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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?