- 08 May 23
Back with a new record, The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, that ranks alongside their previous genre-defying classics, Sparks talk to Stuart Clark about celebrity admirers, having their minds blown, moral dilemmas, big screen adventures and their place in the pantheon of ground-breaking acts.
I’ve bored you on countless occasions with my David Bowie performing ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops story, but little Stewie Clark also had a ‘Sparks moment’ in the early ‘70s when the brothers Mael belted out ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ on the aforementioned Thursday night musicfest.
I can’t remember whether it was Ron’s Charlie Chaplin-meets-Hitler shtick or Russ’ falsetto from another dimension that blew my tweenie mind the most, but the next day I became the proud owner of Kimono My House, Sparks’ third album, which was every bit as genre-defying as The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars.
It was just as revelatory for Ron ‘n’ Russ who’d spent the previous eight years getting nowhere fast in their native Los Angeles.
“Chris Blackwell and his A&R man, Muff Winwood, had signed us to Island Records based on two previous albums (Sparks and A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing) we’d released as a five-piece band with Todd Rundgren and his Bearsville label,” recalls Russ, who’s 74 but passes for 50. “Muff, especially, saw something unique in those records whilst deciding that he wanted to put the focus on Ron and myself.
“He recognised – like we did and still do – that there are ways to make pop music that don’t slot in to the lowest common denominator. You can do things that are bold and unconventional but still make it work commercially.”
Island – who Sparks have just re-signed to after 46 years of label-hopping – weren’t entirely sure what to expect from the new two-piece Sparks.
“Having grown-up listening to bands like The Yardbirds and being complete Anglophiles, it was really exciting touching down at Heathrow – albeit we had no songs in our baggage,” Russ resumes. “The likes of ‘This Town…’ were written once we’d settled in London, which was a relief for all concerned! To then find ourselves recording in some very expensive studios, and after that appearing on Top Of The Pops alongside all these amazing bands, felt very surreal.”
As soon as we get the Hot Press time machine working, we’re setting the dial for April 11, 1975: Buffalo, New York where Sparks were that night opening for Kraftwerk.
“I’d actually forgotten that until someone reminded me,” Russ admits somewhat guiltily before Ron takes-over: “It’s very strange that they were the essence of hip hop. I don’t mean this in a negative way because I love them, but what’s more white than Kraftwerk? For that to be the basis for statement music coming from the black community was extraordinary. You can’t over-analyse it – it just was.”
Having last year given my ‘What the fuck is THAT!?’award to Fontaines D.C.’s ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’, Sparks stake an early claim for the 2023 gong with ‘You Were Meant For Me’, a whirling dervish of a tune that sounds like the aforementioned Kraftwerk vibing to The Beatles whilst channelling the spirit of Marc Bolan.
Elsewhere, ‘The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight’ is all electro bagpipes and brass; ‘Love Story’ strays into Depeche Mode territory; and the title-track acid squelches its way back to ‘80s Chicago.
Russ is aghast and agape when I ask whether they’ve thought about getting some A-List remix merchants in to make those tracks even bigger dancefloor monsters than they already are.
“If it were to in some way serve the Sparks cause we’d be open to it, but in this case the definitive versions of those songs are on the record,” he observes.
Hot Press’ lockdownitis was temporarily cured by The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright’s stunning documentary which included Beck, Steve Jones, Alex Kapranos, Thurston Moore, Andy Bell, Tony Visconti, Mike Myers, Bjork, ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic, Stephen Morris and Flea among its army of celebrity admirers.
“It was surprising but really gratifying to have all those people say what our music means to them,” Ron beams. “Edgar devoted three years of his life – and he really was unrelenting – to the project and going in to bat for the Sparks cause. His ability to shape our story in a non-traditional way and give it an emotional side was something we weren’t expecting and are really happy about.”
Their cinematic exploits don’t end there with the Maels writing, soundtracking and appearing in Annette, the Leos Carax-directed story of a stand-up comedian (Adam Driver) and his opera singing wife (Marion Cotillard) that cleaned up at the 2022 César Awards in Paris.
I don’t want to give too much away, but the opening sequence in which Ron and Russ sing their way through the streets of Los Angeles with the main protagonists is cinematic gold.
“We had a project with a narrative story – Annette – that we thought was going to be an album akin to a previous record, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, we’d done for Swedish radio,” Russ explains. “We’d met Leos Carax, who’d used one of our songs in his previous movie, Holy Motors, in Cannes. We shared the idea with him for no other reason than he’s a huge Sparks fan and likes to know what we’re up to, and he came back and said, ‘I want this as my next movie!’ It took about eight years to get from that point to Annette coming out and you getting to see one of the greatest first five minutes of cinema ever!”
Did they get suited and booted for the awards ceremony?
“Yes, we did,” Russ continues. “It was pretty unique for two Americans to win the César for Best Original Music, which is normally given to French composers.”
When I publicly interviewed him a while back in the RDS – hands up who remembers the indoor Metropolis festival? – Giorgio Moroder was effusive in his praise for Sparks and the landmark 1979 album, Beat The Clock, they made together. Like the rest of us, the Maels had previously had their minds blown by Giorgio and Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.
“We’d heard electronic sounds and singers like Donna Summer before, but not combined in that way,” Ron marvels. “There can never be enough appreciation of how unique that song is. Like everything back then, my first exposure to ‘I Feel Love’ was in the car. Driving along to that propulsive beat felt like the future. It was both minimalist and melodic, and came at a time when we were searching for another way to work. We felt we’d gone as far as we could with a band approach, and that song opened up all sorts of possibilities.
“It’s nice to hear that Giorgio was so complimentary because we only have good things to say about him and what he taught us.”
It’s obvious talking to the Maels that they remain massive music fans – something that isn’t always the case with artists who’ve been around the rock ‘n’ roll block as many times as they have.
Asked who they’ve been super-excited to meet, Russ shoots back, “Bryan Ferry – who surprisingly we never met during Roxy Music’s ‘70s heyday – came to one of our more recent orchestral shows in London. We had a nice cup of tea together. It was really cool to discover that somebody we’re such a big fan of is interested in Sparks.”
“During the ‘70s, we were rehearsing for a tour in the same place as The Who who’d probably been our number one idols when we were young,” Ron takes over. “Keith Moon – who’s very unique and the coolest rock drummer – was still alive and they came into our space and talked about some Top Of The Pops appearance of ours. That was pretty extraordinary!”
Despite their teenage Anglophile tendencies, the Maels can be seen in the audience during the Ronettes section of the fabled 1966 concert film, The Big T.N.T. Show.
Have they been through the same torment as me trying to decide whether it’s okay to listen to Phil Spector records now that we know just how big a scumbag he was?
“I’ve come to peace with the fact that sometimes you have to separate the person from the art – even going as far back as someone like Wagner,” is Ron’s considered answer. “You see some things with Michael Jackson and think, ‘Can I still like that music?’ Some of the most repellent people in history have done amazing things artistically – not only in music but other fields as well. Some great actors and directors were despicable people. Obviously with Phil Spector it’s difficult, but that music is so transcendent that I try and filter out all the things that might taint the impression I originally had of it.”
Unlike some of their contemporaries, Ron and Russ have never made the same record twice and have as much to offer today’s pop kids as they do Sparks lifers.
“What Edgar was so good at relating in his documentary is that you can pick Sparks up at any point in our career,” Russ concludes. “If somebody discovers us through The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, there are 24 other albums for them to listen to, all of which I think have stood the test of time.”
That they have…
• Sparks’ The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte is out on Island on May 25.