I love Sparks.
They’re a band I don’t talk about a lot, but that’s because I’m a selfish, greedy little piggy who wants to keep them all to myself. In fact, I’ll only share their music with people who I think, nay, know will appreciate their cheeky approach to…well, every musical style you can think of. They were precursors to glam, tackled new wave with ease, released a soft-pop-rock record in 1977 at the height of punk (they’d already done that the year before), collaborated with Franz Ferdinand in their late-60s, and generally made use of every musical genre—popular or otherwise—in their pursuit of artistic honesty and expression. But with the release of Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, it seems unconscionable for me to horde their brilliance.
The titular Sparks Brothers—Ron (keyboards/general geniusness) and Russell (vocals/ditto) Mael, to be exact— have been Sparks’ only consistent members since the band formed as Halfnelson in 1967. In 1972, they changed their name to Sparks, and the rest, as they say, is etc. etc.
Sparks have recorded a lot of material, and many people cite them as influences. A bunch of these people appear in Wright’s documentary. You should check it out (ok, it’s essential that you check it out, the doc is really great).
Then, there’s the music, the reason we’re all here. Very rarely does a band truly have something for everyone, but Sparks really does have something, anything, EVERYTHING for any- and everyone. They’ve released 25 albums over 5+ decades of musical reinvention! But that’s a lot of material, a truly Herculean task for the uninitiated. And so, to celebrate the film’s international premiere at Hot Docs this week, I’ve put together this handy introduction to Sparks’ vast and varied catalogue. Echoing the film’s chronological approach, I’ve made a 15.5 song “greatest hits,” made up of the juiciest cuts from Wright’s film.
I’ve also included three albums you should check out in their entirety. You can’t just pick one song from these albums, because that’s impossible.
So I didn’t. You’re welcome.
Abandon all apathy, ye who enter here.
There’s no turning back now.
The Intro Playlist:
The three albums included below are my favourite Sparks records. They’re also the ones I consider to be the most accessible entry points for beginners. I won’t tell you which songs are the best, because that’s not fair to you, the listener. These records are now yours to discover, to become enamoured with, to explore.
I envy all you newcomers, because you get to hear them for the first time. They feature everything from strutting glam rock to disco, from punk to new wave, baroque pop to music hall, vaudeville to early electronica. They are groundbreaking and beautiful and fun and strange. There is humour, irony, and confusion at every turn, as well as their ever-present self-deprecation.
But these are just words; words that fail to capture the range of emotions one will absolutely experience while listening to these records. It’s an avalanche, a cavalcade. It’s a stampede.
And so, I’m not going to say anything about these albums (and I’ll try to use fewer adjectives). Instead, I’m just going to ask you to go and listen to them because you simply have to hear these albums for yourself. And although you might hate them, find them inconsistent or overblown or difficult (ugh, please), you will undoubtedly understand why this band is so important to so many people, including yours truly, and why their influence has been so far-reaching.
I’d start with Kimono My House and work my way down.
Good luck. Don’t be scared. And let the Sparks fly.
Kimono My House (1974)
Big Beat (1976)
No. 1 in Heaven (1979)
1. “Slowboat” from Sparks (1971)
This lovely, wavy ballad from their first album (originally released under the Halfnelson moniker) introduces many of the band’s anthemic proclivities. While their sound would expand and evolve, the seeds of Sparks’ later experiments were sown here. This isn’t a three-chord basher about drugs and makeup—topics that many of their glam contemporaries would run into the ground. Instead, there is a tender bitterness to “Slowboat”: something is missing, something ain’t quite right, and when that huge coda arrives, it may as well be waving at you as it sails away into the moonlight.
2. “The Girl from Germany” from A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing (1972)
Sparks have never shied away from humour, even when it comes to uncomfortable—sometimes disturbing—topics. In “The Girl from Germany,” our protagonist brings home the titular girl from Germany and his parents, remembering that war, are aghast that their son is dating a girl from that country. With tongue placed firmly in cheek (another Sparksism), the Maels explore familial obligations, intolerance, and love, all with a light, music hall touch dripping in early glam. Wes Anderson, what are you waiting for: use this song in a movie ASAP!
3. “Those Mysteries” from Introducing Sparks (1977)
Coming from the much-maligned (and misunderstood) 1977 pop-rock outing Introducing Sparks, “Those Mysteries” drifts dreamily on a piano-inflected backbone that mashes ’50s romanticism with every one of your favourite musicals.
And man oh man, does it ever work!
In the first half, Russell asks a lot of big questions but doesn’t get, or provide, any answers. In the second half, thinking is replaced by a heroic, reverb-drenched guitar solo…which, let’s face it, is always the right answer for any conundrum.
Amidst this exhaustive collection of existential questions regarding life, space, pain, and nuns, Russell asks “And where do we go when we pass away?/And why, when I ask my Dad does he say/ ‘Go ask your Mom or just go away?’.” It’s terse, dismissive, and it says a lot about the Mael’s approach to music, and to life: there are some things that you just have to discover for yourself. It’s lonely, and it’s hard, but it’s also the best part of living.
4. “When I’m With You” from Terminal Jive (1980)
Sparks were always known for their sarcasm and cheeky humour, and this “love” song has one of the most wonderfully meta-lyrics in pop music:
It’s the break in the song
When I should say something special
But the pressure is on, and I can’t make up nothing special
Not when I’m with you
This new-wave disco romp (unsurprisingly produced by Giorgio Moroder…but also possibly Harold Faltermeyer, people seem unsure) is one of Sparks’ most danceable singles. The keyboards soar, the beat is intoxicating, and if that bass doesn’t get you moving, well, check your pulse. It’s also unabashedly—almost uncomfortably—honest: near the end, when Russell sings, “I never feel like garbage when I’m with you/I almost feel normal when I’m with you,” he sounds sincere, lovestruck, and perpetually lost. It’s a love song where we’re not sure if the two people in question even like each other, but at least they seem to be having an ok time. Which is 100% Sparks.
Somewhere, a young Robert Smith was most certainly taking notes.
5. “Tips for Teens” from Whomp that Sucker (1981)
“Tips for Teens” is one of Sparks’ most accessible offerings. The drums alone are revelatory, so worthy of head-bobbing that if you’re not at least swaying by minute two, I never want to go clubbing with you. The song, a self-help book for teens come to life, takes the clichéd, uninspired pieces of advice we are bombarded with as teens and sets them to something we can dance to…which is all we ever actually want to do. The song’s ironic appropriation of terrible tips becomes apparent when you realize how mean this advice is: you’re eating too much, so you should stop; it’s really important to look good; old people are gross, but you’ll be like that one day, so you should feel good about yourself now, while you’re young.
The tips come across as unapologetically nasty, but so do adults, especially when you’re a teen. The lyrics capture that questioning, suspect attitude we all have when we’re 14, when every piece of advice is interpreted as an attack, and the music drives it forward, anthemic, exuberant, and RAWK! This is Sparks at their satirical finest.
6. “I Predict” from Angst in My Pants (1982)
With a harder, more distorted edge, “I Predict” is a slogan-inflected collection of conspiracy theories and ludicrous news stories, all set to a pounding, relentless beat. Through the prying eyes of reporters out for the wildest scoop, the notoriously enigmatic brothers reflect on the public’s growing interest in sensationalism. Opting to “predict” a bunch of falsities, none of which can be fact-checked, the duo has one surefire scoop: the song will end in a fadeout (it of course doesn’t). Nothing is certain, and no one should be trusted, least of all pop stars.
The surreal, subversive, and hilarious video is a must see: while Russel dances in a shimmering silver suit, Ron performs a striptease in drag. As a group of leering, handsy (clearly midwestern) men attempt to reach the stage, Russel protects his brother from their gropey hands, even though, from the looks of it, the older Mael clearly has the moves to handle these barflies.
7. “Cool Places (feat. Jane Wiedlin)” from In Outer Space (1983)
Ok, are you KIDDING me with this track? Jane Wiedlin from the mothafuckin’ Go-Go’s singing with Sparks?! Sign me up over and over again. I mean, what else do you REALLY need?
Encapsulating new wave at its most breezy and bouncy, the song is an ode to posturing and being seen, even though we never actually get to visit any of the so-called “cool places” we keep hearing so much about (what is a “cool place,” anyway? Maybe I’m just not cool enough to know…). Russell and Jane clearly don’t know where any of these cool places are because they’ve never actually been to any of them, but that’s, like, totally fine. They’ll have more fun at the diner they mention at the end anyway. And with coffee fuelling their “wild” partying, you begin to suspect that these cool places are just fantasies, the same ones being played out in basements the world over by outsiders just like Russell and Jane. What a comforting thought!
(Also: weirdos of the world, unite!)
8. “I Wish I Looked a Little Better” from In Outer Space (1983)
Sparks have never shied away from self-deprecation, and nowhere is that more apparent (or perfectly realized) than on “I Wish I Looked a Little Better.” A punky, explosive slice of self-hate (and quite possibly my favourite Sparks song), “I Wish…” features an infectious keyboard melody and delicious couplets such as “I went to high school and majored in looking real bad/I got a real ugly mom and a real ugly dad” and “I went to Balboa Island and laid in the sand/I may be as ugly as sin but at least now I’m tan.” The barely-there chorus probably kept the song from being the hit single it should have been (it wasn’t even released as one), but it’s pretty clear that no one has ever had this much fun making fun of themselves.
9. “Music That You Can Dance To” from Music That You Can Dance To (1986)
It’s true, you can, “and that alone is enough for me.”
10. “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” from Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)
Juxtaposition has always been Sparks’ bread-and-motor oil. Sincere melodies with acerbic lyrics. Propulsive beats with self-loathing. And with “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’,” Eurodance that longs to be a Frank Sinatra song. In the mid-90s, the ever-changing brothers struck gold with this euphoric anthem to reproduced individuality, giving them one of the biggest hits of their career. How ironic!
Although replete with sweeping chords and hi-NRG production, the track has a distinct melancholy which permeates the ecstasy (no pun intended): Sinatra-level fame rarely, if ever, strikes twice. Sophie Muller’s music video treatment—a beautiful, melodramatic noir-turned-Sirkian-technicolor extravaganza—only adds to the nostalgia and gives the track an elegiac quality. After you’ve watched the video, close your eyes and listen again.
11. “I Married Myself” from Lil’ Beethoven (2002)
This gentle ode to self-love (oh, grow up) uses group vocals, an electric organ, and saxophone to celebrate being happy with yourself. A simple premise, yet one that usually comes across as saccharine in lesser hands. Perfectly complementing (and clearly responding to) the self-depreciation of “I Wish I Looked a Little Better,” “I Married Myself” isn’t just the polar opposite, it’s on another, much more welcoming planet. Russell repeats the words “I married myself/I’m very happy together” throughout, followed closely by the cheeky addition of “This time it’s gonna last/Forever, forever, forever.” In Sparks’ capable hands, these simple, honest words strike that ever-precarious balance between maudlin and affirming. It’s not always easy to like oneself, but you’re the only person who you’ll spend forever with.
You might as well make it count.
12. “My Baby’s Taking Me Home” from Lil’ Beethoven (2002)
Repetition is the sincerest form of persuasion, and in this declarative, chamber-pop behemoth, Russell repeats the song’s title for what seems like a lifetime (or, more numerically, one-hundredish times), in an attempt to prove that his baby is, in fact, taking him home. The effect is, unsurprisingly, hypnotic, while the constantly changing musical dynamics offer no peace or calm. Instead, the chanted proclamation and pounded chords unsettle us, possibly even frighten us, but they also make us want to know, what’s up with this couple?! Where IS this home? And why is his baby taking him there?
Only Sparks can take such warm images—a sense of return, safety, home, a life with someone you love—and make you want to run in the opposite direction. And yet, we always end up staying. During the spoken word interlude (don’t worry, that phrase never stops), Russell asks us to sing the chorus with him, reiterating Sparks’ need for self-referentiality. It’s compelling, it’s communicative, and it’s direct. It brings us closer instead of turning us away.
And so, I always oblige him. It’s hard not to.
13. “Dick Around” from Hello Young Lovers (2006)
Rarely can a Sparks track be called “crunchy,” but “Dick Around” is definitely crunchy. A progtastic, heavy metal mini-opus, the track features harmonized group vocals, an almost ragtime aside, operatic flourishes, Broadway aspirations, and multi-tracked rapid fire verses, all anchored by the heaviest guitar you’ll ever hear on a Sparks song. It feels Wagnerian, and I’m sure the band would be disappointed if you weren’t reminded—even ever so slightly—of Handel’s “Messiah.” When’s the last time a pop act got that comparison?
Whenever a track is called ‘cinematic,’ it usually means it has the sweeping quality of the big Hollywood epics: a little Ben Hur, a little Titanic, a little LOTR. There is scope, weight, grandeur. “Dick Around,” even at its most juvenile, has that and then some.
(And, let’s be real, who doesn’t love a good riff? Crunchtastic indeed.)
14. “Johnny Delusional” from FFS (2015)
In 2015, Sparks joined forces with the lads from Franz Ferdinand to form…FFS! Ok, so it’s not the BEST band name ever, but “Johnny Delusional,” from the bands eponymous debut, is pure musical pastiche (in the best possible way): FF’s staccato dance-punk gets a new lease on life, while S’s soaring art-rock gives FF one of their most energetic (and frankly, good) songs in years. While not every song on the album works as well as “Johnny” (“Collaborations Don’t Work” is not just a clever title, it’s a slog), FFS proves that, even after 50+ years of musical exploration, reinvention is not only possible, but essential.
15. “All That” from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020)
So, in 2020, the world shut down. People couldn’t do much of anything. Bands couldn’t tour. Recording was sparse. Making a living as a musician in 2020 was not easy (understatement of the decade). Sparks are in their 70s, in the most vulnerable of populations, and yet, here they are, in the midst of a global pandemic, still recording, still releasing videos, and still making unbelievable music together.
“All That” is one of the gentlest, most sincere, and most hopeful songs in Sparks’ catalogue. There’s joy behind every handclap, every word, every flourish, and while I doubt that they’re starting to get sentimental, they’re nevertheless willing to set aside the sarcasm, irony, satire and defensive humour, in order to show some vulnerability. As elder statesmen, it’s a good look.
So now, in 2021, Sparks remain awesome, and I’m sure they’ll continue to be awesome.
I mean, come on, they’re Sparks!
Need I say more?
15.5. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” from Kimono My House (1974)
Ah yes, the song that started it all for me. How could I not include it?!
There are few songs I love more than “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” Like, I REALLY love this song. A lot. But I already included Kimono My House in the “albums” section, and since I don’t want to break my own rules, it’s not gonna count as a whole-numbered entry into the list…but holy holy holy ahhhh wahhhhh ahhhhhhh wow, this song is just everything. Please listen to it right now. If you do nothing today, if you follow known of my sage advice about Sparks, the least you can do is listen to this one song. That’s not so much to ask, right?
Press play, and then just wait: wait until you hear Russell’s vocals for the first time. Wait for those unnerving guitar breaks. Wait for the melody to rise, then collapse, then pick itself back up again and WAHOOO!!! Wait for those abrupt start/stops that kick you in the brain. Wait for all of it. Just, all of it. Every second is a monument to clever composition and the power of creativity.
Listen, wait for it, and be changed.
And if you’re not?
Well, you clearly have bad taste and I feel sorry for you.
The Sparks Brothers screens virtually at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.