Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto

Sparks of Life

The end of the Sparks brothers’ career matches the intensity and originality of its beginning

Artillery Row

Just as Prufrock’s life was measured out in coffee spoons, and Eno’s life in shirts, some of us can say the same of Sparks songs. As Edgar Wright maintains, for those of a certain sensibility, these songs “invaded” their lives. Morrissey championed Sparks in a letter to the music press as an adolescent teen. A decade ago I interviewed Boy George, and he made the point that Sparks have even influenced those who are unaware of the original source of the influence. Born in the same era, the two of us found ourselves citing examples, listing the songs that had invaded our lives. For me, a key lyric is in the 1974 single “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” from Propaganda.

They apply themselves to their trade as though to a day job

Here’s why: I first met the brothers in London in the early-1990s, between their lengthy and unsuccessful attempts to bring their musical version of the Manga Mai The Psychic Girl to the screen, under the aegis of Tim Burton, and their beginning work on the underrated album Gratuitous Sax, Senseless Violins. A year later I visited them in Los Angeles in what turned out to be a surreal and calamitous week. It began well with the art of Billy Wilder like Jonathan Coe, we were hardened fans off Rodeo Drive, in the shape of Groucho Marx as Nefertiti and camouflage typewriters. In Las Vegas we were stranded on the Nile at the Luxor hotel during a blackout. Returning to LA, we were caught in the devastation of the infamous earthquake of the 1994 winter. It was a new experience for a young Englishman whose native London had only experienced bombs and strikes by comparison. It struck me this might be The End, and there, in a foreign country, a Sparks line came to mind. It returns often as a reminder of that experience: “Towns are hurled from A to B/ By arms that looked so smooth to me/ Never turn your back on Mother Earth”.

After five decades Sparks are at what should be the “late style” period of their career, that point when, traditionally, the work of artists and composers becomes preoccupied with age, decay, reflection and The End. The work, according to those that have studied this phenomenon, is less likely to pander to public taste; it’s more catastrophic and less cohesive. Why not? At that stage of the game, what have you got to lose? Instead Sparks have made themselves masters of the unpredictable, as they dip in and out of the mainstream over the years, in different countries and various musical styles. Their late work, rightly attracting attention and accolades, takes them full-circle. They began by studying art and film at UCLA in their native state; now the musical Annette, which put them on the red carpet for the opening of the Cannes film festival, has them credited as both screenwriters and composers: Ron & Russell Mael. The song “So May We Start?” is thought to be an Oscar contender.

Recognizing their ongoing vitality, Edgar Wright’s new documentary The Sparks Brothers explores the duo’s oeuvre as an audit, rather than an obituary. Filmed over two years in London, New York, Mexico and Japan, it features eighty interviewees and covers twenty-five albums in just over two hours. The myth that Doris Day was their mother adds to a mystique that doesn’t let up in the documentary. Though they have less of the telepathic twins about them than Gilbert and George, there’s a deeper resonance to this likewise oft-repeated comparison. The two have ploughed their own unique furrow as trends caught up with them, and fleeting fashions courted them; they apply themselves to their trade as though to a day job. Everything comes down to their work. The early works were defined by intelligent, whimsical lyrics, often warped topics, with shifting rhythms and rapid changes of tempo. Much of this, like Russell’s falsetto, was anomalous to the pop outpourings of their contemporaries. Perhaps it was inevitable they would drift in and out of different musical genres sometimes in the same song and ultimately triumph as composers.

Age has not withered the Sparks imagination nor slowed their prolific output

 When their third album Kimono My House (1974) and the accompanying singles first put them on the charts in 1974, “Whispering Bob” Harris described the band as “the Mothers of Invention meet the Monkees”. Russell’s androgynous pop idol appearance led to a column in a teen magazine. Ron’s signature Chaplinesque moustache, death stare and black, slicked back hair scared children but intrigued their parents. From the beginning, they appeared to create personas they eventually inhabited or fans imposed on them that revealed little of what lay beyond. The radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009) marked a departure from much of the previous output. But a shift was apparent as early as the release of Lil Beethoven (2002). If Gilbert & Sullivan and Strauss, among others, are evident in early-Sparks, this work contains echoes of John Adams and Philip Glass. The lyrical mayhem and genre-hopping gave way to minimalism, with familiar phrases recurring like mantras. When they performed the album during the Morrissey-curated London Meltdown festival in 2004, the performance owed more to the experimental theatre performances directed by Robert Wilson than a standard pop concert. 

Their thwarted attempts at film collaborations often with European directors include a project with Jacques Tati back in the 1970s. The Hong Kong film director Tsui Hark was the subject of one song; “When You’re A French Director” from Hippopotamus (2017) features Leos Carax, who takes up the reins on Annette. One of the brothers has said that an attempt at the filmic view of things was always an ambition. (They are the only two film fans I’ve ever met who love both Ishtar and Eyes Wide Shut.) Annette is the story of a comedian and a opera singer who produce a child that has the mother’s adult singing voice. It’s a late work made with the wit, verve and skewered outlook evident in their music from the outset. Age has not withered the Sparks imagination nor slowed their prolific output. As they sang way back in “The Decline & Fall of Me”: “Now I stutter, now I dribble / Other than that, I’m a lot like I was then”.

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