The Mael brothers tell Aidan Smith how the spirit of Bergman has helped them strip the gloss off their glam classics
IN RE-RUNNING Top Of The Pops edition by edition, the BBC is probably feeling quite pleased with itself. Often accused of being careless with the archive, the state broadcaster is showing that it cannot have burned all the tapes because, look, here’s how punk fought disco for chart supremacy while hoary variety acts in crimplene hung on grimly.
But what a pity the starting point for this project missed the moment in 1974 when Sparks exploded on to the scene.
“I know this won’t sound genuine,” says Ron Mael, “but it wasn’t a conscious thing.” He’s talking about This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, and in particular and his sinister leering from the piano at the teenage front-row trying to boogie to one of the most undanceable singles in the history of pop, and one of the greatest. “What I didn’t want to be was flamboyant and that was kind of all I could come up with.”
He reckons Sparks got lucky: TV directors seemed to have just discovered the close-up, and of course there were only three channels back then so most people witnessed the performances, including lots of frightened children. It was more scary than any of the contrived outrages of Johnny Rotten, Kenny Frightful and the rest of the punks, but Mael insists: “I honestly didn’t intend for there to be such a fearful reaction.”
Really, the brilliance of This Town had little to do with luck. It belongs to the weird and wonderful period before guy-liner when the lack of a proper chorus was no impediment to an utterly unforgettable TOTP rendition (see also Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain and Rod Stewart’s Maggie May). We may not be getting to re-live that period on BBC4 but, even better in a way, veteran Los Angeles-based art-rocker Ron and his little brother Russell have come to this London hotel to confirm they’re still around, still relentlessly questing and still trying to improve on This Town even though they don’t have to try.
Their most recent album was The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, which fantasised about the existential cinema auteur landing up in thrills-obsessed Hollywood. To date it’s been performed in full only once, at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which isn’t surprising given it is equal parts concept album, radio play, opera and Tinseltown satire, requiring 14 musicians, an orchestra and projectionists. While the Maels work out how to take the extravaganza on the road without bankrupting what’s left of the music industry, they’re far from idle. The Two Hands, One Mouth Tour which reaches Edinburgh tonight is a chance to hear some Sparks classics, stripped right back.
Lots of bands have performed Unplugged-type shows; few have left themselves this exposed. “It’ll be Russell’s voice and me on just the one keyboard so I’m sure we’ll feel quite naked,” says Ron, at 61 three years the senior – his moustache is now more Douglas Fairbanks Jr than Charlie Chaplin (though the French used to think he was aping Hitler and so banned him from TV). I tell him this sounds Bergmanesque, inspired by the director’s Scandinavian starkness, and he approves of the analogy. “It’s a pure show, which hopefully gets to the base feelings of the songs. Hey, maybe we learned something from our last album after all.”
Russell, who’s attacked the last of 1974’s Bolanesque curls with straighteners, adds: “It’s going beneath the production gloss of the albums. There’s a lot of bombast in Sparks’ music. On songs like At Home At Work At Play, In The Future and Looks Looks Looks, some of the lyrics may have got lost because they were played too fast or whatever. Hopefully audiences will discover new aspects to them.”
It’s typical of Sparks to take a recognised format and do something mad with it. Lots of bands have based shows round best-loved albums, but in 2008, when their collected works amounted to 21, the brothers installed themselves in a London theatre and recreated the complete oeuvre, a different album every night for a month. By the end, 250 songs had been performed – 4,825,273 notes. What did they learn from the experience? “That we’ll probably go down in history as the only band who were ever foolish enough to do it,” laughs Russell.
Touring a show featuring Ingmar Bergman in a high-speed police chase may yet happen; obviously the 21-album marathon had to be a one-off, even for the Maels. But, whether they preferred the Sparks-go-disco record or the one with the Gilbert and Sullivan homages, the fans travelled to hear them. “Some came from America and saw every show – that’s a heck of a commitment,” adds Ron.
It was Britain which broke Sparks back in 1974 and the brothers have fond memories of pitching up here, Kenneth Tynan letting them his basement, Chris Blackwell deciding they were esoteric enough for his Island label – and of teen mag Mirabelle signing them up for a weekly column. On that first tour on the back of This Town, there was pubescent screaming in every town. “We’ll never forget playing Glasgow Apollo,” says Russell. “When you looked down from the high stage there was this great abyss. When you looked up the balcony was shaking.”
“We would have loved to have stayed in the UK but we’re creatures of California and we missed the ocean and most of all the sun,” adds Ron. They live ten minutes apart. I ask each what the other would rescue from their homes in the event of fire. “For Russell, I think, it would be a mirror,” says Ron, and the kid brother does not demur.
Russell: “And for Ron it would be his funky VW Thing, based on a WW2 jeep which he’s had since we returned to the States and which really strains its 48-horsepower engine to get up the canyon to my place. But every day he makes it and we go into the studio and try to work on something new.”
• Sparks play Edinburgh Picturehouse tonight
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east