Five decades running, brothers Ron and Russell Mael — otherwise known as Sparks — continue to deliver quirky and clever pop songs, despite never gaining the recognition they deserve. From their 1971 debut to 2017’s Hippopotamus, this band has pushed the boundaries of glam rock, power pop, new wave, and, with Giorgio Moroder’s help, disco. Throughout, they’ve maintained an inimitable style and sensibility, writing catchy tunes with witty lyrics that have influenced the likes of Devo, Morrissey, Yo La Tengo, and The Go Go’s. Here are just a few Sparks gems for those of you still not in the know.
Fa La Fa Lee
Originally released in 1971 under the band’s earlier name Halfnelson, this one reflects the influences of Ray Davies and Pete Townshend (also apparent on quirky vignettes like “Wonder Girl” and “Fletcher Honorama”). But in truth, this track with its deceptively — or dementedly — simple piano/keyboard phrases, tape echo guitar runs, and motorik drum beat defies easy classification. It’s a delightfully eccentric bit of avant pop that sounds utterly fresh, even to this day. Studio whizkid Todd Rundgren produced the group’s eponymous debut album and likely deserves some credit for the track’s mad hatter whimsy.
See Related Content: “Ray Davies’ Blessing of ‘Americana'”
Whippings and Apologies
Relocating from Los Angeles to England in 1973, the Maels found a bit more acceptance for their fey weirdness in the Bowie-Bolan zeitgeist across the pond. Beginning with a synthesized jaw harp pulse and an atonal guitar skronk that sounds like Sonic Youth nearly a decade before that band’s appearance, “Whippings and Apologies” from A Woofer in a Tweeter’s Clothing pushes glam towards new wave, post-punk, and beyond.
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us
Perhaps no song demonstrates Ron Mael’s oddball songwriting genius and brother Russ’ particular vocal talents as well as “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” from 1974’s Kimono My House. Ron’s terse synth arpeggiations and Russell’s pointillist, flexible falsetto on lines like “Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat” perfectly capture a sense of frenetic lovestruck bravado. This is dynamic, operatic rock at its finest, rivaled only by a band who once shared a bill with (and nearly lost a guitarist to) Sparks: namely, Queen.
See Related Content: “10 Underrated Songs by Queen”
Talent Is an Asset
Kimono My House’s abundance of wonderful songs could fill this list, but “Talent Is an Asset” is a highlight. The song’s classical modalities appropriately underscore the saga of Albert (Einstein) and who the songwriter imagines are his overbearing stage parents — the dark side of relativity if you will. Ron has publicly mused about the strange phenomenon of English teenyboppers in glam-era England screaming and swooning over a song about a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Why not?
The Number One Song in Heaven
Buoyed by pulsing synth bass and strings, vocoders and disco toms, “The Number One Song In Heaven” is a triumph off of the Maels’ 1979 collaboration with Giorgio Moroder. Midway through, just after the drumbeat slows to a trot, Moroder’s Moog takes off into a rollicking gallop, propelling the song to dizzying heights, as we go spinning around the celestial dance floor. Honorable mention to “Tryouts for the Human Race,” another standout from the Mael-Moroder pairing.
Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)
Fast forward past several worthy releases and creatively rewarding collaborations to last year’s Hippopotamus, an LP containing a handful of Ron Mael lyrical gems. “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” contrasts the pathos of the French chanteuse’s most memorable numbers with the narrator’s own life, which he confesses barely merits mention. “No midnight crimes / With a crime bosses’ wife / Need a sentence at most / In assessing my life.
What the Hell Is It This Time?
Another standout is “What the Hell Is It This Time?,” which imagines a weary God, suffering through an unending barrage of human prayer gripes. “What the Hell is It this Time? / It’s you again, it’s you again / You get on my nerves / What the hell is it this time? / I’ve millions to serve. You get on my nerves.” The omnipotent one finally implores his torturers to redirect their endless thoughts and prayers (“If you’re feeling faint / Appeal to a saint). It’s a delightfully zany maelstrom of snark from the under-appreciated deities of avant pop.
Photo Credit: Russell and Ron Mael of Sparks (Photo by Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)