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Sparks: The greatest band you've never heard of
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(Credit: Getty Images)
The enigmatic duo Ron and Russell Mael have gone from cult stardom to sustained success. Beverly D'Silva talks to the brothers about fame, failure and the highs and lows of their career.
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At the Cannes Film Festival in July, the opening-night film, Annette, is about to be screened. On the red carpet, the creative team line up: towering ex-Marine Adam Driver and chic Marion Cotillard in a silver mermaid dress, with co-star Simon Helberg and director Leos Carax. And beside them, two older men in penguin suits. Arty and awkward-looking with a strange facial likeness, one has a pencilled-in moustache and thick glasses, the other a floppy 80s haircut. 

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Were they arthouse producers? Character actors? If the audience was left guessing their identity, after the film's rave reviews they were no longer in doubt. They were Ron and Russell Mael, aka US art-pop band Sparks, and Annette was very much their baby, from storyboard to script and music. In fact, sealing their film debut's success at the festival, Sparks scooped best soundtrack award and picked up the best director gong for Carax –  the cool French auteur later revealed he wished he'd been "the third member of Sparks". 

The musical film Annette – with score and screenplay by the Mael brothers – opened the Cannes Film Festival (Credit: Getty Images)

The musical film Annette – with score and screenplay by the Mael brothers – opened the Cannes Film Festival (Credit: Getty Images)

Like their stunning rock opera, Sparks's own story has involved fame and failure, dramatic lows and highs (though without the anger issues and Wagnerian tragedy). That's the subject of a superb career documentary, The Sparks Brothers, released last month in the US, and now also showing in the UK. The band also has a (sold out) tour of North America and UK dates in the spring, start work soon on their 26th album, and have another musical movie project in the pipeline.

After 50 years in the music business, and more comebacks than Cher, it seems Sparks have pulled off the tricky move from cult stardom to mainstream success. All this attention has left them "a little giddy", but having been around the block many times – Ron is 75 and Russell is 72 – has advantages, and they say this time around they plan to enjoy it and seize every opportunity that comes their way.

"After a few aborted attempts at movie projects, to have Annette be so well received to be the opening night film at Cannes was like a dream come true for us," says Russell, speaking to BBC Culture from a hotel in London, where he and Ron have been quarantining since arriving from France.

"Getting awards too… we're pinching ourselves," says Ron. "Having these wonderful things happening right now is kind of… illogical."

If you don’t like this, we don't care – I think that's the essence of what popular music should be – Ron Mael

Maybe, but they're also "enjoying it immensely," says Russell, and have a wiser perspective now than they did with their first success in the mid-1970s, when, says Ron "there was an exhilaration – but no way of framing it". After two albums that, as Ron puts it, "did nothing", their third, Kimono My House, was a hit, and their single, This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us,  went to number two in the UK charts.

The film The Sparks Brothers includes footage of their brilliant live performances (Credit: Focus Features)

The film The Sparks Brothers includes footage of their brilliant live performances (Credit: Focus Features)

With Russell's falsetto vocals, Ron's manic keyboard-playing, spaghetti-western sound-effects and a surreal glam-rock image, they were arresting and jaw-dropping. Legend has it that John Lennon saw Sparks on TV, and phoned Ringo Starr to say: "You'll never believe what I'm watching – Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler!" 

Sparks had arrived on planet celebrity. Ever since, the duo have always treasured the UK for facilitating their breakthrough, and for being the first to embrace their experimental electro-pop, cartoon humour and zany antics. "Britain's always been our home from home," says Ron.

The brothers carry their roles as elder statesmen of pop (and now cinema) well. They still wear monotone vintage clothing; Ron still has a cod-villain moustache, though he's warm and affable in person, his acerbic, hard stare reserved strictly for performance. By contrast, Russell, the "cutie-pie" singer – as he's called in the documentary – who once inspired teen hysteria and devotion, is cooler and more reserved. 

Their distinctive sound has led to the accolade "the greatest band you've never heard of". Queen, Joy Division, Björk, New Order, Duran Duran and Morrissey all credit their musical influence. Their individuality and refusal to follow musical trends won plaudits, but didn't always reap them commercial rewards. It seemed whenever they hit a peak, they changed musical style. A hit such as their 1979 electro-disco album No 1 in Heaven, produced by Donna Summer-supremo Giorgio Moroder, could be followed by marching-band music, swing, rock opera, Euro-pop, an alpine glockenspiel song… as if commercial success was a dirty phrase.

In the 1970s, Sparks became cult superstars with their particular brand of absurdist humour (Credit: Getty Images)

In the 1970s, Sparks became cult superstars with their particular brand of absurdist humour (Credit: Getty Images)

"If you don’t like this, we don't care – I think that's the essence of what popular music should be," says Ron.

Their rich and fascinating arc attracted director Edgar Wright to make The Sparks Brothers documentary and to "join the dots for Sparks fans around the world," he tells BBC Culture on a video call. He also aimed to explore "why they aren't as celebrated as they deserve to be", and is delighted that Annette's success made that goal redundant. 

Wright was just five when he was "hypnotised by Sparks staring at me from the telly", and felt like fearful Ron's comic-book glare "meant I was in trouble"’. Some 40 years later their music had become "a riddle turned full-on obsession" for him. "They kept bringing out new albums that were as ambitious as anything they’d ever put out before," he says. "Most bands that have been going that long end up doing greatest-hits tours. Not Sparks. They seemed to be doing something nobody else was."

Inscrutable and fascinating

He picked up on a burgeoning interest in Sparks, who were being championed by a new younger fan base. He found them "as inscrutable as they are fascinating", then discovered the Maels were following him on Twitter, as they loved his films, including Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver. They liked his idea to document them as a going concern, not focusing just on the 1970s, as other filmmakers had suggested.

The duo with Edgar Wright, the director of The Sparks Brothers – the filmmaker was attracted by their humour and rich story (Credit: Jake Polonsky/ Focus Features)

The duo with Edgar Wright, the director of The Sparks Brothers – the filmmaker was attracted by their humour and rich story (Credit: Jake Polonsky/ Focus Features)

"I saw how devoted they were to being Sparks… and the lines between Ron and Russell and Sparks are permanently blurred," says Wright, who shot the documentary while working on his upcoming feature film, Last Night in Soho, a psychological horror due out this Halloween.

We prefer to put dangerous things into what we're doing rather than throwing TVs out of the window – Ron Mael

The Sparks Brothers is fast-paced and funny, entertaining and poignant, intercut with archive footage, cartoon graphics and interviews with Sparks fans, such as Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, who made an album in 2015 with the Maels.     

It's an affectionate fan letter that will make you love Sparks if you didn't at the beginning, though is surprisingly unrevealing about their private lives and relationships. However, in one memorable scene former Go Go's guitarist Jane Wiedlin talks about dating Russell in the 1980s: "I was so in love with [him], he was so cute," she says. "So I chose beauty over brains… and we had a brief romance that didn't go anywhere. [But] it's not as if Russell's not smart, and Ron's not good-looking…" She laments overlooking Ron in love – which Wright says delighted the brother who was always cast as the "weird, cerebral one". 

Ron at first had reservations about a biopic, anxious about disappointing fans as they had "no divorces, drug overdoses or soap opera that can make a documentary spicy… We don't have a rock 'n' roll lifestyle –  we prefer to put dangerous things into what we're doing rather than throwing TVs out of the window and having orgies every night."

Wright reassured them as he felt "knowing more about their private lives goes against the enigma they've worked hard to create" and instead wanted to focus on "the disparity between the grand opera of their music and these quiet, modest, hard-working brothers who've been toiling together for half a century".

The Sparks Brothers features stop-motion animation by Joseph Wallace (Credit: Alamy)

The Sparks Brothers features stop-motion animation by Joseph Wallace (Credit: Alamy)

Ron and Russell Mael grew up in an arty, middle-class home in Pacific Palisades, California. Their mother was a librarian, their father was a caricaturist and graphic designer; he died when the boys were young. The brothers loved sports before the arts claimed them; studying at UCLA, they developed a deep love of cinema, especially French New Wave, and absurdist theatre.

An unfailing sense of humour and the absurd helped them survive the lows

Their enduring love of wordplay, comedy and dressing up is stamped all over their work: albums like Angst in My Pants, whose cover depicts Ron in a wedding dress and Russell as the groom; or the brilliantly-titled Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins; or their radio opera that imagines the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman being "lured to Hollywood by big budgets and big bosoms".

An unfailing sense of humour and the absurd helped them survive the lows. In the 1980s, when their record company demanded they "write songs people can dance to", their riposte was Music That You Can Dance To (the album wasn't a hit). After being refused money to make a video, they appeared on a pop show and sang through a cardboard TV screen as a protest. The "aborted film projects" Russell alluded to were with the late Jacques Tati and a manga film with Tim Burton. Though bitterly disappointed at these nonstarters for a while, they soon picked themselves up and carried on –  just as they did when they were so poor they lived on food stamps, and earned nothing at all for six years in the 1990s.    

Hard as it got, they never gave up on their creative vision. "It's the only thing we want to be doing. There's not an alternative," says Ron. "Whether they're popular or not, it doesn't seem to matter to them – and I love them for that," says Jane Wiedlin.

They remain open to new ideas, however challenging. When their manager, Sue Harris, suggested they perform 21 albums (270 songs) live in 21 days they took up the challenge. "It was preposterous and exciting but a triumph," says Harris, who is British and has worked with them since 2003. She says: "First and foremost they are gentleman – polite, considerate, extraordinary creatures."

The Sparks brothers have found their new metier in musicals, and another one is in the pipeline (Credit: Anna Webber/ Focus Features)

The Sparks brothers have found their new metier in musicals, and another one is in the pipeline (Credit: Anna Webber/ Focus Features)

The sweet spot Annette has opened up is not taken for granted by the brothers: out of it has come a tranche of offers, like the next musical movie they're writing, which should consolidate their new metier. It's an offer "which might not have been possible even two years ago," says Ron. He does the lion's share of the writing, but touchingly, pays homage to his fraternal partner. "Being brothers is why it's worked so long. I have that security working with Russell. Working on my own, I'd be really nervous – I wouldn't be able to take it." 

Despite their star rising, he expresses a fear of "resting on our laurels and being lazy… Now we have this new audience, we could just crank it out by numbers, but we really want to push things further musically."

So having surfed fame's high and low waves, and used their experience in an award-winning movie, what are their feelings now? "Oh, being in the limelight's always better," smiles Russell. "For all artists… you want to be loved and adored by as many people as you can. But the moral we've learned is, if you fish for that, you will lose your integrity."

"Having more people accepting what you're doing," concludes Ron, "that's the kind of limelight we really cherish."

The Sparks Brothers is out now at selected cinemas; Annette opens on 3 September.

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