Brothers Ron (b. Ronald David Mael, Aug. 12, 1945) and Russell Mael (b. Russell Craig Mael, Oct. 5, 1948) were raised in upper-class Pacific Palisades, Calif. By the mid-1960s, the two were avid music-goers on LA’s Sunset Strip. With Ron on keyboards and Russell on bass and vocals, the pair formed the Urban Renewal Project with husband/wife team Fred (guitar) and Ronna Frank (drums). The band recorded four songs: “The Windmill,” “A Quick Thought,” “As You Like It,” and “Computer Girl.” (The last of those was released on the 2019 Sparks compilation Past Tense.)
In 1968, while the brothers were attending UCLA, they met guitarist/electronics whizz Earle Mankey. The three formed Halfnelson with Ralph Oswald (bass) and John Mendelsohn (drums) and recorded a clutch of demos with the working title A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing (not to be confused with the 1972 Sparks album). Ron, who was studying graphic design, envisioned an album cover with a subject wind-surfing above a crowd near the Eiffel Tower. (In wrestling, the half nelson is a move where the opponent is pinned from behind with an underarm hand press to the back of the neck.)
Of the more than 14 songs that were recorded, 12 were later collected on A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing Demo, an unofficial release more than thrice bootlegged since 2002. It features two songs later recorded for their first album (“Saccharin and the War” and “Roger”) plus 10 unique early originals in the pop-psych vein, including “Chile Farm Farney,” “Johnny’s Adventure,” “Arts & Crafts Spectacular,” “Jane Church,” and “The Factory.”
Halfnelson’s offbeat music drew from diverse influences that were uncharacteristic of their time and locale. The Maels had become staunch Anglophiles, drawing heavily from The Kinks, The Move, The Who, The Zombies and (to US audiences) lesser-knowns like Tomorrow, The Pretty Things, Blossom Toes, and Syd Barrett‘s Pink Floyd. Still, the band retained certain aspects of their West Coast contemporaries, from the ominous strains of The Doors and Love to the off-kilter nature of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
Soon after the Halfnelson demo album was recorded, Mendelsohn and Owald were dismissed from the band. They formed Christopher Milk and released the album Some People Will Drink Anything! on Reprise in 1972. Mendelsohn also became a music journalist who famously championed The Kinks, writing the liner notes for their 1972/73 archival sets The Kink Kronikles and The Great Lost Kinks Album.
Halfnelson enlisted Earle’s brother Jim Mankey (bass) and Harley Feinstein (drums). The new five-piece cut a four-song demo that was sent to Todd Rundgren, who’d begun recording solo albums (as Runt) on Bearsville and doubled as the label’s in-house producer (American Dream, Great Speckled Bird, Jericho). Rundgren secured a deal for the band and produced their first album.
Halfnelson released their self-titled debut album in September 1971 on Bearsville. It contains four songs by Ron (“Wonder Girl,” “Fa La Fa Lee,” “High C,” “Fletcher Honorama”), two by Russell (“Roger,” “Saccharin and the War”), and three Ron–Russell co-writes (“Simple Ballet,” “Slowboat,” “Big Bands”). Earle Mankey contributed the otherworldly “Biology 2” and Jim Mankey collaborated with Ron on the closing track, “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys.”
Halfnelson was engineered by Thaddeus James Lowe, the former Electric Prunes frontman who worked with Rundgren previously on Nazz Nazz, the 1969 second album by Todd’s then-band Nazz; and Runt, Todd’s 1970 debut solo album. Most recently, he engineered the June 1971 Bearsville release The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, which features inner-gate photography by Ron Mael.
The original Halfnelson cover is a doctored 1959 Oldsmobile ad that shows a Grace Kelly lookalike (colorized) seated in the back of the automaker’s latest luxury model. The superimposed band members are seen looking in through the windows. The back cover shows the members grouped against a wall with the Maels seated.
Soon after this release, Halfnelson changed their name to Sparks, a pun on the Marx Brothers devised by label boss Albert Grossman, who first suggested “Sparks Brothers” (possibly as an ode to Ron’s Groucho-like mustache). Bearsville reissued the album in early 1972 as Sparks with revised cover art that shows a monochrome medium group shot against a red brick backdrop. This version has a foldout lyrical insert, backed with the brick motif.
Bearsville lifted “Wonder Girl” as a single (b/w “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys”). It became a regional hit in Alabama and reached No. 92 on the Cash Box Top 100. Sparks performed the song on ABC’s American Bandstand, exposing viewers to Russell’s camp, flamboyant manner and Ron’s demented robot shtick.
“Biology 2” appears on The Whole Burbank Catalog, a 1972 Warner sampler compiled by Barry Hansen (aka Dr. Demento) with cuts by Rundgren, Alice Cooper, Faces, Fleetwood Mac, Malo, Kenny Young, and T. Rex.
On July 3, 1972, Sparks played the Whisky-A-Go-Go club in West Hollywood with support from English rustic-rockers Heads Hands & Feet.
1972: A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing
Sparks released their second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, in November 1972 on Bearsville. It features three Mael brothers co-writes: “Here Comes Bob,” “Angus Desire,” and the opener “Girls from Germany,” which later appeared as a UK single with “Beaver O’Lindy,” the only song credited to all five members.
A Woofer also features four Ron numbers: “Nothing Is Sacred,” “The Louvre,” “Batteries Not Included,” and “Whippings and Apologies.” His “Moon Over Kentucky” featured lyrics by Jim Mankey. Earle contributed “Underground.” The side two opener, “Do Re Mi,” is from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music.
James Lowe assumed production of A Woofer from a now-busy Rundgren, who recently self-performed his chart-bound third solo album Something / Anything, a two-record set engineered by Thaddeus. A Woofer is the fourth and final album produced by James Lowe, who ended his career as a soundman.
A Woofer features cover photography by Larry Dupont. The two shots — motion blurred (front) and still (back) — are reminiscent of the Halfnelson back pic with the band grouped three-over-two against a wall. The album’s title is a pun on speaker frequencies: woofer (low-frequency sounds) and tweeter (high-frequency sounds).
“Moon Over Kentucky” appears on Days of Wine and Vinyl, a 1972 four-sided Warner comp with songs by America, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Incredible String Band, Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, The Section, Sharks, Steeley Span, Tír na nÓg, and an odd cut by David Bowie (“Can’t Help Thinking About Me” by his pre-fame band The Lower Third).
Bearsville sensed the band’s overseas potential and sent them on a 30-date tour of Europe, where Sparks were mobbed by fans in Switzerland. In Belgium, Sparks supported Slade with Vinegar Joe at Forest National, Brussels. Their setlist included “My White Bicycle,” a 1967 UK hit by Tomorrow. They mimed on the German music program Hits-a-Gogo and performed on The Old Grey Whistle Test, bemusing show host Bob Harris. In London, Sparks played four Christmas season gigs at the Marquee, including December 20–21 double-bills with newcomers Queen.
Sparks Move to England, New Lineup
On January 29–30, 1973, Sparks played the Whisky-a-Go-Go with support from hard-rockers Stepson, a spinoff of NW prog–psych pioneers Touch.
In London, Island Records took an interest in Sparks, especially the songwriting and vocal talents of the Mael brothers. Weary of hosting a five-piece band, Island summoned the pair back to England, where the Maels stayed with their mother, Muriel, who recently moved there with their stepfather, Oscar Rogenson.
As the Maels auditioned UK musicians, Earl Mankey moved behind the boards. He engineered 1975–78 albums by the Beach Boys, Crane, Dennis Wilson, Eric Carmen, The Quick, and Paul Parrish (ex-Badger). He assisted producer–engineer Gus Dudgeon with six tracks on Blue Moves, the 1976 double-album by Elton John. In 1978, Earl made his solo debut with the BOMP! single “Mau Mau” (“Crazy!”), followed by a 1981 eponymous EP on Select Records.
Jim Mankey reemerged as an engineer on 1980–83 small-press releases by Stiv Bators, Bad Religion, Flyboys, Phast Phreddie, and Target On Demand. In 1983, he formed the new wave trio Dream 6, which morphed into I.R.S. recording artists Concrete Blonde.
Meanwhile, the Maels linked with John Hewlett, the former bassist of psychedelic mod-rockers John’s Children with future T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan. Hewlett became Sparks’ new manager and linked them with Island in-house producer Muff Winwood, the one-time bassist of the Spencer Davis Group, the launching pad of his younger brother Steve Winwood. Muff’s prior production credits included singles by Nirvana, Spooky Tooth, and three albums by Patto.
The Maels assembled a new Sparks with guitarist Adrian Fisher, bassist Martin Gordon, and drummer Dinky Diamond. All were newcomers apart from Fisher, who played in the unrecorded Toby, a trio activated by Andy Fraser between the bassist’s stints in Free. Ron traded his Wurlitzer electric piano — a mainstay of Halfenelson and Woofer that was deemed cumbersome on tour — for the compact RMI Electra-Piano model 300.
1974: Kimono My House
Sparks released their third album, Kimono My House, in May 1974 on Island. It features two Mael brothers co-writes (“Hasta Mañana Monsieur,” “In My Family”) and eight Ron Mael originals, including the opening two numbers “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and “Amateur Hour” (both released as singles) and the side-closing epics “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” and “Equator.”
Kimono is their first of three albums recorded in the UK and the first where the name Sparks means the Maels with hired hands. Sessions took place between December 1973 and February 1974 at four London studios: Basing Street, AIR, Wessex Sound, and Ramport.
Winwood produced Kimono My House in succession with Beat of the Street, the fourth album by folksters the Sutherland Brothers and their second after merging with rustic-rockers Quiver. Kimono was co-engineered by Richard Digby-Smith and Tony Platt, who worked together on albums by Bronco and Mott the Hoople. Bill Price did the mix down after working on Man In the Bowler Hat, the third album by fellow music-hall popsters Stackridge.
Kimono My House features packaging by photographer Karl Stoeker and designer Nicholas De Ville, the team behind the album visuals for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music (Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded). The two women pictured on Kimono, Kuniko Okamura (left) and Michi Hirota (right), were actresses touring England at the time with Stomu Yamashta‘s Red Buddha Theatre. (Michi later did spoken-word parts on “It’s No Game” by David Bowie on his 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).) The back cover and inner-sleeve show the Maels posed against a dark wall in a white spotlight.
Island lifted “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” in advance of Kimono as the first single, backed with the non-album “Barbecutie.” It reached No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart and hit the Top 5 in Benelux and Switzerland. Sparks mimed “This Town” on Top of the Pops (aired 5/9/74). The second single, “Amateur Hour,” hit No. 7 in the UK and No. 12 in Germany, backed with the non-album “Lost and Found.” For the US, Island chose “Talent Is an Assent” as the second single.
Kimono My House reached No. 4 on the UK Albums Chart. Sparks promoted the album with a 16-date June–July UK tour, culminating with a 7/7/74 show at London’s Rainbow Theatre. The Maels hired Scottish bassist Ian Hampton (ex-Jook) in place of Gordon, who formed Jet with ex-Nice guitarist Davy O’List and alumni of John’s Children.
Sparks released their second album of 1974, Propaganda, in November on Island. It features three Mael brothers co-writes (“Reinforcements,” “Thanks But No Thanks,” “Bon Voyage”) and eight proper Ron originals, including the melodramatic “Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her” and the opening pair on side two: “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” and “Something For The Girl With Everything,” both issued as singles. The titular opener is a 30-second demonstration of Russell’s falsetto prowess.
Halfway through the sessions, Fisher cleared out for guitarist Trevor White, another musician in Hewlett’s hemisphere (John’s Children, Jook). Fisher surfaced in Boxer for their 1977 second-released (third recorded) album Absolutely.
Propaganda is their second and final album produced by Muff Winwood, who subsequently worked on 1975–78 albums by the Noel Redding Band, Milk ‘n’ Cookies, Russ Ballard (Winning), Dire Straits (self-titled), Fabulous Poodles, and Burlesque. His production on 2nd Honeymoon, the 1976 debut by the Liverpudlian nine-piece Deaf School, yielded Sparks-like music hall vibes.
Digby-Smith engineered Propaganda with Robin Black, who also worked on 1973/74 albums by Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull (A Passion Play, War Child), Laurie Styvers, Man, Spirogyra (Bells, Boots and Shambles), Taggett, Three Man Army, and fellow Vaudevillian popsters Sailor. Price mixed Propaganda in succession with 1974 work on albums by Badfinger, Camel (Mirage), and First of the Big Bands, the collaboration of singer Tony Ashton (Ashton Gardner & Dyke) and Deep Purple organist Jon Lord.
Propaganda sports cover visuals conceived by photographer Monty Coles (Taste, Twiggy). It shows the brothers bound and gagged on a running yacht (front) and stuffed in the back of a stopped car (back) at a repair station where Diamond, Fisher, and Hampton cavort by the driver-side door. On the monochrome inner-sleeve, the brothers are cuffed back-to-back on a bed, where Russell manages to free his mouth and access a nearby phone.
Island lifted “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” as the album’s first single, backed with the non-album “Alabamy Right.” Sparks mimed “Never Turn” on TotP (aired 10/24/74) and the Dutch music program Top Pop (aired 10/26/74). “Something For The Girl With Everything” was picked as the second single, backed with the non-album “Marry Me.” The singles reached No. 13 and No. 17, respectively, on the UK Singles Chart. Stateside, Island lifted “Achoo” as the only single. Another song from the Propaganda sessions, “Profile,” appeared as the b-side to their later hit “Get In the Swing.”
Propaganda reached No. 9 on the UK Albums Chart and No. 63 on the US Billboard 200. Sparks promoted the album with a November–December tour that included 26 confirmed UK dates and a five-city swing through Europe. Their opening act on select English dates was Pilot, the Scottish pop band months away from a transatlantic breakthrough with the singles “Magic” and “January.”
Sparks launched a month-long North American tour on April 6, 1975, in Toronto. They supported Kraftwerk in Buffalo (4/11/75: New Century Theatre) and played back-to-back Ohio shows in Akron and Cleveland, then-epicenters of new, eccentric talent (Devo, Pere Ubu, Tin Huey).
In July, Sparks issued a new single: “Get In the Swing,” a Dixieland marching band anthem produced by Tony Visconti, known for his work on albums by Bowie (The Man Who Sold the World), Gentle Giant (self-titled, Acquiring the Taste), and recent titles by Carmen (Fandangos In Space), Osibisa, and Strawbs (Grave New World). The b-side, “Profile,” is a holdover from their last sessions with Muff Winwood. Sparks mimed “Get In the Swing” for the 7/24/75 broadcast of TotP.
Sparks released their fifth album, Indiscreet, in October 1975 on Island. It features “Get In the Swing” among twelve Ron originals with a newly broadened vernacular that covers music hall (“Tits,” “Without Using Hands”), cabaret (“Miss the Start, Miss the End”), minuet (“Under the Table With Her”), big-band swing (“Looks, Looks, Looks”), guitar-based glam (“Happy Hunting Ground,” “How Are You Getting Home?”), and new wave blueprints (“In the Future”).
Russell’s songwriting contribution, “Pineapple,” is a music hall paean to the tropical fruit. Fiddler Mike Piggot (Gass, Paul Brett) guests on “It Ain’t 1918,” a knee-slapping tale of an old couple stuck in time.
Visconti produced Indiscreet at his Good Earth Studio during March–April 1975. His Sparks liaison followed his reunion with Bowie on the 1974/75 releases David Live and Young Americans.
“Looks, Looks, Looks” preceded Indiscreet as the album’s second single (b/w “Pineapple”). A reunited Ted Heath Orchestra (minus Heath, 1902–1969) perform on the track, which Sparks mimed on TotP (9/25/75) and its short-lived competitor, the ITV music program Supersonic. US copies have an exclusive b-side, “The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael,” a comedic spoken-word phone exchange between Russell and the answering machine messages of “Jacqueline,” voiced by Visconti’s wife, Welsh folk-pop singer Mary Hopkin.
Indiscreet is the only Sparks album (barring compilations) housed in a gatefold sleeve. Richard Creamer, the photographer for the Christopher Milk album, took the Indiscreet cover shot, which shows the brothers descended on an airplane crash site. The actual crash occurred at a strip landing in the San Fernando Valley with the neighborhood backdrop superimposed. Creamer also photographed the right inner-gate: a monochrome shot of the brothers in tank tops holding grocery bags in a parking lot. Island pressed life-size cutouts of this image for promo-display purposes at US record stores.
Gered Mankowitz photographed the back cover, which shows Russell in jodhpurs on horseback with Ron at the harness and their backing group (Diamond, Hampton, White) lounged at a poolside table. Mankowitz also photographed covers to 1974/75 albums by Fox, Hummingbird, King Crimson (Red), and Murray Head (Say It Ain’t So).
Two additional songs from the Good Earth sessions — “Tearing the Place Apart” (a drunken, odd-meter music hall romp) and Russell’s “Gone With the Wind” (a whistle-laden 2/4 strumalong) — appear on the 1977 German Island comp The Best of Sparks with pre-released Island-era material. The comp shows the startled eyes of a geisha peeking through red blinds.
Sparks promoted Indiscreet with a 48-city (Oct–Dec) tour, starting with a 10/2/75 show at the Culture House, Helsinki. The tour covered Scandinavia, the UK, Canada, and the US, culminating with a week of West Coast shows in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and California.
After the tour, the Maels dismissed their backing band and refocused on the US. White replaced O’List in a post-album lineup of Jet and cut the 1976 solo single “Crazy Kid,” which features Hampton. Diamond auditioned for Kiwi art-rockers Split Enz and played on two tracks (“Je Pense a Toi, Casablanca,” “Elle Est Fidèle”) on the 1977 self-titled release by Rachid Bahri on French EMI.
At the start of 1976, the Maels settled back in the US and reconnected with Earl Mankey. As a trio, Sparks recorded “England,” a musical tradeoff of cling clang percussion and fizzling sounds. Its lyrics contrast English and American culture with wry observations drawn from the brother’s two years overseas:
How was England weather?
Much like ours but with a moister sort of air
Much like ours but with a drier sort of air
“England” first appeared in March 1976 as the b-side of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” the mid-tempo Beatles rocker rearranged as a quiet storm ballad with Philly strings. The Lennon–McCartney cover marked Sparks’ first collaboration with singer–songwriter Rupert Holmes, a Tin Pan Alley purveyor with two albums to his credit: Widescreen (1974) and Rupert Holmes (1975). As a producer, Holmes worked with The Buoys and Orchestra Luna. Most recently, he produced Trouble, the 1975 second album by Sailor, whose mix of burlesque camp and ribaldry echoed Sparks.
The Maels assembled a new backing band with guitarist Jeff Salen, bassist Sal Maida, and drummer Hilly Michaels. Salen also played in the unsigned Tuff Darts, a resident act at CBGB’s on New York’s Lower East Side.
Michaels hailed from the 1969–71 shortplayer acts Joy (with future Blackjack singer Michael Bolotin, aka Bolton) and Peach & Lee. Concurrently, he played on Chestnut Street Incident, the 1976 debut album by Seymour, Indiana, hopeful Johnny Cougar, a recent discovery of onetime Bowie manager Tony Defries.
Maida hailed from Long Island popsters Milk ‘n’ Cookies, which made a 1975 album on Island with Muff Winwood. As a sessionist, Maida played on the 1975 UA release Lucky Leif and the Longships by future Hawkwind frontman Robert Calvert. He’s one of three bassists — along with John Gustafson (Quatermass, Ablution, Ian Gillan Band) and Rick Wills (Cochise, Parrish & Gurvitz, Foreigner) — credited on the 1976 live release Viva! Roxy Music.
The Maels secured a US deal with Columbia. Holmes produced the sixth Sparks album in August 1976 at Mediasound in New York City.
Sparks released their sixth album, Big Beat, in October 1976 on Columbia (US) and Island (abroad). It features eleven Ron originals with a decidedly American slant. “Big Boy” opens the album with brimming open cadences (sizzling chordal sustain, remote echoing vocals) over a tight, pent-up rhythmic pattern.
Side one emphasizes mid-tempo numbers with hard-rock riffs and pop singalong choruses (“I Want to Be Like Everybody Else,” “Nothing To Do,” “Everybody’s Stupid”). They vary the approach with “I Bought the Mississippi River,” which imparts their cabaret signature on the newfound rockiness. On “Fill-Er-Up,” revved-up chords ride a polka tempo in prescience to the oncoming punk sound.
On “Confusion,” Russell puts melodic vocal twists to an intricate playoff of clipped guitar, rattling hi-hat, staccato bass, and (momentary) alien synth sounds. The song, originally titled “Intrusion,” was conceived for an unmade movie by aging French filmmaker Jacques Tati, who imagined a plot where his signature comic character, the clumsy Monsieur Hulot, dies in the first scene.
“Screwed Up” takes shots at simpletons from each era (“In 1900 you held hands and felt like you’d scored, in 1910 you’d never need a horse anymore”). “White Women,” with its echoey caveman stomp-stomp beats, recalls their oddball moments with the Mankeys.
Side two is bookended with bold statements regarding the opposite sex: the nature’s-course assessment “Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)” and the self-explanatory “I Like Girls,” which Sparks performed live in 1973/74 and twice attempted with their UK band.
Holmes produced Big Beat just ahead of albums by Strawbs (Deep Cuts) and John Miles (Stranger In the City). The assistant, Jeffrey Lesser, produced Rupert’s upcoming third album Singles. Unlike other Holmes’ productions, which typically bear his orchestral pop flourishes, Big Beat is an uncharacteristically rock-oriented recording for him and Sparks.
Big Beat lists three engineers: Bob Clearmountain (Flight, Isis, Marlena Shaw, Synergy), Harvey Goldberg (Black Ivory, Les McCann, Lonnie Liston Smith, Stephanie Mills), and Michael Barbiero (Baby Grand, Fatback Band, Gonzalez, Mark & Clark). Clearmountain and Goldberg both worked on albums by Ace Spectrum, Genevieve Waite, Kay Gees, and Kool & the Gang. The mixing engineer, Godfrey Diamond, also worked on 1976 albums by Calender, George McCrae, Jun Fukamachi, and the Andrea True Connection hit “More, More, More.”
Richard Avedon — famed for his raw, intense grayscale photographs of human subjects — took the three photos that grace the Big Beat cover (front, back) and inner-sleeve. His photography also graces 1970s titles by Cheryl Lynn (In Love), Electric Light Orchestra (On the Third Day), Melba Moore, and Sly & the Family Stone. The graphic designer on Big Beat, Tommy Steele, also notched visual credits on 1976 albums by Earth, Wind & Fire, The Emotions, Freddie Hubbard, and the Canadian band Small Wonder.
Island lifted two singles from Big Beat: “Big Boy” (b/w “Fill-Er-Up”) and “I Like Girls” (b/w “England”). Sparks perform both sides of the first single in the 1977 disaster–suspense film Rollercoaster.
Sparks promoted Big Beat with a 17-city North American tour that included dates with Boston (11/6/76: Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara), Welsh rockers Budgie (11/29/76: Agora, Cleveland), and a double bill with Kraut rockers Nektar and English newcomer Graham Parker (11/27/76: Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ). After multiple bills with Patti Smith, the tour wrapped December 31, 1976, at Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium, where Sparks headlined over Flo & Eddie and hard-rock hopefuls Van Halen.
For these shows, guitarist David Swanson (The Pop) replaced Salen, whose band Tuff Darts were among multiple New York acts (Talking Heads, Richard Hell & the Voidoids) signed to Sire.
The Maels dismissed the band after the tour. Maida backed singer Lisa Burns on a 1980 single; they later formed the synth duo Velveteen. Michaels cut the 1978 album Radio Active as part of G.E. Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue, which featured (future Hall & Oates and SNL band) guitarist G.E. Smith. As a solo artist, Michaels signed to Warner Bros. for the 1980/81 albums Calling All Girls and Lumia; the former’s title-track became a first-day video on MTV.
1977: Introducing Sparks
Sparks returned in October 1977 with their second Columbia release, the ironically titled Introducing Sparks, their seventh album overall. For the first time, the Mael brothers receive joint songwriting credit on all numbers: “A Big Surprise,” “Occupation,” “Ladies,” “I’m Not,” “Forever Young,” “Goofing Off,” “Girls on the Brain,” “Over the Summer,” and “Those Mysteries.”
Sparks recorded and co-produced Introducing at Larrabee Sound, Los Angeles, a Columbia A&R whose small list of sound credits include the 1975 one-off by Zuider Zee and the second, self-titled album by Starwood. The credits list nine musicians from the LA studio milieu, including jazz drummer Ed Greene (Donald Byrd, Stanley Turrentine, Wired), guitarists Ben Benay (Goldenrod) and Lee Ritenour, and former Skylark keyboardist (and soon-to-be producer) David Foster. Two of the backing players — keyboardist David Paich (then in Boz Scaggs‘ band) and bassist Mike Porcaro — later surfaced in Toto. Concurrently, Greene and Ritenour played on the 1977 ABC Records release Aja, the sixth album by Steely Dan.
Introducing lists six backing vocalists, including three members of the California Dreamers (Ron Hicklin, Stan Farber, Tom Bahler), which sang on 1967 titles by Tom Scott and Gabor Szabo, both on the ABC jazz sublabel Impulse! Another vocalist, Marc Piscitelli, hailed from soul-psychsters Fresh Air. The vocal arranger was studio veteran Al Capp, also credited on 1976 albums by L.A. Express and Shandi Sinnamon.
The engineer on Introducing, Lenny Roberts, had assorted psych-era credits (49th Parallel, Merryweather, The Advancement) and subsequently worked with Dionne Warwick, Melissa Manchester, and Tony Sciuto. His assistant, Betsy Banghart, worked on 1978 albums by Gino Vannelli and Olivia Newton-John.
Photographer Bob Seidemann snapped the Introducing cover images, which show medium profiles of Russell and Ron in red shirts with matching hand positions and pinky rings. Both images list the name and title in the same place with no additional text, effectively making either the “front” cover. Seidemann also took cover photographs to 1977/78 albums by Dixie Dregs (Free Fall), Heart (Little Queen), Supertramp (Even In the Quietest Moments…), and Valerie Carter (Wild Child). The graphic designer, John Kehe, also did visuals for ELO (Eldorado, Face the Music), Fringe Benefit, Point Blank, and Sea Level.
Columbia lifted two singles, “A Big Surprise” and “Over the Summer,” both with “Forever Young” as the flipside. A red-vinyl promo pressing of Introducing Sparks contains a press-release sheet with a pink-tinted pic of the Maels. Abroad, the album appeared on CBS.
“Forever Young” appears on Sounds Like a Good Album to Us, the second installment of the UK CBS Sounds series with cuts by Café Jacques (“Meaningless”), Crawler (“One Too Many Lovers”), Kansas (“Paradox”), Kursaal Flyers, Lone Star, Mahogany Rush, Ram Jam, and The Vibrators.
Sparks demoed four additional songs in 1977 that surfaced in later decades. Two, “Breathe” and “Fact or Fiction,” appear on the 2009 Japanese reissue of Introducing Sparks. The other two, “Kidnap” and “Keep Me,” surfaced in 2014 on a newly discovered quadraphonic reel-to-reel demo of the album.
In 1978, the Maels parted with Hewlett. In an interview with a German journalist, they voiced their admiration for “I Feel Love,” a recent Donna Summer single that foreshadowed future trends in electro-dance music. The journalist linked them with his friend Giorgio Moroder, the Italian musician–soundman who produced Summer.
1979: No. 1 in Heaven
Sparks returned in March 1979 with their eighth album, No. 1 in Heaven. It was produced by Giorgio Moroder and released on Elektra (North America), Virgin (UK), and Ariola (Europe). The album contains six songs: one Ron sole-write (“Academy Award Performance”), one Ron–Russell co-write (“Beat the Clock”), and four jointly credited to the Maels and Moroder (“Tryouts for the Human Race,” “La Dolce Vita,” “My Other Voice,” “The Number One Song In Heaven”). In a break from prior Sparks efforts, the album consists of lush electronic textures set to space-age dance beats.
“Tryouts for the Human Race” is written from the perspective of sperm trying to reach an egg, from “Burlington to Bonn,” and from “twilight time to dawn.” The song fades in with synth-vocal tones and synth bass (in A) over a mid-tempo sliding hi-hat. Russell hits his high register on verse couplets like “It’s an angry sea we face, just to get the chance to join the race.” In the video, Russell (hair trimmed) and Ron (curly side bangs) walk about suited with stiff expressions in a haunted house. Gradually, they become werewolves.
Sparks recorded No. 1 in Heaven in Munich at Moroder’s Musicland Studios, the recording site of albums by Deep Purple and related acts (Rainbow, Jon Lord, Paice Ashton Lord, Ian Gillan Band), ELO (Face the Music, Out of the Blue), Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher (Calling Card), and Scorpions. Moroder produced numerous soul-funk acts at Musicland, including Einzelgänger (his Berlin school pseudonym), Roberta Kelly, Suzi Lane, The Sylvers, The Three Degrees, and all of Summer’s output, including her 1977 double-album Once Upon a Time, a conceptual follow-through to “I Feel Love.”
No. 1 in Heaven features synthesizer programming by Dan Wyman, who collaborated earlier with filmmaker John Carpenter on music for the 1976 action-thriller Assault on Precinct 13. More recently, Wyman played on Moroder’s studio project Munich Machine and Summer’s 1979 magnum opus Bad Girls. He also worked with Paul Jabara, who wrote Summer’s 1978 hit “Last Dance” (from the disco comedy film Thank God It’s Friday); and Brooklyn Dreams, a blue-eyed soul trio that included Summer’s eventual husband, Bruce Sudano.
Moroder co-engineered No. 1 in Heaven with Jürgen Koppers, who worked with Giorgio on recent Kelly, Lane, and Summer titles, as well as albums by Claudja Barry, Eela Craig, First Choice, and a host of earlier Krautrock titles by Amon Duul II, Brainstorm, Embryo, Emergency, Kraan, Sincerely P.T., and Sunbirds. The assistant engineer, Jim Cypherd, subsequently notched credits with Berlin and Oingo Boingo.
No. 1 in Heaven lists three backing singers, including Chris Bennett, a member of Munich Machine. The album is packaged in a single sleeve with photography by Moshe Brakha. It shows two close-eyed, platinum haired nurses — one white (front), one black (back) — getting hair-raising electrostatic charges. On the inner-sleeve, the brothers fiddle with the Musicland soundboards. Brakha’s photography is also seen on 1976–79 albums by Al Jarreau, Auracle, Bobby Hutcherson, Boz Scaggs (Silk Degrees), Lenny White, Leo Sayer (Thunder In My Heart), Michael Quatro, Mr. Big (Photographic Smile), Patrice Rushen (Pizzazz), and Roderick Falconer (New Nation).
“Beat the Clock” and “The Number One Song In Heaven” reached No. 10 and No. 14, respectively, on the UK Singles Chart. No. 1 in Heaven is often cited as a blueprint for the 1980s synth-duo format, as purveyed by Blancmange, Communards, Eurythmics, Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, and Yazoo.
Production: Nöel – Is There More to Life Than Dancing?
In 1979, Sparks teamed with Patricia A. Noel, a Los Angeles model and aspiring singer who performed as Nöel. The Maels wrote and produced her singular album, Is There More to Life Than Dancing? It features three lengthy disco tracks (“Dancing Is Dangerous,” “The Night They Invented Love,” the title-track) and two shorter cuts (“Au Revoir,” “I Want a Man”).
Musically, the Nöel album follows the electro-dance blueprint of No. 1 in Heaven with female mezzo-soprano vocals in lieu of Russell’s falsetto. Two tracks, “The Night They Invented Love” and “I Want a Man,” appeared as singles in the German market. The album appeared on Virgin Records in Europe, Canada, Oceania, and the UK, but not the US. However, “Dancing Is Dangerous” appeared as a 12″ in the US and abroad (but not Germany).
Nöel surfaced in Noel & The Red Wedge, a new wave rock band with drummer Thom Mooney (Nazz, Paris) and keyboardist–producer Mitchell Froom, a later soundman for Crowded House, Tim Finn, and Suzanne Vega (briefly his wife). Red Wedge’s singular album, Peer Pressure, appeared in 1982 on Scotti Bros. Records.
The Maels also produced Pas Dormir, the 1979 third album by the French rock trio Bijou. Sessions took place at Larrabee Sound Studios in Los Angeles with Zappa engineer Bob Stone, who worked on the Nöel album as well as 1978/79 titles by Loleatta Holloway, Pattie Brooks, Samantha Sang, and Shakti violinist L. Shankar. Pas Dormir appeared in France and Canada on Phillips.
Sparks and Stone also worked the boards on “C’est Sheep,” the discofied b-side of the 1979 Virgin novelty single “The Lost Sheep” by British classical composer Adrian Munsey. On the uptempo “C’est,” female “haahhs” interject the “baa” sounds of sheep, which are heard unaccompanied on the slow, string-laden, minor key a-side.
1980: Terminal Jive
Sparks opened 1980 with Terminal Jive, released on January 28 on Virgin. The album was co-produced by Moroder and Harold Faltermeyer, a longtime arranger and frequent collaborator. The Maels wrote the first five songs and co-wrote two with Moroder: “Stereo” and “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a four-way co-write with Faltermeyer, who co-wrote “Noisy Boys” with Ron, Russell, and Munich Machine drummer Keith Forsey.
Terminal Jive is bookended with space-disco numbers in the No. 1 in Heaven vein: “When I’m with You,” an echoey mid-tempo trance; and “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a fast-paced number similar to “Academy Award Performance.” Sparks tie the disco beat to rock riffing on “Just Because You Love Me” and add perky, clipped guitars to the new waveish “Noisy Boys.” One track, “Rock ‘n’ Roll People in a Disco World,” is a deadpan take on a then-raging dilemma. They revisit their Tin Pan Alley roots on “Young Girl,” where Russell’s questionable lust is constrained by a tight piano figure.
On Terminal Jive, Sparks employed the studio backing guitarist W. G. Snuffy Walden and bassist Richie Zito. Ron split keyboard duties with Faltermeyer, who did the lion’s share of production work. Forsey — a onetime member of Amon Düül II, Niagara, and the Ralf Nowy Group — drummed on numerous Moroder projects, including Giorgio’s 1979 Casablanca release E=MC². His brother, Laurie Forsey, sings backing vocals on Terminal Jive and Thunder & Lightning, the 1980 release by UK disco singer Dee D. Jackson.
Snuffy hailed from Stray Dog, which issued two 1973/74 albums on Manticore, a label run by Emerson Lake & Palmer. He also played on albums by Keith Christmas, Pete Sinfield, and deputized Paul Kossoff on one track (“Easy On My Soul”) on Heartbreaker, the 1973 swan song of Free.
Zito played on late-’70s titles by Brian Cadd, Carole Bayer Sager, Diana Ross (Baby It’s Me), Lisa Dal Bello, and Sutherland Brothers (Down to Earth). In succession with Terminal Jive, Zito played on 1980 albums by Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Peter Allen, and Teri DeSario.
Terminal Jive was engineered by Dennis Drake, a soundman for Derek & the Dominoes who worked on jazz records by Chuck Mangione, Oscar Petersson, and Wes Montgomery. The co-engineer, Brian Reeves, earned his first credit shortly beforehand on Carry On, the 1979 Warner release by onetime Return to Forever singer Flora Purim.
Terminal Jive is packaged in a single sleeve designed by Pearce Marchbank, who also designed 1979/80 sleeves to Virgin Records titles by Cowboys International, The Ruts, Skids (Days In Europa), and XTC frontman Andy Partridge. The monochrome front, back and inner-sleeve snapshots were taken in a shopping mall terminal by Indiscreet photographer Gered Mankowitz. They depict the Maels as a slaptick comedy duo in which Russell plays the straight man as Ron enacts psychosis and assumes slanted and horizontal play-dead positions.
Terminal Jive was released in the US, Europe, and Canada, but not the US. “When I’m with You” spent six weeks at No. 1 on the singles chart in France, where the Maels spent most of 1980, during which Russell became conversationally fluent in French (having already sung phonetically translated French on the 1972 song “The Louvre”). In the video to “When I’m with You,” Ron plays a ventriloquist whose puppet, Russell, lip-syncs against a vintage white backdrop. On the bridge (“It’s the break in the song”), a live Russell circles through mannequins against a black background, then arrives at a live model played by Perri Lister of Hot Gossip, a regular dance troupe on The Kenny Everett Video Show.
1981: Whomp That Sucker
Sparks released their tenth album, Whomp That Sucker, in July 1981 on RCA (USA), Ariola (Germany), and Why-Fi (UK). Sessions took place at Musicland with producer–engineer Reinhold Mack for Giorgio Moroder Enterprise. Musically, Sparks re-embrace guitar-based pop rock but retain the recent integration of synthesizers. For this and their next four albums, the Maels employed LA new wavers Bates Motel as their backing band.
Whomp That Sucker features ten Mael brothers originals, including “Tips for Teens,” “Where’s My Girl,” “The Willys,” and “That’s Not Nastassia,” all marked by high-registered choruses in the Propaganda vein. Tracks like “Wacky Women” and “I Married a Martian” show a newfound penchant for comic and space age humor. Ron’s arsenal consists of Yamaha CS80, Polymoog, Roland JP4, Yamaha Grand, and Wurlitzer Electric.
Sessions took place in late 1980 with Mack, who produced contemporary titles by After the Fire, Billy Squier (Don’t Say No), ELO, Queen, Violinski, and Gary Moore‘s G-Force. Years earlier, he produced Krautrock titles by Abacus, Out of Focus, Subject ESQ. (self-titled), and Sahara (Sunrise). He’s credited with synthesizer programming and “glass shattering” on Whomp That Sucker.
Bates Motel consisted of guitarist Bob Haag, bassist Leslie Bohem, and drummer David Kendrick. They recorded one song (“Live Among the Dancers”) on Sharp Cuts – New Music From American Bands, a 1980 compilation on producer Richard Perry’s Planet label. As their Sparks involvement got underway, Bohem and Kendrick formed the Gleaming Spires, which issued the 1981 album Songs of the Spires on the new wave small-press Posh Boy.
Whomp That Sucker sports comedic images of the Maels as boxers in the lead-up (back) to a match where Ron delivers the knockout punch (front). On the inner-sleeve, Russell regains ground. The photos, by Liz Sowers, are embedded in graphics designed by Larry Vigon, the visual director on Rumours and covers for Bob Welch, Harriet Schock, Lindsey Buckingham, and Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 release Mirage.
Why-Fi (UK, Spain) preceded the album’s release with “Tips for Teens,” issued in April 1981 (b/w “Don’t Shoot Me”). The video chronicles the boxing match depicted on the cover. Russell wins the first round but Ron (as indicated) is the ultimate victor. Months later, “Funny Face” appeared as a second single (b/w “The Willys”). In the video, Russell mimes and Ron dons assorted animal masks in a prop-up valley setting, where three girls in prairie dresses form a chain dance.
In another non-Sparks credit, the Maels wrote the lyrics to Sex, the 1981 third album by Telex, a Belgian electro-pop trio led by keyboardist–composer Marc Moulin, formerly of Placebo and Cos.
Sparks played their first concerts in five years in November 1981 in France, where Whomp That Sucker sustained the chart success of its predecessor. They returned to West Hollywood for a three-night stand (Jan 29–31, 1982) at the Whisky-A-Go-Go with the opening acts Sheiks of Shake and Adore O’hara.
1982: Angst in My Pants
Sparks released their eleventh album, Angst in My Pants, in March 1982 on Atlantic (North America, Germany, Japan) and Underdog (France). It features ten Ron–Russell originals, including the upbeat “Sextown U.S.A.” and the synth-laden “Instant Weight Loss,” “Tarzan and Jane,” and “The Decline and Fall of Me.” The cartoon theme continues on “Mickey Mouse” and “Eaten by the Monster of Love.”
Musically, Angst in My Pants continues the guitar–synth new wave pop-rock approach of the prior album. “Moustache” is a long-awaited ode to Ron’s defining feature. “Nicotina” conflates the respective lures of women and nicotine. Several tracks (“Mickey Mouse,” “Tarzan and Jane,” “Sherlock Holmes”) initiate the Mael trend of cultural namedropping. Sparks wrote two different sets of music for the title-track, which almost didn’t appear in any form. They wrote the second because they were short on material after discarding the first.
Angst in My Pants is the second of two Sparks albums produced and engineered by Mack, who also worked on 1982 Musicland recordings by Queen (Hot Space) and Squier (Emotion in Motion). On this and the subsequent album, Bates Motel have a fourth member, keyboardist James Goodwin, whose synthesizers are quieted in the mix. Goodwin (and Haag) joined the Gleaming Spires for their 1982 single “Life Out on the Lawn.”
Angst in My Pants sports cover photography by Eric Blum. It depicts Ron and Russell as bride and groom (front) and on a honeymoon at Niagara Falls (inner-sleeve). The back shows six heads (Sparks and Bates Motel) each affixed to a (duplicated) silver lamé-clad figure in a guitar-wielding Gene Vincent pose. Blum’s photography is also seen on albums by Elton John (The Fox) and the Tarney–Spencer Band (Three’s a Crowd).
As a single, “I Predict” (b/w “Moustache”) became their second entry (after “Wonder Girl”) on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 60). The video, set in a seedy strip club, extends on the themes of the album cover. Russell, the club impresario, lip-syncs in silver lamé while Ron, the stripper, writhes in burlesque lingerie.
Sparks performed “I Predict” and “Mickey Mouse” on the May 15, 1982, broadcast of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Danny Devito. Ron prefaced “Mickey Mouse” with a joke about mouse activities, such as “scaring women” and “ingesting… saccharine for laboratory experiments.”
Sparks promoted Angst in My Pants with Bates Motel on a 23-date April–June North American tour that included three Bay Area dates with The Units.
“Angst In My Pants” and “Eaten by the Monster of Love” are heard in the 1983 teen romantic comedy Valley Girl starring Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman. The original US soundtrack EP, released on Roadshow, contains “Angst In My Pants” and the film’s infamous closing number, “Johnny Are You Queer?” by Josie Cotton. In the UK, a nine-song Valley Girl soundtrack appeared in 1984 on Avatar Communications with tracks by Modern English, Psychedelic Furs (“Love My Way”), Gary Myrick (“She Talks In Stereo”), and Men at Work, but no Sparks. Both their songs appear on a two-album version of the soundtrack released in 1989 on the Japanese Nippon label with further tracks by Bananarama, Culture Club, The Clash, The Jam, Eddy Grant, Pat Travers, and Payola$.
In late 1982, Sparks wrote the theme song to Modesty Blaise, the pilot to a proposed ABC crime-drama based on the much-serialized 1960s comic about a titular spy–adventuress, portrayed by actress Monica Vitti in a 1966 big-screen adaptation. When the planned series fell through, Sparks released the song in France as a standalone single, retitled “Modesty Plays” to avoid a copyright complaint by English mystery author Peter O’Donnell, the character’s creator.
On October 29, 1982, Sparks played Rissmiller’s in Reseda, Calif., supported by rockabilly singer Levi Dexter and psychedelic popsters Three O’Clock.
1983: In Outer Space
Sparks released their twelfth album, In Outer Space, in March 1983 on Atlantic. It features ten Ron–Russell originals, including two collaborations with Go-Go’s backing singer and rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, a longtime admirer who once ran a Sparks fan club. Musically, the album follows the new wave pop-rock blueprint of the prior two albums with a stronger emphasis on synthesized textures.
“Cool Places” opens the album on an upbeat synthpop arrangement (in G major), where Jane and Russell trade lines and harmonize on the chorus. In the video, they hold hands and frolic midair against changing green-screens (suburbs, cities, mountains) while Ron enacts various forms of strangeness, including a four-handed head scratch. Midway, Ron does his trademark running hunchback dance: a feature of Sparks’ live shows. The second half of the video finds both parties against a purple polka-dot toyhouse backdrop with framed photos of Dick Clark, John F. Kennedy, and Mary Jo Kopechne (the victim in Ted Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick incident).
A fast-paced, perky vibe pervades on tracks like “Popularity,” “All You Ever Think About Is Sex,” and the bleepy “I Wish I Looked a Little Better.” The two-chord riff and chanting chorus of “Prayin’ for a Party” recalls the prior album’s rockier moments. Danceable beats reign throughout, including the semi-ballad “Lucky Me, Lucky You,” a Russell–Jane duet with oscillating sounds. The cartoon sci-fi thread continues on “A Fun Bunch of Guys from Outer Space,” an upbeat song with hazy (alien) harmonies and trippy, echoey synth layers. Sound-wise, In Outer Space overlaps with the recent works of Devo and the B-52’s.
The Maels co-produced In Outer Space at Synsound Studios, Brussels, where Moulin mastered the album ahead of his work on Tutu, the creative reinvention of Tokyo city pop singer Miharu Koshi. Reeves engineered the two Wiedlin tracks in succession with work on the Flashdance and Scarface soundtracks. The rest of In Outer Space was engineered by Moulin’s Telex bandmate Dan Lacksman, a onetime member of Mad Unity.
In Outer Space sports a Jim Shea cover photo where Russell stands straight as Ron gets plastered by a thrown cream pie. Shea — whose prior credits include album covers for Earth Wind & Fire (Faces), Deniece Williams, Joe Walsh, Robbie Dupree, and Starship Orchestra — also photographed the picture sleeves to “Cool Places,” which shows Russell and Wieldlin in lover’s embrace by an oceanside; and “All You Ever Think About is Sex,” where Ron jumps a sofa, startling a young Chynna Phillips (daughter of Michelle Phillips) as she sits in Russell’s lap.
The back cover features individual medium shots of the Maels and Bates Motel, all in matching black turtlenecks. Haag plays the Roland guitar synth and an Endodyne guitar, plus supplemental bass and “tab cans.” He also took the inner-sleeve photo, which shows the Maels in overcoats standing near the Atomium, a stainless steel structure of linked spheres constructed for Expo 58 (the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair). Concurrently, the Gleaming Spires signed to PVC for Walk On Well Lighted Streets, their first of two albums as a quartet.
“Cool Places” reached No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single contains the non-album b-side “Sports.” The Go-Go’s were between albums in 1983 when a remake of their biggest Billboard hit “Our Lips Are Sealed” — a 1981 co-write between Wiedlin and then-Specials frontman Terry Hall — became a UK hit for Hall’s current band, Fun Boy Three.
The video to “All You Ever Think About is Sex” extends on the album cover. Russell (striped suit) dances in place as the brothers mime with Bates Motel in a dim studio where Ron, stiff at his keyboard, gets pied repeatedly.
Sparks played more than 80 US shows during 1983, starting with a March 30 concert at the Anaheim Convention Center, supported by an up-and-coming Bangles. They opened for Rick Springfield on June–July Michigan dates at Pine Knob Music Theater, Clarkston, and Wing Stadium, Kalamazoo. The tour wrapped on October 31 in Riverside, Calif.
- Halfnelson (1971, reissued as Sparks, 1972)
- A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing (1972)
- Kimono My House (1974)
- Propaganda (1974)
- Indiscreet (1975)
- Big Beat (1976)
- Introducing Sparks (1977)
- No. 1 in Heaven (1979)
- Terminal Jive (1980)
- Whomp That Sucker (1981)
- Angst in My Pants (1982)
- In Outer Space (1983)
- Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984)
- Music That You Can Dance To (1986)
- Interior Design (1988)
- Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)
- Plagiarism (1997)
- Balls (2000)
- Lil’ Beethoven (2002)
- Hello Young Lovers (2006)
- Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)
- The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009)
- Hippopotamus (2017)
- A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020)