YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The band Sparks: pop music iconoclasts

For nearly 40 years, brothers Ron and Russell Mael's albums have served as the soundtrack for a strange universe all their own.

February 13, 2009|Randy Lewis

A couple take a scenic drive up Pacific Coast Highway, heading toward a romantic getaway in Santa Barbara, their passion for each other building as each mile passes. In most corners of the pop music world, you could guess exactly where such a scenario would lead.

But Sparks, the veteran L.A. duo with a passion for unpredictability, resides in its own wonderfully strange little universe. The highway scene, as it plays out on the new album "Exotic Creatures of the Deep," Sparks' 21st in its nearly 40-year career, culminates in possibly the least expected way.

Though Santa Barbara's on our mind

Our love can't wait 'till after 9

So she says, 'Can't we let the monkey drive?'

So the ride continues, the amorous couple happily moving to the back seat as a chimp takes the wheel.

Silly? Sure. But underneath the humor that's been the hallmark of the group anchored by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, there's a point to be made regarding what they believe pop music is all about.

"I'm kind of bored with what you hear in music now; just lyrically, no one seems to really care," Russell Mael, 55, said recently, seated next to his older brother at a sidewalk cafe in West Hollywood, partway between Russell's home in Coldwater Canyon and Ron's in the Wilshire district. "Our perspective is that pop music isn't supposed to be about the status quo. It's supposed to be provocative, us against them, all that stuff."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, February 21, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Sparks concerts: An article in the Feb. 13 Calendar section about the rock group Sparks said the band played all 21 of its albums in a series of concerts last summer at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The concerts took place at the Carling Academy Islington and Shepherd's Bush Empire.

"People have tended to marginalize us as being 'quirky,' " added Ron, 60, his signature pencil-thin mustache, horn-rimmed glasses and slicked-down, black hair accentuating his angular face. "We understand that completely. From our perspective, and maybe there's some self-delusion there, we see ourselves being what pop music should be about. People who are singing really mundane things to mundane music are really abusive of the privilege of being able to do pop music. There's so much freedom there, apart from any of the rules. We can't understand why what we do is thought to be so eccentric, when it's just something we think is exciting."

The "Exotic Creatures" album continues the intensely exploratory phase of a long career that took a sharp turn into the musical stratosphere with 2003's "Lil' Beethoven." That collection has as much in common with minimalist contemporary composer Phillip Glass as with the work of such rock-era songwriting titans as Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards, all of whom the Mael brothers admire deeply.

They'll play "Exotic Creatures" in its entirety for a Valentine's Day show in UCLA's Royce Hall, a performance that will carry special weight for these two Bruin alums. The album's full of the dense vocal and instrumental textures, the often repetitive lyrical and musical motifs and the large doses of humor that characterize "Lil' Beethoven" and its 2006 follow-up, "Hello Young Lovers."

The second half of the UCLA show will feature another full album, their 1974 high-water mark "Kimono My House," which helped set the stage for the grand-scale operatic rock of Queen and others.

If it sounds ambitious for a group to play two albums from start to finish in a single concert, it's a drop in the bucket for the Maels compared with the feat they pulled off last summer in London. They played each of their 21 albums over 21 (non-consecutive) nights at the Royal Festival Hall, a gargantuan musical undertaking that required four months of rehearsals.

"It was really exciting just because so many people came to a lot of the shows," Ron said. "That kind of fanaticism was both encouraging and kind of frightening in a way, that people could give up their lives for almost a month to come see what were basically rock shows."

"We're proud that we got through it because we think that no other band will ever do that," Russell said. "Most people that have 21 albums maybe aren't as hungry in a general way as we are. You really have to be driven in a certain way and I just can't see Mick and Keith sitting there for four months saying, 'What were the chords to "Satisfaction" again?' It won't happen . . . We're quite certain it will be a one and only."

In the '70s, Sparks created a viable alternative to earnest singer-songwriter folk-rock and overblown progressive rock. Late in the decade, the brothers teamed with German producer Giorgio Moroder for a series of effervescent recordings ("The No. 1 Song in Heaven," "Tips for Teens") built on percolating synthesizers and sequencers. The style still is echoing in dance and techno-pop music today.

Sparks' one and only Top 50 single came in 1984 with "Cool Places," a new-wavish, KROQ-friendly duet with the Go-Go's' Jane Wiedlin. Since then, the Maels have released new albums every year or two, maintaining a small but devoted following that includes such peers as Paul McCartney and Morrissey.

The former Smiths singer is name-checked in "Lighten Up, Morrissey," on the new album, a number in which a hapless guy can't compare in the eyes of his Morrissey-obsessed girlfriend.

Los Angeles Times Articles