Get To Know Sparks, Your Favorite Band's Favorite Band Brothers Ron and Russell Mael have made music as Sparks for more than five decades, mostly under the radar despite superstar fans. Now, a new documentary and a buzzy musical put them in the spotlight.

Get To Know Sparks, Your Favorite Band's Favorite Band

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1020773349/1025372269" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols is a longtime super fan of the group we're about to hear. So are Beck and Bjork and Jack Antonoff. Sparks is their name. They've been making music together for five decades, largely under the radar. A new documentary is just out now, and a film comes out today that features their music. Here's Allyson McCabe with a brief history of your favorite band's favorite band.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Brothers Ron and Russell Mael grew up in sunny California in the 1960s. The Beach Boys were huge, the folk rock scene, too. But Ron Mael says their taste leaned in a different direction.

RON MAEL: We just thought that bands from the U.S. in general were just really boring, and they didn't represent what we felt pop music should be.

MCCABE: Ron played keyboards. Russell sang. They called themselves Halfnelson. Their demo caught the attention of Todd Rundgren, who would eventually produce their 1971 debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WONDER GIRL")

SPARKS: (Singing) She was a wonder girl. Some girl, that girl. She was a wonder girl.

MCCABE: The album was hailed by critics, but it didn't chart. Renaming themselves Sparks, the Mael brothers decamped for England in search of a more receptive audience.

RON MAEL: We actually were passionate about the British bands. In particular at that time, it was bands like the early Who and the early Kinks and The Move. The visuals were something that was really important to them, and the music was, like, really flashy.

MCCABE: Sparks' 1974 release, "Kimono My House," spawned two top 10 UK singles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS TOWN AIN'T BIG ENOUGH FOR BOTH OF US")

SPARKS: (Singing) This town ain't big enough for the both of us. And it ain't me who's gonna leave.

MCCABE: When Sparks appeared on "Top Of The Pops," filmmaker Edgar Wright says they made a big impression.

EDGAR WRIGHT: Russell is conventionally handsome but quite androgynous and, like, sort of strutting around wearing, like, a lady's blouse. Ron is, like - has this toothbrush moustache. And he's got his hair slicked back. So he kind of looks like a sort of - like a creepy substitute teacher who's wandered onto the TV. And then on top of that, he's staring down the lens at the audience at home, unsmiling.

MCCABE: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sparks wasn't embraced by the mainstream.

WRIGHT: They were sort of like provocateurs, in a sense. You know, you can kind of see the seeds of, like, punk rock and what they were doing. There was something a bit shocking about it and, coupled with their sound, was sort of too much for some people to take in.

MCCABE: In 1976, Ron and Russell Mael returned to the U.S. After a brief foray into heavier rock, they enlisted producer Giorgio Moroder for their 1979 album, "No. 1 In Heaven."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAT THE CLOCK")

SPARKS: (Singing) You gotta beat the clock. You gotta beat the clock.

MCCABE: Critic David Fear says the release set the scene for English synth pop duos such as Erasure and Pet Shop Boys.

DAVID FEAR: It's like a Sparks version of disco, which means that songwriting's beautiful and a little weird. And it starts them basically not even being ahead of the curve so much as constructing the actual curve sort of one piece of road at the time.

MCCABE: In 1983, Sparks scored a Top 50 American hit with the song "Cool Places" a new-wave-inspired collaboration with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go's.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL PLACES")

JANE WIEDLIN: (Singing) I wanna go to cool places with you.

SPARKS: (Singing) I wanna take you cool places tonight.

MCCABE: With more than two dozen albums to its credit, Sparks has pioneered various styles and sounds yet remains somewhat obscure. Perhaps that's about to change. Edgar Wright's new documentary, "The Sparks Brothers," is a star-studded love letter to the band, a celebration of its offbeat originality. Sparks penned a new song for the movie, returning the director's affection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPARKS DOCUMENTARY FILM FANFARE")

SPARKS: (Singing) Documentary film fanfare. Edgar Wright film fanfare.

MCCABE: The Mael brothers have also teamed up with the French director Leos Carax on an unconventional musical film "Annette" starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. After opening this year's Cannes Film Festival, it's coming to U.S. theaters on August 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO MAY WE START")

SPARKS: (Singing) So may we start?

MCCABE: Russell Mael says he hopes the exposure will turn new audiences onto Sparks music. But where to begin is another matter.

RUSSELL MAEL: Just go out and get all 72 of those albums (laughter).

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO MAY WE START")

SPARKS: (Singing) ...We may agree. So may we start? May we start? May we - may we now start? So may we start? May we...

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.