The Summer of Sparks
June 23, 2021 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Is 2021 the year that the world finally catches up with Sparks, the weirdly wonderful, inventive, cheeky, and genre-spanning pop band formed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael in 1967? All signs point to yes. The Sparks Brothers, a new documentary by Edgar Wright, has been released to strongly favorable reviews (NY Times; LA Times; Rotten Tomatoes). And the musical film Annette — starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, with songs and screenplay written by the Mael brothers — will debut at Cannes on July 6, with a U.S. release later this summer.

Here's a 2020 interview with the Mael brothers on Brooklyn Vegan.

A small sampling of Sparks songs throughout the years:
"Wonder Girl" (1971) • "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" (1974) • "Amateur Hour" (1974) • "Something for the Girl With Everything" (1974, with a great 2021 animated video by David Norgren) • "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" (1974) • "Get in the Swing" (1975) • "Tryouts for the Human Race" (1979) • "The Number One Song in Heaven" (1979) • "Beat the Clock" (1979) • "When I'm With You" (1980) • "Angst in My Pants" (1982) • "I Predict" (1982) • "Cool Places" (with Jane Wiedlin) (1983) • "I Wish I Looked a Little Better" (1983) • "All You Ever Think About Is Sex" (1983) • "Music That You Can Dance To" (1985) • "So Important" (1988) • "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'" (1994) • "The Rhythm Thief" (2002) • "My Baby's Taking Me Home" (2002) • "Dick Around" (2006) • "Good Morning" (2008) • "Johnny Delusional" by FFS (Franz Ferdinand + Sparks) (2015) • "Call Girl" by FFS (2015) • "Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)" (2017) • "What the Hell Is It This Time?" (2017) • "Hippopotamus" (2017) • "All That" (2020 – live pandemic version) • "Your Fandango" (with Todd Rundgren) (2021).

Sparks previously on Metafilter: 2017; 2016; 2014 (epic post!); 2011; 2007; plus AskMefi in 2017.

More:
Please Kill Me: "Ron and Russell Mael: Still Squeezing Out Sparks"

The Independent: "Stop making sense: Sparks on their 50 years of gravity-defying synth-pop"

On Sparks' YouTube channel, Ron recently had a 52-week series called Lyrically Speaking With Ron Mael, in which he read various Sparks lyrics aloud. In the final episode, from April 2021, he notes that the brothers are working on a new Sparks album.
posted by lisa g (33 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Found out about Sparks from one of those previously-ons. "Angst in My Pants" is now my number two, go-to karaoke song. Thanks MF!
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 8:20 PM on June 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


My 8 year old daughter recently heard "Girl from Germany" and is quickly becoming a massive Sparks fan. When I played her the Halfnelson LP, explaining that it was recorded before I was born, she was both amazed and seemingly stoked that they were still making music. I'm guessing we'll be watching the documentary together.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:38 PM on June 23, 2021 [4 favorites]


I hear the reason the documentary has an R rating is the sheer amount of gratuitous sax and senseless violins in it.
posted by kersplunk at 8:46 PM on June 23, 2021 [8 favorites]


And the one thing all modern bands fear most: Sparks Called and They Want Their Ideas Back!
posted by zaixfeep at 10:22 PM on June 23, 2021 [6 favorites]


Thank you for getting "Music That You Can Dance To" stuck in my head again after far too long.
posted by The otter lady at 10:26 PM on June 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


I JUST SAW THE SPARKS BROTHERS DOC! It was the first movie I'd seen in a theater since March, 2020. Despite being the right age (I remember when "Cool Places" came out, had Go-Go's records, etc) and into adjacent music during my formative years, I just never got into Sparks, ever. They really *were* bigger in Europe!
The doc was great, even though it is in theaters only and I felt very weird sitting inside for so long as I hadn't sat inside anywhere for so long other than my house since March of '20. There are a LOT of albums to cover and they cover them all as far as I know. And that's it. Almost no personal info. No girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, spouses, they don't even mention that the Mael brothers are of Jewish descent (although they mention Ron's mustache looking like Charlie Chaplin or Hitler's many times.) It is clear the brothers are extremely private.
posted by 41swans at 10:32 PM on June 23, 2021 [5 favorites]


Back in high school, I was on a real Todd Rundgren is a genius kick, and bought the first Sparks album, which he produced. I bought the next two, but then proceeded into New Wave and lost track. I guess I regret that a little, being something of a completest, but I would very much like to see this film when it gets here.

(And Neko Case's cover of Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth is terrific.)
posted by lipservant at 10:49 PM on June 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


(when I kiss you) I hear Charlie Parker playing
posted by hototogisu at 10:56 PM on June 23, 2021


We were lucky enough to see The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman live (a friend of ours was in the production). It starred one of Finland's great actors, Peter Franzén, as Ingmar Bergman. It was a magical night. I know the production has been filmed, and I would love to see it again.
posted by rednikki at 11:04 PM on June 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


I saw the documentary last night, it's so good. I haven't picked up any of their music in a while but today I got a few of their most recent albums and they really have not changed - sure, Hello Young Lovers swings crazily between repetitive-piano-and-voice Philip Glass territory and propulsive little rock tracks (and of course the one called "Rock Rock Rock" is a slow song), but "Russ' voice and Ron's sardonically distant lyrics" are still the same, and the overall timing of their jokes is the same.

Which is perfectly fine by me. It's a good voice and good lyrics and good jokes.
posted by egypturnash at 11:30 PM on June 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


We met them after seeing the performance of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. They were approachable in a nerdy extroverted introvert way. They seemed much more like avant garde artists than like rock stars.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 12:57 AM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]


This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us got heavy airplay on Melbourne radio when I was a kid. So did the vocally rather similar Dreamer from Supertramp. Sparks got no followup play, Supertramp got plenty, and for years and years I had TTABEFTBOU lazily filed in my head as a Supertramp track.

Quite glad to have been wrong about that.
posted by flabdablet at 1:08 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


I just wrote an article about Sparks!

I loved the documentary enough to want to see it again today, but I wish Edgar Wright had been a bit more selective about the cavalcade of celebrity fans that showed up in the film. A few of them made sense—Weird Al and Flea were both in Los Angeles when they were hailed as conquering heroes—but why was Patton Oswalt here? What does Fred Armisen have to say that someone else could have said? Why is Neil Gaiman mansplaining the sleeve art for Propaganda?!

With the success of this film and the probable success of Annette, I am wondering if Edgar Wright would make their film of Mai the Psychic Girl. The documentary has been a critical and commercial success, everyone’s still getting along, and Wright is good at making offbeat comic book movies.
posted by pxe2000 at 3:11 AM on June 24, 2021 [11 favorites]


Great post, lisa g, thank you! Big big fan of these two. It wasn’t until I got a Sparks compilation CD when I worked at a tiny music trade magazine in the late ‘80s that I began to fully appreciate their music.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:23 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


I am wondering if Edgar Wright would make their film of Mai the Psychic Girl.

According to some of the prerelease interviews with Wright and Sparks, he got to hear their entire score and demos for Mai and was bowled over, so I'm crossing my fingers that it gets traction again after this documentary.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:08 AM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]


Had the opportunity to talk to Edgar Wright about "The Sparks Brothers" last week!
https://www.wpr.org/edgar-wrights-documentary-celebrates-50-years-sparks-brothers
posted by DougieGee at 6:11 AM on June 24, 2021 [8 favorites]


(I'd also like to give another shout-out to Rory Marinich's 2014 Sparks megapost [also linked in the OP] that sent me on the path from casual Sparks listener to a quasi-obsessive. In many ways, it's a spiritual precursor to Wright's film in terms of shedding light on their whole discography in a way that made it accessible for someone who might not know where to start.)
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:14 AM on June 24, 2021 [6 favorites]


(And Neko Case's cover of Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth is terrific.)

Agreed! We could probably fill an entire comments section with our favorite Sparks covers.

I always loved Siouxie's nu-psychedelic cover of "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" even though the fans say it's pretty straightforward.

But have you seen Justin Hawkins' version? I'm late to this party, but what a fun time.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:21 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


Having loved Sparks for many years I'm so happy to see them getting all this positive attention, especially at a time when they're so productive.

Here's an audience vid of them doing Town with Faith No More.
posted by Grangousier at 6:25 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


I saw The Sparks Brothers documentary on Monday and I LOVED it.

But it also made me SO ANGRY because I have been ELBOW DEEP IN LOVE FOR 80s SYNTHPOP for the better part of two decades and I'd NEVER heard of them before.*

How?? How have I missed them for so long?? WHAT ELSE AM I MISSING??

In all seriousness, I am so happy they're finally getting their roses because they seem like they really deserve it. They're definitely going to gain new fans from this and I think all those fans (myself included!) are so fortunate that they have such an immense body of excellent work to catch up on.

*I had heard the song Cool Places, but like...twice ever on Sirius XM's First Wave station and I just remember thinking "Hey, that's a nice song" and not really going any further than that.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:41 AM on June 24, 2021 [4 favorites]


great post but I continue to be amazed (or is it bemused?) that Goofing Off (originally found on 1977's Introducing) hasn't yet achieved Epic Party Anthem status.

Are people just fearful of a tango?
posted by philip-random at 7:50 AM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]


And speaking of 1977 ...

Who could ever forget Rollercoaster, the third of only five movies to feature Sensurround, and the only one of those movies to feature Sparks?
posted by philip-random at 7:56 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]


Huh! Despite knowing them from a couple of hits that were in high rotation on early MTV, I never absorbed that they were from the 60s rather than another 80s pop group.
posted by tavella at 8:08 AM on June 24, 2021


I am wondering if Edgar Wright would make their film of Mai the Psychic Girl.

Come on, Leos Carax is right there.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:25 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


"Beat the Clock" is my go-to song for getting rid of other songs stuck in my head, even if it does stay with me unceasingly for a few days.
posted by detachd at 8:34 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


I had up until this point somehow conflated them with Yello, as apparently my brain sorts by factors such as number of members in band, numbers of mustaches, and severity of expression.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:39 AM on June 24, 2021 [5 favorites]


I've always considered myself pretty good when it comes to music history and even lesser known but influential bands, but somehow I'd never heard of Sparks until I saw the trailer for this documentary!

As a fan of Edgar Wright and of music documentaries in general, I'm pretty excited for this.
posted by synecdoche at 11:56 AM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]


The musical film mentioned here—"Annette"—sounds interesting. I like Cotillard and Driver and it's cool to see a straight couple in a film where the woman (45) is older than the man (37). I mean, I'm assuming there's a romance plot involved.
posted by SoberHighland at 3:08 PM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


Great post! Saw the movie last weekend and loved it. According to Edgar Wright the forthcoming Blu-Ray disc is supposed to be packed with extras, so that's the next thing to get excited about.
posted by ericthegardener at 5:58 PM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]


Can't forget the very weird video for Existential Threat made by Cyriak!
posted by princelyfox at 7:55 PM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


So I'd never heard of Sparks before this post, but after checking out some of the videos, decided I needed to see the documentary. Just got back and I loved it. Even if I never buy an album (though I probably will) the idea that they're out there making doing their own quirky art and are so dedicated to it, simply makes me happy.

Five stars!
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:46 PM on June 25, 2021 [4 favorites]


The musical film mentioned here—"Annette"—sounds interesting. I like Cotillard and Driver and it's cool to see a straight couple in a film where the woman (45) is older than the man (37). I mean, I'm assuming there's a romance plot involved.

Adam Driver simulates giving head while singing in Annette musical :P
posted by kliuless at 7:34 PM on July 6, 2021


I learned of Sparks thanks to the album they did with Faith No More, which my girlfriend had on permanent rotation in our apartment. So so much fun. And that album is still really good, too.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:10 AM on July 8, 2021


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