Quick, what new band is peers with Bowie and Bolan, Morrissey and Erasure, Faith No More and Ween, and Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish indie rock band it's recently joined to make the supergroup FFS. Well, the answer can only be Sparks, as brothers Ron and Russell Mael have never really stopped, rested or followed any trend since forming in Los Angeles in the late '60s. “Although they’ve had a career which is four times as long as ours,” says Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, “we still feel like contemporaries. I don’t really see Sparks as a band from the past.” The brothers Mael are in their late 60s but Sparks are ageless. “It isn’t a young or old thing,” says Ron Mael. “The impression that you give to other people in an external way changes over time so it becomes harder to convince people musically that you are relevant, but we just put on blinders and ignore all those things and do what we think is interesting.”
Visually, Sparks have provided what's really their only constant: a kind of modern rock icon in silhouette with younger brother Russell’s kinetic moves and wavy rock star hair set ironically against Ron Mael’s scowling, rigid presence, with his own slick-backed hair and a dark Charlie Chaplin/Hitler mustache on his pursed lip. It was such a fresh, weird and unforgettable visage that no less than Paul McCartney paid homage in the video for his 1980 single “Coming Up.” (Check out the keyboard player stage left.)
While the press, especially in Europe, adored Sparks, creatively they have never been able to be deconstructed. They made art rock with Tony Visconti (“Looks, Looks, Looks”), disco with its maestro Giorgio Moroder (“Number One Song in Heaven”), but it never seemed like genre hopping. It only ever seemed like Sparks. “The sonics are quite radically different at various stages,” says Kapranos, “but what’s constant is Ron’s writing and Russell’s singing. You can’t disguise it. It’s very distinctive.” Ron was never seen singing, but he wrote all the lyrics and Russell’s voice could soar in histrionic falsetto or provide flat, jaded commentary.
For a spell it seemed like '80s new wave, marked by witty lyrics about teenage lust and bold, synth-driven arrangements (two Sparks hallmarks), routinely producing major hits, would be the perfect place for Sparks. They stood out on the soundtrack to the 1983 hit film "Valley Girl" with “Eaten By the Monster of Love” and the title track to their 11th album, "Angst in My Pants." MTV played the hell out of Sparks' duet with the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin, “Cool Places,” but mainstream success in America continued to elude them. Ultimately, however, the Maels had to be content with a devoted and disciplined base (the young Kapranos among them). There was something a little too smart about Sparks to be genuine pop stars; they could only ever be “pop stars” in quotes -- they saw the falseness of the game a little too reflexively to really play it. Happily, Sparks spent much of their career as major label artists, alongside major commercial forces, as there was always a contingent in-house who were fans and knew that they were a prestige act that made the label, as a whole, look classier and smarter. “There were people who said early on, ‘It’s not selling that much but there’s something kind of cool about these guys; let’s support them,'” says Ron. And so Sparks were able to continue to create remarkable work like the single “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” and their 2002 masterpiece "Lil’ Beethoven."
They simply kept being Sparks, and every year a little piece of the pop world caught up. Changes in recording technology and distribution freed them a bit, but Sparks were never less than totally free to do whatever they wanted to do next, whether it was a rerecording of their own classics ("Plagiarism") or a theatrical production based on a Swedish auteur, "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman." “We’re always just trying to keep ourselves interested enough to make music that will excite other people in the same way that we feel excited doing it.” What that is today seems to be FFS. That project has been in the works for nearly a decade, back when Franz first emerged as one of the most exciting bands of the “new rock” movement. “We had heard ‘Take Me Out’ really early on and the song was very inspirational to us,” says Ron. “We sometimes feel a little world-weary where pop music is going. You want to seek out the things that inspire you to keep doing what you're doing. That song was so magical in its way; it really was important in that time for what we were working on.”
The Maels read that Franz, unsurprisingly, admired Sparks as well and soon a friendship began, which led to an ongoing correspondence and, later, a series of musical portraits of a series of misfit characters, which they finally recorded with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent) before settling on the moniker FFS. The resulting album, also called "FFS," is the product of a relatively young band and their somewhat older peers finding a way to work as total equals. It achieves a harmony between two very distinctive bands largely via a durable, mutual respect. It's literally Franz Ferdinand … and Sparks. Nothing changes radically, but rather mixes perfectly. “There was never a feeling of it being paternalistic,” Kapranos says. “Even though, of course we respect and love their music.”
Sparks may be the true godfathers of free-form, eclectic modern rock, and there’s a temptation to accept such honorifics; but to say yes means that you are mostly done, and Ron and Russell, five decades on, may just be getting started.
Radically different in style but always visually arresting, here are some of Sparks' finest hours on video:
FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks) -- “Johnny Delusional”