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Rock: Sparks still flying

It's as if they have never been away. Sparks are here with a new album and a new tour, but as Nick Hasted discovers, they look the same as they did in the Seventies and they don't sound that much different.

Somewhere in the world, someone is always listening to Sparks. And everyone else has forgotten they exist.

In Britain, the suave falsetto singer Russell Mael and his toothbrush- moustached, unsmiling brother Ron introduced themselves in 1974, when their performance of "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us" sent John Lennon lurching from his chair, exclaiming "It's Hitler on the telly!" They hit here again in 1979, when a collaboration with Giorgio Moroder sent "The No 1 song in Heaven" into orbit.

In the years since they have had success in France in the early Eighties, and in LA in the late Eighties; in 1995, they had their first hit in Germany. It's pop as Sisyphean exercise, pushing their music up the hill towards success, only for it to roll back down to the next hill along.

"I'd like to say we're stronger for the experience," says Ron, infinitely more amiable than my childhood memories, with a pencil-thin moustache now, not the Hitler version.

"But how much Vitamin C can you take? I don't think there are many bands in our situation," says Russell. "We're on our 17th album, and we're still introducing ourselves."

Sparks' latest effort, Plagiarism, is a re-recording of some of their best-known songs, sometimes radically reworked with string sections, or as on the single "This Town Ain't Big Enough", with new partners such as Faith No More. It's a sweeping summation of work that would otherwise lie in pieces round the world. "I really hate looking back at anything," says Russell. "Having done this so long, looking back is like an obituary, `weren't they great?' What I enjoyed was trying to make these old songs stand as a contemporary album. We don't think that the songs sound like they're from another era. They didn't sound like they were from any era when they were originally done. They sound like they're in their own world."

It is hard to work out where Sparks came from. The Maels remember a Sixties youth spent on LA beaches, listening to The Beach Boys, their favourite American music. But they can't hear LA in their own sound, "except for it being detached from reality", considers Ron. They were all-American kids. And yet they kept listening to weird British sounds, wanting to be somewhere else. "We tried to copy English bands, but we got it wrong," Ron remembers. "Our environment was really sterile to us. In America, everybody's so Pollyanna about everything. I like the fact that British music's nastier, dirtier, the attitude is less pleasant. We like its nihilism."

The greatest misconception Sparks have suffered through the years is that they're camp, ironic, some sort of novelty band. Plagiarism is, as usual, full of mordant wit. But listen to the album through, and its songs are moving, yearning. It seems obvious that Sparks feel deeply connected to their characters. "A lot of times the word `camp' is mentioned in connection with what we do," says Ron. "But if that distancing is there, then it's definitely not intentional. We're not trying to be separated from what we're writing about. It's too easy. We're not trying to put one over on people. We're wearing our hearts on our sleeves."

What about "Beat the Clock", with its rushing rhythm, and desperate sentiments of a world that's speeding by? Can they identify with that? They pause nervously, as if feeling that this gets a little too near the point. "Possibly," says Russell finally. "Always thinking on whatever level that there's not enough time to accomplish what you want to accomplish, you'd better hurry, because your time's running out. The thing of always being premature in whatever you're doing possibly has some bearing on us as well, always arriving a minute too soon for our own good."

Perhaps the strangest thing about Sparks these days is that they look almost exactly as they did in 1974, and that this is deliberate. When they first appear, Russell moves as if he's weightless, a small, handsome man, only a few lines around the eyes betraying the fact that he's over 30 (he must be nearer 45). Ron, too, looks fit. They decided they were going to retain their looks 10 years ago, because they were pop stars. They're as serious as any musicians working. Yet they feel they have to act like starlets - to keep the cracks at bay, to keep their jobs.

"My Lancome under-eye cream?" smirks Russell. "If you choose to work in pop music, I think you have a duty to be somewhat presentable to an audience. We don't want to look pathetic. With "When Do I Get To Sing My Way", our German hit, really young people are treating us as a brand new band. We're genuinely getting 15-year-old girls proposing to us, wanting to get married. It's the same age audience as we had for "This Town" the first time around. For us it's the most unsettling thing. You look out there, and you see the same young people, the same age now as they were then. We like that."

It seems a strange sort of pressure, holding their bodies together till they get another hit. "Yeah, the longer it takes ..." Russell laughs. "The pressure increases, let's say that," says Ron. "It's less of a problem for me. I've always looked old." Do they not think the Rolling Stones line of being able to go on for ever is true? "We're working in an area that's more ephemeral," says Russell,"more glamorous." "All of that is really important to us," adds Ron. "It isn't a heavy cross for us to bear. We like maintaining ourselves. We like being pop stars."

`This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both Of Us' is out this week. The album `Plagiarism' is out now. Sparks play London Astoria on 6 December.