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by Clarence Ewing
As a group of English New Wavers once put it, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." In Pop music, monetary success and flash-in-the-pan stardom is easy. Becoming an influence, not just on other artists but on an entire era, has far more lasting rewards that can’t be measured in dollars.
Very few can make a claim to being an influence in the music galaxy, to being a “musician’s musician.” One undisputed example of this is the band Sparks.
Born and raised in California and originally performing under the name Half Nelson, Russell and Ron Mael knew they would spend their lives in music. An early and beneficial encounter with legendary producer Todd Rundgren focused their sound and gave them the best kind of start to their careers.
Russell handles the vocals, Ron plays the keys and wears the mustache. Despite the vibrant '70s California music scene, the brothers would have to go to Europe to hit their stride, a move that would land them in a bristling stew of Punk, Electronica, New Wave, Post-Punk, and Classical influences.
Through the ensuing decades, using a number of backing musicians, the duo adopted a steady, workmanlike approach to their creativity while remaining consistently inconsistent in the styles of music they created. Having managed to avoid the hedonistic traps and self-destructive pitfalls that doom so many other bands on their journey, Sparks have kept their focus squarely on their music, and that has carried them through over 40 years of collaboration.
Even the most attentive music fan can be forgiven for not having the band at top of mind. Sparks were never big in America. Their music was too “out there” to meet the industrialized demands of the US radio and record marketplace. Although they are American, their US performances were few and far between. And even with today’s vibrant crate-digging culture, original copies of their music are notoriously hard to find.
And the records they made do not fit together, in the traditional sense. As artistic statements, each one is its own unique entity that has little to do with what came before or after. Such was the relentless creativity of the Brothers Mael, a double-edged sword that stifled commercial success even as it cemented their musical vision.
With a string of landmark albums like Kimono My House and Propaganda, and singles like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and the notoriously titled “T*ts,” Sparks hit a creative wavelength in the 1970s that carried them through the Rock and Pop landscapes of the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, and ‘10s while always remaining under the radar of traditional stardom. Somehow, they managed to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
And yet, the band’s influence is beyond question. For the first time, the full story of this extraordinary creative team is told by them and those who they influenced. Directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver), the documentary starts at the beginning and leaves nothing out. Nothing, that is, except what Russell and Ron chose to leave out. Which isn’t much.
The documentary features a string of musicians and performers, from Flea, Steve Jones, New Order, Giorgio Moroder, are all on record as having been touched in some way by what Sparks did at one point or another. Even if you’ve never heard a Sparks record (and you probably haven’t), you have heard them in the sounds of late 20th century Pop and Rock.
In a way, the Mael’s story exists as an almost idealized example of how to do it the right way. “It” being making art and living a life. Even so, it’s well worth the time to hear about the trip.
Most recently, the duo have teamed up with Scottish band Franz Ferdinand for an album – the first time in their history Sparks have done such a collaboration. It’s just one more step for them in a truly remarkable journey that’s finally received the documentary it deserves.
The Sparks Brothers is out now at a quality theater near you
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