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Get To Know Sparks, Your Favorite Band's Favorite Band

Brothers Russell and Ron Mael in director Edgar Wright's film <em>The Sparks Brothers</em>, a Focus Features release.
Anna Webber
Focus Features
Brothers Russell and Ron Mael in director Edgar Wright's film The Sparks Brothers, a Focus Features release.

Influential, underrated, and overlooked—that has long been the prevailing view of the musical duo Sparks, which counts among its most ardent fans Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Stephen Morris of Joy Division/New Order and the pop producer Jack Antonoff. The Sparks story begins in 1960s Los Angeles, where the music scene was dominated by the California sound popularized by the Beach Boys and the folk rock artists of Laurel Canyon. While enrolled as students at UCLA, Ron Mael and his younger brother Russell were attracted to entirely different sounds.

"We were passionate about the British bands like The Who, The Kinks, and The Move," recalls Ron. "The music was really flashy, and visuals were something that was really important."

Ron was a budding keyboard wizard. Russell knew how to sing, possessing a distinctive falsetto and formidable vocal range. Calling themselves the Urban Renewal Project, then later Halfnelson, they recorded quirky demo songs that eventually caught the attention of Todd Rundgren, who produced their self-titled 1971 debut album.

Although the effort was hailed by critics, and produced a couple of minor hits, it wasn't a commercial success. Renaming themselves Sparks, the Mael brothers decamped for England in 1973, where they hoped to find a more receptive audience.

The band's 1974 release Kimono My House was a critical and commercial hit, spawning two top 10 UK singles. When Sparks appeared on the BBC's Top of the Pops, filmmaker Edgar Wright says they made a distinct impression.

"Russell is conventionally handsome but quite androgynous and like sort of strutting around wearing like a ladies blouse, which would have been quite something at the time," Wright says. "Ron has this Chaplin-esque toothbrush mustache, and he's got his hair slicked back, so he kind of looks like a creepy substitute teacher who's wandered onto the TV. And then on top of that, he's staring down the lens at the audience at home, unsmiling."

Although Sparks managed to attract a substantial cult following, Wright says it's not surprising they failed to reach the mainstream: "They were sort of like provocateurs in a sense. You know, you can kind of see the seeds of punk rock in what they were doing. There was something a bit shocking about it, and coupled with their sound, it was too much for some people to take in."

The Mael Brothers returned to the U.S. in 1976, exploring heavier rock sounds before switching gears and enlisting the producer Giorgio Moroder for their 1979 electro-pop effort, No. 1 in Heaven.

Critic David Fear says that album influenced an entire generation of British bands, including notable synth and electro pop duos such as Erasure and Pet Shop Boys. In 1983, Sparks scored its first American Top 50 hit, "Cool Places," a new wave-inspired collaboration with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go's. From there it was electronic dance pop, then classically influenced art pop, and even a radio musical commissioned by Swedish public radio.

Rather than merely staying ahead of the curve, Fear says, Sparks has always "constructed the curve," relentlessly pioneering new terrain, sometimes at the expense of achieving the recognition they'd earned. Indeed, in a career spanning five decades and 25 albums, beyond their status as a beloved band's band, Sparks has remained largely unknown.

However, this summer Sparks appears to finally be having its moment. Edgar Wright's new documentary, The Sparks Brothers, is a star-studded love letter celebrating the Mael's offbeat originality. It's now in theaters and streaming on demand. Sparks has also teamed up with the French director Leos Carax on the unconventional musical film Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. After opening this year's Cannes film festival, it's coming to U.S. theaters on Aug. 6 and streaming starting on Aug. 20.

Although some Sparks superfans may be ambivalent about their favorite "secret" band surfacing, Russell Mael says he hopes the swell of attention will expand their audience reach. Where to begin diving into the band's vast, eclectic discography is something of a challenge—but, thanks to NPR's Bob Mondello, here are a few suggestions.

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Allyson McCabe

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