Illustration by Eliott Thompson
A very unexpected shot of nostalgia was injected into me over the summer. It was a very welcome shot indeed, for at this point in the cycle of lockdowns I had experienced a multitude of mental states – depression, agoraphobia, anxiety, existential dread, boredom – and a recurring sense that I was but a tiny, meaningless blob amongst a sea of other tiny blobs on Planet Earth. Being cooped up inside will do that to you. So once Planet Earth slowly began to open itself up again, my housemates and I tentatively took up the chance to escape our collective mental funk and venture out to the cinemas as often as we could.
The first film we went out to see was an incredibly depressing drama about an ageing gay couple with Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. But I’m not going to talk about that (this is an article on joy, I’m afraid). Instead, the first nostalgia jab came as I spotted a poster for a forthcoming showing: The Sparks Brothers directed by Edgar Wright.
Ever since I found a West German vinyl copy of 1974’s landmark Kimono My House by Sparks in a discount bin for £6 on the top floor of Manchester’s Afflecks Palace, I was quietly obsessed. I have since wondered what on earth the till assistant thought of this five foot tall half-Asian 14 year old girl timidly approaching the counter to buy a forty year old record with unkempt kimono-clad Japanese women on the cover. At the time, though, I was mostly offended by the fact that it had been in the discount bin. The album quickly became one of my all-time most listened to (even if I do think No 1 in Heaven is their best); a brilliant and hilarious pop record that has been loved by countless others including Bjork, Thurston Moore, the Sex Pistols, Kurt Cobain, Duran Duran, New Order, Devo, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Franz Ferdinand. It was my comfort blanket of wit and slightly camp, androgynous vocals throughout the maudlin years of early adolescence.
The only real reason I never really blabbered on about them to unfortunate classmates was that I didn’t really know how to. I lack the eloquence to explain their sound. In lieu of that, here’s a (very) brief biography: after forming in LA and putting out flop albums in the early 1970s, the two Mael brothers Ron and Russell (effectively the band) moved to London at the height of glam and made some very good and influential art pop. Russell, the singer, looked sort of like a conventional 1970s popstar albeit whilst wearing a ski jumper and with the dance moves of an enthusiastic penguin. Ron, the songwriter and keyboardist, looked like Charlie Chaplin mixed with a stern maths teacher. A lot of people also happened to think his toothbrush moustache made him look rather like a certain dictator, unfortunately. But it all added to the mystique.
After moving back to America, they basically went and defined synth-pop in a manner that a whole number of pop groups would rip off (intentionally or otherwise), with the enthusiastic singer and the deadpan keyboardist (think Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys etc ad infinitum). Their Giorgio Moroder-produced epic Number One in Heaven in 1979 had thus successfully marked (or rather, should have marked) them in pop history as far more than mere eccentrics: they were innovators of the sound of the decade to come. From then on, they’ve basically done whatever they wanted to, because, frankly, they can.
And so we come to the recent Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) directed documentary ‘The Sparks Brothers’. Walking through the Barbican the other day, it felt rather surreal to see the trailer for the film running on a loop on screens dotted around the centre, beckoning me to give in and scratch the curiosity about the band which I have had ever since I first heard their music. Whilst I don’t want to go into too much depth about the ins and outs of the documentary, it did feel as if I had unwittingly joined a curious secret society of Sparks fans, which was nice.
Wright was the perfect person to take on the task of creating a documentary about them. In addition to his masterfully inventive utilisation of music within his body of work (of which Baby Driver is the most famous example), the word ‘kinetic’ is often thrown about by critics attempting to describe his style. This fits the relentless attitude and energy the brothers have thrown at their projects and live presence, not to mention their sonic reinventions through the decades. He keeps up wonderfully, at least for the most part until towards the end where a couple of projects fell by the wayside due to time limitations (at over two hours long, this sprawling project was actually the result of some ruthless editing down on Wright’s part).
On the whole it is very thorough and well done, and one particular strength is how it one is invited to explore the nature of their subversion of pop music. The Maels do not fit into the standard ideas of their mainstream contemporaries – there is no narrative about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll to tell, instead they have music videos of themselves doing strip teases in drag, going out for coffee every morning and having a devoted queer fanbase. By being themselves, they were far more of a diversion from American values than the cliched classic rock band which they originally assumed they would become.To paraphrase one music journalist, they were a heterosexual American group assuming the role of a gay European group.
Elsewhere, it weaves in the cinematic aspirations of the duo, whether it be their failed ventures with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton or their recent Cannes-approved debut with the musical Annette. Considering that the documentary reveals that they had both studied film at UCLA in the 1960s, this aspect does feel rather key to their artistic approach. That being said, their 2009 radio play The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, an ambitious exploration of a clash of American and European cultures and sensibilities through an imagined journey of the eponymous Swedish film director to Hollywood, was unfairly relegated to a footnote.
In some ways the story told in Ingmar Bergman feels like a microcosm of the world of Sparks. Throughout the film you do get a sense of how the band traversed continental divides, crossing their Californian optimism with their British-eque wit and European open-mindedness (it is a recurring motif throughout the documentary that everyone assumes that Sparks were British as they were far too eccentric for America). At various points there is a focus on particular albums or singles which were particularly popular in certain countries, and it helps to develop the narrative in a way which more accurately reflects the variety of their output: effectively everything from prog to glam to big band to new wave to hard rock to disco to chamber pop to Eurodance. Yet throughout it all, they remain pop-absurdists, taking from high and low culture in equal parts and diffracting them through their unique artistic approach. Whilst watching the film was a throwback to the sources of my childhood joy, this is definitely a band who balk at the idea of unnecessary reliving of former glories. It is evident when the brothers are asked to look back and more than anything, they appear delightfully amused by the situations they found themselves in.
Walking out of the cinema afterwards, I was left both elated and puzzled. Elated because at last I felt vindicated in my love for the band. Puzzled because, having seen so many successful artists appear as talking heads in the documentary to discuss the artistic debt they owe to Sparks, they remain a cult-obsession, teetering on the fringes of the mainstream. Perhaps though, 50 years into a musical career, that may well be the most fun place to find yourself in.
Sparks: An Introductory Playlist
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us (1974) – probably the most eccentric song to ever make it to number 2 in the British charts
Tryouts For The Human Race (1979) – synth-disco masterpiece about… well…. work it out for yourselves
When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” (1994) – my mother likes this one, and my mother loathes most things (and indeed, people)
Angst In My Pants (1982) – classic. Also check out the cover by indie-punk legends Sleater-Kinney
Funny Face (1981) – I include this because I vaguely remember an episode of Spongebob Squarepants from my childhood which has the same plot as the lyrics in this song. Hopefully someone can corroborate this.
Looks, Looks, Looks (1975) – very good for making you feel like a 1920s sophisticated flapper upon listening
When I’m With You (1980) – the lyrics sum up my relationship with my anti-anxiety medication rather well. Probably unintentional.
Johnny Delusional (2015) – taken from their 2015 collaboration with the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand (titled FFS, of course)
Amateur Hour (1974) – fun little bop
Something For the Girl With Everything (1974) – I have a dream that one day I will write a sitcom with this song as the theme tune
Hasta Manana, Monsieur (1974) – features perhaps my favourite lyric of all time: ‘You mentioned Kant and I was shocked / You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues’ (well I find it funny)
The Number One Song in Heaven (1979) – I think I would appreciate it if this is played at my funeral. To me, it’s one of the most perfect songs ever made.