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Sparks: Southland Surprise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think of the most original and influential Southern California musicians and who comes to mind?

The Beach Boys, certainly. And the Byrds, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield and the Eagles, on up through X and Beck.

But what about the group that virtually laid the blueprint for ‘80s new wave as well as presaging much of electronica and pop-rock dance music?

That would be Sparks, the eccentric band nearing its 30th anniversary and fronted by brothers Russell and Ron Mael. Sparks inspired Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Erasure and scores of other European bands that followed, yet in discussions of the Southland’s key bands, Sparks is rarely mentioned.

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“We’re never lumped in as being an L.A. band in any kind of context,” says lead singer Russell, 44, over an iced tea at a coffee shop in West Hollywood, roughly halfway between Ron’s home in Westwood and Russell’s in Coldwater Canyon, where he also has the home studio where they’ve done most of their recording in recent years. “It’s a strange thing: We are an L.A.-based band and we do spend all that time in Europe and are visible over there. Yet we’ve had this lengthy career, but no one ever associates us with Los Angeles.”

Adds keyboardist Ron, who turned 50 this month, his pencil-thin William Powell mustache trimmed perfectly, “I don’t know if that’s a reflection of us musically or reflection of the fact that people think of our music of being . . . more European. I try to take the latter judgment.”

Sparks’ music has always sounded more European than classically American, or specifically Southern Californian, even when they started out simply trying to make music like that of such heroes as the Rolling Stones and the Who. But their sound turned even more Eurocentric in the late ‘70s when they made a series of widely influential synthesizer-laden albums with electronic dance-pop innovator and producer Giorgio Moroder.

“We’re seen as more part of an English scene,” Russell says. “Sometimes, [Europeans] who don’t know the band that well are surprised to find out that we’re American. They also assume we’re part of this British or European scene, and they’re surprised when we open our mouths and this twang comes out.”

What also has set Sparks apart from most American rockers is the distinctive sense of humor that’s been the Maels’ hallmark since their 1972 debut album.

Their penchant for sometimes hilarious irony is as strong as ever on Sparks’ new album, “Balls,” its first album of new material in six years. It’s also evident in abundance at https://www.sparksofficialwebsite.com, which the Maels launched recently. In conjunction with the album’s release this week, the Maels and drummer Tammy Glover are going on tour, with shows Friday at the Key Club in L.A. and Saturday at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim.

The new album’s title song has nothing to do with pingpong, tennis or football, but with the only character trait required for success in life--at least according to the song. Then there’s “More Than a Sex Machine,” the lament of an overtaxed lover that’s something of an answer to “Sextown U.S.A.” from their 1982 “Angst in My Pants” album.

The new one includes odes to two forms of public transportation (“Aeroflot” and “Bullet Train”), the curiously foreboding “The Calm Before the Storm” (accompanied by an animated video done in the style of ‘30s Disney toons) and the mordantly funny “How To Get Your [---] Kicked.”

The latter typifies Sparks’ twisted approach to music. The song floats along with a dreamy melodic line and ethereal synthesizer textures, while Russell Mael’s gorgeous high voice outlines various ways to get the stuffings beat out of oneself.

“I like the jarring thing, both in the music and the lyrics,” says Ron, who handles both for the group. “That’s why a lot of times our songs have a proper name of somebody. Usually you hear lyrics and something’s going on, but it’s just song lyrics. But if there’s something in it, even a name that you don’t associate with a song, it sticks out and becomes less wallpaper. . . . I like that--just to kind of jolt the listener.”

One such reference was a local one in “I Wish I Looked a Little Better,” from the 1983 “Sparks in Outer Space” album (which yielded Sparks’ only Top 50 single of its career to date, the duet with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin, “Cool Places”): “I went to Balboa Island and laid in the sand / I may be ugly as sin but at least now I’m tan.”

Then it was a musical allusion to Frank Sinatra on 1994’s “Gratuitous Sax and Violins” that recently gave the group another career boost in Europe with the single “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way.’ ”

“It’s a very poignant song, musically and lyrically,” Russell says, “about somebody who wonders when they’ll get their moment in the sun, their moment when everything goes right.”

That combination of humor and poignancy is probably as much to blame as anything for Sparks’ lack of mainstream success at home, causing more confusion here than adulation.

“So much respect is given to artists who are doing things that seems sort of timeless and legitimate,” Ron says. “That kind of legitimacy and timelessness is to me sort of the opposite of what pop music should be.”

Sparks’ approach each time out, he adds, “is to strike a balance so that it’s not a novelty record, but so that it has a color to it that pop music should have. . . . We really like pop music, and it’s not something to look down on or to legitimize. It is what it is.”

Another in the ongoing string of career ironies is that while many of the bands active when Sparks started out have either disbanded or are mining the nostalgia circuit, the Maels have somehow continued to connect with teen and twentysomething listeners as well as a long-term cult following.

That’s what prompted them to record “Plagiarism” last year, an album of older Sparks material completely reworked and including appearances by Sparks fans including Faith No More, Erasure and former Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Somerville. It was the Maels’ way of introducing new listeners who came to the band through the “My Way” single and video to their previous work without simply recycling it in greatest-hits form (which Rhino did admirably with the 1991 double-CD compilation “Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection”).

“As much as we really like the people who are die-hards,” Ron says, “it’s more heartwarming in a certain way that you can still appeal to people that are not even following what you’re doing [with] something you’re doing currently.”

Whether “Balls” appeals to modern-rock radio stations such as KROQ-FM, which championed Sparks during the crest of its early-'80s popularity, is a question the Mael brothers can’t answer. And even though Sparks has been eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1997, they’re not holding their breath over that, either.

“To be honest,” Russell says, “we can’t stand things like that.”

So what’s the payoff for a group that has seen many of its musical descendants find far greater fame and fortune? In other words, when does Sparks get to sing “My Way”?

“There aren’t any other bands that we can think of that have 18 albums out and that are doing music we think is vital and modern,” Russell says. “In one way, we think it’s kind of an amazing achievement what we’ve done. At the same time, we’d like 6 million more people to know about what we’re doing.”

Adds Ron: “In a certain way, longevity is its own kind of success. While we would like to be in the position of those bands that are secure in ways that maybe we’re not, we kind of feel like we’re in a better position. We’re bitter for short periods of time, but in the long run, we think we won out.”

* Sparks plays Friday at the Key Club, 9039 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. $22. (310) 786-1712. Also Saturday, Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. 8 p.m. $26.50. (714) 712-2700.


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