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
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities