Filmmaker Edgar Wright turns to Ron and Russell Mael — inasmuch as anyone can turn to another in a Zoom call — and laughs about the task at hand: “I have to say, it’s very strange for me, but I kind of love it, rating your albums in front of you.”
Mind you, Variety has not asked Wright to run through the entire discography of 25 Sparks studio albums from the last 50 years in order of preference, an exercise in which there would be no possible way to beat the clock. We only asked the director of the new documentary “The Sparks Brothers” to name his five favorite albums by the brother duo, with the Maels on hand via Zoom to offer their own recollections of the classic and fresh LPs under discussion.
It’s not a big jump for Wright to consider the band’s career on an album-by-album basis, since his documentary — opening in theaters nationally this weekend after a Sundance Film Festival bow last winter — actually manages to address all 25 albums, at least briefly, and make them relevant to the narrative at hand, since each one differs from the others and represents some sort of new creative leap. The endlessly entertaining “Sparks Brothers” never gets bogged down as it explores the brothers’ entire discography: It’s almost alone among rock docs in its justified belief that every album tells a story.
Says Wright, “I get asked a lot, ‘What Sparks album should I start with?’ And the truth is that there’s no one album that defines the whole story. So that’s a testament to Ron and Russell — it isn’t like you can get the entire measure of Sparks from just one album. So I usually boil it down to five to at least get a bit of a breadth of work.” His five picks, all of them assuredly tied for No. 1 in heaven as well as in his library:
1. “Kimono My House” (1974)
WRIGHT: This is an album that kind of gets frequently brought up as one of the best albums of all time. And in fact, Rolling Stone’s recent update of its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” (from fall 2020) had “Kimono My House” in that list, and I don’t think Sparks had ever been on that list before. So it’s gaining new fans as well, and this is an album from 1974. This album is as old as I am!
VARIETY: A lot of people latch onto a lot of different albums, but the love for “Kimono My House” is kind of universal. Ron and Russell, you’re well aware of fans’ adoration of this album. If there’s one album that’s going to make “greatest albums of all time” lists, are you all right with it being this one?
RON: Yeah, as long as a few others seep into the a top 500 over time. It took 50 years for that one to make their (Rolling Stone’s) top list. So, we’re patient people. The other ones will follow.
WRIGHT: “Kimono My House” is a breakthrough album in the sense that it was a big hit in the U.K. It also marked kind of the second phase of the band, when Ron and Russell went back to London to get a British backing band to make an album with Island Records. Maybe Ron and Russell can speak about this, but I feel like there was probably an element of it being a last chance album, in terms of that they got a chance to do a third album and the label let them do another one. Ron and Russell grabbed the opportunity with both hands, because the album is so exploding with ideas and so fun and ferocious at the same time. I feel that sometimes when I make films: Every film that you make, you’re making it like it’s your last. Because you don’t know whether it will be. So I feel like, if you get to do an album you may as well just go for it. And “Kimono My House” just had that feeling of like Ron and Russell grabbing the opportunity to make an album in the U.K. with both hands and just making something timeless and incredible — and also very influential. It’s not a punk album, but people use the word “proto-punk” because it’s got this energy to it which is different from other kinds of albums that came out at the same time. And a lot of people who then went on to be the big punk bands were all fans of this album.
VARIETY: The album was a huge hit in Europe, and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” is still a signature song even in America, where it sort of filtered back. But did you have that sense that it might be your last chance?
RON: We didn’t realize the pressure we were under at that time, which is a fortunate thing, I think. We had had two albums out previously in the States in the early ’70s that did nothing, and we were brought over to England by Island Records, with no songs. They just had faith in us as a general entity.
RUSSELL: We were just happy that Island and Muff Winwood, who produced the album, really had this faith that something would emerge. We were really in awe of the situation, being invited to come to England, having our dream fulfilled to be now virtually a British band. And I think we just had blinders on as to what the options may have been had had this not worked out as well as it did.
2. “No. 1 in Heaven” (1979)
WRIGHT: The next one is where I come in, because “No. 1 in Heaven” marks the first time that I saw Sparks on TV, when I was 5 years old. I didn’t have the album, but I did have (the single) “Beat the Clock” on vinyl, because my parents used to buy me and my brother these K-Tel/Ronco chart compilations. I think my eclectic taste in music is in large part due to them. I actually rebought the one that I had; I found it on Discogs and rebought it for 10 pounds. And the sequencing on this album is crazy — it would go from like Dollar to Sparks to the Three Degrees to Public Image Limited. But as a kid, I would listen to “Beat the Clock” on repeat, and then like later I heard the full album.
This is the album that Ron and Russell did with Giorgio Moroder in 1978, though it didn’t get released until 1979. It’s an extraordinary album in terms of being obviously so influential, not just in the sound, but also the fact that Ron and Russell had the courage to completely change what they were doing: to stop being a rock act and be sort of an electronic act — in the ‘70s. It seems to be the sound of the ‘80s in the ‘70s. It’s an incredibly atmospheric album and really stands up today. You can see that there are people who listened to that album — a lot of artists from, like, the early 2000s — who sort of adopted that sound. You know, you put “Tryouts for the Human Race” up against LCD Soundsystem, and it holds its own, even though it’s from 30 years before.
VARIETY: Ron and Russell, were you even conscious of how radical a shift it was? Maybe that’s a silly question — you couldn’t not have been.
RUSSELL: Yeah, we were conscious. Maybe more so after the fact, when we read the press… [laughter]… telling us just how radical a change we had made. it’s really ironic that the album’s been kind of reassessed, since at the time of its release, especially in the U.K., we had lots of reviews saying we were blasphemous to our rock roots, and how we went against guitar tradition, and using the term ”disco” in a really pejorative sense. We actually never thought of the album being disco anyway. It had rhythmic-danceable elements, but to say “disco” was the nastiest thing that someone could accuse you of doing when you’re coming from a rock band.
We just thought it wasa bold kind of experiment with Giorgio Moroder to do something that he hadn’t done before, which was work with a band. He’d been mainly shaping his artists’ careers, like Donna Summer, even – she’s an amazing singer, but he was shaping the form of her music in a certain way — but now he was working with people coming from a band sensibility and applying his technique and his electronic knowledge to the songs, still keeping the personality of Ron’s lyrics and melodies, and then my singing within that, and putting it in a different framework. It was pretty bold, but I think the three of us went into the project with really this naive spirit: “Well, I don’t know what it’s going to end up being, but it’ll be something interesting, we hope.”
3. “Angst in My Pants” (1982)
WRIGHT: The next one for me is, for a lot of fans, one of their favorite Sparks albums, but I’ll admit that it was a newer one to me. “Angst in My Pants” I think is the peak of the ‘80s sort of new wave phase, those albums — “Whomp That Sucker,” “Angst in My Pants” and “In Outer Space” — that in the U.K. were not as big. At this point, Ron and Russell were trying to crack the States and having a lot of success in terms of the live concerts and being on “SNL” and being on the charts. But these albums were lesser known in the U.K. And before I made this documentary, when I was splitting time between London and Los Angeles, I talked to fellow Sparks fans, and in the U.K. people would be talking about the Island albums or “No. 1 in Heaven” or the more recent stuff that was on Radio 6 Music. But in the States, people say, “’Angst in My Pants,’ oh my God, one of my favorite albums.” It was an album that I was not as familiar with. But now I am! [Laughs.] And it’s just like, “Oh, so I’ve been missing out on one of my favorite Sparks albums.”
On the previous album, “Whomp That Sucker,” they had brought in an entire band, Bates Motel, to be the backing band. But then on “Angst in My Pants,” I think the synthesis of Ron and Russell and the rest of the band is really just on fire. And similar to “Kimono My House,” there’s not a duff track on the entire album, and it just feels so exuberant. I also think it doesn’t really date. You listen to the title track and it still sounds great. It’s another one of those things where I can really feel that Ron and Russell have hit on a really like deep vein of something, because it’s a perfect album — 11 tracks and they’re all great.
VARIETY: Here in California, probably 90% of fans of a certain age would tell you this was the album where they really fell in love with Sparks — whether they already knew them a little bit or were part of the majority probably thinking they were a brand new band. So we’d have assumed the album was that much bigger in England.
RON: No, it’s really peculiar, and that’s something that is really consistent for us: The perception in one area is “That must have been massive everywhere,” and it was only in one area. I mean, this is getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, but “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins” was the number one airplay album in Germany in 1994, but in the States, probably there wouldn’t be all that many people that know about it. The Los Angeles thing, a lot of it was rooted in the radio station KROQ that really played us a lot. One strange thing about that is that the “No. 1 in Heaven” album which sounds, if anything, more Germanic, was recorded in Los Angeles, but both “Whomp That Sucker” and “Angst in My Pants,” which are thought to sound more American in some sense, were recorded at Giorgio’s Munich studio.
4. “Lil’ Beethoven” (2002)
WRIGHT: With apologies to “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins,” I have to jump to “Lil’ Beethoven.” Because I feel like in 2003, it’s the start of a phase of Sparks’ career where I think an equilibrium happens, where Ron and Russell are doing something where they completely are not thinking about (hits). I’m not sure that you’ve ever thought about market forces, but certainly with “Lil’ Beethoven,” it’s just doing what you want to do and not worrying about who it’s for. You sort of create, I think, the current phase of Sparks, which is totally uncompromising, and the audience is there for that. “Lil’ Beethoven” is a really striking album because it’s like that documentary “The Five Obstructions,” where you take away big elements of the Sparks sound and create something that’s really fresh.
And I felt that as a Brit. When “Lil’ Beethoven” came out, the music press in the U.K. were all really on board. It was extraordinary to me: I think Sparks have always been treated like a going concern, not a legacy act. And I think “Lil’ Beethoven” is exactly the bold move to do something out of the box, that’s uncategorizable, that then wins you fans forever.
VARIETY: Did that seem like the turning point that Edgar is describing to you guys, as well?
RON: It did. Because we had written a whole album of songs that were in the vein of what we had done previously. And had we just decided to go through the motions and record those songs in the way that we’ve recorded before, we wouldn’t be able to pull ourselves into being excited, and it wouldn’t have motivated other people as well. So we scrapped those songs and just decided to do an album without the elements that we had used before — without drums or bass, and without even starting off with the electronic element. It really was trying to strip away all of the traditional elements of doing pop music and seeing what we came up with.
5. “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip” (2020)
WRIGHT: Jut because I want to continue the thesis that Sparks’ golden period is ongoing, let’s make the last one the most recent album: “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip.” Because I think in the wake of doing the album with Franz Ferdinand (2015’s collaborative effort, “FFS”), the last two Sparks albums, “Hippopotamus” and “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip,” have been a return to doing three-minute kind of pop songs. I think a lot of artists that have been maybe going for as long as they have see making pop songs as beneath them. And what I’ve always appreciated about Ron and Russell is that they don’t, and that they’re very sincere in that songcraft. So for me, on “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip,” the song “Self-Effacing,” the first time I heard it, I was like, that is a classic Sparks song, and nobody else could do that. It totally works as a pop song, but it also is not embarrassing in any way. I feel like you guys have found a way to do it without it being beneath you, with utter sincerity, and it totally works. And I can’t think of any other band who have been going as long as you have that kind of have managed to find that secret recipe of continuing to write pop songs. It’s incredible.
RON MAEL: Yeah, we’ve never felt that we needed to outgrow pop music. We have such respect for pop music as a form, and we still feel that there’s so much more to explore within that. And we’re just lucky that we can do that without feeling like we’re slumming. “We really want to elevate pop music, not take it down by just going through the motions.
“The Sparks Brothers” is in theaters this weekend. A vinyl-only, four-LP soundtrack containing 42 tracks (including a new lyric reading of “Amateur Hour” by Neil Gaiman, who appears in the documentary), has just gone up for pre-order from Waxwork Records, with delivery expected in the fall.