The Visual Splendor of Sparks

Published on March 30th, 2008 in: Issues, Music, New Old Stock, Video |

Do a search for “Sparks” on YouTube and you’ll find a plethora of links to Jordin Sparks, the winner of American Idol‘s sixth season.

But if you click on a few of the other videos, you’ll be in for a wonderful surprise.

If you’ve never heard of Sparks or listened to them, be forewarned: they aren’t for everyone. They’re only for those who like to be attacked by incredibly catchy, subversive, and witty pop music. You’ll likely hate them in the beginning, but that’s just a ploy to scare away those who aren’t ready for them yet. If you listen to a Sparks song three times, you’ll either transform into a fan or you won’t get it.

big beat
Sparks Big Beat (1976)

To focus only on their music is to give short shrift to their visual element, however. For years, I only knew what they looked like because of the popular MTV hit “Cool Places,” a ridiculously engaging duet with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s.

But thanks to YouTube, that has changed. Russell Mael’s “Aw gee whiz” innocence in interviews belies a bizarrely compelling sexuality. And Ron Mael, who will forever be known as “the one with the Hitler moustache,” is a master of droll, snappy repartee and undeniable charm.

What follows is a sample of how Sparks prove they are visual geniuses as well as sonic. I’ve chosen to highlight earlier performances, not because they are superior, but because it will better prepare you for the slew of YouTube live clips from their most recent tours. Once you see these, you can then gape more profoundly at how Russell’s incredible, multi-octave voice and Ron’s magic fingers are still amazing after all these years.

Here are ten examples of the visual glory of the Mael brothers.

“I’m all wet.”

1. “Change” on TV AM (1985)
Ron Mael is a genius. His joke about “mid-Atlantic” sails right over Julie Brown’s head, he’s completely self-assured and annoyed while he picks at Russell, and he wears striped tube socks with a suit. And the “video” is hilarious, complete with Julie Brown’s audible giggling. And you know she’s thinking, “How long are they going to keep this up?” With Thomas Dolby on the couch next to her.

get in the swing
“When salmon spawn. . . ”

2. “Get In The Swing” on Supersonic (1975)
If I’d been a Bay City Rollers fan in that audience, I would have switched to the Sparks Team immediately following this audacious display. Having read about Russell’s “hot pants or tennis shorts” controversy in the liner notes of the Profile box set did not adequately prepare me for actually seeing them. And say what you will about Ron’s creepy leering; his mugging around the 2:15 mark is, dare I say it, ridiculously cute.

“A built in seat that makes you look effete”

3. “Looks Looks Looks” on Supersonic (1975)
More bad fashion choices from Russell; is that a Parisian Night Suit? Having a horn section in the background and Ron on grand piano is how this song should always be performed. Plus balloons. I dream of a world in which the Mael brothers have a touring cabaret act.

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9 Responses to “The Visual Splendor of Sparks”

  1. astralmarc:
    March 31st, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Who likes short shorts?

    Bizarrely compelling is right.

  2. Popshifter:
    March 31st, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Hehe, I’ve tried very hard to think of someone else who could’ve gotten away with (or even tried to get away with) that look, and I’ve consistently been unable to do so.


  3. emilyc:
    April 1st, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Russell looks oddly hot in the first pic from 1976. Hmmmm.

  4. Popshifter:
    April 1st, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    There ain’t nothing odd about it! Though I must say, Ron’s not looking shabby either.

    I have a great old issue of Trouser Press with a long interview where Russell and Ron go through all their albums and discuss them. Russell is very wistful about the Big Beat cover. I will get it out of storage and scan it for everyone to enjoy!


  5. emilyc:
    April 1st, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    Russell’s dancing = best thing ever

  6. Maelancholy:
    April 14th, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    I feel so close to the mael brothers. The sense of humour, the fantaisy, the melancholy of some songs really make me feel not alone. They ‘re the best for me. I’m working on a website dedicated to them. To thank them, their songs, their look! I’m just 23 years old, hihi

  7. Popshifter » Attacking Non-Creativity With Creativity:
    March 3rd, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    […] warns us to “stop surfing YouTube” (although I have personally found YouTube to be a fantastic source of inspiration), while typographer Erik Speikermann thinks we should “avoid […]

  8. TheDouglasFir:
    May 28th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    The AB performance mentioned is back up! I think you must search for it just under the song titles…

  9. Popshifter:
    May 28th, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks Douglas! I did find it again recently and I have it posted here.


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