On 9th May 1974, John Lennon phoned Ringo Starr. ‘Turn on the TV! Marc Bolan’s there singing with Hitler!’ And with that the legend of the Mael brothers was born, when the 11 million weekly viewers of Top Of The Pop were stunned by Sparks’ first TV performance on the BBC, with a song straight out of a Western, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”. While Russell, the hunk with curly hair and a striking falsetto marched all over the stage, Ron, the slicked-back keys player, whose little moustache was indeed rather reminiscent of the leader of the Third Reich, stayed completely still. The next day their single sold 200,000 copies.
While Sparks were part of the glam rock trend of the time, and more reminiscent of Queen than of T. Rex in their early days, they’re not actually as English as they seemed. The Mael brothers were born in California where they recorded their first opus under the name Halfnelson, produced by an admiring Todd Rundgren. Despite being re-released under a new name (Sparks) and getting a new cover, the album was a flop, as was the following A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. The Maels decided to try their luck in the UK, signing with Island Records and producer Muff Winwood in 1973 for the album Kimono My House, whose cover (depicting two geishas) made rock history. This was followed up with Propaganda and Indiscreet, which was entrusted to Tony Visconti and which revealed a little more of Ron Mael’s absurd humour. Unfortunately, this collection of mad pastiches discouraged many of their fans and forced the duo to reinvent themselves by turning to new sounds, thus laying the foundations for synth pop.
In 1979 the Mael brothers had a decisive meeting with the archbishop of disco, Gorgio Moroder. Not only did that meeting help shape their delirious musical universe to perfection, but the albums No. 1 Song in Heaven and Terminal Jive inspired many bands such as Erasure, Duran Duran, New Order, Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and Franz Ferdinand, with whom they recorded FFS in 2015, after everyone thought they’d disappeared forever at the turn of the 1990s. More than for their hit singles (the songs and styles that were hits vary wildly from country to country) what is impressive about Sparks is the fact that they’ve kept going for a career that has spanned over 50 years and multiple unpredictable aesthetic changes, going cheerfully from rock operas to new wave or from house to classical.
Their love for cinema is an important facet of this chameleon-like group. Fans of the new wave and directors at heart as much as musicians, the Mael brothers have worked on a stack of unfinished projects such as The Psychic Girl with Tim Burton and Confusion with Jacques Tati. However they’ve finally found cinematic success in 2021 with Leos Carax’s Annette, for which they wrote the music and the screenplay.