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.

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own