A Summer Among Sparks

Posted: September 7, 2022 by Kat Meow in Experimental, Los Angeles, Pop, Sparks
Gorgeous

Sparks!  Sparks, the ever-morphing pop duo of Ron and Russell Mael, has seen enormous resurgence.  I am of that resurgence.  The Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers is a relatable primer for these obscure titans, and a well done doc in its own right thanks to its combination of warm storytelling and slightly warped animations.  It was meant to invite in curious millennial music kids like myself who have been hearing Sparks on the periphery of our attention for years.  From the jump you can see why they are icons.  It’s like they’ve always been there, but the nostalgia machine hasn’t been feeding them back to us like they have been Bowie and Freddy.  Perhaps it’s because you couldn’t sell Sparks as nostalgia if you tried.  They aren’t of an era because they are of all eras.  I also think images of Ron Mael’s unnerving yet seductive face unlocked a core memory for me, like big sis had MTV on while I was playing Legos and it branded his mustache onto my unconscious.

But I really found Sparks through FFS, their 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand.  I had maybe a couple weeks to vaguely research them before they played a packed house at Terminal 5, excited by what little I managed to learn.  The show was unreal.  I mean these old-ass dudes were full of pure energy.  And Ron’s face!  I remember his intense concentration looking like fury, until he stepped up from his keyboard and finally delivered some tall and skinny dance work of his own.  I fell in love, but I kept putting them off – their catalog was too daunting to start, and time moved on.  

Fortunately The Sparks Brothers acts as a guide to different eras in their sound, while also highlighting key songs that best exemplify different eras of their music.  So I went further on the journey this summer with the film’s guidance.  So far, I can boast repeated listens to Kimono My House, Introducing Sparks, No1 in Heaven, Terminal Jive, Angst in My Pants, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, Lil’ Beethoven, and Exotic Creatures of the Deep.  I also returned to FFS.  Here are some songs that exemplify what I love about Sparks that didn’t get the Edgar Wright treatment in the film.

Equator (Kimono My House – 1974) – The struggle of a protagonist whose lover said she’d meet him at the equator.  It’s desperate and at times exhausting.  Russell keeps his bluesy falsetto so far up in the stratosphere it becomes breathless.  Each repetition gets more panicked, and the backing femme vocals sound like they’re mocking him.  Poor sap.  Unbelievable piano rock.

Goofing Off (Introducing Sparks – 1977) – Fuck being in fashion.  Sparks put out an ode to the wonders of the weekend in a rock and roll klezmer tune.  Klezmer.  Twenty-plus years before Gogol Bordello made it cool. After a blistering guitar solo, the song comes to a triumphant close.  Are they even Jewish?  Who cares.  

My Other Voice (No.1 In Heaven – 1979) – This song could mean anything.  Maybe it’s Ron referring to Russell in a loving tribute to the power Russell gives his lyrics.  Or maybe it could be a metaphor for someone’s emergent new self: “you’re so independent but that’s gonna change real soon/with my other voice I can destroy this room.”  Either way, the simple beat and heavenly synth atmosphere make this one a triumph of the Giorgio Moroder era of Sparks.

Young Girls (Terminal Jive – 1980) – This one messed me up, because on the first listen it was a really sweet bubblegum song with gentle vocals, until the lyrics set in, and dear god.  Yeah, it’s just like that Oingo Boingo song.  But whereas Danny Elfman merely liked offending people, Ron was often performing a social criticism.  He traveled in the same scenes as all the other 70s rockers – many of whom were shacked up with children – was anyone else in the machinery of pop questioning it?

Instant Weight Loss (Angst In My Pants – 1982) – I hear this as a great-uncle to Cut Copy’s first album, Bright Like Neon Love.  The drums have this delicious skip in its rhythm, this kind of double-tap *howdoyado* that gives it a little hip along with its breezy keys.  In typical form, the lyrics tell of a man who is willing to pull some wild Christian Bale weight loss/gain antics over a woman.  

Serving Face

Nicotina (Angst In My Pants – 1982) – A dramatic post-punk opera song about a sentient cigarette meeting her horrifying fate.  ‘Nuff said.

I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car (Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins – 1994) – The inner monologue of a simp being barked at by his desire. Russell’s fay spoken-word shines against the dark 90s techno as he reflects on being someone’s dirty little secret. What old-Hollywood power player inspired this?

Suburban Homeboy (Lil’ Beethoven – 2002) – Ron and Russ have never once in their life given a fuck.  This sprightly pop track is anything but “homeboy” as it comes from the perspective of every upper-class WASP that ever wore a du-rag.  Omnomnom, archetype schadenfreude.

I’ve Never Been High (Exotic Creatures of the Deep – 2008) – Sparks is illustrated as a band that didn’t spend their yesteryears nose-deep in powder.  But rather than being haughty, this tune is wistful, even regretful, of never having been damaged enough to publicly circle the toilet because of addiction.  It ends with a wry poke at how it might have garnered them more public attention: “then I’ll be something, then I’ll be something/look there’s a camera, smile and say cheese.”  After all, self-destruction sells records and builds legacies.  Isn’t that screwed up?

Police Encounters (FFS – 2015) – Written as FFS alongside Franz Ferdinand, this one is just fun fun fun.  But the references to elder cultural figures feels so out of place.  Albie and Pinter plays?  Feeling like P.T. Barnum?  It occurs to me that this song might be a period piece, with a character regretting leaving Harlem because he’s being pursued by cops.  It makes me think Ron’s voice stepped into the mind of someone brown or black who ventured too far south of 125th street while trying to get a little culture.  You can marinate over the setting and the protagonist’s thirst for dangerous women while the “bomp bomp diggy diggy” becomes your inner rhythm.

Iconic

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