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Sparks is an American rock and pop music band formed in Los Angelesmarker in 1970 by brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell Mael (vocals), initially under the name Halfnelson. Best known for their quirky approach to song writing, Sparks' music is often accompanied by cutting and acerbic lyrics, and an idiosyncratic stage presence, typified in the contrast between Russell's wide-eyed hyperactive frontman antics and Ron's sedentary scowling.

The band's long career has seen them successfully adopt many different musical genres; including glam pop, power pop, electronic dance music, mainstream pop and most recently chamber pop. And they have enjoyed a cult following since their first releases. Sparks have been highly influential on the development of popular music, in particular on the late 1970s scene, when in collaboration with Giorgio Moroder (and Telex subsequently), they reinvented themselves as an electronic pop duo, and abandoned the traditional rock band line up. Their frequently changing styles and visual presentations have sometimes seen them dismissed as a novelty act. However, they are held in esteem by such peers as Depeche Mode, New Order, Morrissey, Mark Burgess of the Chameleons UK and They Might Be Giants, who all cite Sparks as a major influence.

The 2002 release of Lil' Beethoven, their self-described "genre-defying opus", as well as the more recent albums Hello Young Lovers (2006, their 20th studio album) and Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (2008) have brought Sparks renewed critical and commercial success, and seen them continue to "steer clear of pop conventions."

History

Early inception

The history of Sparks spans five decades, from inception in the late 1960s LA club scene, through adoption by British fans in the middle 1970s, electronic experimentation in the late 1970s, and finally breaking through in the US of the early 1980s, a cinematic sojourn at the end of that decade with a return to form in the mid-1990s which continues to this day as they continue to push the boundaries of pop music.

Brothers Ron and Russell Mael grew up in Pacific Palisadesmarker, in western Los Angeles County, Californiamarker, during the “Golden Age” of the LA club scene, with The Doors, Love and The Standells regularly playing the Whisky-a-Go-Gomarker on Sunset Strip and the Beach Boys playing the afternoon event Teenage Fair.Both Ron and Russell Mael are seen in the audience during the Ronettes section of the famous rock movie Big TNT Show, filmed in 1966. Both attended UCLAmarker, Ron studying cinema and graphic art, Russell theatre arts and filmmaking. Detesting the folk music scene, which they considered "...cerebral and sedate and we had no time for that", they developed a particular taste in English bands of the time such as The Who, Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, The Kinks and The Move, which led to their description of themselves as "Anglophiles".

Forming Halfnelson in 1968, with rock critic John Mendelsohn on drums, they soon came to the attention of producer Todd Rundgren, at whose urging Albert Grossman signed the band to his Bearsville record label. Their self-titled debut — with the line-up consisting of college friend Earle Mankey on guitar, Mankey's brother James on bass, Harley Feinstein now on drums and Rundgren producing — sold poorly, but after switching labels to Warner Bros. Records and renaming themselves Sparks, a play on the Marx Brothers, the re-issued debut spawned the minor regional hit "Wonder Girl".

Their follow up album, A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing, led to a tour of the United Kingdom, including a residency at the Marquee in Londonmarker, which, despite much heckling during performances, helped them to secure a significant cult following. An appearance on the BBC Television's Old Grey Whistle Test led to wider interest regardless of a cold reception from the show's host Bob Harris.

Anglophiles in Albion

Relocating to England in 1973 with a new manager, John Hewlett, founder of John's Children, and a deal from Island Records, thanks in part to the exposure garnered by their BBC2 Television Whistle Test performance, they placed an ad in music weekly Melody Maker ("Wanted bass player for Sparks. Must be beard free and exciting") and through this hired Martin Gordon. With  Adrian Fisher on guitar and Dinky Diamond on drums, in the midst of power strikes and a threatened vinyl shortage, they recorded their breakthrough Kimono My House in 1974, scoring a number 2 hit with the single "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us", despite Elton John betting  producer Muff Winwood that the song wouldn't break into the charts. This hit led to an appearance on the BBC's flagship music show Top of the Pops. Russell's  hyperactive movements were in sharp contrast to the keyboard-bound, soberly-dressed Ron's expressionless squint. Gordon was sacked the day after the band's appearance on the show with no explanation at the time, although years later, Hewlett admitted to him that the brothers had found him intimidating. In 1975 the band returned to the states to tour supporting the Kimono & Propaganda albums which had gained strong cult attention in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles primarily from FM radio play and a national tv appearance on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. Flo and Eddie were the supporting act. Sparks also performed on American Bandstand in 1975 with host Dick Clark mugging with Ron.


The follow up albums, Propaganda and Indiscreet, the latter produced by Tony Visconti, were similarly successful and produced the hit singles "Looks, Looks, Looks", "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" and "Something For The Girl With Everything".

Return home

1976 saw the Maels return home to LA. Concerned that their music may have become stale, they changed to a more "American" sound and recorded Big Beat with Rupert Holmes on production, followed by Introducing Sparks; both were mostly recorded with session musicians. This new "West Coast" sound was deemed a failure as they felt the results were "bereft of personality". In 1976, Sparks made one of their first forays into the movie business, making a cameo appearance in the disaster film Rollercoaster, after Kiss turned down the roles.

After the disappointment of the last two albums, the brothers found themselves at a crossroads. By 1979 they had tired of the rock band format and determined to take their music in a more electronic direction. They had expressed admiration for Giorgio Moroder, creator of the iconic disco anthem I Feel Love performed by Donna Summer, to a German journalist who turned out to be a friend of his. As a result, they teamed up with Moroder and created No. 1 In Heaven, an album which would not only redefine the Sparks sound but would challenge the concept of what is meant by a band and would be a major influence on emerging electro pop artists. The follow-up in 1980, Terminal Jive, scored a massive hit single in France, "When I'm With You", which led to the Maels' (of Breton descent themselves) staying in the country for a year promoting the album, Russell being sufficiently fluent in French. The single also hit the Top 20 in Australia, reaching #14.

Finding the electronic equipment they had adopted for their new sound too cumbersome to tour with, they returned to the more traditional band format for their next three releases, Whomp That Sucker, Angst In My Pants and Sparks in Outer Space. They finally broke into the US singles charts with "Cool Places" from 1983's ..Outer Space. The track was a collaboration with Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, who, at one time, ran her own Sparks fanclub, and its success was in part thanks to LA's KROQ radio station, which hailed them as local heroes.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the brothers concentrate on filmmaking, particularly an attempt to make a Japanese comic strip, Mai, The Psychic Girl, into a movie. Despite interest from Tim Burton and six years' work on the project, it came to nothing.

Return to music

1994 saw the Maels return with the release of Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, providing the hit singles "When Do I Get To Sing My Way?" and "When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)". 1997 saw the release of Plagiarism, an album of cover versions of their own songs featuring collaborations with Faith No More, Erasure and Jimmy Somerville. Half of the album was recorded by Tony Visconti in London with the other half recorded by the brothers in their own purpose-built studio in LA, surrounded by busts of Elvis. In 1998 they recorded the soundtrack for the movie Knock Off, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, directed by the acclaimed Hong Kong based producer/director Tsui Hark (who had appeared on his own tribute song by the band on the album Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins).Balls, released in 2000, was generally perceived as Sparks treading water.

Revival

After Balls was greeted with apathy, 2002 saw the release of the album which the band themselves described as their "genre-defying opus". Lil' Beethoven, featuring quasi-classical arrangements of strings and choirs, led to renewed interest in the band, for instance Record Collector magazine named the album as one of its "Best New Albums of 2002", describing it as "... possibly the most exciting and interesting release ever from such a long established act" and later in 2003 saying "... it really does feel like one of the best albums ever made." A UK and European tour had the band playing the entire album each night in the first half of the show, with fan favourites making up the second. The line-up now included former Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta in addition to Tammy Glover on drums. Long-time fan Morrissey invited Sparks to perform at the 2004 Meltdown Festival, of which he was curator. They performed their breakthrough Kimono My House album, followed by Lil Beethoven, both in their entirety.. Also in this period, the duo appeared in the video for Justin Hawkins's cover of This Town Ain't Big Enough For The both Of Us, in which Ron and Russell play the referee and MC at a darts match between Hawkins and darts champion Phil Taylor.

February 2006 saw the release of Hello Young Lovers, their twentieth studio album. The album is regarded as carrying on where Lil Beethoven left off, being described as "... cynical, intelligent and very, very funny", it has met with considerable acclaim, though some reviewers regard the constant use of wit, satire, and lyrical repetition as becoming wearisome or annoying.


The brothers tend to be dismissive of the latest trends in popular music, seeing most current bands as lacking musical ambition and experimental drive. Indeed the predictable trends in much of modern rock, as they see it, served as inspiration for their latest album. However, they have expressed admiration for Eminem, Outkast, Franz Ferdinand and Morrissey.

The pair appeared in the season 6 finale of the US TV show Gilmore Girls, performing "Perfume" from the album Hello Young Lovers. They released a live DVD of a September 2006 show at the London Forum as well as a long-awaited CD release of their previously unavailable 1977 album Introducing Sparks.

On May 12 2008, Sparks released the single "Good Morning", taken from the album Exotic Creatures Of The Deep.

May and June 2008 saw the 21-night "Sparks Spectacular" in London, where they played each of their albums in chronological order during the first twenty nights, and premièred their new album on the twenty-first concert on June 13, 2008. Each night, they performed an album in its entirety followed by a rare track — many of the songs have never been performed live before. The band asked their fans to visit their website and vote for the track that they'd most like to hear the band perform during the second half of the 21st concert after the première of Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, though Russell Mael admitted that he and Ron would probably influence the poll a little.

Fans who bought a "Golden Ticket" (which allowed entry into all 21 gigs) also received a poster signed by the band and a CD single entitled Islington N1, a reference to the postal address of the venue for the first 20 gigs.

In 2009 the band played two consecutive nights at the London Forummarker on 20 and 21 March. The played Exotic Creatures of the Deep in its entirety at both gigs, followed by Kimono My House in its entirety on the first night and No 1 In Heaven in its entirety on the second night.

On August 14, 2009, the band premièred the radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, commissioned by the Swedish public radio and featuring the Mael brothers themselves and Swedish actors Elin Klinga and Jonas Malmsjö, both of whom have worked with Bergman in his lifetime. The musical, partly in English, partly in Swedish, tells the story of Bergman's supposed relocation to Hollywood after his breakthrough with Smiles of a Summer Night (1956), and the surreal and discomfiting encounter with the movie capital. In interviews for Swedish newspapers, the band said they hoped to be able to theatrically stage the musical .

Style

Sparks' musical style has changed dramatically over their almost forty-year career. In the beginning they attempted to emulate the sound of their English heroes, such as The Who, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and The Kinks, sometimes even pretending to be an English band while on the LA club circuit. They relocated to England during the Glam rock era where, despite cutting an odd figure on this scene, they found success with their polished brand of intricate pop tunes and convoluted lyrics. By the second half of the decade, they were concerned that the sound they had developed while based in England was in danger of becoming stale; they returned to LA, determined to adopt a more "West Coast" sound. This they achieved with producer Rupert Holmes on Big Beat and (sans Holmes) on Introducing Sparks.

However the band were not satisfied with the results, which they felt lacked personality, perhaps because of the reliance on session musicians. This led to the most dramatic change of style the band would attempt, when they teamed up with Giorgio Moroder, dropped the band format altogether and produced Number One in Heaven. This album is regarded as a landmark in the development of electronic music and greatly influenced bands which would emerge in the following years. They soon returned to a more traditional line-up, which remained until 1988's Interior Design. There then followed a long hiatus until 1994's Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, which was a foray into the techno dance world, which they had helped to spawn back in the late 1970s. While their style has remained on the same path since Gratuitous Sax..., they have nonetheless continued to push the boundaries of conventional pop music and songwriting, remaining both innovative and highly influential.

Lyrically, the band's style has been described as coming from "the school of Cole Porter, favouring caustic wit over trivial personal problems, ...achingly clever lyrics seesaw between superficial gloss, profound sentiment and the incomprehensibly bizarre." Repeated lyrical motifs have become a distinct feature on recent albums. On "My Baby’s Taking Me Home" off Lil' Beethoven (2002), the song title is repeated 104 times, with no other words being used, other than a spoken interlude. Similarly, on the same album, "Your Call Is Very Important To Us", uses a corporation style call-hold message: "Your call is very important to us. Please hold" which is then sung with some additional words: "At first she said your call is very important to us, then she said please, please hold." The only other lyrics in the song are "Red light", "Green light", "I'm Getting Mixed Signals" and "Sorry, I'm Going To Have To Put You Back On Hold". These elements are layered with a simple piano line to create a highly textured effect.

Other musicians

Many musicians have contributed to Sparks music, both on record and live. In addition to the Maels, Sparks currently consists of Steven Nistor, Jim Wilson, Marcus Blake, Steven McDonald, Dean Menta and Tammy Glover.

Previous musicians who have played in Sparks include: John Mendelsohn, Earle Mankey, Jim Mankey, Harley Feinstein, Martin Gordon, the late Adrian Fisher, the late Norman "Dinky" Diamond, Trevor White, Ian Hampton, Christie Haydon, Sal Maida, Jeffrey Salen, Hilly Boy Michaels, Ben Benay, Alan Broadbent, David Foster, Ed Greene, David Paich, Mike Porcaro, Reinie Press, Lee Ritenour, Thom Rotella, Keith Forsey, Bob Haag, Leslie Bohem, David Kendrick, Thomas White, James Goodwin and John Thomas.

Discography

References

  1. "View From a Hill" (Mark Burgess' autobiography)
  2. http://www.sr.se/sida/default.aspx?programid=965 temporary page)
  3. http://sydsvenskan.se/kultur-och-nojen/article537268/Sparks-later-Bergman-sjunga-ut.html


External links




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