Sparks (Sparks) - All about the group: biography and facts

    “And if the eccentric grandfathers again took up fashionable rockapops, it means that they are saying something. Probably, even music should not be dissolved - even it is getting old ... "

    Sparks Story: A Baffling Legend of Secret Trendsetters

    I learned about the legendary ensemble Sparks late - I grew up and formed tastes in a much later era. But I was already ready for the Sparks - it seemed that I felt their place, although I did not know them by name. Thanks to Queen... My working theory is: no great ensemble has ever been a pioneer - they ingeniously developed what was invented before them (otherwise there simply would not be enough time and effort: to invent and promote). When it comes to The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, many of the bands that preceded them are called. But Queen seems to have popped up out of nowhere - with innate brilliant theatricality and pompous virtuosity. And when listening to Queen, it always seemed strange to me: how can you come up with something like that and immediately “throw it to the masses”?! And these giants are Sparks. (Besides, the great Freddie himself honestly admitted this).

    Sparks (1)

    Innate modesty, elegance of the format and dismissive escapism did not allow the Sparks to become truly popular - many do not know them at all. But Sparks' music and delivery format was exploited by the Queens, making them overnight icons of a new dimension of rock and roll.

    So who are the Sparks?


    This is a duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, plus a constantly changing team of eminent instrumentalists. Distinctive features of the ensemble:

    • Russell Mael's specific operetta falsetto with a rhythm on the verge of hip-hop.
    • The musical basis is not guitar, but melodic and complex, but at the same time constantly repeating (as in a trance) piano passages by Ron Mael.
    • The exceptional mannerism of the presentation, which Lagutenko himself would envy (and maybe imitate).
    • Quirky defiant appearance.
    • Repressed sexual (or even BDSM, but quite dotted) motifs in the design of the covers of many albums.
    • Absurdist texts that idiotically address the most important, vital issues, especially in terms of criticism of the consumer society - ironically and subtly.
    • Constant textual and musical repetitions - already here one can assume the Sparks as heralds of trance and even hip-hop.
    • The mysteriousness of the ensemble, the closeness of the personal life of the group members from the media.
    • Subsequently - constant feints with movements between genres. And even between countries and defining national musical cultures: Los Angeles and London.
    • The original, unique, extraordinary focus on the TV format.

    The last point is the main one for Sparks. Ron Mael himself noted that the television screen was a real discovery for him - or rather, the idea of using it as the main mouthpiece for presenting a piece of music. A club or pop concert is, as a rule, for a limited number of fans who came to get a good look at their favorite artist. Stadium concert (at the time when the scenes were not yet duplicated on giant LCD screens) - for lovers of sound and effects only. You can't see an artist there, unless he's doing the hell out of it - like KISS. But being on a show like "Top of the Pops" is a perfect opportunity to achieve more effect with the arch of an eyebrow and the movement of a shoulder than an actor smashing an electric guitar on a speaker on stage achieves.

    The enlarged face on the screen in the center of the living room is an instrument of power and influence. And if we add repetitive musical loops, rhythmic singing with a high cry, a refrain of the same phrase to the screen pantomime - the effect is stunning! The specific mustache that adorned the face of the early Ron Mael is perhaps a hint of the totalitarianism of the screen impact (it can be assumed, knowing Mael's signature humor). When he first saw a snippet of the Sparks' TV speech, John Lennon, amazed, said: "I just saw Hitler on TV! .."


    Album cover Propaganda...
    Propaganda album cover…

    From the first albums Ron Mael's rhythmic and "loopy" piano fight was burdened with graceful rock-baroque arrangements (by the way, Sparks were one of the first in baroque-pop), also referring to both psychedelic and progressive. And, of course, lots and lots of glam mannerisms and arty pretentiousness. Like Bowie, the Sparks played with genres, but, unlike the "rock chameleon", the grimaces did not trample the field to the last, but mixed styles into unimaginable mixes, as if despising genre affiliations, being tied to a certain mood (this is what distinguishes - psychologically - one musical genre from another). Maels, like squeamish dandies, tried one, the other, the third with two fingers, not completely trusting any of the popular directions. As if in order to reach all the target audiences of the music industry of the 1970s, the Maels were outraged not only on stage, but also musically, making both unusual and hit music.

    Only the first four glam albums are similar to each other and to their contemporary music - then the bacchanalia began. But unlike Captain Beefheart or even Zappa, the Maels didn't test their listeners' endurance. They have always been light, almost weightless - even when playing trendy hard rock or AOR. They weren't popsaris, but played rockapops, using musical language for their spells. And it turned out real witchcraft - and it still turns out. "Kimono My House" and "Propaganda" (both 1974) are authentic icons of syncretic pop glam rock that inspired three generations of imitators to find the middle ground between sublime complexity and mainstream popularity.

    Kimono My House (Halfnelson music album cover)
    Kimono My House (Halfnelson music album cover)

    When rock music became a part of popular culture, the Maels became bored and suddenly switched to synthpop, which was gaining popularity, colloquially referred to as "disco" (which is not quite right). Their rock fans recoiled in a crowd - but other fans appeared, from other environments usually skirted by rock culture (for example, national and sexual minorities, the intellectual elite and artistic bohemians). When Queen fired up their rock operettas (as a genre invented by the Maels), the sound of the Sparks, through the ever-memorable Giorgio Moroder, moved to illuminated dance floors; under the discus throwers thundered their “No. 1 in Heaven" (1979)! Moreover, they switched suddenly, completely and completely - unlike Be Gees, 10CC or ELO, who retained their attachment to rock culture even in the most grooved dance scene. And not as rude and stupid (and certainly not as commercially profitable) as KISS, who suddenly lost face with their disco antics.

    Album cover of Angst In My Pants
    Album cover of Angst In My Pants

    The genre took off - the rise of synthpop to this day is considered one of the most rapid and difficult to explain. Curly rockers changed into multi-colored sequined latex and began to play beats on synthesizers. The Sparks' soul was sad (a figure of speech - I can't believe that this emotion is generally available to the Maels). And they triumphantly returned to rock ("Angst in My Pants", 1982)! Scaring away all their new fans and gaining fame as the most unpredictable musical group.

    Finding yourself...

    And then they returned to disco again ... And they concocted a lot of albums in it, almost in each of which there was a sticky hit, confidently plowing the radio spaces. And then the Maels took up new wave, gothic, electronics. And then - again for baroque pop, partly revived by them (the main milestones are "Lil' Beethoven" in 2002 and "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergma" in 2009). To be on the crest of fashion, but not in a leader way, but somehow detached, on tiptoe - this is the style of Sparks. They are like elves from another world, pretending to be people in one of the main human languages - musical. Well, how can one not remember Bowie again with his Zigi Stardust ... So Sparks became great eccentrics. Incomprehensible show-offs who came to the ready-made genre space, scoffed, spoiled the atmosphere, and then farted and contemptuously left.

    But the Sparks didn't want to look like weirdos—they were (and are!). Therefore, even the stigma of "music for music lovers" was unpleasant for them. (They say a real music lover is the one who was able to discover Sparks for himself ...)

    Ffs album cover
    FFS album cover

    And the Maels suddenly collaborated with the indie rockers who shook the sensibilities of the youth - with Franz Ferdinand ("FFS", 2015)! It was a triumphant return to pop culture from the diamond underground - with all the baggage. The piano and the voice of the Maels surprisingly agreed with FF - the whole world drew attention to extravagant and distant grandfathers, who knowingly spoke about jealousy and anger, abuse and passion, stupidity and greed...

    And on the wave of new popularity, for all their fans - half-dead and newborns - the Sparks released a new album, the strongest in their forty-year discography - "Hippopotamus" (2017). And everything is in it!.. From airy psychedelic ballads and intricate psychoanalytic sessions of progressive rock to the “reinvention” of this music by millennials of the indie scene. From the faltering attempts of the first underground electronic artists of the Detroy format of the 1980s to the pissed-off EDM characteristic of Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa.

    Hippopotamus music album cover
    Hippopotamus music album cover

    And the texts… Metaphorically: like a grandfather-designer in a green beret and large sunglasses, in a purple turtleneck, tight trousers and silver low shoes, teaches tattooed bearded hipsters, whose barbershop, by coincidence, opened next to the bench, where he has been rereading Sartre on Thursdays for 42 years . It teaches about love and dependence, about envy and acquisitiveness, about arbitrariness and freedom, about the shame of selfishness and the delirium of social conventions ... Moreover, this is a very danceable album, radiating vivacity and freshness - in contrast to the "long-awaited" releases of forgotten rock patriarchs, rattling voices telling "like it used to be". No, "Hippo" is drive, heat and laughter.

    Well, clips ... Yes, the same thing that started it all. Move your mustache, cover your left eye, slightly twitch your shoulder - all this is just as effective in the new musical aesthetics as it was when they just came up with such a format of inspiring jerking! ..

    Album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
    Album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip


    But the last album “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip” (2020) I, I confess, did not understand. Less drive - he is constrained by the fashionable so-called. "art-pop" palette - like in the latest Taylor Swift albums.

    I don’t understand, so I won’t analyze. But if the eccentric grandfathers again took up fashionable rockapops, it means that they are saying something. Probably, even music should not be dissolved - even it is getting old. And if you rise above it, you can remain forever young, forever intoxicating with its timeless relevance, irony and self-sufficiency.

    The author of the article is Kiril Kungurtsev


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