Thirty chord wonders

THERE wasn't much dancing done in 1974, or rather, not much good dancing. In the Top Of The Pops studio, everyone wore polyester and looked older than their years and shuffled about in an ugly fashion - and these were the exhibitionists who had applied two years in advance to get on the show and who really thought they could dance.

Glam rock was great but even Cherry from Pan's People struggled in her cream, fake-fur hot pants and tan tights for any kind of sensual interpretation. The disco revolution was coming and much needed. Then, defiant to the end, glam produced a last blast that April which must rank as one of the most undanceable singles in the history of pop, and also one of the greatest - Sparks' 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us'.

Sparks were two American brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, and their TOTP debut was a "Where were you when...?" moment in 1970s culture. Starting with ricocheting gunfire, the song was deliriously out of control. Russell, in Bolanesque curls, let rip with an agitated shriek: "Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat." Why was he singing about cannibals? What was a "tacky tiger"? But never mind all of that - who was the creepy guy playing keyboards?

For younger viewers, Ron's sinister sideways stare behind a Hitler moustache ranks as the scariest TOTP incident since Arthur Brown performed 'Fire' in a burning headdress. Every second was crucial to both songs' shock value. An intricate maths-meths formula enabled Arthur to gain maximum impact from the stunt in the final chorus, then sprint offstage in search of a bucket of water before his scalp began to melt. During 'This Town', an increasingly frantic Russell seemed to be racing to finish the number before Ron started molesting members of the audience who'd come adrift from the clompy mass.

'This Town' remains Sparks' finest three-and-a-half minutes, pop at its most outre. Matching it was always going to be difficult, if not impossible. But Sparks - neck-and-silk-scarved-neck with Roxy Music as the biggest influence on Franz Ferdinand - never gave up trying. If anything, 32 years on they're even more camp, more contrary, more like-the-electric-guitar-was-never-invented than before. On record at least.

For while their new album Hello Young Lovers - their 20th - is operatic and overblown and show-offy literate and full of trademark Sparksian puns, Russell in conversation is quiet, almost bland, definitely Californian.

"We weren't, like, the Eagles," he says at one point, to demonstrate the Maels' separation from the 1970s mainstream, but an Eagle is exactly what he sounds like. Maybe I should have called Ron instead.

Ron lives in Los Angeles' Westwood, a 10-minute drive from Russell's home in Beverly Hills. They talk every day, even when they're not working. When they are, like on Hello Young Lovers, they're together 10 hours at a time, for two whole years. Russell can't imagine being able to sustain such an intense creative partnership with anyone else; if Ron wasn't his big brother - at 55, the oldest by three years - they'd have split up long ago.

"We're very happy with our working relationship," he says. "There are not that many musicians, judging by the current levels of ambition in pop, who seem to share our goal. We don't want to re-hash. Pop for us has always been about innovation, provocation, and clubbing people over the head. When you hear a song for the first time, your reaction should always be: 'Ohmigod, what's that?'"

The new album's opener, 'Dick Around', contains about 63 time changes. So, fair play to the Maels, they still sound like no one else apart from Sparks circa '74, and this lapsed fan's reaction is: "Jings."

"For us, that's the ultimate compliment," adds Russell, who sings in a deeper register these days. "When we're at our most adventuresome, that's when we produce our best music. We try to avoid being timid."

The second number is a list song. 'Perfume' features 30 girls and 30 scents: "Susan wears San Laurent, Janie wears L'air Du Temps, Kristen wear Davidoff..."

This could be a hit single for the duo after a long absence from the charts, but I wait in vain for mention of Charlie, which was surely the fragrance of choice for all those glam girls cowering behind the TOTP cameras to escape Ron's lizard leer. Maybe Sparks have forgotten how Britain gave them their big break when America deemed them too arty.

Russell says not. "We were regular Californian boys, but then we turned away from the ocean."

Suddenly, he was living in Kenneth Tynan's basement in London, and climbing on to the high stage at the Glasgow Apollo in plus-fours and plastic sandals to watch in mild terror as the balcony shoogled, and it just felt so right.

Despite being "terribly serious" about pop, the Maels played the game and Russell - prime pin-up material in those days - wrote a column for Mirabelle magazine. How did he engage with the kids? "I'd ask them: 'Colours - do you like them?'" he says, chuckling at the memory. And on the debut album Kimono My House, Sparks continued firing jokes over young heads: "You mentioned Kant and I was shocked/ Where I come from none of the girls have such foul tongues."

A collaboration with Giorgio Moroder squeezed out one more British hit single - 'The No 1 Song In Heaven' - as the 1970s ended, then in the decade that followed America finally 'got' them.

So what happened in the 1990s? "We tried to get into films. Mia, The Psychic Girl was to be a movie based on a Japanese comicbook and Tim Burton was the first of many directors who got involved. But although we invested six years in the project, it never happened - a typical Hollywood tale, I suppose."

There is no bitterness in Russell's voice, though. Dabbling in a different arena broadened Sparks' musical horizons further, and they returned to the ever more bland pop scene with an album, L'il Beethoven, that was even more absurdly theatrical.

Many and varied are the acts who are, or were, "by way of Sparks". Billy Mackenzie of The Associates must have been chairman of the Dundee fan club, and then there was Suede, Pulp and The Smiths. Morrissey once stalked the Maels, kept a piece of half-eaten toast from Russell's breakfast table, and two years ago gave them star-billing when he curated Meltdown.

Around the same time, Franz Ferdinand were constructing their pop manifesto. It acknowledged a debt to Sparks and in particular their second album Propaganda. "I like them," says Russell. "We've met them a couple of times and discussed working together. Hopefully that will happen when schedules allow."

But the Maels - who once bitched: "I think we've written a lot of Pet Shop Boys tunes" - reckon they might again have put a bit of distance between themselves and their camp followers. "I'd like to see a band try to emulate Hello Young Lovers," says Russell. "Good luck to them, but it might be difficult to pick up on us now, I don't think anyone else has our tenacity.

"That's not why we made the album this way; we've always been pretty forward-thinking. Pop doesn't have to limit itself to the same three chords, it's 50 years old now. Young bands boast about making records in two weeks but to us they sound like muzak. They have good hair gel, but it's muzak all the same."

Hello Young Lovers (Gut Records) is released on February 6. Sparks play Glasgow's Academy on February 12

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