By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
AFTER A 27-YEAR career, the tiny, tough Anglophilic pop band Sparks--Ron and Russell Mael--has released more than 16 records, not counting spin-offs and soundtrack cuts. And if any proto-punk band should be held up for re-examination, this one certainly deserves a second look. Dismissed during the mid-'70s as too anti-pop for the radio world, the brothers have remained influences on everyone from Devo to Cibo Matto.
Ron is the band's piano-playing, Fiorcucci-wearing, 90-pound grouch. He sports a Chaplin mustache and writes pop songs that fly by with rapid-fire intensity and wit. His handsome brother Russell enunciates Ron's lyrics with breakneck patter, yodeling and hitting glass-breaking notes along the way. Together they are so comic and charming that you almost don't notice the songs are often rather mean-spirited ("Have another sweet my dear/Don't try to talk my dear/Your tiny little mouth is full," reads one seedy line).
Plagiarism sees Sparks rerecording 19 of its own songs, and enhancing the reworkings through collaborations with former Bowie producer Tony Visconti, Faith No More, and Erasure. Mike Patton and Faith No More play Brutus to Russell's Popeye on "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us," as the two battle over a small town's female population ("Choosing/The girl is choosing/Between the man who's well-to-do and the man who is you," sings Russell). On the other FNM collaboration, "Something for the Girl with Everything," Patton's voice isn't up to the job, but hearing him try to keep up with the seraphlike Russell is priceless. And Erasure's take on "Amateur Hour" and Jimmy Somerville's "The No. 1 Song in Heaven" could even cross over into clubland.
This is a wonderful tribute to a great band, and with this much history behind them, it makes sense that the Maels themselves should be the ones to wander through their massive archives and choose which songs should be reconsidered. With a full back-catalog available, soon to be released on CD for the first time, there couldn't be a better time to discover this seminal influence. Will it happen? As a reviewer for the Toronto Star observed back in the '70s, "Sparks either antagonizes its listeners to the point where they destroy the band's albums, or creates fanatics." Here's hoping for fanaticism.