Have you heard of Sparks? No? Edgar Wright is here to fix that. The director behind Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead has a new documentary, The Sparks Brothers, in which he makes the case that the LA duo are the most influential band you’ve never heard of. It’s a whirlwind overview of an eclectic band whose career covers 25 albums across five decades.
For the uninitiated, Sparks is a band built around two brothers, Ron and Russell Mael. Through the peaks and valleys of their career, they’ve been at the foreground of glam rock and electronic music and scored big hits in different decades on different continents. Their sound has changed, but they’ve consistently projected an impenetrable aura that makes people ask, “Wait, are these guys serious?” Picture two androgynous guys, one with a Hitler mustache, making catchy pop songs about good customer service or Sherlock Holmes. They’re still at it, too—they have a musical movie starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard out later this summer.
Sold yet? Wait until Wright gets to you. With help from Beck, Flea, Patton Oswalt, and a host of other fans, he spreads the gospel of Sparks through one of the most comprehensive rock docs in recent memory. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Wright shared fifteen of his favorite tracks that didn’t make it into The Sparks Brothers with GQ: Some of the best and weirdest deep cuts from one of the best, weirdest bands of all time. Check it out below.
“(No More) Mr. Nice Guys”
Ron and Russell were growing up in LA in the ’60s. Obviously there were a lot of massive LA bands at that time that were playing live, like The Doors and Love, and yet Ron and Russell were total Anglophiles. The bands that really inspired them were The Kinks and The Who, and The Yardbirds, and the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. What’s interesting is that I think in the first Sparks album, you can hear tracks that are two years ahead of other bands. For example, the first Sparks album is from 1971, [there’s a] song called “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys.” If you want to listen to that song, you can see the seeds of not only what Sparks will become, but also what maybe some other bands may or may not have taken influence from, Alice Cooper and Queen being two obvious examples. Alice Cooper himself released a song called “No More Mr. Nice Guy” a couple years later. Ron and Russell are too modest to hold up their hands and say, “Hey, so and so has written a song,” [but] I was quite happy to lay out the chronology and show people the receipts.
“Here in Heaven”
This is one of my most favorite tracks from Kimono My House, which was their 1974 breakout where they decamped to London. Kimono My House is just all killer, every song. Maybe it’s because they had two albums that hadn’t done well. It was [their] last chance. The energy and the invention, and the outpouring of ideas of the album is astonishing. You really feel that they said, “Okay, if this doesn’t work, then we’re done.” Kimono My House starts roaring out of the gate, and every song is just incredible.
“Here in Heaven” is a really hypnotic, operatic love song with Russell doing an incredible falsetto. Then you read the lyrics, as a lot of people did at the time. They listened to the song, and then [they] read the lyrics like it’s a Chaucer poem. It’s like, “Okay, I have to decode this. I don’t understand what this is about.”
This is a song about two lovers in a Romeo and Juliet-style suicide pact. But the guy has killed himself and gone to heaven and the girl has stood him up. Russell, or our lead character and his girlfriend has not gone through with her side of the bargain. You listen to the song and you enjoy it, but it’s like, wait, this is what it’s about?
“Thanks But No Thanks”
People talk about Kimono My House as the classic album, but Propaganda is so close to being an equal. They’re like six months apart, and they’re both classics. It’s that contrarian thing if you’re a super Sparks fan [to say] “I think Propaganda‘s better.”
This is a really beautiful song, but again, you start to read the lyrics and understand what it’s about. It is a song about kids walking straight home from school and not accepting gifts from strangers. It’s basically like, “Don’t get into the car with old, creepy men after school.” But also something that’s not usually the subject matter of a rock song, and also a rock song which has quite an enticing melody. The repeated lyric is “Just keep right on walking, just keep right on walking.”
They always go for a sometimes willfully obtuse subject matter for the song. They’re never like a straight-ahead love song. Maybe commercially that hurt them, but on the other hand, we’re sitting here 50 years later, still unpacking it all. There’s still stuff to talk about.
Ron Mael is the main lyricist in Sparks, and more recently Ron and Russell have just shared credits. If you look at a Sparks album now, it just says, “All music and lyrics by Ron and Russell Mael.” But there are songs that Russell has written as well, and on the 1975 album Indiscreet, there is a song called “Pineapple.” Unlike other Sparks songs where it’s like, “What is it actually about?,” this song is literally about the benefits of eating pineapple, and that’s all it’s about. There’s no sexual undercurrent to it. There’s no hidden agenda. The chorus goes, “Pineapple: tastes too healthy to me, Pineapple: it’s filled with vitamin C, Pineapple: fulfills every need, Pineapple: to all the ships at sea, Pineapple: for the English at tea, Pineapple: to the Siamese twins, Pineapple: to heal those who have sinned.”
“I Like Girls”
Sparks are quite androgynous and people are sometimes curious about their sexuality. Ron and Russell, I think, want to maintain that mystique, where it’s not important to them to say particularly what persuasion they are.
Then you get a song on Big Beat, which seems like sometimes even though they are heterosexual, the lady doth protest too much. There’s a song called “I Like Girls.” It’s funny, [Big Beat] is really their attempt to crack the American market with a hard rock sound, so they’re going up against all of the red meat-eating, big-touring rock acts. The subject matter in a lot of places seems incredibly cynical. Then, you have a song like “I Like Girls,” which always makes me laugh because the sound of it is huge. In the intro, Russell says in a very effete voice, “Come on girls!” I just like this thing in terms of answering a question about their sexuality.
There’s a brilliant song called ‘Goofing Off.’ It’s a song about doing fuck all, and it’s delivered with such energy and a blistering guitar solo. That’s a Sparks song that I think you could put that on any compilation and just command the stereo with it.
“My Other Voice”
No. 1 in Heaven is one of the most famous Sparks albums and hugely influential. It’s also the album in the dawn of the 12 inch; the album only has six tracks, and many of them are six or seven minutes long. It’s the dawn of the dance album. No other band at that point had changed from a rock band to an electronica band. Four of the songs were released as singles, and one of the non-singles is a song called “My Other Voice,” which I think is a really atypical Sparks song because it’s more about mood. It has a very ethereal feel to it. It’s not like a ballad, but it’s a really romantic song. Even the vocal effect on Russell’s voice is just beautiful. I think it was so ahead of its time.
Whomp That Sucker marked a new chapter for the band, whereby they tried to crack the American market again. One of those singles is “Funny Face,” which is very upbeat, a lovely melodic tune. But it’s about a man that’s so handsome that nobody takes him seriously. People assume he’s shallow, and nobody talks to him about anything interesting. He dreams of being uglier, then he’s so depressed about it that he tries to commit suicide and fails. But in trying to commit suicide he disfigured his face, and at the end of the song he is happy, because he got what he wanted. That is a wild, wild ride to go on. Again, it’s that thing where Sparks is a bit like chocolate with salt in it, where you’re thinking, “Oh, this is nice. This is melodic, this is catchy and poppy. This will be a radio hit. What is this about?”
My next one is from Angst in My Pants, which I think for a lot of people in the States is a classic Sparks album, but lesser known in the UK. Sometimes Sparks [have] the brief of, “Oh, what would a band like to sing about? What’s popular at the moment? Well, sex is always popular.” And sometimes when they attack a subject, they go at it at 400%. The standout song for me on Angst in My Pants is “Sextown U.S.A.” It’s basically about a small town in LA where everybody is fucking all the time. The lyrics that stand out are, “Sextown U.S.A., we can go anywhere and it becomes Sextown U.S.A., we can go here or there, it all becomes the perfect place, and what a pace.” And then, also, if you’re celibate, don’t even think about coming to Sextown U.S.A. later, [because] it says, “If you try to come here and you try to abstain, they’ll send you to the prison for the criminally insane.”
In Outer Space was another breakthrough album for them commercially because it contained their biggest US hit, “Cool Places.” I’m not crazy about “Cool Places,” actually. It’s funny that it’s their most well-known song in the States, because it feels like one where they’re trying for a hit. Then you have a song on In Outer Space called “Popularity.”
One person that I asked to be in the documentary, and he was curious then ultimately decided he didn’t have enough to say, was Bret Easton Ellis. I asked him because I thought he’s exactly the right age to have been in Los Angeles [when] these were the kind of songs that would have been in the clubs. The reason I bring [him] up is, I always thought “Popularity” reads a bit like a Bret Easton Ellis book, or in American Psycho when you have the non-killing chapters, where Patrick Bateman is just talking about his Brooks Brothers suit and his shoes and what restaurant he’s going to. “Popularity”is a song just talking about how cool they are, detailing nights out. One of my favorite Sparks lyrics, is “What a night, we’ll all drive into town, where we’ll park our cars and meet the rest of our friends, at that place that’s called, I forget what it’s called, but it’s really great, and all of our friends will be there.” There’s something about the dispassionate tone of it. It’s an entirely sweet melody, and it’s seemingly completely benign, but there’s something a bit glassy-eyed about the Angelenos in this song, and it makes me think of Less Than Zero.
“Let’s Go Surfing”
I remember asking Russell, “Was there any song that you wish was a single that wasn’t?” He said “Let’s Go Surfing” [from] Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. The sound in ’94 was much more a European housey kind of sound, but this song has elements of the operatic Sparks of old.
We did cover this song in the documentary and it got cut for time, mainly because it is an anomaly on the album itself, but it is one of the great Sparks songs. But on the Album Lil’ Beethoven, which for the most part is an album that is building, like, neo-classical dance without a beat, [instead] they use repeated phrases like chanting or rapping without rapping. All of the songs on Lil’ Beethoven are of that kind of ilk. The last track though, is a missing Broadway showstopper that could rival anything in The Book of Mormon. It’s the final song that is the exception to the rule, and it’s “Suburban Homeboy.”
Ron says that it’s the odd one out on Lil’ Beethoven, but the song was written at the peak of white rap. I guess that around the time in 2003 is when Eminem is at his absolute zenith, and they said that they created this song when they were listening to a lot of Eminem during the writing and recording of the album. The song is about white appropriation in hip-hop, and obviously that’s a big subject to tackle, and also the fact that it’s done not just with humor but with affection. I remember it at the time as well, because it factored into Shaun of the Dead. The Nick Frost character in that movie is appropriating stuff that you heard in hip-hop that you should not say out loud.. When they play it in concert, it’s usually their final song.
“Waterproof” is really a song about the resilience that you need to survive for 50 years in the business, sometimes in the face of indifference. It says a lot about how Sparks have managed to exist, you have to forge ahead with your blinkers on and not care what anybody says or thinks about you.
This point in their career is the start of some kind of equilibrium for the band where relative success or failure doesn’t matter anymore. Because now, they’re not just survivors, they’re not a legacy act, they’re also just producing new music. Every release in the 21st century is just astounding, where the band is going up, not down. It’s unlike any other band that have been around for as long as they have. Also, I think it’s a big thing that Sparks have managed to find a level whereby it’s not embarrassing for them to be doing pop songs. Maybe Bowie managed to make it work in his own way in his last couple of albums, [but] Sparks are a very rare band who are making, and, crucially, want to make, pop songs in their fifth decade. A lot of other bands who have been around for as long would consider it beneath them to try and write the perfect three-minute song. These guys are just amazing survivors. We should just celebrate the fact that these people are making new music for us.
Sparks did an album with Franz Ferdinand, which came out of the blue. One of the first songs I heard from it is the ultimate bad-mood, I’m-angry, go-fuck-yourself, play-in-the-car-really-loud, pissed-off song. It is an amazing anthem for when you want to tell everybody in the world to go fuck themselves. I always say to people who say, “What’s your bad mood song if you’re in a furious mood? What’s the thing that’ll cheer you up?” For me, It’s “Piss Off.”
One of my all-time favorite Sparks songs is “Missionary Position.” Ron Mael has this thing where he says “Write an anthem about something that nobody is against.” Most people like the missionary position, but it’s not the coolest sexual position! It is the very definition of vanilla. Nobody’s written a song about the missionary position before, and that’s not going to stop Sparks. I love the idea that there’s a big rock song about vanilla sex and that it’s amazing.