Record Collector described these kooky Californian anglophile brothers as “the musical version of Marmite”, and indeed, no group seems to split the audience in quite the way that Sparks do.
They specialise in keyboard-based pop songs, with clever, ironic lyrics (by Ron Mael) sung in a near-operatic falsetto voice by Russell Mael. Those who love them are quick to identify the rapture, mystery and humour in their music. Those who loathe them hear only a lot of screeching.
The original lineup (when they called themselves Halfnelson) consisted of the Mael’s, Earle Mankey (later a producer), his younger brother Jim on bass and ace drummer Harley Feinstein.
They recorded a demo which found its way to Todd Rundgren, who helped them get signed to Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records and produced their debut album, Halfnelson, which was released in 1971 and disappeared shortly thereafter.
The album was out of place, glam before glam, stylised British music that would never find a home in America. But Grossman was convinced the album had tanked purely because of the name.
The group changed their name to Sparks and the album was re-released with a new title and cover. The brothers took their show on the road.
Wonder Girl, the album’s first single, entered the Top 100 and the band made several US TV appearances, before recording a second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing (1973) – another commercial underachiever.
Believing the band might appeal to British audiences, they journeyed to England and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and all of a sudden people started coming to see them.
In July 1973, Sparks played the Marquee in London with a little-known support band called Queen. They then toured England and Europe, playing shows, appearing on television and being chased by screaming teenage girls. They returned to America, buzzing.
Dissolving the band and relocating to London, the new two-piece Sparks crashed into the UK pop scene in 1974 with the album Kimono My House (produced by Island A&R man Muff Winwood), which provided a #2 hit with the glam rock operetta This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.
Propaganda (1974) continued where Kimono My House left off. Screaming teenage girls accompanied the band’s TV and concert appearances, while the press flipped for the absurdly quotable and photogenic Mael brothers.
That they became a teenybopper band is one of the greatest ironies of 70s popular music.
After two years of living in London, the Maels began to tire of the damp and the cold. They were Southern Californians after all. So in late 1975, Ron and Russell split their new British band and returned home to Los Angeles to give America another shot.
In the late 70s, they turned to disco producer Giorgio Moroder and scored three UK hits with Tryouts For The Human Race, Beat The Clock and The Number 1 Song In Heaven – All in an aggressive electro-dance style.
For 1982’s Angst In My Pants album, the duo turned to Power Pop and scored their first US singles chart entry with the hilarious I Predict. The album also included Eaten By The Monster Of Love which appeared in the soundtrack to the cult classic movie Valley Girl (1983), starring Nicholas Cage.
Sparks In Outer Space (1983) was perhaps their biggest selling LP in the US and contained Cool Places – a duet with Jane Wiedlin, formerly of The Go-Go’s.