After 50 years and 25 albums and collaborations with a who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll, pop and cinema, you’d think Sparks would be better known. Well, this year might change that. Not only has famed director Edgar “Shaun of the Dead” Wright just released a documentary about Sparks, but Ron and Russell Mael’s screenplay and music grace Annette, a film to be released later this year starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Tosh Berman has known the Maels for years and has published two books about Sparks. He catches PKM readers up on all things Sparks.
For Sparks—the musical duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael—2021 is turning into a victory lap on their career. After making 25 albums in the past 50 years, the dynamic duo is finally getting exposed to a far wider global audience.
First, there is The Sparks Brothers, a documentary made by the hot director Edgar Wright, best known for the cult comedy, part-zombified triptych of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and TheWorld’s End (2013). The Sparks Brothers is now making the film festival circuit and will soon be in general release.
The Sparks Brothers (2021) | Official Clip
And then, there’s Annette, a film musical starring Adam Driver (as a standup comic) and Marion Cotillard (as an opera singer) and directed by Leos Carax, due for release later this year. The screenplay and original music for Annette were written by (you guess it) the tireless Ron and Russell Mael.
As a hardcore fan of Sparks, author of a book about them (Sparks-Tastic) and publisher of a book of their lyrics (In The Words of Sparks), I am also looking forward to the ride. If this were a hitchhiking journey, I’d be holding a cardboard sign inscribed “Sparks or Bust.”
I have known Ron and Russell Mael for many years, and one thing that’s always true about them is that they never talk about any of their projects until they’re completed and released. They may tell me that they are working on a new album or even a larger project, like Annette, but they will never reveal the plot or play any of the music beforehand. Of course, I have never asked for that special privilege because, in truth, I want to delay the pleasure as long as possible. I’m like the child who prefers to wait for Christmas morning to open the presents.
Another thing that is true about Sparks is that they are always working on a new project. Once an album is completed and released and a tour has started, Ron and Russell Mael are immediately thinking about the next project. Their work habits are precise and businesslike, the equivalent of going to an office from 9 to 5. In this case, Ron drives over to Russell’s home studio, and the pair works until early evening. They do this from Monday to Saturday. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that an employees’ time clock was set up beside the front door.
“When I’m With You”-Sparks, from the album Terminal Jive:
I find their work habits fascinating and infectious. When I wrote Sparks-Tastic in London, where they performed 21 concerts devoted to 21 albums by Sparks, I adopted their grind method. I went to all 21 shows, and my procedure was to wake up, have a banana and a cup of coffee, and start writing until it was time to leave for the show that evening. After the concert, I would directly go home (well, to my friend Rosa’s residence) and start making notes about the evening’s show. The next morning, I would work on the book using the notes, with the banana and coffee, and so forth. I didn’t socialize. My life was writing the book and traveling to and from the theater in Islington, London.
As part of the same writing project, I also took notes about the North London locale where Sparks was performing. Ron Mael is often thought of as looking like Charlie Chaplin (or Hitler) due to the mustache he had in the 1970s, and his hair combed back with hair cream. Ironically, around the corner from the Islington theater was the venue where Chaplin had regularly performed a century earlier. I could feel the ghost of Chaplin somehow entering the Sparks’ concert hall each night.
The essence of cinema is more crucial to Sparks than most other recording artists. The French New Wave, 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, Japanese cinema—all of these things serve as their playpens. When I listen to or see Sparks, I feel like I’m also in the presence of this kind of culture. The weather may be chilly, but being embraced by Sparks’ familiar sounds, especially at their “21 Nights for 21 Albums” concerts in Islington, gives me warmth. I notice this with their audience as well, the members of which find their happiest place to be a theater where Sparks are performing.
“Beat the Clock”-Sparks:
Ron and Russell share a dressing room, while the other band members have a larger space for themselves. They need that sense of privacy. When I’m asked what Ron and Russell are like in private, I don’t know how to respond. The truth is their privacy is their public life, in the sense they live and think about Sparks on a 24/7 basis. Often one is disappointed when they meet their idols, but Ron and Russell are very much like one thinks of them through their music and pictures. If you like their music, you will like them.
Sparks have seemingly been on every major label in existence, and a handful of their recordings were released on small labels. Thus, to be a fan of Sparks, one has to stay on their toes. And chances are that your best friend or a family member may not be into Sparks, which is fine because every fan I have talked to feels that Ron and Russell talk to them directly. It’s a cult but without a leader or program to follow.
I see the work of Sparks as fitting in with the great American songbook tradition. Yes, Ron Mael’s songs echo the eccentricity of Roy Wood and the early recordings of The Move. Still, Mael is probably the most literate lyricist since Cole Porter, Ira Gerswhin, and Lorenz Hart. Their music doesn’t go back to the 1930s, but still possesses that classic song structure. In that tradition, a song has to complement the musical/play narrative and yet be multi-textured enough to stand on its own. One can imagine Sparks’ music is attached to the theater or cinema because it has a great possibility of being something more significant than a song. Even so, each song by Ron Mael is a stand-alone piece as well.
Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers will please even diehard Sparks fans.
While watching the various interviews in the documentary, the importance of cinema to the Maels’ aesthetic becomes pretty obvious. The cinema world colors all of Ron and Russell’s music and even their public image. Throughout their career, their songs or videos capture the essence of filmmakers, such as Jacques Tati, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and Alfred Hitchcock. And, if Ron and Russell went into a laboratory to create their version of a filmmaker they’d like to work with, it would be Edgar Wright. They almost got to work with Jacques Tati, in what would have been the final chapter of Tati’s character Hulot (a film called Confusion). Unfortunately, Tati wasn’t able to make the film due to ill health.
Being a Sparks fan is a secret obsession and one must go to as many shows as possible.
Edgar Wright understands Sparks and is a long-time fan of the group. Throughout his work in films, Edgar has a strong sensibility when it comes to movie history as well as pop music. The combination of the two makes him the perfect filmmaker to do a documentary on Sparks. His method was to use all 25 Sparks albums as signal posts, and there lies the narrative of the film. I took the same approach when writing my book on Sparks’ series of concerts in London, where they played each of their then-21 albums for 21 nights. The difference is that the book became a memoir or a travel journal that used Sparks as the foundation to dwell on their music and performances and London’s history. However, Wright interviewed the producers, fellow musicians, and individuals attached to that specific album or series of records.
Wright also explored Sparks as themselves, but also from music contemporaries and writers, even me. John Taylor of Duran Duran and Thurston Moore suggested to Edgar that he interview me for his film. I went to a studio in Hollywood and was immediately taken to the make-up room to be made more presentable for the camera. My chat with Edgar in front of the camera lasted for half-an-hour, and I ended up in the film for less than a minute. This is perfectly OK because when you see the film, I come off as intelligent! This proves that filmmaking is truly an illusionary art form! Still, the interviews in the movie are excellent.
Edgar also has a good instinct or knowledge of pop music. When I saw Sparks in 2018, I was sitting in the balcony with Toni Basil. I invited her to the show because my wife’s band, Les Sewing Sisters, were the opening act for Sparks. It’s not easy playing before an audience who is there for the main act. Still, Sparks fans responded well to Lun* na’s sewing machine music with vocals. Of course, the VIPs showed up minutes before Sparks came on stage. Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Mrs. Johnny Ramone had their own section in the balcony that was sort of tapered off from the others. It was only those two, and maybe one extra person. I’m not sure why they were in that separate space or the more significant reason why such a space existed in the balcony.
Sparks – Left Out In The Cold (Official Video
Edgar Wright came in with a friend and sat next to us. It was at that moment and during that concert that he decided to make the documentary on Sparks. He went backstage, introduced himself, and pitched the idea to Ron and Russell. They admire his work, so they said yes, and film history was made.
Edgar did not just content himself with a series of talking-head interviews; he also toured around the world with them. I have seen Sparks in three different cities – Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo. It’s not uncommon to see the same members of the audience at all of these shows. I was surprised to see familiar faces from the London shows in Tokyo. Being a Sparks fan is a secret obsession and one must go to as many shows as possible. I have to presume the Sparks-obsessed fan has an extensive travel budget. To this day, it is still easier to book them overseas than in the U.S.
With their new musical, Annette, being released later this year, I suspect there will be a reminder of Jacques Demy’s films, especially with their wall-to-wall music by Michel Legrand. Come to think of it, the first time I met Ron Mael was at a showing of Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, starring the real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, along with Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. Image-wise, I can’t think of any other more fitting place/event than a Jacques Demy film screening to meet Ron. Demy has that funny/sad thing going just like a Sparks’ song. When I think of comparisons to the music of Sparks, I rarely think of rock/pop artists. I think of Michel Legrand, the art-house cinema, Broadway theater composers from the 1930s, and classical song pieces by Richard Strauss, and the compositions of Moondog. Ron and Russell also have a love for the early Who and the Move, as well as hip/hop and rap.
Annette, from what I’ve read about it, will fit in nicely with the classic Michel Legrand/Jacques Demy genre. All of the film’s dialogue will be sung. It’s odd that this genre of film has disappeared from the repertory so quickly, because it was once so prominent a part of mass entertainment. Pennies From Heaven, the film directed by Herbert Ross as well as a TV drama (both written by Dennis Potter). What happened? Who knows, maybe Annette will bring it back into favor.
I suspect that Annette will be more in the manner of Bertolt Brecht. The key to his technique was that he made an audience fully aware that they were watching a theater piece, making the viewers think about what is taking place in front of them. They are not allowed to be sucked in or seduced by what they see on the stage. In that sense, Russell and Ron Mael’s world is one of artifice but has emotional ties to the ‘real’ world.
Sparks – Lawnmower (Official Video)
My introduction to the band Sparks came through the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, British music magazines I would come across in the early 1970s. Because I lived in Los Angeles, I knew of the band’s existence but had never listened to their music. It wasn’t until their third album, Kimono My House (1974), that I actually heard them. So, my first impression of them was visual, via the photographs in the magazines, the early portraits of the Ron and Russell Mael with their British band. I located a copy of Kimono My House at my neighborhood Warehouse Records and Tapes in Woodland Hills. At the time, the shop had a small import section filled with mostly British releases. I picked up the album because I was struck by the cover, which didn’t provide their name or even the title of the album. It was simply a photograph of two Japanese women in kimonos. The back cover provided the title and three smaller images of the band, as well as one large photo of Ron and Russell, making it apparent that, visually, Ron and Russell were separate from the other musicians. Russell had the look of a 1970s pop star, but seemed somehow the more thoughtful of the pair, as though his pop idol image was partly tongue in cheek. Ron, on the other hand, looked like he’d been transported from the 1930s; depending on one’s mood, he either resembled Charlie Chaplin or Adolf Hitler.
The duality of Hitler and Chapin did not strike me as particularly funny. We’re talking about 1974 when Kimono was released—only 31 years after the end of World War II. Most of the European generation who purchased rock music of that time, had experienced the bombings as kids or their grandparents had experienced fighting in the war. I have to imagine for Ron to look like that in 1970s England was a shocking presence for most British people, considering that their own cities and neighborhoods may have been bombed by the Germans. In an odd sort of way, it was the perfect time to release their first single for Island Records, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us.”
Sparks – “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” (official video)
My wife is Japanese, and English is her second language. She decided she wanted to study the English language through Sparks’ songs. She went on the Internet to locate the lyrics, printed them out, and put together a homemade scrapbook. She showed it to me, and the two things that struck me were how beautiful it is, and second the literary power of Sparks’ lyrics.
The day after looking at my wife’s scrapbook, I proposed to Ron and Russell that they choose their favorite lyrics, and I would gather them into a hardcover book. I proposed that Morrissey, an avowed fan of Sparks, write the introduction. I had no way of reaching Morrissey, and even if I did have an email or address, there was no guarantee that he would answer. If Morrissey didn’t come through, I was thinking of the British writer Michael Bracewell. I’m a fan of his novels and writings on contemporary art. Bracewell said that he had other commitments and couldn’t write the introduction and he suggested Morrissey to me. I felt like I went through a full circle. Happily, though, Bracewell told me that he knows Morrissey, and if I wrote him a message, he’d contact him on my behalf. I did so, fully expecting not to hear anything back. I’ve reached out to musicians in the past. Usually, they said yes, but then I never heard another word from them after that.
However, within 24 hours, I received an email from Morrissey saying he would love to write an introduction to the book. It may be hard to believe for some people, but Morrissey was a dream to work with on this project. He’s Morrissey, and I’m Tosh, but there are no borders between us when you are a fan of Sparks.
The result, In the Words of Sparks, speaks for itself:
Likewise, Edgar Write in The Sparks Brothers does an excellent job of conveying the camaraderie of the Sparks community and its importance to the band. Sparks fans are intense and loyal. As I wrote about seeing the same faces at the 21 albums in the 21 Nights show in 2008, it was comforting to see others who made the trip or took the time to see all or most of those shows, a major commitment of time and money. Those performances were not only about Sparks and their 21 albums, but they were also about their audience.
It’s not uncommon for an artist to go on stage and perform their masterpiece album from beginning to end. Still, Sparks performed ALL OF their albums, even the ones that were not popular at the time of their release. In that sense, Sparks are conceptualists, not unlike the artist Chris Burden who stayed in a gallery for days as part of an art-performance called “Bed Piece”—he remained on single bed in the gallery and lived there for 22 days. He didn’t communicate with anyone during his stay, and the curator provided the artist with water and food. And, of course, a bathroom, but Burden never asked for such services.
Similarly, Ron, Russell, and their band performed an art piece with their 21 concerts. It was both a test of endurance, loyalty, and knowing how great and important their music is to their fans. When you go to a concert there is a sense of surprise, but these shows were strictly focused on specific albums, in chronological order. The arrangements were basically the same as the recorded music, and the only surprise was what they would do for an encore. Even without the suspense of a surprise, the experience made me think about how much energy and time they needed to put together these series of shows. A lot of the songs were never done live, and they had to go back (with their band) and rediscover their original arrangements. So, in that sense, it didn’t feel like a concert but more of a spectacle or performance art.
The year 2020 was a busy one for Sparks, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They released a new album (A SteadyDrip, Drip, Drip) and worked on the two films that are just now being released. Sparks was able to easily transition to working under the pandemic protocols. They already have a home studio in Los Angeles, where they’ve made their albums for the past 20 years. Now they have been making their videos as well.
Lyrically Speaking with Ron Mael: “So Important”
As part of his Literary Speaking Series, Ron Mael has also been reciting his lyrics as poems. Every Sunday, he comes up with another Sparks classic and recites the lyric posed in front of his glass-encased bookshelves. In every episode, he features a book on his shelf facing out. There are also videos of Russell giving singing lessons, doing exercises to stay in shape, and showing off various collections from his home, such as the Russian nesting dolls. Ron also has a sizable collection of hand sanitizers as well as snow globes from around the world. The brand-new video for their song “Left out in the Cold” is hysterical and moving. They somehow can capture the essence of isolated living in our year of coronavirus.