Where To Start With... Sparks
In the grand scheme of things, there aren't too many artists whose careers manage to pass the 50-year mark, and of those that have, few have been as improbably enduring as the one enjoyed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael – better known to most as Sparks.
First formed in their native Los Angeles in 1968, Sparks were an unusual prospect from the very beginning. Having grown up around the legendary L.A. club scene at a time when its venues routinely featured the likes of The Doors, Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds on their stages, Sparks began life in a similar mould, but even though their full line-up featured five members in those days, it was clear that the Mael brothers were the band's creative nucleus. Besides their idiosyncratic songwriting, the visual juxtaposition between Russell's hyperactive frontman theatrics and Ron's deadpan, almost sinister aura gave the band a look almost as unique as their sound – a theatrical combination of glam rock and off-kilter chamber pop with a tendency toward operatic flourishes.
Few gave them any real chance of success. Their debut album, released under the band's original name Halfnelson, sold poorly, and while its follow-up A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing – their first as Sparks – did generate enough for a UK tour, they were still lacking any real hits. It was in the UK, however, that their fortunes began to improve and one man who did see the band's potential was producer Muff Winwood, who ended up recording their third album, Kimono My House, after their first choice Roy Wood found himself double-booked. By the time they'd wrapped recording on the single 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us', Winwood was convinced that they had a hit on their hands.
However, a certain Elton John disagreed. As the story goes, John bet his friend Winwood that the song would never break into the charts. On its release in 1974 it climbed to No. 2 in the UK Singles Chart, landing Sparks their first real breakthrough hit and causing Elton John to lose an unspecified amount of cash.
The years since have seen the band evolve, disappear and remerge in various forms, although by the late 70s, after various line-up changes, the Mael brothers had largely become a duo more focussed on electronic music, and they've largely been following that path ever since 1979's No.1 in Heaven.
While the hits have ebbed and flowed – as they do with even the most successful artists over half a century into the game – Sparks have remained hugely influential and have enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity over the last five years or so, with their most recent album – 2017's Hippopotamus – becoming their first to reach the UK Top 10 in more than 40 years.
Its follow-up A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip arrives this week and represents their 24th studio album, which is an incredible achievement in itself. Now both in their 70s, Ron and Russell are showing no signs of letting their enduring popularity go to waste and if the new album is anything to go by, we haven't heard the last of them yet.
You can find recent single 'Lawnmower' below – beneath that, and with A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip in stores today, we've picked out five key tracks from their remarkable discography as a beginner's guide for Sparks newbies...
'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us'
As well as being their most enduringly popular song, when it was first released, 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us' also perfectly summed up everything Sparks were about; the eccentric lyrics, the operatic flourishes and the bafflingly complex (but still catchy) melodies are all present and correct. In a similar manner to Kate Bush's 'Wuthering Heights', nobody else has really made anything quite like it, before or since.
'The Number One Song In Heaven'
By 1979 Sparks were, to all intents and purposes, a duo instead of a band, and it's perhaps with the shift towards electronic music on their eighth album No. 1 in Heaven that saw them become such a huge influence on the likes of Soft Cell and a string of other electro-pop duos that emerged in the following years. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, its title track shows their knack for applying a catchy melody to any genre of music.
'Angst In My Pants'
Although performing live with a band line-up again to the fore by the time of 1983's Angst in My Pants, the sound was still very much electronically focussed – a fact evident by their choice of producer for the album, none other than synthesizer pioneer Giorgio Moroder himself. The title track sums that era up perfectly, and was also one of their biggest hits of the 1980s.
'When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'?'
Featured on their 16th album, the superbly-titled Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, 'When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'?' broke into the Top 40 here in the UK, but was much bigger hit for Sparks in European countries such as Germany and Belgium, where several tracks on the album became hits on the club scene – none more so than this.
'Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)'
Our last pick is one of the duo's more recent pieces of work and was included on their well-received 2017 album Hippopotamus and aside from being one of the album's finest moments, it's also a testament to the duo's ability to consistently turn in something interesting. Few other bands could squeeze into the charts with songs referencing a French chanteuse who died almost 60 years ago, but then there are few other bands like Sparks, if any.
A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is available in hmv stores and online now.