❉ The story of how Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers documentary changed one woman’s life!
Music lovers (that’s you) will know that this has been quite the year for the Mael brothers. Nearly 50 years after their first recording 2021 has seen The Sparks Brothers, the much-lauded documentary plus the movie Annette, which they not only wrote and composed the score for, opened the Cannes Film Festival. But also, unknown to them, it was also the year when friends started asking what had happened to me. Well, My friend H and I had planned to see Summer of Soul at the cinema but got there too late so went into The Sparks Brothers instead. Mainly I was looking forward to drinks afterwards. But something happened: we both watched Edgar Wright’s documentary and fell in love with the Mael brothers, their image, their wit, their story and most of all, their music.
How had I never got to know Sparks before now? I’m old enough to recall my mum howling at Ron’s expressions on their famous 1974 debut of This Town Ain’t Big Enough on TOTP and they seem to have been round ever since. But truth is, Sparks are rarely played. Even on Radio 2 Brotherhood of Man or Bewitched get more airplay. Sparks are just too well… everything to be mainstream: too clever, too unusual, too funny and just too inexplicable. I felt stunned as we left the cinema.
That night I lay awake reading and watching all I could about Sparks. At 5am texted H, “I can’t stop thinking about that film” and saw her message sitting there “That movie is all-consuming.” So, that was it, we were Sparks fans. H started listening to all 26 albums one on by one, I started by constantly playing the banger-packed Kimono My House (1974) and their other UK-recorded Island albums (a great place to begin), sped ahead to the 2000s and back again, picking up recommendations from others along the way. I was soon scanning any room (or Zoom) I was in to gauge the likelihood of Sparks chat. An otherwise perfect wedding was a letdown on that front but I left a funeral commenting, “Well I did enjoy that” as I’d met a woman who’d seen the doc. Oops.
Every morning for months now I’ve woken up singing a different line in my head and saying, “WHAT IS THAT SONG?” before having to play, play and play it again, pore over the lyrics and then see how they play it live. But God, their music gets under your skin, it’s like nothing else. This Town, let’s say, doesn’t sound any more ‘70s than it does 2021– it just sounds extraordinary.
Those early albums are so dense, so wordy and so bloody clever (think Cole Porter or Noel Coward rather than pop) that the lyrics just have to be examined. The narrator could be a dead Romeo describing heaven or the parents of baby Albert Einstein. A later single was written from the point of view of sperm hoping to become a human.
Ron does not write easy songs to sing (Sparks karaoke, anyone?). They are super-fast, very wordy, choruses are rarely repeated and often written in unsingable keys but Russell manages them with style, working incredibly hard to make it look easy for decades now. They are both stars in completely different ways. Ron’s a songwriter and Russell a pop star but both are performance artists. Ron sits on keyboards, barely moving, switching from one disdainful expression to another as if as if he didn’t actually write these brilliant songs being belted out in front of him sometimes disdainfully mouthing a line. Russell, rarely acknowledging his big brother, sings and dances in his trademark falsetto while still looking every inch the popstar. How this dynamic was decided, I don’t know but I can’t keep my eyes off it. Watch a slinky, silky Russell performing live in 1975 here and marvel at his performance:
So we may be 50 years late to the party but no-one seems to mind. Ron and Russell themselves comment: “New Customers Always Welcome.” A mate who’s loved them since he was a kid sent me his Spotify playlist (it took me a few minutes to realise it was every one of their 350-odd songs!) and said, “You’re going to have so much fun.” And we are.
My Top Ten Sparks Songs (today)
Get in the Swing (1975)
A classic example of ‘if you don’t like this bit, just wait’ in a Sparks song. From the rabble-rousing chant of the title from Russell, to a whispered life lesson about salmon and a chat with God, this has it all. Some classic eye-rolling vibes from Ron in the TOTP studio here too. I was told this is about swinging (hey, different times), but for me it will always be about enjoying post-lockdown life.
Favourite lyric: “Well, I ain’t no Freud, I’m from L.A”
Those Mysteries (1977)
Sounding like a forgotten Grease soundtrack number, the narrator here is a child pondering on all of life’s big unanswered questions. This is so bombastic at first you might think they must be taking the piss. But no, they’re not and, it’s actually very heartfelt and moving. And a bit silly.
Favourite lyric: “And why am I here and not over there? Oh why, oh why, oh why?”
Decline and Fall of Me (1982)
Other bands stop having hits and choose to break up or try to retread the same musical path. Not Sparks. Instead Ron writes this urgent, almost desperate song about what it’s like to no longer have hits. The “I’m fading away” part is especially heartbreaking knowing how long they would sit in obscurity in years to come. But what a song.
Favourite lyric: “Goodbye Future Mrs Mael (Mael)”
All You Ever Think About is Sex (1983)
Sexy, funny, silly ditty about shagging in unexpected places and with the funniest “I’m not with him” video clip too. Another one of those songs that seems basic initally but worms into my head and won’t leave me alone. Also features an unexpected rhyme pattern concerning a father dropping dead that makes me chuckle every time I hear it.
Favourite lyric: “Stating our positions on the White House lawn.”
Let’s Go Surfing (1994)
A yearning, gorgeous banger full of blind optimism and hope for better, sunnier days. Contains a new phrase to me: “a landlocked town’ but clearly that’s a (bad) thing to Californian, beach-loving brothers – could it be about their cold years living in the UK? I used to love a song of the same name by The Drums. Played it today, it sounds shit now.
Favourite lyric: “In a room only Dickens could love….” (Am going to use that next time I get a crap AirB&B)
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us (1997 version)
Plagiarism is widely hated, an album they were strong-armed into making by a record company who thought matching them up with younger artists would attract a new audience for Sparks. Bloody insult, obviously, akin to telling Gillian Anderson she needs to have fillers and slip on a mini skirt to get attention. But this version with the strings is gorgeous and has an extra verse to enjoy. Oh, to see the Maels with a full orchestra… swoon. One day.
Favourite lyric: “Choosing, the girl is choosing, Between the man who’s well-to-do and the man who is you.”
Sparks show! (1999)
A complete cheat, this isn’t a recorded track but a short ditty they’ve opened their shows with for the last 20 years so. Brilliant to sing about anything you do. Joyful!
My Baby’s Taking Me Home (2001)
This one turns up on most top tens and no surprise. At a time when other pop groups would be retiring, the Maels reinvented themselves with the pared-back Lil’ Beethoven album that mixed Michael Nyman-style beats with repetitive lyrics and made it into pop music. The track consists of the same line repeated 100 times, building and building into a song of utter beauty and a live favourite. Please play in Belfast next year, lads. Cheers.
Favourite lyric: “My Baby’s Taking Me Home.” (obviously!)
Missionary Position (2017)
Without the line “the stars are shining bright” this could well be a juvenile ditty about being lazy in bed but instead, with typical Ron panache, it’s elevated to a very sweet, catchy AF song about a couple being so happy together that vanilla sex is all they need.
Favourite lyric: “It’s a private matter as to frequency, but we both are smiling as you well can see.”
All That (2020)
The Maels’ private lives are just that, we all know. But this beautiful love song written for someone later in life leads me to hope that at least one of them is as happy as this song suggests. This top ten spans 45 years and still on they go, ignoring ageing, and being as creative and entertaining as ever. What bloody inspirations.
Favourite lyric: “I can’t believe my luck in meeting you, hey, help me out, I can’t find my left shoe.”
❉ ‘The Sparks Brothers’ documentary is now on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/81436982
❉ Lucie Tobin is a writer, copywriter and branding expert. She has only loved Sparks since August 2021 so please forgive her any mistakes (“Spot her error! Spot her error!”). Let her know your comments and also your top ten cause, y’know, she just wants to talk about Sparks. Post below or @msloobylou on Twitter.