Though it’s certainly useless to try to dissuade a Queen fan from rhapsodizing about the myriad virtues of their favorite bourgeois-bohemian band, one could do worse than to remind them: “You do realize that people of taste prefer Sparks, yes?”
Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers traffics in the found footage-cum-animation method of padding out interviews, but it’s quite a celebration of fraternal love. For 60 years, the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the core duo behind American art pop outfit Sparks, outdistanced countless bigger-name bands, leaving them in the dustbin of history.
Interviewed side by side, they are now gentlemen in their later years. Russell was the glamorous vocalist with a sturdy falsetto and a mane of wavy hair: a “cutey-pie” says the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones. His keyboardist and songwriter brother, Ron Mael, was better known for a historically ambiguous mustache, about which more presently. His frequent stage costume was the fedora and muscle shirt of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. In concert, Ron displayed a skillful deadpan and sometimes a half-smile, sometimes a smothered look of horror.
These two white Maels never assured their audience that they were champions of the world, nor did they make promises that they would rock you, let alone vow to make another one bite the dust. Instead, in their key hit of 1974, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” they spun Walter Mitty fantasies of comic book toughness, gunslingers, Khaki-colored bombardiers in the Big War, and jungle lovers — “zoo time is she and you time” is just one of their hundreds of deathless, daffy lines.
In their mid 1970s heyday, Sparks persisted with novelty songs and rockers alike. It’s a treat for the long-memoried to pore over the glossy album covers that were a fixture in every weirdo’s home. The slattern geishas smoking cigs on Kimono My House. Or the Maels cuffed, gagged and ready for a watery grave in Propaganda (both from 1974). On 1975’s Indiscreet, the brothers appear to have just survived, unharmed, a horrible small plane crash on a nice suburban street. They did seem to fall out of the sky, those two.
They have a roster of fans, and Wright (Shaun of the Dead) seems to have put every one of them in front of a mic. Among the dozens are Weird Al Yankovic, Duran Duran, Patton Oswalt, Mike Meyers, and comedian April Richardson.
Richardson says that all rock music is two songs: “One, ‘Will you please fuck me?’ And two, ‘Don’t shut my party down.’” And then, she says, you get the subject matter of Sparks. The lyrics range from hilarious to the cryptic — Neil Gaiman confesses here to being puzzled by “Under the Table With Her” as a kid, suspecting it to be dirty. Why, it’s about a pair of puppies yapping for tidbits. What could be more innocent. However the musical short melodrama “Tits” has a subject matter that is as easy to describe as it is of universal interest.
Since there is such a cavalcade of interviewees, I didn’t catch the name of the person who suggested that inadequacy is the steady subject matter of Sparks’ lyrics, over half a century, 25 albums, and 300 songs. This seems right, and Sparks also has a certain focus on prodigies — Li’l Einstein in “Talent is an Asset” and Lil’ Beethoven (2002).
Their probing musical oddity continues over the decades and across the centuries. There’s the percussion of a thwacked brass lampshade back in the 1960s when Sparks was known as The Urban Renewal Project, to, more recently, a “Carmina Burana” worthy chorus of hundreds. Sometimes they use the kind of sugary chimes that are reserved for Christmas songs. Sometimes they’re strangely political — while “Let the Monkey Drive” (2008) is, it’s claimed, just about letting a chimp be the chauffeur, there were those who sensed a satirical song against George W. Bush.
Both eclectic and long lived, they ended up being accused of ripping off the bands they influenced. Squint a little and you can see how they paved the way for Kraftwerk: the brothers’ first recording was a song called “Computer Girl” back in 1967. Part of their constant changing of modes includes collaborations with everyone from the sunny Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos to Franz Ferdinand — the Franz Ferdinand/Sparks pairing “F.F.S,” was born after a chance meeting on a sidewalk in San Francisco.
Sparks were unusually gifted at making disco sound good. Their 1976 Big Beat, produced by Giorgio Moroder, had an early 180 beats per minute hit “Number 1 Song in Heaven.” Even this severe anti-disco snob had to admire it, as well as their Fellini-honoring “La Dolce Vita.” More frequently their tempo was common-time rock, marches, string quartets, and waltzes. It could also be a night at the operetta: “Hospitality on Parade” is a tune that might have escaped from a Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald musical.
One interviewee is astonished to realize that a recent Sparks song sounds like “alpine glockenspiel.” But that goes back a long way. The Maels seem to have a taste for Germanic folk music; Russell’s vocals almost seem ready to turn into a yodel. The 30-second-long title track on Propaganda sounds almost exactly like a cuckoo clock.
Londoners are always startled to hear the Maels are beach town Southern Californians. The proximity to Hollywood was a huge influence on the brothers. Life in that cornucopia of fantasy was tempered by a real life loss: their father died before either one had reached adolescence.
At UCLA, Ron and Russell were film and theater students who played music together; “Miss Christine” from the early all-female band The GTOs made the connection between the Maels and Todd Rundgren. “The Runt” was a wizardly producer, one of the only men in America who would have understood the Maels’s music, and he signed them to his label, Bearsville. Even under their new band name, Sparks wasn’t going over in California — there’s a story of a bad night at a Redding bar with an audience of pissed-off lumberjacks. So the band made a reverse British invasion.
Sparks gave the English press a bit to talk about: especially Ron’s toothbrush mustache, worn in honor of Charlie Chaplin. (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do the voices for an animated snippet, based on an alleged Ringo and John Lennon anecdote: “Marc Bolan’s on TV and he’s singing with Hitler!”).
Historians believe the Hitlerstash crossed the Atlantic from the USA to make it big in Europe, much like the Maels themselves. In its 1920s heyday, that abbreviated ‘stash signaled aerodynamic modernism, compared to the fussy waxed, bushy or handlebar-shaped mustaches that came before. In the song, Russell addressed his brother’s threatening facial hair: “And when I trimmed it very small / my Jewish friends would never call.”
The Brothers’ personal lives is firewalled (though we learn from Wiedlin that she and Russell had a brief fling). Asked his sexual orientation, Ron says, “slightly horny.” Drugs, outside of coffee, don’t seem to be part of the Sparks equation. Russell was the quarterback of his high school football team, and that athleticism lingers. The duo must harbor supernatural energy, considering an unbelievable feat of endurance in 2008, when Ron was 63: performing 21 consecutive Sparks albums, track by track, on 21 consecutive London nights. It was particularly satisfactory because Sparks overcame a bad spell in the 1990s, during which they were labeless for years. Technology caught up with them so they could produce their own records, orchestrate them with synthesizers and, in essence, have the final cut.
As a director, Wright’s career is suffused with proud geekery, and The Sparks Brothers has fanboy soul. It’s not clear the film would convince someone who didn’t care for their music. Some bands, you’ll never understand why they weren’t weltentoters, world-slayers. At least when you’re listening to Sparks at their most eccentric, you can see why someone would run out of the room.
It’s odd that cinema never really cottoned to them — one of their worst breaks was not getting to work with Jacques Tati, even after a collaboration was announced at a press conference. (The soulful pantomimist would have been a perfect match for the Maels.) After Wright’s cheerful and devoted love letter to the band is released, the Maels have a new film out. The Maels have scripted and scored the ingenious Leos Carax’s new film Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. It would be nice to see this cinema-loving band on top of the world where they belong.
Now playing at the AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco.