Review: The Sparks Brothers

The first time I heard about Sparks was from a friend of mine I knew from Tumblr. There are a lot of sibling bands in rock and roll and Sparks are one that you gotta listen to, especially if you like glam and art rock. Who are Sparks exactly though? Well, you won’t get a straight answer, but here’s what we know.

Sparks are a band formed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Ron’s the one with the Hitler/Charlie Chaplin like moustache and Russell has the long, curly hair. Even though they were American, they had a lot more success in Europe. The two brothers were born and raised in LA, and in the 60s it was one of the places to be if you wanted to hear good music: The Doors, Love, The Standells, The Beach Boys, Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart, The Mamas and The Papas, The Monkees, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – lots of inspiration to be found, but those weren’t their main inspirations. They looked to the British Invasion and stuck with it even after 1966 when American rock music was basically reborn and shaken up. They’d listen to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, The Kinks, and The Move. I guess it does make sense why they had more success in Europe than in the US.

They made their earliest recordings in the late 60s under the names Urban Renewal Project and Halfnelson. Todd Rundgren was an early fan and got them signed to Bearsville. They didn’t have much success until the early 70s when they went to London and found a dedicated following and found they fit perfectly in with the glam rock scene, which was taking over the British charts. If you look at the British charts in the early 70s you’ll see names like T. Rex, Slade, David Bowie, The Sweet, Wizzard, Mott The Hoople, Mud, and Roxy Music all over the place. It’s danceable music with a shiny flashy aesthetic. Mostly trashy music that you can party and get drunk to, but there were those gems and geniuses in glam rock like Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and the Mael Brothers – visionaries, great songwriters, could see what the new music trends were, and weren’t afraid to try new sounds.

I love all kinds of classic rock subgenres, but glam rock is one I especially love and I was excited to hear that there’s a documentary about Sparks out now! Edgar Wright, who has directed great movies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World (all movies I really love!), is the director. His name like Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, John Hughes, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese is one of those names when I see “directed by”, I know it’s gonna be good.

I think he’s a great choice to direct any movie about classic rock because his movies always have such great soundtracks (lots of classic rock!) and great editing and humour too. The Sparks Brothers is no exception! Every classic rock band deserves the Edgar Wright documentary treatment.

A huge project, over 80 people were interviewed for it, including: The Mael Brothers, Weird Al, Beck, Flea, Jonathan Ross, Patton Oswalt, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Visconti, Mike Myers, Giorgio Moroder, Neil Gaiman, Todd Rundgren, Bjork, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Jane Wiedlin, Pamela Des Barres, and more!

I think what makes Sparks so special is they’re not Beatles or Zeppelin or Stones big, but they’re just as talented and maybe even more prolific. There’s a little something for everyone too in their very long discography. One thing’s for sure, they are no nostalgia act, they always move forward, grow, and change with the times – that’s what makes a true artist. They’re evergreen. Loving a “smaller” classic rock band feels a lot more like a community and family. Welcome new Sparks fans! You’ll definitely come out of this movie a fan of the band.

Takeaways and Thoughts I had while watching it:

As the Maels are mysterious and enigmatic like Bob Dylan or David Bowie (maybe even more so because even less is known about Ron & Russell’s personal lives), you might be coming out with more questions after watching the movie and a lot remains a mystery, but that’s all part of the appeal! So rapid fire style, here are some facts and takeaways! Like you can expect from mysterious musicians, this documentary is all about the music, not their personal lives.

  1. They’re not British, they were born in California.
  2. The band’s new name was supposed to be The Sparks Brothers, a play on The Marx Brothers. Ron & Russell hated it and negotiated that down to simply Sparks.
  3. They came from an artistic family. Their dad was a painter.
  4. Unlike a lot of rock stars whose parents didn’t approve of rock music, their father had a lot of rock and roll records at home: Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. Their mother took them to see The Beatles twice!
  5. Like a lot of boomer rock and rollers, movies that featured rock and roll were pivotal in their childhood. For them, it was Blackboard Jungle.
  6. Cinema was a major influence on them in general, as Hollywood was right there! Liking French New Wave movies kind of went hand in hand with liking British music as an American.
  7. Ron’s start in music was taking piano lessons and playing in his primary school talent shows
  8. They were also sporty: playing American football, baseball, and surfing. Russell said that sports has the same adrenalin rush as going on stage as a musician.
  9. Long before computers became something everyone had in their houses and later – pockets, one of their earliest songs was “Computer Girl”. Pre-dates Kraftwerk’s computer songs.
  10. Before Russell Mael found himself as a lead singer, he tried to emulate Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger. Lesson: Never be a second rate version of someone else!
  11. Todd Rundgren believed in Sparks when no one else would.
  12. They weren’t making the big bucks straight away. When they made their first appearance on American Bandstand, they were still on food stamps and that led to an embarrassing moment at the grocery store when the cashier recognised the Mael Brothers from TV and made a show of it
  13. Whispering Bob Harris, host of The Old Grey Whistle Test on the BBC called Sparks the worst band he’d ever seen, but it was good press for Sparks and after that…
  14. They played The Marquee Club and guess who opened for them? Queen! Brian May at one point actually considered joining Sparks! He and Russell would be competing for who had the biggest, curliest hair I guess!
  15. England was such a success for Sparks, that they moved over there! A difficult decision to leave home and their American bandmates, but the right choice and it was a dream of theirs to live in England!
  16. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” from Kimono My House was the breakthrough for Sparks and a huge influence on musicians from the following generations.
  17. Sparks were always mistaken for British, even by British people. One time at the BBC when they were supposed to play Top of the Pops, the producer gasped when they heard Russell introduce himself with his American accent and kicked them off the show because they didn’t have work permits. Eventually though they did get to play Top of the Pops.
  18. Ron chose the Charlie Chaplin/Hitler moustache look because he thought of them both as cartoon characters in a way.
  19. Everything about Sparks is a package: the looks, the lyrics, the music, the album art. The art from their album Propaganda has a concept behind it: they’re tied up and being kidnapped: on the back of a boat, in the backseat of a car, and tied up on a bed with a phone next to them. It tells a story! A very creative band indeed who changed the formula.
  20. In the late 70s, they changed their sound to more hard rock and incorporated more American influences in it. As artists, they always needed to be looking and moving forward. Every album has to sounds different! They refused to pander to their fanbase and just made what they wanted to make. Big Beat was their “anti-Sparks” punk/hard rock album, but it wasn’t a success.
  21. In an interview with a journalist in LA they lied and said they’re going to work with Giorgio Moroder on their next album, but the journalist was close friends with Giorgio, who never mentioned working with Sparks, but she introduced the brothers to Giorgio Moroder and that’s how they worked with him on their more disco sounding No. 1 in Heaven.
  22. Sparks reinvented themselves with disco and synth-pop and it was a success!
  23. Sparks even influenced Paul McCartney! In his music video for his Talking Heads/Sparks-esque song “Coming Up”, he dresses up as various musicians like Hank Marvin and Ron Mael. What an honour!
  24. One of their favourite radio stations was KROQ, which played a lot of 80s British synthpop and post-punk and of course, Sparks!
  25. Even though the band members weren’t gay themselves, Sparks have a big gay following because their songs questioned gender roles and identity.
  26. Both brothers were the stars of the show. Don’t be fooled by Ron’s quietness on stage, he is also a star and not afraid to do things that would be embarrassing for most people in music videos. Both are stunning!
  27. Jane Wiedlin did that dance move in 1983 before Molly Ringwald did that dance move in The Breakfast Club, which came out in 1985. So don’t call it the Molly Ringwald dance, she didn’t do it first!
  28. Growing up is realising that Ron Mael is a babe.
  29. The 90s was a tough time for any classic rock band because the music world had moved on and that means less money. Thankfully Ron & Russell are smart with their money and take care of themselves so they survived the 90s. Even in their 70s, they still work out!
  30. Ron & Russell even tried making music for a movie project based on a manga called Mai, The Psychic Girl. Tim Burton was supposed to direct it, but it didn’t pan out. It resulted in a 6 year hiatus for Sparks, but…
  31. They came out with a new album in 1994 and they looked just as good as ever!
  32. To be a Sparks fan means that you have an open mind.
  33. On Ron’s keyboard you’ll see his full name Ronald, an anagram of Roland.
  34. Only Sparks can make a song where one line is repeated over and over again and that lyric has so much meaning behind it because of the delivery.
  35. In about years, Sparks released nearly 300 songs across 21 albums. Prolific! They made that into a concert series, called The Sparks Spectacular, where they performed one album in its entirety for each concert. What other band would do that? Most classic rock bands when they’ve been playing for decades will just play the hits and maybe a couple new songs, but mostly the old hits because that’s what the fans want to hear.

What a documentary!

Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!

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