Music: Sparks

These tropes ain't big enough for the both of us...
"Envision berets, tennis shorts, absurdist French comedy, espresso, faux luxury, fake English accents and a Hitler moustache, and some kind of picture will form that approximates the genius that is the first five Sparks albums."
Don Pyle, 2008

Sparks are an American band who formed in 1970 in Los Angeles and are still active today. The band officially consists of only brothers Ron (keyboards, songwriting, questionable mustache) and Russell Mael (vocals), but over the years they have accumulated a large amount of ex-members and session musicians. The duo's style is characterized by their whimsically over-the-top songwriting, their funny, witty lyrics, Russell's falsetto, and a quirky stage presence which plays with the contrast between Russell's hyperactive Face of the Band attitude and Ron's deliberately stiff and taciturn stage persona.

The group initially formed under the name Halfnelson, but changed it to Sparks shortly after the release of their debut. After releasing two quirky, Zappa-esque albums that were largely ignored in their homeland, the Maels decided to try their luck on the other side of the Atlantic and relocated to England. It was there that they reached their popular (and arguably most creative) peak in 1974 with third album Kimono My House, a fusion of glam-rock and dance-pop sensibilities with wry and clever stories, which spawned a surprise number two hit single with their Signature Song "This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both Of Us".

They followed it up with Propaganda the same year and Indiscreet the next, which were essentially a continuation of the Kimono sound to continued success (though the latter was much more prone to Genre Roulette), after which they returned to the United States starting with the more straightforward Rock sound of Big Beat. During the next few decades they would go on to make over a dozen albums in which they would flirt with many different genres, including disco with No. 1 In Heaven (produced by Giorgio Moroder) and a New Wave/Synth Pop period in the '80s (Angst In My Pants, Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat, Interior Design).

They had brief resurgences of popularity (especially in Europe) with 1979's No. 1 in Heaven, 1980's Terminal Jive (which made them One Hit Wonders in France with "When I'm With You") and 1994's Europop-tastic Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. The release of the New Sound Album Lil' Beethoven in 2002 (ahem) sparked renewed global interest and acclaim. Since then, the band has been making music that's a mocking combination of House Music, Progressive Rock, Baroque Pop and straight-up classical music. The new style paved the way for a productive decade that resulted in the rock-oriented follow-ups, Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures of the Deep, as well as their latest work, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, a musical Ron and Russell composed for a Swedish radio station.

The band underwent a Two Hands, One Mouth tour in 2012, stripping their music back to Ron's keyboards and Russell's vocals to great success. Their first live album, culled from the tour, followed in 2013. The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth Tour followed shortly after. It was announced in 2014 that they are also working on a collaborative album with their Post-Punk Big Name Fans Franz Ferdinand.

Despite being criminally overlooked during much of their career, the duo are hugely regarded in musician circles (Morrissey, They Might Be Giants, Nirvana, Björk, Ween, Sonic Youth, The Ramones, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Def Leppard, New Order, Faith No More, The Pixies and Franz Ferdinand are some of their most notable admirers, and Jonathan Ross calls them "possibly the greatest band on the planet"), and their music was crucial to the development of Punk Rock, New Wave Music and Synth Pop.

  • Sparks / Halfnelson (1971)
  • 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) - Cover Album/tribute album of their older songs
  • Balls (2000)
  • Lil' Beethoven (2002)
  • Hello Young Lovers (2006)
  • Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (2008)
  • The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009)
  • FFS (2015) - Collaborative album with Franz Ferdinand

This band provides examples of:

  • A Day in the Limelight: The narrator of "When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'" is desperately waiting for his.
  • Always Someone Better: "Lighten Up Morrissey" is about a guy whose crush isn't interested in him, because he's not enough like Morrissey.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Russell in the early days. The operatic falsetto didn't help.
  • Anti-Christmas Song: "Thank God it's Not Christmas", combined with Anti-Love Song: a man dreads the Christmas season because he has to spend it with his dull wife.
  • Anti-Love Song: "Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)", "Confusion", "Eaten by the Monster of Love", "I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song". Pulling Rabbits out of a Hat and Hello Young Lovers alternate between this and Silly Love Songs. See also Anti-Christmas Song above.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: "Hasta Manana Monsieur" depicts a man struggling to woo a girl in her native tongue. Unsure of her nationality, he takes random, wild stabs at every continent.
  • The Assimilator: "Eaten By The Monster of Love" describes men (and dogs!) being swallowed and spat out as sad creatures with "goo-googly eyes" and "sickly smiles." Resistance is futile.
  • Attention Whore: The subject of "Here Comes Bob", which details a man so desperate to have friends, he crashes his car into others. And buses. And mobile homes. And passenger trains.
  • Audience Participation Song: "Metaphor" seems to be designed as one of these.
    "Who's up for a metaphor?
    We're up for a metaphor!"
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: During the fade in "Occupation", Russell continues to list off various trades. Among these are "baby killers", "undertakers", and "X-rated actors."
  • Broken Record: The majority of Lil' Beethoven is built around stock phrases and repetition, but it is taken to extremes with "My Baby's Taking Me Home" which, apart from a spoken word monologue delivered by Russell, consists of nothing but the title recited approximately 104 times.
  • Call Back: "Gratuitous Sax" is an a capella intro to the album of the same name, calling back to the title/intro track from Propaganda.
  • The Cameo:
    • Earle Mankey's then-girlfriend appears at the beginning of "Biology 2" on their self-titled debut.
    • Sparks appeared in the 1976 film Rollercoaster in place of Kiss, performing "Big Boy" and "Fill 'Er Up".
    • The Go-Go's' Jane Wiedlin duets with Russell on "Cool Places" and "Lucky Me, Lucky You" in In Outer Space.
    • Director Tsui Hark appears in, well, "Tsui Hark".
    • Plagiarism features Faith No More, Erasure, and Jimmy Somerville.
    • Ron and Russel appeared on an episode of Gilmore Girls in 2006, playing a stripped-down version of "Perfume".
  • Comically Missing the Point: "National Crime Awareness Week" is about a criminal who thinks the titular week is a celebration of him.
  • Country Matters: The protagonist of "Hasta Manana Monsieur" has this reaction when his foreign ladyfriend mentions reading Kant.
  • Cover Album: Plagiarism, a cover album of their own songs. It was recorded after the success of Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins to introduce their new German fanbase to their older music.
  • Cover Version:
  • Crippling Overspecialization: The narrator for "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'" is desperately waiting for his big break, but he only knows the one song in the title.
  • Cross Dresser: Ron in the album art for Angst in My Pants and the video for "I Predict".
  • Deconstruction: Lil' Beethoven is this to the Pop music format.
  • Demoted to Extra: Kimono My House-era bassist Martin Gordon was annoyed when he saw the final album pressing, as on the back the planned band photo had been replaced with a large colour photo of the Mael brothers, with him, guitarist Adrian Fisher and drummer Norman "Dinky" Diamond being relegated to smaller, black-and-white portraits.
  • Dual Meaning Chorus: "Without Using Hands" has a Title Only Chorus that the verses give different contexts to. The first verse describes men and women meeting up under the shelter of the canopy of the Paris Ritz Hotel in the rain, planning to "love tonight, without using hands". In the second verse, a couple is showing off slides of their vacation at the same hotel to their kids; the children start misbehaving, and the father laments that "the only way children are punished, unlike old times, is without using hands". Finally, it turns out that during this vacation there was an explosion at the hotel - only the hotel manager had any serious injuries, and everyone else seems pretty unconcerned that he's "going to live his entire life... without using hands", implying he either suffered paralysis or loss of limbs.
  • Ensign Newbie: The unwitting new owner in "Now That I Own The BBC."
    "Hey, Rupert Murdoch, help me out, I'm flyin' blind"
  • Epic Rocking: The majority of Hello Young Lovers.
  • Fanservice: The sleeves for Big Beat and Plagiarism (and Angst In My Pants if you swing that way).
  • The Future: "In the Future", natch.
    "In the future fun is fun, in the future lots of sun"
  • Genre-Busting: From the beginning the band was hard to pin down due to the constant mixing and cycling of musical styles. Up to Eleven with Lil' Beethoven and beyond.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The title of their collaborative project, FFS, which stands for "Franz Ferdinand Sparks". "FFS" is also a popular text-speak acronym meaning "For Fuck's Sake".
  • Glam Rock: From Kimono My House through Indiscreet. Generally regarded as their best output period, and certainly their most popular and successful.
  • Gold Digger: "La Dolce Vita"
  • Gratuitous French: "The Louvre", "Bon Voyage". Russell speaks very good French.
  • Handsome Lech: The narrator for "Ladies".
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: "Amateur Hour".
  • Heavy Metal:
    • Ur-Example with "(No More) Mr. Nice Guys" from their self-titled debut, which has a heavy Rock sound and a loud, feedback-laden guitar solo.
    • "Ugly Guys with Beautiful Girls" and "Dick Around" from the 2000s.
  • Incest Is Relative: "Fa La Fa Lee" is sung from the point-of-view of a man who has sex with his sister.
  • Intercourse with You: A lot:
    • "Amateur Hour" (specifically about how Their First Time will always be underwhelming, but eventually "amateur hour" will be over), "Under the Table with Her", "Sextown U.S.A.", "All You Ever Think About is Sex".
    • "Tryouts for the Human Race" takes it a step further: it's from the point of view of the sperm.
  • Kavorka Man:
    • "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls".
    • In "Sigmund Freud's Party" (which Ron co-wrote for the Belgian group Telex), we see that Freud is renowned for trashing house parties and his sex exploits (taking a keen interest in a blonde "patient").
  • Keet: Russell. But everyone looks excitable when standing next to Ron.
  • Kubrick Stare: Ron loves to do this whenever there's a camera nearby.
  • List Song: "Perfume", "Ride 'Em Cowboy"
  • Long Runner: As of 2014, Sparks have been around in one form or another for 45 years.note 
  • Long Title:
    • Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, along with the album's title, has "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing", "Frankly, Scarlett, I Don't Give a Damn", "I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car", "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil"
    • "As I Sit to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral" from Hello Young Lovers
    • "I Can't Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song" from Exotic Creatures of the Deep
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Every other song. For example, "Here in Heaven" is a rocking, dramatic song about a failed suicide pact, and every other song on Big Beat is a charged Protopunk Rock song about something depressing, cynical, or irreverent.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art:
    • Kimono My House is a picture of two geisha girls against a green backgroundnote . The cover also didn't have text in its first pressing.
    • Introducing Sparks is just a bust shot of Russell or Ron, depending on which side you're looking at, against a blue background with the album title. Said bust shots are combined in this page's image above.
    • No. 1 in Heaven has a women in a white lab coat holding a microscope against a white background.
    • Balls is just a colored circle on a gradient background.
    • Lil' Beethoven is mostly text except for a miniature Beethoven cartoon in the corner.
  • Mr. Seahorse: "(She Got Me) Pregnant", if you take the song's title literally. It's really about a guy dealing with the emotional consequences of a one-night stand.
  • Mondegreen: Their quirky lyrics+falsetto singing begs for this trope.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: "Arts and Crafts Spectacular", from the Halfnelson A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing demo album, treats a gathering of kindergarten-level crafts with the excitement of a film premiere.
  • The Musical: The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman
  • New Sound Album:
    • Kimono My House began their Glam Rock era.
    • Indiscreet incorporated orchestral arrangements, as well as Jazz and Big Band influences to the Kimono sound.
    • Big Beat attempted a stripped-back, Protopunk Rock sound.
    • Introducing Sparks attempted a sunny West Coast sound.
    • No. 1 in Heaven began their Synth Pop period, which also frequently included New Wave, Power Pop, or Electronic Dance music.
    • Whomp That Sucker marked a return to rock, with some New Wave elements thrown in.
    • Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins took the Electronic Dance Up to Eleven after a several-year hiatus, with a big 90's Eurodance influence.
    • Lil' Beethoven began a Genre-Busting era which mixed Chamber Pop with dance music and Hip Hop influences.
  • New Wave Music: Were influential Ur Examples of New Wave with their early energetic oddball records, at one point being threatened by an audience who thought they were part of "the dandy new wave". In the Eighties, they took part in the style from Whomp that Sucker through Interior Design alongside their developing Synth Pop style.
  • No Sympathy: "Waterproof".
    The tears just fall off of me...
    ...Your eyes are starting to well up
    But that won't bring me down
  • Pie in the Face: Ron is the victim of this on the In Outer Space cover and the video for its single, "All You Ever Think About Is Sex". He got it once more when they performed the album in full during their 21 Albums Tour.
  • Power Pop: Coincides with their Glam Rock and New Wave Music albums.
  • Precision F-Strike: "The Angels":
    They feel so ashamed
    Because you look so fucking good
  • Pun-Based Title:
    • Kimono My House is a pun on the title of the traditional pop song "Come on-a My House".
    • Angst in My Pants is an obvious pun on "ants in my pants".
    • Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is a play on "gratuitous sex and senseless violence".
  • The Quiet One: Ron keeps the vocal duties to his brother. He made two spoken-word song appearances ("Under the Table with Her" and "Senseless Violins") before finally making his singing debut in The Seduction of Ingmar Burgman as a cab driver and a tour guide... nearly 40 years after the band formed. He speaks as much as Russell in interview situations though.
  • Record Producer: Have DIY-produced the majority of their records starting with In Outer Space. Prior, they made use of Todd Rundgren (Sparks), Muff Winwood (Kimono My House, Propaganda), Tony Visconti (Indiscreet), Rupert Holmes and Jeffrey Lesser (Big Beat), Terry Powell (Introducing Sparks), Giorgio Moroder (No. 1 In Heaven, Terminal Jivenote ), and Moroder associate Mack (Whomp That Sucker, Angst in My Pants).
  • Recycled Title: Their second album, A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, recycles its name from their first demo album as Halfnelson.
  • Revenge of the Sequel: The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth Tour
  • Riches to Rags: The protagonist of "Dick Around" goes through this after his wife leaves him, prompting him to lose the motivation that first got him to riches.
  • Sampling: Ur-Example with their 1969 demo and 1971 debut albums. The arrangements and sound effects were too complex to completely record live, so parts were recorded to tape then overlaid into the final mix later.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: Russell does this a lot, such as on "Equator" and every song on their 2000s albums.
  • Self-Titled Album: Their first album, which was also self-titled when the band were called Halfnelson. It was re-released as Sparks after the band changed their name.
  • Serial Killer: "National Crime Awareness Week" is sung from an inept killer's point of view as he taunts the police.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Several songs are shout outs to films, including two for Gone with the Windnote  and one for Citizen Kane.note  Filmmaker Tsui Hark receives a simultaneous Shout-Out and The Cameo in "Tsui Hark" from Gratuitous Sax.
    • "Madonna" is about a one-night stand with the famous singer.
    • "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'" references the Frank Sinatra song and Sid Vicious's infamous cover.
    • "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing" namechecks the eponymous saxophonist as well as quoting the famous musical line "And the hills are alive with The Sound of Music".
    • "Lighten Up, Morrissey" is a tribute to the eponymous singer. The song's narrator is being brushed off by his girlfriend because Morrissey is so much cooler than him.
  • Siamese Twin Songs: The title/intro song from Propaganda leads immediately into "At Home, At Work, At Play". Both are played together live.
  • Sibling Team: The Mael brothers. The band's first incarnation also included brothers Jim and Earle Mankey on bass and guitar.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Deliberately played up by flamboyant frontman Russell and stodgy, button-down keyboardist Ron.
  • Silly Love Songs: Often, though not as much as Lyrical Dissonance Love Songs. Includes "Wonder Girl", "When I'm With You", "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing". Pulling Rabbits out of a Hat and Hello Young Lovers alternate between this and Anti Love Songs.
  • Stage Mom: "Talent Is An Asset", to Albert Einstein, no less.
  • Step Up to the Microphone:
    • Ron provided brief spoken word sections in "Under the Table With Her" and "Senseless Violins", then he finally sang for The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.
    • Founding guitarist Earle Mankey sings "Biology 2" on their self-titled debut.
  • Something Something Leonard Bernstein: On the 70s material, Russell Mael frequently sings in such an odd falsetto that it can often be hard to discern any lines other than the title of the song. A good example is "Here In Heaven".
  • The Stoic: Ron Mael is the absolute king of this trope, preferring to perform live completely stiff and facially flat or unnerving.
    • Not So Stoic: Off-stage he's much more relaxed and cheerful. Almost every picture of him from the Two Hands One Mouth Tour-on has him smiling widely.
  • Stop Helping Me!: The title character of "Suzie Safety" is always helping and protecting the narrator, and he's starting to resent it. invoked
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: "There's No Such Thing as Aliens".
  • Supergroup: Formed FFS in the mid-2010's with Scottish Post-Punk band Franz Ferdinand.
  • Synth Pop: Began with 1979's No. 1 in Heaven and ran until Balls in 2000. No. 1 in Heaven marks them as an Ur-Example of the "fire and ice"note  Synth Pop duo that grew to popularity in the 80s with bands like Yazoo and Soft Cell.
  • Take That:
    • "Rock 'n' Roll People In a Disco World" was one against their pure-rock peers hopping on the Disco bandwagon in the late '70s.
    • "Suburban Homeboy" is a mockery of privileged youths who try to act street, set to a classy, vaudevillian orchestra arrangement.
    • "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" is thought to be a swipe at the mainstream popularity of angsty Nu Metal bands in the late '90s-early 2000s.
  • Their First Time: "Amateur Hour"
  • Three Chords and the Truth:
    • Big Beat is stripped-down Rock centered on guitars and drums, which was partially inspired by the burgeoning Punk Rock movement in New York. Subverted with its last song "I Like Girls", which employs a full orchestra.
    • The Two Hands One Mouth and Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth tours consisted of only Russel's voice and Ron's keyboard, with all of the songs played minimalistically.
  • Unplugged Version: The Two Hands One Mouth live tour and its corresponding album, which comprises of stripped-down versions of older material accompanied with just a keyboard and Russell's voice.
  • Visual Pun: The cover art for No. 1 in Heaven has a spark plug in the top right corner.
  • Vocal Range Exceeded: Famously averted. Russell has roughly a 2.5 octave vocal range.
  • Whammy Bid: The subject of "Now That I Own the BBC", in one of the most delightfully preposterous auctions ever. Subverted in that the winning bid, a measly £5, still had the whammy effect.
  • You Can Leave Your Hat On: The video for "I Predict", courtesy of Ron. In drag.