Arts: This town still ain't big enough

As the eccentric band Sparks, Ron and Russell Mael make the pop charts once a decade. But then mainstream success has never been part of these innovators' agenda.
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The Independent Culture
There's a moment in the celebrated Elvis television comeback special from 1968 when the king wipes his brow and a minuscule patch of tissue floats to the stage. "It still amazes me after all these years," quips Presley, seeing a female member of the audiencelean forward and place the small sweaty swab in a handbag. A similar, unfathomable fanaticism is also true of a particular breed of Sparks fan.

It is information, as much as mementos, that is the pursuit of the dedicated followers of the group, or rather the brothers that have been its nucleus throughout its evolution, Ron and Russell Mael.

And if the Internet has proved to be the first, the perfect, the ultimate port of call for fans of anything and everything, it is tailor-made for the network of Sparks devotees eager to absorb minutiae surrounding the duo. Like their music, the Maels have always proved difficult to label. Collectively maintaining that inherent aspect of otherness that is the lot of great American double acts, from Laurel and Hardy to Bob and Bing to Sonny and Cher. Both seem modern enough, and asthenic enough, to be at home in a good Diesel ad, or a David LaChapelle photo spread. On stage, Russell has a swashbuckler's bounce, while Ron, on keyboards, remains part Kafka, part kook.

"What we do is pretty stylised. It hasn't got mass appeal," according to Ron Mael, distinguished as always by a moustache that has proved as protean as the pair's musical style over the years. "This, combined with the fact that we've never been over-exposed, seems to have created a certain mystery." If they are shrouded by an aura of elusiveness - not to mention conspicuously absent from many a music anthology - it is because of their brief relationships with successive record companies, and a casual courtship with commercial success.

They have popped up in the charts for brief spells during each of the last three decades. The full-throttle thump and falsetto of "This Town Ain't Big Enough" can be cited as the point they came in at. The "When do I Get to Sing my Way" club remixes being where they left it in the mid-Nineties.

Now, as pop music, almost fiftysomething and in the throes of a mid-life crisis, rings out the new and rings in the old, with Cliff Richard expected to be the millennial number one, Sparks are at it again with a new single and album in January. Both entitled Balls. With the Sixties anthem "All you Need is Love" as the key song on the soundtrack within the Millennium Dome, the Sparks song is perhaps more characteristic of the moment ("All you need is balls"). Particularly at a time when there is a call for pop to get angry once again.

"In a personal way, we like to irritate by just staying around," says Ron Mael. The new album is more aggressive than any recent output, but still the traditional Sparks themes are present: lyrics that sometimes jar with the mood of the song, and cultural references that seldom find their way into pop songs elsewhere. One track, "Aeroflot", is a tribute to the Russian airline.

Sparks fans have picked up snippets, mulled over rumours and looked for clues in lyrics, in order to cut and paste a bigger picture of the Maels. Presently, this is manifest in web pages that fly to extremes. Rumours that have done the rounds for years are finally quashed - the brothers are not Doris Day's offspring - while other inaccurate facts persist. "No, I did not provide the backing vocals for The Kinks's `Waterloo Sunset','' says Russell Mael, "as much as I like the record."

Other website examples of fans' intrepid search for collectables include a letter written by Ron as a child to an uncle that has been acquired and scanned in full (the handwritten original, addressed envelope and - to drive the point home - a typed interpretation). The launch of an official Sparks website, to coincide with the release of their 18th album, will therefore be welcomed with exultation by the community of fans, as will their concert in London this weekend.

The British audience for a Sparks concert, in the Nineties, incorporates a section that came on board in the Seventies, those who know of the synth and disco tracks under the aegis of Giorgio Moroder in the Eighties ("Number One Song in Heaven"), with a large infantry familiar with the mixes and collaborations from the recent albums Gratuitous Sax and Plagiarism. (Bobbing and weaving in the crowd at the last London concert were a group of Asian teenage boys dressed as Ron Mael, all with moustaches as slim as stocking seams).

Although born, and currently based in Los Angeles, the Maels have conducted a lengthy and healthy relationship with Europe throughout their career. Jacques Tati hoped to cast them in his last film, and Russell Mael recently wrote the afterword for the re-issue of Serge Gainsbourg's only novel. But if it took the country that gave us Warhol, Elvis and Groucho, to create Sparks, it took the country that has created Roxy Music, Gilbert & George, and The Smiths to first appreciate them.

Britain was where they had their initial success, and where they have always been a credible name to drop within the more reputable circles of the pop fraternity. As well as being a blueprint for the electronic duo that emerged in the Eighties and peaked with the Pet Shops Boys, you can almost sense the influence of Sparks in the lyrical wit of aspects of The Divine Comedy's output, Pulp, and most definitely in that of Morrissey. The last began his association with the music press as a teenager, with a letter praising the album that put Sparks on the map, Kimono My House. He was spotted at a recent concert on their own home turf in Hollywood.

Such is the devotion that the group inspire in their fans. "In a way, we've been around long enough to know from earlier periods that we were on the right side," says Russell. "But now we don't want what is the right side." According to Ron: "Everything does seem bland, but everything also seems diverse. A week after something is released it is automatically in a BMW ad. It gets sucked up so quickly."

In recent times, the Maels have shifted outside of their Sparks persona to expand and experiment with soundtracks. They supplied the music for the last Jean Claude Van Damme big screen excursion, and have recently provided the soundtrack for a short animated French film entitled A Cute Candidate. The story, about a cow that runs for US president, is currently being considered by Hollywood as a potential television feature to coincide with the 2000 elections.

Like Morrissey, Sparks's short-lived relationships with a series of often short-sighted record companies, suggests that like him, they might consider releasing albums via the Internet. "We're quite traditional," says Russell, "in that we prefer the idea that people can hear a song on the radio or television and then go out and buy it." While Ron believes that "there is something encouraging about the rebellious spirit of the Internet. It's like the modern equivalent of punk - anyone can make a record. But it's only the means of distribution that is different rather than the content. No one is trying to make a different kind of music."

Sparks at Shepherd's Bush Empire on Saturday at 7pm (0171-771 2000)