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.
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.