After 50 years of cultdom, rock oddballs Sparks are about to have a moment
Could this be the year that Sparks break?
On the surface, it’s a ridiculous notion. The Los Angeles band, composed of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, has been making music for a cultish niche of devotees for coming on 50 years now. On songs including “Angst in My Pants,” “The No. 1 Song in Heaven,” “Lighten Up, Morrissey” and “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” the siblings have soared through glam rock, disco, new wave, post-punk, alt-rock, electronica and avant pop.
Back in 1975, Ron was already expressing frustration at “compliments” that called them “ahead of their time.” “But it kept going from one year ahead of our time to five years ahead of our time to 10 years,” Ron told The Times’ Robert Hilburn. “We just kept waiting for the ‘time’ to come.”
Are we there yet?
California is slowly reopening, providing hope that you might soon see your favorite artist in concert. But from an arena stage? A computer screen? A drive-in?
Almost. On Friday, the Maels will release an inventive, Dada-esque new album of pop and rock songs, its 24th overall and first since 2017. Called “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip,” its title could be seen as a metaphor for the Maels’ creative philosophy.
Another drip: The as-yet-untitled Sparks documentary by “Baby Driver” director Edgar Wright, which traces the Maels’ work since busting out of Pacific Palisades in the early 1970s. Currently in post-production, it features footage from recent Sparks shows and their many appearances on television across the decades, as well as material from the Maels’ archives.
Most prominent for the Maels is “Annette,” the forthcoming Sparks movie musical starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg. Directed by Frenchman Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”), the film was written by the brothers Mael, as was the music, and is the culmination of a life-long aim for the two, both of whom took film classes as UCLA students. “Annette,” which is being distributed in North America by Amazon Studios, was originally scheduled to premiere this week at Cannes. Though the movie’s release date hasn’t been announced, the Maels says they expect it to come out in late 2020 or early 2021.
“We’re kind of stunned,” Ron, 74, says of this latest plot twist during a recent Zoom conversation with him and Russell. Ron is the group’s principal songwriter and keyboardist; Russell, 71, is the lead singer. Deliberately private about their personal lives, they have been spending quarantine in their longtime homes in the Coldwater Canyon area.
Too raucously weird for the singer-songwriter era of early 1970s Los Angeles, Sparks had to move to London to earn their earliest success. There, Russell’s operatic falsetto, melodramatic delivery and movie-star good looks, coupled with Ron’s deadpan stare, dubious mustache and lyrical wit, connected them with the ascendant glam rock scene alongside Queen, David Bowie, Sweet and Roxy Music. They released their debut album as Sparks in 1972.
Sparks at one point were the focus of Beatlemania-style teenage obsession in the U.K., and their success and fame have endured in Europe. Still, though highly regarded in Southern California, in most of America they’re considered a cult band.
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It’s this wild trajectory that drew life-long Sparks fan Wright to pitch the Maels on a documentary.
Said Wright via email, “I really felt that they were one of the most important bands in music that had no documentary about them, so I wanted to make a case for them as one of the greats.”
The seed of inspiration, Wright added, came during one of Sparks’ 2017 shows at the El Rey in Los Angeles. “I decided while looking at the diverse age of the crowd and the random assortment of legends in the VIP booth with me (everyone from Steve Jones to Toni Basil) that someone had to do the definitive documentary on Sparks.”
Two years ago, the director filmed the band’s set at the O2 Forum Kentish Town in London and eventually traveled with the act for concerts in Mexico City, Tokyo and Los Angeles.
“They are a band who have kept coming back into my life since I was 5,” Wright says.
Russell says that he and Ron had been approached about documentaries before but that they had always hesitated because “the sensibilities weren’t exactly in line” with what they envisioned. “Edgar more than convinced us that he was on the same wavelength with us,” Russell says.
“Most bands in their fifth decade are a shadow of their former selves,” says Wright, “but Sparks has managed to stay forever fresh and curious.”
The Maels sound gratified, if a little baffled, by all the attention. Ron still can’t believe that “Annette” is finished and that such major talent signed on. The Maels have long been a two-person team and issue Sparks albums on their own Lil’ Beethoven label. “Annette” required the energy of hundreds.
“After all this time, to actually have a film musical, with an incredible director and actors? You almost say, ‘What? Why me?’,” Ron says. He’s wearing black, round-framed glasses; he long ago traded his trademark Charlie Chaplin mustache for a thin, John Waters-style upper-lip scribble.
Carax entered their orbit after he used the Sparks song “How Are You Getting Home?” in his surreal 2012 psychodrama “Holy Motors.” They’d finished the script for “Annette” and were trying to figure out what to do with it. Russell recalls wondering, “Would it be out of line for us just to send it to him and see what he thinks?”
The elevator pitch, according to Ron: “Neurotic comedian marries beautiful opera singer — and tragedy ensues.” After a few weeks of pondering, Carax signed on. At one point, Rihanna was connected to the project. Ultimately, Cotillard took that role.
The Maels were present for the production, which concluded in November. They’re giddy with the end result. “All of the dialogue is conveyed in song, or in a sort of hyper-stylized way of speaking that’s done to rhythmic backgrounds,” Russell says. Actor Driver, who plays a comedian named Henry McHenry, expressed interest about four years ago, before he committed to the “Star Wars” franchise.
Even after he achieved A-list status, Driver “never lost his passion for it,” says Russell. “He’s never done a character like this, nor is he ever gonna get a part where he sings for two hours and 20 minutes, and acts at the same time.”
For their part, the Maels sing and act each time they perform as Sparks. Until the COVID-19 outbreak, they were planning on a concert run in support of “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip.” That’s on hold, but they didn’t want to push back the album’s release date.
Filled with stylistic shifts, a commercial pop sheen and typically witty couplets and choruses, “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip” sounds not like a nostalgia trip from veterans but a contemporary, electronically driven art-pop album.
Seemingly allergic to straightforward love songs, Ron’s lyrical sensibility has long skewed toward the curious. Their songs can be self-aware (“The Rhythm Thief”), self-absorbed (“Falling in Love With Myself Again”), self-defeating (“I Can’t Believe You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song”) and self-congratulatory (“Academy Award Performance”). They’ve written odes to Scandinavian design, stereophonic sound, Liberace’s ghost, the missionary position, Photoshop and Scheherazade.
On “Drip Drip Drip,” the superficially silly “Lawnmower” is a singalong about suburban obsession that may or may not be a comment on class privilege in America. “I’m Toast” dwells on that moment when someone realizes he’s peaked. The closing song, a heartfelt love letter to Earth, is called “Please Don’t F- Up My World.” It features a children’s choir singing the title line.
This album is filled with F-bombs, in fact.
“We held off for 23 albums” in using the word, Ron says with a laugh. He adds that it was recorded before the onset of the pandemic but that a few songs have “become a little too eerily relevant during these times.” “The Existential Threat,” for example, features Russell frantically singing, “Threat outside, let me hide, just until the danger passes, then I’ll go outside / And have to come again, once again, the Existential Threat is at / Your patio door and do not let it in, let it in, when you fight / the Existential Threat you will not win.”
Best, though, is “Pacific Standard Time,” which is about life in contemporary Southern California. On the surface, it’s a devotional to the region. “In Pacific Standard Time / Mine is yours and yours is mine,” Russell sings in the chorus. “In Pacific Standard Time / Everything is near-divine.” As with all Sparks songs, it takes a few lyrical left turns, and by the end, its meaning has been complicated by new revelations.
“I tried a foreign place / Turned out to be a waste / People were weird and small / They thought they knew it all,” Russell sings. Eventually, the lyrics evolve into a kind of horror movie as, buying into the California dream, the masses flock to L.A. and overwhelm the natives: “And they’re never going back / Once they’re here they’re staying here,” Russell warns as he sings.
Apparently, the same can be said of Sparks.