Sparks of a revolution

IN THE 1970S, SPARKS CRASHLANDED ON to Top of the Pops with high-velocity operatics and deadpan derangement that caused consternation in the nation's living rooms. The lead singer looked like Marc Bolan and hit notes that made dogs wince three streets away, while his brother sat almost motionless at the keyboards, throwing out looks that could chill ice cubes. "Look," said John Lennon when he saw Ron Mael and his toothbrush moustache. "It's Hitler on the telly."

Being a fan of Sparks remains a perilous business. Ron and Russell Mael may be the most restlessly original act California ever produced, but their unflinching oddness alienates as many as it attracts. Stick a Sparks album on in the car and your passengers may mutiny. Mention to your workmates that you like one or two of the band's songs and you may lunch alone for the rest of the week. Recently a fan posted a poignant cri de coeur at the AllSparks website: "My friend threatened to let the tyres down on my car if I ever made him listen to a Sparks album again."

Certainly their musical back catalogue is incongruously bizarre, comprising guitars and stomp rock but also Gilbert & Sullivan, electronica and lavishly orchestrated baroque'n'roll. We get Ron playing classical-style piano and Russell singing as if he was a rare visitor to any known Earth language.

Sparks have outlived punk rock, Madchester, Britpop and toyed with glam rock, synth-pop and mini-symphonies but their style is always unique, intriguing and inventive: it speaks volumes for the American duo that they have continued making their own kind of music without going batty or doing reactionary, desperate things such as collaborating on musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Los Angeles, home of the Maels, may conjure images of palm trees and endless summers but it's a dark, drizzly night when my cab finally noses up the drive to Russell Mael's villa. The warmth comes from Russell, who appears bashfully at the door, fusses over my wet jacket and leads the way to their recording studio, a jumble of hi-tech computers and microphones, impossible-to-clean white sofas, South Sea art, retro Barbie dolls and framed gold albums.

"And this is Ron," says Russell as a gothic figure looms up politely from a black leather chair. Tall, dark and with the bone structure of an intelligent crane, Ron Mael is the closest thing Sparks has to a band logo. While his younger brother bounced around the stage like Martha Graham, Ron had the rigorous formality of a ruthless tax accountant, a hostile father-in-law or an appalled matre d' at Claridges confronted by a diner who insisted on Lambrini. Even their first video crew were spooked; when shooting a promotional film for This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us they all avoided addressing the spidery songwriter directly, preferring to pass on requests via Russell, a more conventional rock star figure, at least until he unveiled his eek-a-mouse soprano.

Today the scariest thing about the Maels, now in their 50s, is how little they have changed. Russell has chopped back his corkscrew curls but still generates the ethereal surprised-pigeon look that teenyboppers adored (although they might have problems squaring his soft-spoken shyness with his swashbuckling stage ego). Ron, with a raffish David Niven number now posted on his top lip, is more self-possessed yet allows Russell to do most of the talking. When he does talk he makes you wait for the low, slow wavelength of his speech.

As a child, I was rather disturbed by you, Ron.

"And you could be again," he says, shooting a resonant look.

Meeting Sparks has its hazards for a journalist because when the brothers are bored, they tell massive fibs. When they had just arrived in Britain, they persuaded one reporter that they didn't possess the necessary work permits and had been forced to record their album on a Dover to Calais cross-channel ferry. In another interview they claimed Doris Day was their mother. "We only said it once and now it's in our official biographies," says Russell.

However, it is true that they had to record the Kimono My House LP in a Britain plagued by power strikes in 1974. "They told us that we could work from, like, noon to four - but after that there was no power. And then they said, 'Well lads, even if the record does get finished, there may not be enough vinyl to go around,'" remembers Russell. "That wasn't part of our dream of conquering Britain."

At school and university the Maels had played in a series of bands, first separately and then together "for the usual reasons - to impress our friends and girls".

"Even before we moved to England we thought we were like a British band. We wanted to be The Who and I kind of admired Mick Jagger," says Russell. "We used to play the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles. I would be wheeled on stage in a little ocean liner we made out of wire and papier-mch, waving hello to the crowd of four or even five people. That's when we realised maybe we were not going to be The Who."

Two albums barely troubled the bottom of the charts in America. Then Island Records in the UK called, offering a deal for Ron and Russell alone to come to London and build a new version of the band now known as Sparks.

"We were so nave that we didn't think of the consequences," says Russell.

"We sold everything we had - 'no reasonable offer refused' - and moved to England, not knowing what to do if it hadn't worked. Fortunately Ron had a wet Sunday afternoon in Clapham Junction and wrote This Town."

Sparks probably feel about This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us, the way that Bob Hope felt about Thanks for the Memory: it's what the band will always play when they walk into the room. In 1974 Elton John bet Sparks's producer Muff Winwood that this single wouldn't crack the charts, but Elton was wrong about that, just as he was wrong about duets with Pete Doherty and the rejuvenating power of wigs. The hit gave them their first taste of fame and large crowds of screaming fans. "They'd run on stage and try to grab you, although if they got hold of you, they weren't quite sure what to do next," recalls Russell. One strapping French girl opted for a bearhug so intense that she cracked the singer's ribs.

Now This Town has risen again, as a cover version recorded by The Darkness singer and longtime fan, Justin Hawkins, in a tacit acknowledgement of just where The Darkness lift some of their song structure. Ron and Russell say they approve of the new version - "Justin plays all the instruments himself and the drumming is really impressive," says Russell. They also appear in the video, in which the theme is darts, an unfamiliar sport to the Maels, although Phil "The Power" Taylor offered them tips during breaks.

The Mael brothers have always been a magnet for a rococo miscellany of performers. Morrissey is one of their most ardent admirers, pursuing them by letter and in person, once stealing Russell's half-eaten bread roll as a souvenir. M Hulot's creator Jacques Tati spent the last ten years of his life trying to make a film with them, and later Tim Burton tried to liaise with them on a musical version on the graphic novel Mai the Psychic Girl.

The Ramones adored them, and Franz Ferdinand hope to record with them towards the end of the year.

Many people don't realise how many Sparks songs they know: Number One Song in Heaven, Amateur Hour, Get in the Swing and Beat the Clock are some of the hits drawn from a string of fearlessly punning albums such as Kimono My House and Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. Elsewhere in the world When Do I Get to Sing My Way and When I'm With You were number one records.

More recently, there has been the near-miss of their last album Lil' Beethoven, which had critics reaching for accolades but failed to dent the pop charts.

As double acts go, Russ and Ron don't have a straight man in interviews. They bounce off each other, picking up each other's train of thought. And they never, ever, interrupt or contradict each other. They seem extremely, enviably close. If it's an act, it's one of remarkable stamina because it never drops. When writing and recording, Ron is in charge, setting little tests for his brother. Often his words may not quite fit the melody but Ron won't let Russell deviate from his scores: "When he wrote This Town, he could only play in that key. It was so much work to transpose This Town and one of us had to budge, so I made the adjustment to fit in."

"It was written in A, and by God it'll be sung in A," says Ron. "I just feel that if you're coming up with most of the music, then you have an idea where it's going to go. And no singer is gonna get in my way."

"Ours is a less obvious relationship conflict than Ray and Dave Davies or the Oasis brothers," says Russell, mildly. "They just punch each other."

THERE IS A CUSSED STUBBORNNESS that underpins the Sparks gestalt - they don't like to look back, instead propelling themselves forwards. For the last 18 months they have been working on their new album, Hello Young Lovers, a meditation on the affairs of heart that is exuberant and melancholic, sardonic and sincere. Sparks's take on the stresses and pressures of romance may persuade young lovers to save themselves for marriage, or indeed forever.

It is also a more exciting and adventurous record than anything produced by bands with half their years in music. A backhanded compliment maybe, but a compliment nonetheless. It takes perseverance to keep a band together for 30 years - particularly in an industry in which innovators are being overlooked by record companies searching for quicker fixes - and there have been times when Sparks have felt that they have gone out of fashion. Yet surviving in the lean years is what defines the real artist, and there are few bands with Sparks's ambition and drive towards reinvention.

Seeing the cramped circumstances of their studio, and understanding how easy it must be for Sparks to feel they are making music for themselves, it's unsurprising that some of their musical personalities come across as slightly unhinged.

"Exactly," says Ron. "For better or worse we're willing to work without any kind of input at all. We're in contact with other people who offer to listen and give their opinion but we are so insecure working this way that we don't even want to know if what we're doing is wrong because that might shift the direction. We don't want someone else's opinion and we're prepared to accept the consequences. We still have a faith and idealism about music: that you can challenge and do something eccentric and bold but also accessible. That's what keeps you optimistic about your future."

• Justin Hawkins's single, This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us, is out now. The Sparks album, Hello Young Lovers, will be released later this year.

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