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.
Every single thing I thought I was going to say about the indiscreet charms of Sparks has flushed straight down the memory drain, because of a thunderstrike of good news from Chez Mael. Have you heard? Sparks are about to unleash a new album in collaboration with Franz Ferdinand! A whole full album together! Pinch me I’m dreaming. This is not a mash-up I would have imagined in my wildest dream-team fantasies, but goddamn, I don’t think anything has got me feeling more excited about life right now. What a time to be alive! If you’re a longtime Sparks fan like me, I’m sure you’re also having palpitations of the heart. Though Sparks have been consistently productive over the years, I’ve long felt that something’s been missing since they stopped pretending to be a full band. They’re great as a duo and all that, but there’s just something so much better about having a full backing band, especially one capable of real creative collaboration. Now they’ve got one, and they got one of the very best. It does seem like a very random match; Sparks are America’s premier cult pop parody duo who sell zero records; Franz Ferdinand are a popular rock band who sell bazillions of records. What would they see in each other? Turns out they’re a real mutual appreciation society. And surprisingly enough, they meld together as if they’d always been a unit.
The album is called FFS, and it drops June 9th (just in time for my birthday!!) Here’s a song.
Sparks do Fake New Wave better than most real New Wave. This could totally be an A-Ha song. They could have just made it a single and played it straight and repressed their satirical impulses and rode the ‘Wave to pop star glory.
“If only Morrissey weren’t so Morrisseyesque, she might overlook all my flaws”
You know who has a great sense of humor about himself? Morrissey does. Why do you think he lets his friends get away with the things they say to him? He knows he’s kind of ridiculous sometimes and fun to make fun of. As a lifelong Sparks fan, he loved this joking tribute so much he took it on tour with him. It’s a regular part of his cherry-picked opening PA music mix. Russell and Ron Mael are great satirists who never met a musical genre they couldn’t make a note-perfect parody of, but they are not the type to make mean-spirited jokes. They pastiche different musical trends only to make them sillier and more fun, and they find humor in the fallacies of the human condition. They sing about deluded lovers a lot. So they’re not really making jest of Morrissey himself, who is their friend and former fan club president, but rather targeting his starry-eyed fandom. The joke is on the delusions of the fan, who wants to find her hero in everyone and gets frustrated when she doesn’t, and it’s also the delusion of the misguided lover, who wants to blame his own inadequacies and failure to score on a pop star. The joke is that everyone is delusional and misguided when it comes to love, but they just can’t help sabotaging themselves over and over again. That joke has also been Morrissey’s message all along, if you’ve been paying him attention, and you can see in that sense why he finds the Mael brothers to be kindred spirits.
I don’t usually do songs by request, for the simple reason that I don’t usually get requests. But when I get a reminder about a Sparks songs that I’d forgotten about, well, there’s nothing to do but post it posthaste. One of the many hilarious thinks about Sparks is that their album Introducing Sparks was actually their seventh. The title may or may not have been some kind of a dig at the expense of Columbia Records, the label they were shortly to depart from. It’s also ironic because it was the last record in their classic early style, before they made a pretty major image overhaul. Where they had always been more or less a proper band with a guitar based sound and a basis in glam rock parody, they found no success. So after Introducing Sparks flopped in 1977, they pared down to just the core duo of Russell and Ron Mael, teamed up with Giorgio Moroder and turned to parodying disco music instead. From whence they would go on to parody New Wave and later EDM music. Sparks and popular success will never truly coexist, but they have built a steady cult following, mainly on the Continent with their humorous take on club-ready musical styles. Great for them, although I’ve always preferred their early work a bit better.
(Photo via Computer Girl)
Here’s something you may not realize about Sparks. It’s just a little thing that occurred to me. Namely, Russell Mael has rather a sexy voice when he’s not hitting his highest falsetto notes. You probably listen to Propaganda and Kimono My House a lot, and on those records Russ sounds just like a girl. But I went through a phase of listening to Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat a lot, and I noticed that Russell sounds quite dreamy when he’s in the lower ranges of his vocal capacity. Not to mention that I’ve always thought he was cute, so yeah. For that reason, and others, Pulling Rabbits is probably the least silly and most sexy of Sparks albums. The real reason for that, the record’s raison d’être, is the usual Sparks business of producing incredibly spot-on parody of popular musical styles. In this case, New Wave. It’s the first and best Fake New Wave record ever, and a better one than many real New Wave records. The nefarious-mustached Ron Mael easily fabricates the sound; lots of catchy synths, dramatic melodies and just a touch of rock bite. Meanwhile, Russell does the hyper-stylized vocal mannerisms that define New Wave, and he does them so well you almost can’t tell it’s a parody. Until you hear the lyrics, that is. The lyrics are, as usual, completely ridiculous. This one is actually uncharacteristically unsilly. It spoofs the cliches of romanticized ‘let’s fuck’ songs, but only slightly. If you weren’t familiar with Sparks and didn’t know that their mission in life is to make fun of everything around them, you’d think this was a real New Wave song, by the likes of someone like Simple Minds or Modern English, maybe even a long-lost Depeche Mode B-Side or something. So convincing that had they wanted to, Sparks could have surfed the ‘Wave to mainstream popularity. All they needed was louder suits and more flamboyant hair. And dumber lyrics.