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Finding electronic sound was the Spark we needed; Four decades from their breakthrough hits, the Mael brothers are getting back on the road. Martin Hutchinson reports.

Byline: Martin Hutchinson

HEN they first burst onto the music scene in 1974, Sparks made a big impact.

WFirstly, the song titles stood out. Three of the first four hits had lengthy titles: This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us, Something For The Girl With Everything and Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.

Then the music. The songs were always catchy, slightly camp and with the distinctive falsetto vocals from Russell Mael.

And then there was the visual image. Russell was all flamboyance, but elder brother Ron's image was - to say the least - startling.

Ron, who is five years older than Russell and was the chief songwriter, dressed in a shirt and tie, played keyboards with a deadpan expression, had his hair short and slicked back - and sported a small moustache which prompted John Lennon to say "Hey look! Hitler's on Top Of The Pops!" Speaking from his home studio in Los Angeles, Ron - now 69 - recalls how he came up with the look.

"The rest of the band were big Anglophiles and started to try and look like British pop stars," he says. "I am a more stoic person and wanted to go in the other direction."

And he lays a rumour to rest about that famous moustache.

"I'm a big fan of silent comedy and it's a tribute to the likes of Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin - and not a certain German political figure."

Ron and Russell formed their first band - Halfnelson - in 1969, but four years later they changed the name.

"We had a manager who kinda thought we were funny and for some reason he thought that the name Halfnelson wasn't commercial enough. Because of our humour he wanted to call us the Sparks Brothers," says Ron. "We thought it was an awful name, but we decided to keep the Sparks bit in the end. It's not a name we thought was spectacular but it's OK."

We are harshest when we in it's be 'precious' " The band was lumped in with the Glam Rock genre, and when that petered ou Ron Mael, brother around 1976, interest in the band waned. That is until 1979, when they released the album Number One In Heaven.

This album was co-written and produced by the Mael brothers and disco giant Giorgio Moroder, and spawned no less than three hit singles: The Number One Song In Heaven, Beat The Clock and Tryouts For The Human Race.

"We'd worked a lot with Tony Visconti on the previous albums, and on particular on the album Indiscreet on which he added a lot of orchestrations," explains Ron.

"We felt that we wanted to stretch ourselves and to be outside of the normal band arrangements."

"We had heard (Donna Summer's) I Feel Love and we thought we would put ourselves into that frame, with the cold, electronic music and the warm singing of the lyrics. Russell was really good on that one and the Number One In Heaven album was the fruit. It was very collaborative and introduced us to that electronic sound."

The band went quiet again, although a resurgence of interest led to the Gratuitous Sax And Mindless Violins album in 1994, but the band has been far from idle.

"We've also been working on movies," says Ron. "We made a decision to work in another medium. Plus we worked with other artists; the collaboration with Franz Ferdinand was OK."

Brothers in bands generally tend to have big fall-outs, such as The Everly Brothers, Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks and Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis, I wondered if Ron and Russell ever fell out.

Ron suggests they don't.

"We have the same sensibility about what we like and don't like. We discuss things but in general we agree on most things. And we are our own harshest critics and when we bring ideas in it's important not to be 'precious' about it."

On September 8, just ahead of their tour, the band will release new album Hippopotamus.

"This is the first album of pure Sparks songs in a long time," explains Ron, "and it's got more of a band approach, even though some of the songs aren't quite conventional.

"We played some of the new songs at the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival in Glasgow and they went down very well."

And when Sparks tour, Ron and Russell will be backed by their band.

"Aside from Russell and myself, there will be five other musicians. Two guitars, bass, drums and another keyboard player," says Ron.

"The band is so amazing and energised and invested in the material. It's exciting for us to go back to playing as a band."

?SPARKS will be bringing their Hippopotamus Tour to the O2 Institute, Birmingham, on Sunday, September 24.

Because of our wanted to call us Brothers," says it name, to "We had heard (I Feel We are our own harshest critics and when we bring ideas in it's important not to be 'precious' about it Ron Mael, left, with brother Russell


Ron and Russell Mael, from Sparks, will be coming to Birmingham after releasing their new album Hippopotamus
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Aug 25, 2017
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