Quirk Becomes Them

Spring 1982. Saturday Night Live back when it was really, really bad and unfunny, a couple of years removed from its early glory days but before Eddie Murphy. There's nothing else on free TV to stimulate a bored 13-year-old, so . . .

One sad skit after another, then the "musical guest," Sparks. Who the hell are Sparks? Whoever they are, they sure aren't getting played on the radio—ergo, they must be awful. They look European and "arty"—their spazzy, frizzy-headed singer is jumping around and warbling a song about Mickey Mouse (wha?) in an unearthly high falsetto just a few octaves down from dogs-only. Their keyboard player is an even bigger freak, clad in a white long-sleeved shirt and tie, a Spock-like expression on his mug—a mug with a prominent, obvious Hitler mustache.

Halfway through their tune, Hitler/Spock leaves his place behind the keys, steps in front of the main camera and starts doing possibly the most awkward dorky, white-guy dance ever attempted on live TV. He doesn't look like he's having much fun wigging out to the band's giddy, foppy pop, either, because he keeps the emotionless pose—is this what my junior high English teacher meant by "irony"?

They're weird and different, though strangely likable. When they finish, they leave questions to which you need answers: Who were those guys? Where are they from? How come you've never heard of them before?

Surely somebody at school saw this, too—someone who might know more about them. Nope: come Monday, when you explain what you witnessed, it's like telling people you saw a Sasquatch. The other kids are far too entranced by Rush, Journey, REO Speedwagon and Styx to bother with your obviously inferior taste in music. Worse, when you tell them that you hunted down the new Sparks record over the weekend and that it had a guy in a wedding dress on the cover, well . . . stupid kids.

Sparks and quirky go together like tattoos and the Warped tour. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael (Ron is the Hitler-'stache guy, which, before he streamlined it into a more Daliesque look, was always more of a Charlie Chaplin reference, he says) were geek-rock innovators long before Weezer—you could make an argument that Sparks may have been the first new-wave band. Since 1972, the pair have been making these funny, odd electronic-and-synth pop records—close to 20 albums, on nearly as many labels—that (as the clich goes) really are huge in Europe, where they've always been much bigger than in America. So influential are these eternally-LA-based bros that Morrissey and Bjork have both said Sparks gave them the idea to take up music. Paul McCartney once dressed up like Ron—'stache and all—and mimicked his stiff stage presence for a video.

That "Cool Places," their fluffy 1983 collaboration with Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, has been their biggest U.S. hit does the Sparks catalog a disservice. Ron Mael has penned some seriously bizarre, twisted and funny tunes during Sparks' still-unexpired shelf life (like "Funny Face," about a fashion model tired of being beautiful, so she tries killing herself, which totally disfigures her, though she's much happier afterward). Much of Sparks' humor lies in their seemingly banal subject matter—sneezes, weight-loss-programs, cigarettes, finding a wallet and not wanting to give it back—and a lot of their songs have titles that read like punch lines: "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" (a huge hit in 1974 England—huge!),"Eaten by the Monster of Love," "The No. 1 Song in Heaven," "Angst in My Pants," "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?," "Pretending to Be Drunk," "All You Ever Think About Is Sex," "Dance Godammit," "Rock & Roll People in a Disco World," "Barbecutie," "Tryouts for the Human Race" and "The Wedding of Russell Mael to Jacqueline Kennedy."

See? Quirky!

So now Sparks have a new album, Balls (more quirk!), their first in six years, with songs about Russian airliners, bullet trains and "How to Get Your Ass Kicked." The music is still very keyboard-heavy, new-wave-sounding pop—hard to sound like much else when the two principals are a singer and a keys player—but this time, the Maels have put techno and electronic elements into their mix. If you see this move as trend-hopping, think of it as more of a thank you or an extension instead—an homage that makes sense only if you've mapped out Sparks' Depeche Mode/Pet Shop Boys/ New Order connections (all three at one time cited Sparks as an inspiration) and, in turn, those bands' ties to a lot of the modern house music that busts out at raves.

As long as they've been around, though, Sparks will likely remain an underground oddity, a band that is—in America, at least—something to be discovered and revered by those who unexpectedly stumble across them. What I'm sure about, though, is that somewhere out there is another 13-year-old kid, lost in an aural cesspool of Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20, 3 Doors Down and Vertical Horizon, thinking that there's just gotta be something else out there besides what he's being force-fed. Yo, Ron and Russ—think you could get booked on SNL again?



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