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Sparks of whimsy

Jesters Russell and Ron Mael return with an acclaimed album that once more makes them a 'discovery.'

November 02, 2003|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

IF you didn't know better, the reviews on a certain new album might make you think you'd stumbled onto the Great Pop Find of 2003.

"The perfect antidote to bland and pointless pop ... a masterpiece of pop art," the London Independent raved of the album, "Lil' Beethoven."

"Nine songs of lethal grandeur," Rolling Stone noted.

"Something new and truly different ... not just an album, but rather an opus," the L.A. Weekly trumpeted.

Funny thing, though. The hot band with the exciting new direction in pop -- this year's Radiohead, perhaps? -- turns out to be a couple of middle-aged L.A. dudes who've been making records for 31 years: brothers Russell and Ron Mael, a.k.a. Sparks.

To some, it's always seemed a minor miracle that the siblings with the quirky sense of humor ever got into the music business at all. That they've not only survived for more than three decades but also have come up with what Mojo magazine lauded as "what the world's been waiting for: Sparks' 'Kid A,' " is, by most standards in pop music, little short of astonishing.

"One reason we've been able to do what we do is that we never put our music into any kind of historical perspective," says Ron, 53, who long ago developed a comically unnerving German Expressionistic persona as a foil to 47-year-old singer Russell's slightly underfed rock-star image.

The combination has made them L.A. rock's enduring odd couple, unlikely players on a scene in which they've long survived on the periphery.

To this day, Sparks remains a band whose influence outstrips its own fame.

The quasi-classical elements of Sparks' early-'70s music are often cited as a precursor to those of Queen, while their shift to electronic-based dance music in the late '70s inspired numerous British new wave and electronic bands of the '80s, from the Pet Shop Boys to the Smiths.

"When we started, it was just such a thrill to get a record deal, it wasn't like we started thinking that this would lead to something else," Ron says. "We've always worked in the short term, in the moment.

"Of course everybody wants to be filthy stinking rich. But we've seen the effect that having that kind of massive success has had on other people musically. I really think that our music has gotten stronger because of a slight level of fear you get when you don't have that kind of success."

In some respects, the Maels have played the role of jesters in pop's royal court. A highly developed sense of humor that's never far from the surface, evident in such song and album titles as "Angst in My Pants," "Gratuitous Sax and Violins" and, from the new album, "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" and "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls," has made it easy for them to be dismissed as a novelty act, especially by radio programmers.

They've brushed with fame several times but never connected across the board. Their most successful album in the U.S., "Propaganda" in 1975, peaked at No. 63 on Billboard's chart.

But they became bona fide pop stars in England in the '70s when their single "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" not only flew up the U.K. pop charts but also propelled them to cultural phenomenon status after they sang it on the widely viewed "Top of the Pops" TV show.

In the late '70s they alienated many of those fans while becoming darlings of the discos with their "No. 1 in Heaven" single and album produced by Giorgio Moroder, the Italian dance-music mastermind of Donna Summer's disco hits who continued to collaborate with them in the '80s on their way to stateside fame with the modern-rock hit "Cool Places."

Other Sparks songs from their 19 albums have found fans in Japan, Germany and France, giving them the financial freedom to make more albums, as various royalties have translated into a steady six-figure income over the years. But it's made for a now-you-see-them, now-you-don't existence, at least to pop observers rooted in any one of those locations.

"I was staggered to find out that they were still around," says KCRW-FM (89.9) music director and on-air host Nic Harcourt, the first U.S. programmer to give "Lil' Beethoven" airplay this year. He got an import copy before Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures label picked it up and released it in the U.S. in July.

"I remember watching, when I was a kid, 'Top of the Pops' where they performed 'This Town,' and I recall being blown away by these two guys at that time. So I wanted to listen to their new one."

"These guys are unique guys, they're incredibly creative and they've have always been outside traditional music business," says Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, which put out three Sparks albums in the '70s. "They came from a different perspective right from the beginning."

Early outsiders

The beginning, for Sparks, was the clubs of Hollywood, which they frequented while both were attending UCLA, from which Ron graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in graphic arts, Russell in theater arts and filmmaking.

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