Sparks of whimsy

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.

They grew up in Pacific Palisades at the lower edge of middle-class comfort -- Russell was quarterback for his Palisades High School Dolphins football team.

Their father was a graphic designer for the old daily the Hollywood Citizen-News, their mother a librarian.

They formed a band called Halfnelson and recorded a demo tape, which was quickly rejected by dozens of record labels before they sent a copy to musician-producer Todd Rundgren, whom they saw as a fellow Anglophile and potential sympathetic ear. Rundgren indeed liked what he heard and signed them to his Bearsville label.

"When we were playing the Whisky in the early '70s, we were playing with bands like Little Feat and the Edgar Winter Band. We were definitely more in spiritual kinship with the Who and the Kinks -- if only in our own minds," Ron says, laughing again at the very idea of it. "We always felt kind of different in Los Angeles -- we were an L.A. band, but not part of the L.A. scene."

That scene didn't quite know what to do with a long-haired rock band with a penchant for the absurd and a pronounced art-rock sensibility, one that's often forced the listener to determine what the joke is and who's the butt of it.

It's also caused casual listeners to miss the philosophical pearls lurking inside the protective shell of humor: "Young fools are we/ We think we own the world and own the stars/ And yet in fact we barely own our cars," Russell sang in 1984's "A Song That Sings Itself."

They've reinforced their pop otherness via a Jekyll-and-Hyde disparity in their public personas. Ron projects the air of a severe schoolmaster, albeit one with a streak of playfulness, as he sits in a black leather office chair in his horn-rimmed tortoise-shell glasses and pencil-thin mustache, black slacks hiked just a bit too high, an oversized dark brown sport jacket over a white oxford shirt over a black undershirt.

Russell, 47, looks more the disheveled rock star with his mess of short black hair, loose gray sweater and black slacks, resting on an elbow on the sofa in the living-room recording studio of his Coldwater Canyon cottage. He's surrounded by pop-kitsch decor, from a ceramic statue of RCA canine mascot Nipper to a shellacked Elvis wall clock to his original Beatles bobble-head figurines.

This is where the brothers do the bulk of their work nowadays, enabled by new technology to bypass the expensive recording studios of yore, another factor contributing to their survival. (The downside: They have to halt work Thursday mornings when a neighbor's gardeners fire up their leaf blowers.)

"We keep doing what we're doing," Ron says, "because on a strictly practical level, there's nothing else we can do."

At the same time, it could be argued that perhaps no one else can do what Sparks does.

Recently, as a prelude to their concert presentation of "Lil' Beethoven" in its entirety in New York -- they'll be doing it in L.A. early next year -- Sparks made an appearance at Tower Records in Manhattan that was more performance art than traditional promo visit. Ron simply recited the lyrics to each song, some of which consist of a single phrase repeated dozens of times.

Still, the Maels have never veered so far into the avant-garde as to abandon the pop scene they both genuinely love and consider themselves part of.

For a few years in the '70s when they moved to England to exploit the European sensibility of their music, they were important players on that scene, winning fans all the way up to Paul McCartney, who famously impersonated Ron's stoic, Hitler-mustachioed stage persona in the video for his 1980 single "Coming Up."

Their single "This Town" reached No. 2 on the British pop charts, and as Ron recalls, "It was us and Roxy Music at the time, with people wondering what we'd do next, who'd look like what."

"For anyone who says 'it's lonely at the top,' lemme tell you -- it's great at the top," Russell says.

But that was a long three decades ago, during which Sparks has moved further away from the pop nexus, to a place where "we feel like we're working in a vacuum," Ron says. "There's nothing we hear that we want to steal from."

That has simply intensified the Maels' near-ascetic devotion to music. Their album sales have ranged from upward of 1 million copies worldwide in good years to 50,000 in slower ones, and in addition to their publishing royalties, they've benefited from periodic advertising campaigns that have licensed Sparks songs, including recent Knott's Berry Farm ads using "Cool Places," which Russell says represents "the patron saint of the 'Lil' Beethoven' album."

"We've always believed in investing in ourselves," Russell adds, "so we work incredibly hard to ensure that our 'portfolio' and worth is connected to what we do best, and that's writing music and recording albums in a manner that no one else can. "

The financial picture looks even brighter for 2004, when publishing rights to more than 200 of their songs, currently controlled by EMI Music, revert to the Maels. Even so, they retain a strong work ethic. Unless they're on tour, they rarely spend more than a few hours a day away from their studio -- --they're already about halfway through working on the follow-up to "Lil' Beethoven"

They've also chosen to devote the bulk of their time and attention to music rather than any long-term personal relationships.

"Over 10,000 years of human history," says Ron, who has his own flat in Westwood, "I suppose it's been proven that there is an appeal to the idea of having a family. Just not for me."

Music-biz critique

The Maels envision "Lil' Beethoven" as a signpost for the pop music of a new century -- for Sparks, if no one else.

Brimming as it is with in-jokes and one-liners, the album nevertheless is a serious-minded exploration of the ills of the music business in particular and Western culture in general, rife with lyrical and musical jabs.

It is nearly devoid of electric guitars, bass and rock drums, relying heavily on keyboards, synthesized string parts and Russell's singing of repeated motifs, slyly critiquing and saluting the inherently repetitive nature of pop music.

"We were just so disenchanted with everything, we felt that somebody needs to do something," says Ron, his black hair dramatically slicked back as always. "In a way this album was partly inspiration but partly desperation to try to do something so striking that people just had to love it or hate it. On those terms, at least, we've succeeded, both with record companies and with the [fans] who have heard it."

Russell notes that they were well into making a very different album as the follow-up to 2001's "Balls" when they decided to scrap the effervescent modern-rock sound they'd been using for most of the previous two decades, both to challenge themselves artistically and to throw down a gauntlet to other musicians.

"We wanted songs that would still have the aggression of pop music but in other ways than the traditional band format," Russell says. "So we really had to work to think up new ways to do that. And we came up with these really biting string parts and aggressive massed vocals."

One listener who fell in love with "Lil' Beethoven" was Palm Pictures' Blackwell, the chief of Island when they were there in the '70s.

"I thought it was a brilliantly produced record, really fresh," Blackwell says in a separate interview. "I thought it was something, at a time where you don't have that many really intricately produced records, that was a great piece of work and that I would like to put it out."

But it has given Blackwell a reminder of how different the music business of 2003 is from that of 1973.

"What I was hoping when we first picked it up is for one radio station or one DJ who would take a shot and play it," he says. "I'm confident if that first track, 'The Rhythm Thief,' came on the radio it would cause people who are driving along to stop and say, 'This is incredible,' [because] it's so different from anything else. But I've never been able to find that one believer.... Everything is so programmed, nobody other than an NPR station can make a decision like that."

They're actively exploring other avenues for exposure that don't involve radio play -- from TV commercials to a movie musical based on "Lil' Beethoven" for which they're working with a producer who has expressed interest. Yet, like Old Man River, the Maels just keep rolling along.

"Every time we were about two weeks away from having that talk about whether to continue," Russell says, "something would click somewhere and that would buy us another five years of not having to have that conversation, or question our artistry ....Now we have a kind of faith that something will work out. Because historically, it always has."

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