looks like the dictionary definition of a glam rock frontman, but Ron’s deadpan screen presence elevated the clip into a legendary TV moment. He stared down the camera with a menacing facial expression that frightened schoolchildren throughout England and led John Lennon to compare him to Hitler because of his slicked-back hair and toothbrush mustache. The clip was so well-known that Paul McCartney would later parody Ron in the video for his song “Coming Up.”
4. Sparks change their sound as often as other artists change their clothes.
The four classic albums Sparks would record for Island Records took a Trojan-horse approach to glam rock: The clean production, catchy riffs, and androgynous vocals drew in fans of David Bowie, Queen, and T Rex, but the band’s love of pre-rock and roll styles like swing, chamber music, and light opera would shine through on songs like “Looks Looks Looks,” “Under the Table with Her,” and “Hospitality on Parade” from their fifth album Indiscreet. The release of 1976’s The Big Beat found the band experimenting with a louder, brasher sound that flirted with heavy metal and punk. (At a 2008 live show, Russell mentioned that Johnny Ramone wanted to cover “Nothing to Do,” but was outvoted by the other Ramones.)
By the time The Big Beat was released, “we were feeling that we had been taking a band format as far as we could go,” Ron noted in a 2020 Forbes profile. This led to a fortuitous meeting with a journalist that Russell recounted in The Sparks Brothers: The writer asked “what’s next for Sparks?” and he answered that they would be working with Giorgio Moroder, a disco producer best known then for his work with Donna Summer. The interviewer said that they knew Moroder and he hadn’t mentioned working with them, prompting Russell to ask if they could introduce Sparks to Moroder. “At the time, [Giorgio] was trying to figure out a way to work with a band,” Ron told Forbes. “That worked out perfectly where it could be kind of a real collaboration between the three of us. We had never worked with electronics before and it was just a revelation. Everything we know was based on what we learned from Giorgio during that experience.” Their partnership with Moroder would lead to another string of classic Sparks records, beginning with the proto-electronica EP Number One in Heaven.
5. “Weird Al” Yankovic thought Sparks were “the biggest band in the world.”
By the early 1980s, Los Angeles musicians who came of age listening to Sparks on Rodney Bingenheimer’s KROQ radio show or dancing to them at his English Disco had started forming their own bands, who were playing the same clubs the Maels played in their proto-Sparks incarnations. Sparks were greeted like returning heroes with the release of their 1981 new wave album Whomp That Sucker, and the momentum carried over into their follow-up Angst in My Pants.
Their single “I Predict” made the top 10 of KROQ’s 106.7 Songs of 1982, accompanied by a disturbing, yet hilarious video (above) in which Ron did a striptease. The Angst in My Pants track “Eaten by the Monster of Love” was put to memorable use in the seminal ’80s teen rom-com Valley Girl. By the time In Outer Space was released in 1983, the band was playing such quintessential Los Angeles venues as Magic Mountain amusement park. “I thought they were the biggest band in the world, because they were so popular in LA,” “Weird Al” Yankovic says in The Sparks Brothers.
6. Sparks didn’t have their first Top 50 hit until more than a decade into their career.
One of Sparks’ biggest fans was The Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who started an unauthorized fan club for the band during their glam era. Like Sparks, The Go-Go’s were Los Angeles radio mainstays in the early ’80s, and when Wiedlin reached out to them as a peer, “we just said we should do something together,” Russell recalled in 2017. That would end up being “Cool Places,” a song Sparks and Wiedlin released after The Go-Go’s completed their tour for Vacation. And a song that gave Sparks the highest Billboard chart position of their career to date. On the strength of its popularity and the ubiquity of the video, the cast of the TV show Kids Incorporated even covered it. The Mael brothers would later co-write “Yes or No” with Wiedlin for The Go-Go’s third LP, Talk Show. Their collaboration was personal as well as professional; on a 1983 American Bandstand appearance, Russell said their work together came about as “a mutual appreciation for one another’s respective groups, and then mutual admiration for one another’s bodies.”
7. For Sparks, collaborations do work.
Jane Wiedlin, Giorgio Moroder, and Halfnelson producer Todd Rundgren aren’t the only boldface names to have appeared on a Sparks album. In 1999, the band released Plagiarism, a best of/tribute album that featured new versions of their most popular songs as well as collaborations with Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, and Faith No More. More recently, a chance meeting at a San Francisco dentist’s office with Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos led to the “supergroup” FFS.
The song “Collaborations Don’t Work” speaks to the kind of anxiety that comes up in projects like FFS: “I think that song underlines the fact that both bands were aware that collaborations can be pretty rotten,” Kapranos told NME of FFS. “We both approached it not wanting to do something bland and half-arsed.” The more straightforward-sounding album was an accessible point of entry for new fans of the band.
8. Sparks have released 25 albums—and counting.
Sparks have averaged an album release about every two years over a 50-year period. When they were preparing the release of their 2008 album Exotic Creatures of the Deep, they asked themselves, “How do we best unveil our new album, Sparks’ as-yet untitled 21st? How about playing in concert every single song off of every album that preceded it, all 20 albums on 20 consecutive nights, culminating in the premiere of our latest?” The result was the Sparks Live Spectacular, a monthlong residency at London’s Carling Academy. The band played one album a night in its entirety, in its original key and with the original arrangements. For concertgoers who bought tickets to all 21 shows, “we’re gonna record one song and give a CD of this one song to the people that choose to dedicate an entire month of their lives to Sparks,” Russell told Arthur magazine in 2008. “That warrants receiving a song that no one else will get.”
9. The Mael brothers have had bad luck in Hollywood.
Hollywood has cast a huge shadow over Sparks’ music. The band photo on the back of their album Indiscreet looks like a raging kegger at Pickfair, and songs like “Gone with the Wind,” “Academy Award Performance,” and “The Director Never Yelled ‘Cut'” use cinematic imagery to tell larger stories about subjects like troubled relationships and gender performance. While Ron and Russell love the movies, however, the movies have never quite loved them back.
In the 1970s, Sparks had spoken with renowned French director Jacques Tati about writing the music for what would have been his final film, Confusion. But Tati’s declining health and eventual death preempted the project. Twenty years later, the brothers put their music career on hold to write a musical version of the manga Mai the Psychic Girl for Tim Burton to direct, but production was canceled when Burton decided to work on The Nightmare Before Christmas instead. More recently, the Maels had handpicked retrofuturist Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin to adapt their 2009 album The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, but little news of that film has broken since 2015.
10. Sparks’ luck in the movies is about to change.
When Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright attended a Sparks concert in 2017, he made an observation that led to his first documentary. “I said ‘I think the only thing stopping this band from being as big as they should be is a documentary, because if you had an overview of the band, for people who find their discography daunting, it would really go a long way to giving some context to them in a way that you could really, easily enjoy them,’” Wright told Deadline in January. The filmmaker met the band after the show and expressed interest in making a documentary about them. As fans of Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, the Maels agreed, and the three began work on what would become The Sparks Brothers. The documentary, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, will arrive in theaters on June 18, 2021.
Just weeks later, on August 6, 2021, Annette—Leos Carax’s first feature film in a decade—will be released. Annette is a pop opera about a standup comedian (played by Adam Driver), an opera singer (Marion Cotillard), and their daughter, “a mysterious girl with an exceptional destiny.” The Maels had originally conceived of Annette as an album, but the project took a turn when they met Carax at Cannes and sent him a copy of their work-in-progress. “He really liked the album and would like to consider it as his next project,” the brothers said in a statement to IndieWire. “We were happily surprised and elated at his reaction. As fans of Leos’s films, to now realize that he would be directing a film of ours was beyond our dreams.”