Sherlock Holmes may seem like an odd choice for a figure of masculine ideal, at least romantically. He was a crime-solving genius, obviously, but he had zero luck with or interest in the ladies, due to being the kind of antisocial that today we call ‘spectrum’. Also he spent a lot of time hanging out in opium dens and mainlining cocaine. Also, he was fictional. But Sparks’ Russell Mael never runs out of imaginative ways of being rejected by women or finding ideals to fall short of. He’s written songs about his fears of being rejected for not being athletic enough, not drunk enough, and not Morrissey-esque enough. Add to that not living up to the Platonic ideal of towering intellect that Sherlock Holmes represents. It is, of course, all in good fun, and completely tongue-in-cheek. The joke is that it wouldn’t really take much to out-sing, out-dance and out-romance Sherlock Holmes.
This is more military terminology all in one place than has ever been written into a pop song. Why has Sparks been the first and only band to discover the tongue-twisting wordplay delights of that particular jargon? Who knows, but it’s right up their alley. All I know is, I wouldn’t want to play scrabble with these guys. They know how to spell potentate and subterfuge, and use them in a sentence.
I listened to Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat a lot when I was a kid; it was one of my favorite albums and I listened to it with a straight face. That’s because I had never seen a Sparks performance. Until the invention of YouTube, I was not familiar with their live dynamic. Now, of course, there’s not a straight face in the house. Not that I didn’t grasp or appreciate their sense of humor – if you don’t get the jokes, you’re not going to become a Sparks fan. But it took a long time to dawn on me just how much they were really roasting the pop culture around them. If you thought, just by listening to the song, that Russ sounds quite convincingly the sexy New Romantic, wait until you see his interpretation of the popular ‘big suit’ trend. You can’t unsee it, that’s for sure. Also, be sure to stick around for the interview portion of the video, in which the comical dynamic continues, at the expense of Dick Clark. You may be surprised to find that the brothers are American after all. I knew that they were, but when Ronald opened his mouth I still half expected an English accent to come out. Because you don’t really expect an American to be that clever and funny. But there you go – Sparks may be from California, but their humor is English through and through.
Russell and Ron Mael really, really enjoyed the 1980’s. When mindlessly chipper pop songs composed of nothing but pre-programmed electronic boops became the norm, it was like a goldmine for the brothers’ satire. It also freed them up from pretending that Sparks were ever anything but a duo. Ron was the sardonic mastermind behind the keyboard and Russ was his manic foil. They got so good at doing impressions of the crappy pop stars all around them that at one point Paul McCartney did an impression of them. (See Coming Up video.) The garish design, the bad fashion, the cocaine-fueled optimism, all of the tropes of 80’s pop are so ripe with comic potential. You can hear all of the hot trends of circa 1984 on Sparks’ classic album Pulling Rabbits Out of A Hat. It’s basically a walk through everything neon-colored and stupid on the Top 40, and it’s one of the best albums of the decade.
The more silly Sparks get, the more relevant they are. This is relevant to all socially awkward people, obviously. You can’t be the life of the soiree if you aren’t either actually drunk, or acting like it. This also relevant to fans of the 80’s; no other decade in living memory was so juicy with satirical possibilities. One didn’t even need the magic of hindsight to see that. In 1984, Russell and Ron Mael were in full parody mode, enjoying the sheer ridiculousness of the New Wave scene. Being a step above mere parody as they always were, they also happened to make some of the best New Wave music while they were at it. Everything about it is satire, and everything about it is on point, and it’s also better than what it’s satirizing. That’s the height of achievement.
1979, a big year for the ‘disco sucks’ movement. Also the year that Sparks would have a big hit with a Giorgio Moroder-produced parody disco song. How ironic is that? If the parody is better than the real thing, why wouldn’t it be a hit, though? And that’s kind of what Sparks have always done best, with or without the reward on having a big hit out of it. Disco is kind of a soft target, but it sure is fun.
Sparks. They’re big in the Netherlands. And you’re missing out, America. I guess ya’ll just not ready for this level of wit and sophistication. If anything’s held Sparks back, it’s the subtlety of their humor. Being a musical parody duo is too easy. Anybody can make fun of things that are popular. But humor without mockery is a finer art. Sometimes you wouldn’t know they were joking except for Ron’s face.