Like many, I first discovered Sparks by accident. In the summer of 1981, when I was 6, I got my first hit of Beatlemania—partly due to the pervasive residual mourning of John Lennon’s death, but largely on account of “Stars on 45”, a chart-topping Dutch novelty record that stitched together spot-on, re-recorded snippets of various Fab Four hits to a discofied backbeat. However, the first song quoted in the side-long medley wasn’t a Beatles song—it was Sparks’ 1979 Giorgio Moroder-produced single “Beat the Clock”, whose chorus doubled as an inspirational mantra for the task of cramming 30 Beatles songs into 16 minutes. It would be a few years before I discovered the source of that hook, and a few more before realizing that the unlisted inclusion was actually the perfect introduction to Sparks’ curious career. Over the past 45 years, brothers Russell and Ron Mael have made a sport of party-crashing the zeitgeist, producing brilliantly byzantine pop songs that deserve to stand alongside the greats—even though they often don’t get enough credit, and are ever-reliant on Europeans for recognition.
Sparks are rock’s perennial outsiders, coming of age as ardent Anglophiles in hippy-dippy late-‘60s L.A. before finding an audience for their erudite art-pop overseas. Of all the preening glam rockers beamed into British living rooms during the early ‘70s, Sparks undoubtedly cast the strangest figures, even if they shirked the gender-bending costumery flaunted by peers like Bowie and Roxy Music. Though Russell boasted de rigueur Bolan curls and a glass-shattering voice that made Freddie Mercury sound timid, his pop-idol visage was undercut by a disarming bug-eyed intensity. The buttoned-up Ron, meanwhile, was the ultimate anti-rock-star, perched behind his keyboard like a schoolmaster at his desk, his creepy toothbrush moustache and disinterested scowls oozing an authoritarian disdain for the kids in the crowd. Exhibiting a performance style more in tune with vaudeville tradition than pop-star posturing, the Maels seemed less like leaders of a rock band than a 1940s comedy double act who were teleported three decades into the future, thrust onto a soundstage and forced to perform their idea of rock‘n’roll on the spot. (The band’s very name evinces their fondness for old-school slapstick—after releasing their debut album in 1970 as Halfnelson, they switched to Sparks as a sly nod to another band of brothers.)
But for all their raging irreverence, Sparks have managed to remain novel without lapsing into novelty. They’re not so much trendsetters as trend upsetters, continually adopting au courant styles to both emphasize their pleasure points and highlight their inherent ridiculousness through intra-song meta-commentary and scathing high-society satire. When it comes to pop songcraft, Sparks are the hackers who know their way around security systems better than the people who designed them; they’re the hecklers who come up with better punchlines than the comedians onstage.
Sparks’ fierce intellect and absurdist showmanship would make childhood fans out of future iconoclasts from Morrissey to Björk; more recently, their influence has permeated everything from the New Pornographers’ maximal power pop, to LCD Soundsystem’s self-analytical electro, to the glitter-speckled freakery of Foxygen. Their tradition of perfectly of-the-moment soundtrack appearances—‘70s disaster flick Rollercoaster, ‘80s new-wave time capsule Valley Girl, and millennials perennial “Gilmore Girls” among them—also continues apace, with 1977 track “Those Mysteries” serving as the theme song for the popular new podcast Mystery Show. But while they’ve been known to answer their famous fans’ adoration with good-natured mockery, this month sees Sparks communing with some of their most notable successors—debonair Scottish post-punk popsters Franz Ferdinand—as equals for a jointly billed recording; as Sparks have never been ones to squander an opportunity for a crass pun, the project has been dubbed FFS.
The album marks the 23rd addition to a forbiddingly dense, four-decade discography—these are the most accessible entry points.
“Girl From Germany” (1973)
After their Todd Rundgren-produced debut album as Halfnelson flopped in America, the newly rebranded five-piece found more sympathetic audiences overseas while touring their second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. Following their British television debut in November 1972 on “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, word began to spread on the Isles of this weird band from Los Angeles with a keyboardist that looked like Hitler. Ron Mael claims he grew his infamous mini-moustache in tribute to silent-film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy, however, the waters were muddied by Woofer’s opening track. An outrageous but incisive satire of the post-war prejudices that still lingered in America three decades after WWII, “Girl From Germany” depicts the awkwardness of bringing a German girlfriend home to meet your Jewish parents, whose disapproval is matched only by the hypocrisy of having a Benz in the driveway. (“Well, the car I drive is parked outside/ It's German-made/ They resent that less than the people/ Who are German-made.”) It’s a prime early example of Sparks’ eagerness to toy with taboos rarely addressed in pop songs, let alone exceedingly cheery ones.
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974)
To capitalize on overseas interest, the Maels moved to England in 1973 and rebuilt Sparks with British players for their breakthrough album, Kimono My House. For a certain generation of Brits, Sparks’ performance of the album’s lead single—a #2 hit in the UK—on “The Top of the Pops” was as transformative as the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on “Ed Sullivan” was for a previous generation of Americans. But even if it’s been bouncing around your brain for 40 years, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” remains resolutely unkaraokeable—its zig-zagging melody, rollercoaster pitch shifts, and overstuffed stanzas still feel as difficult to grasp as flapping fish.
“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” (1974)
Sparks’ urbane sarcasm is the aesthetic opposite of tree-hugging hippie earnestness. However, this resplendent piano ballad from 1974’s Propaganda adroitly addressed our planet’s fragile nature—and our collective duty to protect it—long before “global warming” became a catchphrase. Its undiminished topical currency has made it a popular cover choice over the years for everyone from Martin Gore (who recorded separate versions within and without Depeche Mode) to Neko Case (whose reverential reading forms the thematic centerpiece of her eco-conscious 2009 album, Middle Cyclone).
“Get in the Swing” (1975)
Sparks’ transgressive presence and provocative lyricism made them heroes to first-wave punks like the Ramones and Siouxsie Sioux. However, just as their influence was taking root underground in mid-‘70s London and New York, Sparks’ music was turning ever more fanciful, flitting from ragtime-inspired romps, to grinding arena rock, to unabashed Beach Boys homage. The circus-like “Get in the Swing”, from 1975’s appropriately titled Indiscreet, typifies the excess of this period, though its pomped-up parade proved to be more a funeral march for the band’s commercial prospects, precipitating a late-‘70s slide down the UK charts that would necessitate a dramatic shift in course.
“Tryouts for the Human Race” (1979)
By 1979, it had become customary for even the hoariest rock bands to dabble in disco for a track or two. But Sparks rightfully saw the music as more than just a quickie cash-in trend—in hypnotic dancefloor clarion calls like Donna Summers’ “I Feel Love”, they heard the music of the future, one that inspired a wholesale reboot of their band. Enlisting Summers’ go-to producer Giorgio Moroder, Sparks emerged as Italo-disco aesthetes on No. 1 in Heaven, an album that, alongside Kimono My House, forms one of the twin peaks of the band’s discography. The LP would restore the band’s celebrity in the UK to the point of Ron getting lampooned in a Paul McCartney video, and would also enjoy a (still-lingering) renaissance during the post-millennial ascent of electroclash and DFA Records. On the album’s exhilarating opener, “Tryouts for the Human Race”, Sparks map out the sort of slow-building, electro-rock epic that would later become James Murphy’s signature.
“Angst in My Pants” (1982)
After their dalliances with disco, Sparks reverted back to standard rock-band formation, reportedly because touring with (then extremely cumbersome) beat-making equipment proved to be a logistical nightmare. Ironically, with a flesh-and-blood group behind them once again, the Maels’ music turned even more mechanistic. Their new-waved early ‘80s singles pretty much all locked into the same zippy 4/4 snare beat, but the formula worked, resulting in respectable showings on the stateside charts for the first time in their career. The best of the bunch is the title track of 1982’s Angst in My Pants, where that omnipresent rhythm forms the ticking-time-bomb soundtrack to some yacht-riding yuppie bastard’s impotence-induced midlife crisis.
“When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” (1994)
The 1990s were Sparks’ lost years. The group had become so proficient at absorbing contemporary synth-pop sounds that, by the late ‘80s, their own peculiar personality was becoming harder to parse from the production sheen, with Russell’s parade of perms rendering him indistinguishable from the other big-haired chancers on MTV. Following 1988’s Interior Design, they took an extended break from recording, focussing instead on (ultimately aborted) plans to adapt a Japanese comic book into a musical directed by Tim Burton.
In 1994, they reemerged in a vastly different musical landscape. Grunge had come and gone, but alternative rock culture was still peaking, and prompting a renewed appreciation for left-field trailblazers. In England, the weeklies paraded a new crop of bands schooled by the Maels’ arch lyricism and fearless flamboyance, like Pulp and Suede. But if the conditions were favorable for a Sparks comeback, the Maels refused to peddle ‘70s glam nostalgia to Britpop enthusiasts—their 1994 album Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins instead channeled the strobe-lit euphoria of house. On the elating but self-deprecating “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’”, Russell grapples with Sparks’ eternal existential quandary, being neither as famous as Sinatra nor as notorious as Sid Vicious. But the song returned the band to the charts in Europe, providing a brief glimmer of light during an otherwise fallow decade that saw Sparks release just one other album, a self-covers collection.
“Your Call's Very Important to Us. Please Hold” (2002)
With 2000’s Balls notable only for providing the theme song a Jean Claude Van Damme flick, the Maels embarked upon yet another radical, career-reviving reinvention. For 2002’s Lil Beethoven, they abandoned rock convention yet again, offsetting elaborate, classical-inspired arrangements with brutally minimalist lyricism (which often just amounted to the song title repeated to hypnotic and hysterical extremes). The aesthetic overhaul proved especially complementary to Sparks’ long-time penchant for blowing up mundane minutiae into over-the-top melodrama. “Your Call’s Very Important to Us. Please Hold” is an operator exchange rendered as a tragic opera, each choral utterance of the title lyric and synthesized string stab compounding its oppressive banality. The song is absolutely maddening, and feels like it’s liable to go on forever—not unlike the experience of phoning a customer-service line and waiting to get a human voice on the other end of the line.
"I Can't Believe You Would Fall for All The Crap in This Song" (2008)
This schaffel-swung track from 2008’s Exotic Creatures of the Deep belongs to a storied tradition of Sparks songs about Sparks songs, wherein the lyrics amount to itemized responses to a titular premise. It’s a tack that’s yielded some of the best in-jokes in the Maels’ songbook (like the classic closing line of 1982’s “I Predict”, wherein Russell repeats “this song will fade out”—just before it comes to a dead stop). Here, it transforms some of the most sentimental lines Russell’s ever sung— “I want you and only you and only you, my love,” “I’ll be true, forever true, forever true, my love”—into something deviously disingenuous.
“Police Encounters” (2015)
In self-referential Sparks fashion, the band’s foray with Franz Ferdinand climaxes with a multi-sectional suite called “Collaborations Don’t Work”. But the best tracks on FFS feel less like collaborations than full-on genetic fusions. On jaunty highlight “Police Encounters”, Russell and Alex Kapranos bound through the song’s brisk verses and call-back choruses with a finish-each-others-sentences sense of intuition, while Ron’s electric-piano taps and synth textures get hardwired into Franz’s vacuum-sealed rhythm section. Despite the seemingly topical title, don’t expect any political analysis here—the song is a cheeky romp about catching a soft-focus glimpse of a lawman’s fetching wife while getting thrown in the drunk tank. But, coming on the heels of the Maels’ stripped-down Two Hands One Mouth duo tours, FFS heralds Sparks’ resounding return to frantic, futurist rock‘n’roll.