Brothers Ron and Russell Mael grew up in Los Angeles. In the late '60s, they attended UCLA, with Russell studying theater and filmmaking and Ron studying cinema and graphic design. Musically, they were self-described Anglophiles, preferring the Who, the Kinks, the Move, and Pink Floyd to the folk-rock scene popular on the West Coast. The Maels started making their own music in January 1967 as Urban Renewal Project, recording four songs at Hollywood's Fidelity Recording Studios with their friends Fred and Ronna Frank (one of those songs, "Computer Girl," later appeared on the 2019 collection Past Tense: The Best of Sparks).
In 1968, the Maels formed the band Halfnelson. Featuring songwriter Ron on keyboards and Russell as lead vocalist, the lineup was rounded out by another pair of brothers, guitarist Earle and bassist Jim Mankey, and drummer Harley Feinstein. Halfnelson soon came to the attention of Todd Rundgren, who helped land the group a contract with Bearsville Records and produced their self-titled 1971 debut. Their quirky, tongue-in-cheek art pop failed to find an audience, however, and their manager convinced the Maels to change the group's name. After becoming Sparks and re-releasing their debut album in 1972, they almost reached the Hot 100 with the single "Wonder Girl." For the following year's sublimely bizarre A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, Sparks worked with Rundgren's engineer (and former Electric Prunes singer) Thaddeus Lames Lowe. Featuring the single "Girl from Germany" -- another near-hit for the band -- the album cemented the band's cult status.
While touring the U.K. in support of the album, Sparks won an avid following. Ultimately, the Mael brothers relocated to London and signed to Island, leaving the rest of the group behind. Earle Mankey subsequently became a noted producer, while Jim later joined Concrete Blonde. In need of a new backing band, the Maels placed an advertisement in Melody Maker. With guitarist Adrian Fisher, bassist Martin Gordon, and drummer Norman Dinky Diamond firmly in place, they recorded May 1974's glam-bubblegum opus Kimono My House with producer Muff Winwood. Thanks to its more accessible version of Sparks' sound, the album reached the Top Five of the U.K. album charts and spawned the British hits "Amateur Hour" and "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us," a startling song that reached number two on the U.K. Singles chart. Working once again with Winwood alongside guitarist Trevor White and bassist Ian Hampton, Sparks returned that November with the power pop-tinged Propaganda. Peaking at number nine on the U.K. Albums chart, it scored with the Top 20 U.K. hits "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" and "Something for the Girl with Everything." Propaganda also hit number 63 on the Billboard 200, marking their highest chart position in the U.S.
In 1975, Sparks toured the U.S., where their following had grown thanks to the support of influential DJs such as Kid Leo of the progressive Cleveland FM radio station WMMS. That October, they released Indiscreet, another power pop-inclined set of songs produced by Tony Visconti. Though it was another Top 20 U.K. hit and spawned the singles "Get in the Swing" and "Looks, Looks, Looks," it was less successful than its predecessors. Looking for a change of pace, the Maels returned to the U.S. They recruited Tuff Darts guitarist Jeff Salen, former Milk 'N' Cookies bassist Sal Maida, drummer Hilly Michaels, and producers Rupert Holmes and Jeffrey Lesser for 1976's Columbia Records debut Big Beat, a slicker, heavier, and more American-sounding album that failed to chart in either the U.S. or the U.K.
By 1977's ironic Introducing Sparks, recorded with a series of Los Angeles session players, the Mael brothers sought a completely different direction. After expressing their admiration for Giorgio Moroder to a German journalist who was a friend of the disco producer, they enlisted him to helm March 1979's synth-powered dance-pop confection No. 1 in Heaven, which earned the group renewed success in England on the strength of the hit singles "The Number One Song in Heaven," "Beat the Clock," and "Tryouts for the Human Race." The album's follow-up, January 1980's Terminal Jive, featured production by Moroder and his sidekick Harold Faltermeyer. It and the single "When I'm with You" were massive hits in France, where the Maels spent a year promoting their music.
When the electronic equipment Sparks needed for their new sound proved to be too awkward to tour with, the band left disco in the dust with July 1981's Whomp That Sucker. A return to rock, it was recorded in Munich with a new supporting band comprised of guitarist Bob Haag, bassist Leslie Bohem, and drummer David Kendrick (who also played together as the Gleaming Spires and had a hit with that year's "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls?"). The album did well in France and hit number 182 on the Billboard 200, marking their first appearance on the chart since Indiscreet. For March 1982's Angst in My Pants, the Maels once again worked with Haag, Bohem, and Kendrick. Another power pop-oriented album, it also charted on the Billboard 200 and featured the single "I Predict," which became Sparks' first single to chart on the Billboard 100 since "Wonder Girl."
Sparks scored an even bigger hit in 1983 with the wonderful "Cool Places," a duet with the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin that nearly reached the U.S. Top 40. The single appeared on April 1983's In Outer Space; produced by the Maels, it found them returning to synth pop and new wave and hit number 88 on the Billboard 200. Along with contributing songs to the teen comedy Bad Manners, in 1984 Sparks continued in the synth pop vein with Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat. However, the album didn't repeat its predecessor's success, and for 1986's Music That You Can Dance To -- the band's last record with Haag, Bohem, and Kendrick -- they went in a fittingly danceable direction. Sparks returned to the duo of Ron and Russell Mael on 1988's Interior Design, a stripped-down album whose singles "Just Got Back from Heaven" and "So Important" were among many that appeared on Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. That year, the Maels also teamed up with Les Rita Mitsouko on "Singing in the Shower," a Visconti-produced single that was a European hit.
Following the release of Interior Design, the Maels took a break from making music and turned their attention to film. The brothers hoped to adapt the Japanese manga Mai, the Psychic Girl into a musical and spent years trying unsuccessfully to get it produced, with directors including Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, and Kirk Wong attached to the project at different times. Sparks returned in 1993 with "National Crime Awareness Week," a collaboration with Fini Tribe that foreshadowed the dance leanings of November 1994's Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. Praised for its timely interpretation of house and techno trends, the album produced the hits "When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)" and "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'." The Maels followed it with 1997's Plagiarism, which found them covering their own songbook with help from artists including Erasure and Jimmy Somerville. The album's version of "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" featuring Faith No More reached number 40 on the U.K. Singles chart. In 1998, Sparks contributed music to Knock Off, a film by Hong Kong maestro Tsui Hark (whose work the Maels loved so much that their tribute to him appeared on Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins). A song from the movie, "It's a Knockoff," also showed up on 2000's Balls.
As Sparks entered the 21st century, they were as ambitious and idiosyncratic as ever. Composing the largely orchestral music for "Wunderbar," a song by German sports commentator Günther Koch inspired the Maels to look to classical music for the inspiration for October 2002's critically acclaimed Lil' Beethoven. The duo stayed in a similar frame of mind for February 2006's Hello Young Lovers, which added more rock instrumentation to its predecessor's orchestral sounds. The album reached number 66 on the U.K. Albums chart, while the single "Perfume" peaked at number 80 on the U.K. Singles chart. Another single, "Dick Around," was initially banned by the BBC because of its title, but eventually received airplay and made it to number 139. On May 2008's Exotic Creatures of the Deep, Sparks paid homage to the Beach Boys' psychedelic pop and skewered President George W. Bush. The album peaked at number 54 on the U.K. Albums Chart, and the Maels supported the record with the "Sparks Spectacular," a 20-date residency at London's Carling Islington Academy where they performed all of their previous albums and then played Exotic Creatures of the Deep at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. The next year saw the premiere of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, a radio musical commissioned by Swedish National radio that also featured actors and Bergman collaborators Elin Klinga and Jonas Malmsjö. The tale of the famed director's time in Hollywood after the release of his 1956 film Smiles of a Summer Night earned critical praise and was released as Sparks' 22nd album in December 2009. It received its live premiere in 2011 at the Los Angeles Film Festival in a performance directed by Canadian director Guy Maddin and starring Peter Franzen and Ann Magnuson alongside the Maels.
Sparks kicked off the 2010s with collaborations and commissions that included a remix of Yoko Ono's "Give Me Something" and new music for NPR's show Bookworm. They worked with Gemma Ray on the limited-edition covers single Gemma Ray Sings Sparks (with Sparks) in 2012, the same year the Maels embarked on their first tour as a duo. Performances from this tour became Sparks' first live album, 2013's Two Hands One Mouth: Live in Europe. In 2014, the duo celebrated the 40th anniversary of Kimono My House with performances in London and Los Angeles, the latter of which featured a duet between Russell Mael and Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos on "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way.'" The next year, Sparks and Franz Ferdinand continued their collaboration as FFS, and released their self-titled, John Congleton-produced album in June 2015. The album's sharply written songs helped propel it to number 17 on the U.K. Albums chart and to number 15 on Billboard's Alternative Albums chart in the States. After touring in support of FFS, the Maels started work on Sparks' next album in late 2016. Drawing on all of the sounds they'd explored in their career while returning to concise, pop-oriented songwriting, Hippopotamus appeared in September 2017 to widespread acclaim and chart success. It peaked at number seven on the U.K. Albums chart, the duo's highest placing since 1974's Propaganda. Following a collaboration with SebastiAn on his 2019 album Thirst, Sparks issued their 24th album, the darkly witty A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, in May 2020. At the time of the album's release, Sparks were involved in several other projects. These included Annette, a musical by French film director Leos Carax starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard that featured a screenplay and music written by the Mael brothers, and a Sparks documentary by director Edgar Wright. ~ Heather Phares and Jason Ankeny, Rovi
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