A Shower Of Sparks



Stuart Maconie looks at the career of the durable maverick pop duo Sparks.

In spring 1974, alongside the established kiddie-pop of Mud, Slade and the Wombles, a new act sidled onto Top Of The Pops who generated more playground chatter the following morning than any of the above. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael had formed Sparks three years earlier, but their breakthrough came with the hit song 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us' - three minutes of staccato glam-pop that was over almost as soon as it began, with near-indecipherable lyrics and gunshot sound effects throughout.

Even more intriguing than the song was the brothers' appearance - corkscrew-haired Russell bouncing around the stage singing falsetto, while Ron stood virtually motionless at a piano in the background with a Hitler moustache and pursed lips, his eyes moving from side to side.

No one would even have guessed that they were brothers, but the Maels' chalk-and-cheese stage personae created a visual image which won them many more Top Of The Pops appearances and many more hits. Moreover, their image came to set the tone for a generation of electro-pop bands such as Soft Cell and the Pet Shop Boys - who followed the template of a charismatic frontman with a virtually motionless keyboard-playing wonk in the background, both of whose contributions were vital to the act.

In this programme the Mael brothers talk to Stuart Maconie about the relationship that led them into the music business and has seen them through a career of startling longevity, defying those who dismissed them as just another novelty act. Forty years on, Sparks are working on their 22nd studio album and still have music critics eating out of their hands. Always Anglophile by instinct, they have consistently enjoyed more success here than in their native USA - though they have played a long game, content to issue music sporadically and on their own terms rather than always to pursue the next hit. Their quirky creativity and refusal to play industry games have won them many prominent admirers among writers and musicians, notably Morrissey, Julie Burchill and Björk.

Producer: Paul Bajoria.