TamTam Books News

Tuesday, March 11, 2003:


"Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent times.’
Charles Baudelaire

There are two types of brothers. The ones who fight each other to the death or at least embarrassed each other as much as possible in public. For example the ongoing battles between the Gallaghers (Oasis) and the Davies brothers (Kinks). Then there are others like the infamous east London criminals the Kray twins, who basically communicated to each other through their eyes, using telepathy and acted as one body. Never letting the outside world know what’s happening inside the minds of Ron and Reggie Kray. Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks are like that. With the same absolute single-mindedness that the Krays ruled east London, the Mael brothers focused on the world of what is known as the Sparks world. A world where aging does not take place nor dressing bad. Yet it’s a world of disappointment, for the solitary reason that people and things can’t match up to Sparks sense of aesthetic and class. It’s as if they took up Oscar Wilde’s statement that "the future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule." The fact is no one told the masses that the exquisites are going to rule!

In that world, Ron and Russell are joined together by the hip - and are mysteriously European, although they were apparently born and raised on the Westside of Los Angeles. Their music is a combination of Broadway musicals, British guitar pop, Vienna waltzes, British vaudeville tunes, and much later Euro Electronica with a side dish of Disco. In other words, while others in their neighborhood were listening to War, Jethro Tull, The Carpenters, and of that ilk in the early 70’s– The Maels’ were in turned to music outside their culture. Which of course made them unique, but also set the pattern of being outsiders for the rest of their career (so far). Sitting down in the front of a pair of speakers and hearing the entire Sparks’s catalogue is like listening to history that’s not acknowledge in the history books – but possibly a ‘history’ made up by the artists themselves.

One is never sure if it’s the one brother or the other that’s running the vessel that we know commonly as Sparks. The picture we have of them is that there is the pretty pop star singer (Russell), and one presumes the older keyboard playing brother (Ron) with the Hitler/’Charlie Chaplin moustache. We can only assume that he’s older because he seems to be credited to writing most of the songs as well as having a moustache. The rest of the band pretty much doesn’t exist. There is the guitarist, bassist, and drummer – but they are pretty much in the background. The two brothers (even in their group photos) look like they don’t belong in the same world as the other musicians in the band. It is basically their ‘outside the Worldness’ that affected me deeply.

I first heard of them when I was 19 years old. An age that scared me to no end. At the time I had the body of an adult, yet couldn’t vote – but for some reason I could be drafted to fight in a war in Southeast Asia. Also I had the fear of turning 20. My basic intention was to tell everyone that I was still 19 throughout that year, but I didn’t know if I could fool the same people year after year. Especially to the friends I grew up with. Basically I had that ‘I felt out-of-it and not-here-on-earth vibe.’ I realized that Sparks were in a sense a soundtrack to my view of living and fellow ‘out-of-this-planet’ type of colleagues.

A record review and article intrigued me in 1974 in England’s Melody Maker. The article with photographs was about a pair of young men – brothers – who came to London to record their new album ‘Kimono My House,’ and they just released their new single ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.’ Also probably like a thousand others reading that article, I couldn’t figure why anyone on this planet would want to have a Hitler moustache. ‘This Ron Mael must be good. I thought, ‘if he goes out on the street with that moustache.’ Not only that but the titles on this particular album I found charming. ‘Falling in Love With Myself Again’ (I totally identify with that!), ‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’ (At last a band that hates Xmas as much as I do), ‘Amateur Hour,’ and so forth.

I can’t remember if I bought the album as an import (as a snob I always preferred the import) or the domestic release. When I heard the first single off the album ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, I never heard anything before that was so new or modern. I felt like this is music made for now and only now. There have been only a few recordings that struck me as ‘this is now.’ One is Roxy Music’s first album and Sex Pistol’s Anarchy in the U.K. The relentless rhythm of This Town… plus Russell’s operatic vocals just overwhelmed me the first time I heard it. I played it to all my friends, but they just sort of shook their head. At last I found a band that was just as alienated as I was!

33 years later I still feel odd and so are Sparks as they linger like the general loneliness on this planet. Reminiscent of big brothers watching over me I find Sparks in that darkest corner of my psyche. It is not happy music they make, but blues (as if it was written in Vienna during the turn of the century) for people who like to have a laugh against the horror of existence. There is a great deal of sadness in their music.

The pleasure in their music is almost an ironic stance. The Philip Glass-like (Ron Mael was there first) keyboard swirls and hypnotic melodies are like being left out without a dance partner at a Vienna waltz get-together. One is always on the outside freezing in the snow and looking inside the grand ballroom with the massive lighted fireplace. Which comes to mind, a Sparks’s song is always on the outside. They are like the want-to-be Boy Scout that is only accepted in the Cub Scouts. Once an outsider always an outsider. It’s impossible to tell what’s happening culturally via their recordings. When all's said and done there’s nothing outside the Sparks world.

So it is not surprising that they met up with that other great outsider - film artist Jacques Tati, for a project they were going to do together that was called ‘Confusion.’ It is a shame that the film never got made, because I am sure it would not only be a masterpiece – but a work of like-minded exiles in their world of cinema and music.

Like Tati’s work, one can be sympathetic with the anxiety of the artist, yet feel distanced from them as people. Perhaps one can get close to the song but not close to the artists. Tati was known as a major depressive, yet his work is playful and light. Also keep in mind that Tati built a fake city to film his masterpiece ‘Playtime’ that eventually financially ruined him. Sparks too in their own way build their world that suits their aesthetic and sense of style – but leaves them apart from the mainstream.

I don’t know Sparks but I sense such great sadness in their work that even though the songs comes off as jokey it’s music that reaches out to a heightened emotional state for the listener. They built the foundation and then the building so why doesn’t it work? This shows in their song ‘Tearing the Place Apart which amazingly enough is only a bonus cut off their ‘Big Beat’album:

Down come the chandeliers
That lit our cozy little dinners
Shattered for ever more
One thing is certain
I'll grow thinner
No need to eat with company
No need to eat at all I guess
Away go the cabinets, so fully stocked
From soup to nuts to aubergine*

Nöel Coward had the same depressive quality. "I am depressed, bored but what the hell…. "

"Miss the Start, Miss the End," is my all-time favorite Sparks song (off the Indiscreet album) because it conveys what is so special (‘oh so special’) about the band and their sense of place in their version of the world. When you look at The Beatles or Beach Boys they articulate their decade the 60’s, but Sparks don’t have a time reference or period. They are not part of a timeline or decade or any part of the world. They are separate from the world. Like Jean Cocteau’s Orphus, they can’t look back because they are the past, present and perhaps future at the same time. Also like that particular film, where the hero played by Jean Marais receives messages from the underworld (death) in his car radio – Sparks deliver their message as if they were using a car radio to communicate to the outside world. Which in the essence is the greatness of Sparks. It’s impossible to tell what’s happening culturally via their recordings. This work has nothing to do with the outside world. So one is getting ‘messages’ from their world to our world.

We need more than just each other
So much more than just each other
They don't need more than each other
Not much more than just each other

Like a lot of their songs there is an ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Basically the right for a dandy to articulate his world – a sense of perfection that doesn’t exist among the natives. This is what gives Sparks it’s bite and sense of worth.

When their music does look back it seems to reflect the swing era of the 40’s or music from the turn of the 20th Century. It’s used as a commentary on a certain sense of lost time going by. Even visually Russell and Ron represent two periods of time. Russell is contemporary (well, sort of) dressed and Ron looks like a figure from the 40’s or no later than the early 50’s. During the 70’s Ron with his moustache looked like a combination of the two major icons of the 20th Century - Charlie Chaplin and Hitler. As far as I know Ron Mael never commented on his ‘fashion’ sense, but it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t aware that he was representing the two separate poles that Chaplin and Hitler embodies.

The visuals, their music, and their sensibility all add up to a misplacement in time. Commercially it must be difficult to place them in a certain movement or fad in popular culture. But to the Sparks fan it gives them that out-of-the-world timelessness that they convey. No, they are not there in the beginning and they are not there in the end, but they fill the main space with a timeless grace and art. It is no accident that they appear not to age. Their aesthetic doesn’t allow aging! . Ron Mael is a dandy in the 19th century definition of dandyism. Wit, clothing and a position in life are even more important than actual living or romantic problems.

Their music also conveys the combination of evil and slapstick set to the world of dating, angst, and the production of family and offspring. There is a sharp critical wit in their songs that are unique in pop music. The fact that Ron can look so sinister (less obvious than say Marilyn Manson, but for sure more deadly) and not really knowing for sure what moral grounds he stands on.

Lyrically the songs are all about underdogs but with a bigger picture of the roles that one plays in contemporary culture. Which to Sparks is the relationship between man and woman. But it doesn’t go further than dating because that’s where the darkness begins. That darkness is being the questioning of producing a family, a home, and participating in social interactions. Through Sparks there is something dark, creepy and funny about all that.

Again ‘Tearing the Place Apart’ is a song where the singer dismantles the home that him and his love once shared:

Tearing the place apart
I'll rip the doors off with the hinges
Who needs a door at all?
The world can walk in and I'll let them
Help yourself to a magazine
Help yourself to, well, anything
Go and take anything
They're only things
They're only things
They're only things*
Yes it’s comical, but the sadness is mixed in with the sense of great lost. Even the thought of owning anything becomes futile: And this is where Sparks become master of the manor and acknowledging that they can never grow up – because growing up itself is a sense of lost and an un-dandy like characteristic. And this is one of the great things about Sparks 2003, is that they are lost in not only in our age, but also in their private refined world of literature and cinema. They will wonder in this dream world with a purpose of expressing their exquisite aesthetic.

I imagine lot of record label people have a hard time dealing with a band like Sparks – especially now when labels are owned by other labels who are part of …god knows what. The thing is one can’t owned Sparks, because Sparks are like a cloud – you can see it but you can’t touch it.

It’s wrong to only see Sparks simply as a pop group. They are much more than that. They are in the same Congo line as Cole Porter, Boris Vian, Nöel Coward, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Beau Brummell and 1950’s Frank Sinatra. For me they represented a vicinity where I can’t share with anyone else. A private passion where I am exposed to horror, but sung to me sweetly and written with deadly precise poison. Very much like Bauldaire’s ‘Flowers of Evil’ and other works by the well-dressed set from the past two centuries.

Happiness in a Sparks song is ominous. Basically ‘Sparks ‘ is another word for Dandyism. If one fails in gaining some sort of romantic adventure or object of affection – then so let it be. It’s more important that one can convey the passion in such a language that is unique in one’s art – the songs and the visuals of Ron and Russell Mael – Sparks.

Tosh Berman
March 11, 2003


Halfnelson 1971
Sparks (same as Halfnelson album but different cover & name) 1972
Kimono my House 1974
Propaganda 1974
Indiscreet 1975
Big Beat 1976
Introducing Sparks 1977
No. 1 in Heaven 1979
Terminal Jive 1980
Whomp that Sucker 1981
Angst in my Pants 1982
Pulling Rabbits out of a Hat 1984
Music That You can Dance To 1986
Interior Design 1988
Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins 1994
Plagiarism 1997
Balls 2000
Lil’ Beethoven 2003

Tosh // 9:28 AM

Comments: Post a Comment

This site is powered by Blogger because Blogger rocks!

The wonderful world of TamTam Books by publisher Tosh Berman