—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 critical and commercial 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 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.
In 2014 they formed FFS with their Post-Punk Big Name Fans Franz Ferdinand and released a self-titled album in 2015, followed by a tour. They released Hippopotamus in 2017, returning their sound to clever, literate (and often darkly humorous) pop.
Despite being criminally overlooked during much of their career, the duo are hugely regarded in musician circles (Morrissey, They Might Be Giants, Nirvana, BjŲrk, 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) - Self-titled album of collaborative band with Franz Ferdinand
- Hippopotamus (2017)
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.
- "Christmas Without a Prayer" is about a guy who's left out from the festivities.
- 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 for everyone except the narrator, who always narrowly dodges it.
- 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" is designed as one of these.Russell: "Who's up for a metaphor?"
Crowd: "We're up for a metaphor!"
- Being God Is Hard: "What The Hell Is It This Time?" deals with a God being plagued by rather banal demands as prayers.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: During the fade-out 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. It is taken to an extreme with "My Baby's Taking Me Home" which, apart from a spoken word monologue, consists of nothing but the title recited approximately 104 times.
- Call-Back: "Gratuitous Sax" is an a capella intro to Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, calling back to the a capella 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 on, well, "Tsui Hark".
- Plagiarism features Faith No More, Erasure, and Bronski Beat's Jimmy Somerville.
- Ron and Russell themselves appeared on an episode of Gilmore Girls in 2006, playing a stripped-down version of "Perfume".
- On Hippopotamus director Leos Carax and opera singer Rebecca Sjowell duet with Russell on "When You're a French Director" and "Life with the Macbeths", respectively.
- 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 fans to their older music.
- The Cover Changes the Meaning: Their cover of The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" plays it maturely as opposed to the original's innocent teenage romance tone.
- 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, condensing the songs to minimalist and repetitious structures.
- 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 Number One Song in Heaven", "Ugly Guys with Beautiful Girls" and "As I Sit to Play the Organ at the Notre Dam Cathedral" each pass seven minutes.
- 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", and the band were well aware of this when they chose the name.
- Glam Rock: From Kimono My House through Indiscreet. Generally regarded as their best output period, and certainly their most popular and successful.
- Gold Digger: The narrator of "La Dolce Vita"."Gold diggers arise
Gold diggers are hungry, guys
Gold diggers are we
Step up, follow me"
- Gratuitous French: "The Louvre", "Bon Voyage". Russell speaks very good French.
- Handsome Lech: The narrator for "Ladies".
- Heavy Metal:
- Hell of a Heaven: Played for dark laughs in "Here in Heaven", as the narrator is stuck waiting for his lover's far-off death after a failed suicide pact. The song provides the trope's page quote:"Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here for many, many years"
- Hormone-Addled Teenager: "Amateur Hour".
- 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", "Get in the Swing".
- "Tryouts for the Human Race" takes it a step further: it's from the point of view of the sperm.
- In the Style of...: Their cover of The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is in the style of Philadelphia Soul.
- It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: "The Ghost of Liberace" starts with this.
- 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:
"Genevieve wears Dior
- "Perfume", of women and the perfumes they wear:
Margaret wears Tresor
Mary Jo wears Lauren
But you don't wear no perfume"
"I swam, I sank
- "Ride 'Em Cowboy", of various stock phrases and cliches placed against their opposites:
Top seed, unranked
The pole, the wall
The pride, the fall"
- "Hippopotamus", of various things that end in 'us' that the narrator finds in his pool. These include the titular hippopotamus, a book by anonymous, a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, and even Titus Andronicus!
- Long Runner: In 2018, Sparks (including Halfnelson) will have been a band for 50 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.
- "So Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?" from Hippopotamus.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Every other song. For example, "Here in Heaven" is a rocking, dramatic song about a failed suicide pact, and most of the songs on Big Beat are charged Protopunk Rock songs 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 flat, 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", taking the song's title literally. It's really about a guy dealing with the emotional consequences of a one-night stand.
- 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, written for Swedish radio about the titular director getting swept into his own personal Hollywood nightmare after the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.
- 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 Music 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.
- FFS combined Spark's operatic and electronic Glam Rock with Franz Ferdinand's Post-Punk Dance Rock.
- 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
- Not So Stoic: Ron's on-stage character is stiff and taciturn. Occasional music videos and off-stage appearances have him smiling widely, and in person he's as affable as his brother.
- One-Man Song: "Roger", "Fletcher Honorama", "Here Comes Bob", "Angus Desire", "Sherlock Holmes", "Mickey Mouse", "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing", "Tsui Hark", "The Ghost of Liberace", "Lighten Up, Morrissey", "I Am Ingmar Bergman".
- One-Woman Song: "Suzie Safety", "That's Not Nastassia", "Nicotina", "Madonna", "Frankly Scarlett, I Don't Give a Damn", "What Would Katharine Hepburn Say?", "Scheherazade", "Brenda is Always In The Way", "…dith Piaf Said It Better Than Me".
- 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 a pun on "ants in my pants".
- Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is a play on "gratuitous sex and senseless violence". The individual songs "Gratuitous Sax" and "Senseless Violins" play the phrases literally.
- The Quiet One: Ron keeps the vocal duties to his brother. He made three spoken-word appearances ("Under the Table with Her", "Shopping Mall of Love", "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.
- He sings lead on one line in the FFS song "Collaborations Don't Work", although you can frequently hear him embedded in the backing vocals.
- Record Producer: Have DIY-produced the majority of their records starting with In Outer Space. They have also made use of Todd Rundgren (Sparks), Muff Winwood (Kimono My House, Propaganda), Tony Visconti (Indiscreet), Rupert Holmesnote and Jeffrey Lesser (Big Beat), Terry Powell (Introducing Sparks), Giorgio Moroder (No. 1 in Heaven, Terminal Jivenote ), Moroder associate Mack (Whomp That Sucker, Angst in My Pants), and John Congleton (FFS).
- Recycled Title: Their second album, A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, recycles its name from their first demo album as Halfnelson but none of the songs.
- Revenge of the Sequel: The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth Tour.
- Revisiting the Roots: After decades of Electronic Music, experimental Chamber Pop, two tours of just voice and piano, and a collaborative album with Franz Ferdinand, Hippopotamus returns the band's style to literate and humorous Pop with musical elements taken from throughout their career.
- Revolving Door Band: In the situations where the Mael brothers have hired a backing band rather than session musicians, said group will change with every few albums. Backing band Bates Motelnote and drummer Tammy Glover stayed with them for five albums eachnote , and guitarist Dean Menta for four albums.note
- Riches to Rags: The protagonist of "Dick Around" works his way up to CEO of a major company until his wife leaves him, prompting him to lose the motivation that first got him to riches, and he falls back down dramatically until "all [he does] now is dick around".
- 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. The music for "Roger" in particular is composed similarly to Hip-Hop beats-making.
- 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.
- 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", and 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.
- "Fa La Fa Lee" is a Silly Love Song about incest. It's from their first album.
- Stage Mom: "Talent Is An Asset" plays Albert Einstein's mother as this.
- Step Up to the Microphone:
- Ron provided brief spoken word sections in "Under the Table With Her" and "Senseless Violins". He nearly speaks every word in "Shopping Mall of Love," besides Russell, who sings the chorus. 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 on stage, preferring to perform completely stiff and facially flat or unnerving. Off stage he's about as smiley and affable as Russell, if a bit introverted.
- 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. They disassociate themselves from the "supergroup" label, emphasizing that FFS is an actual band.
- 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" Synth-Pop duonote 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" advises that the first time isn't expected to go well, and that you need to practice at sex before you can get good at it.
- 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.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The video for "All You Ever Think About is Sex" is of the band miming the song while Ron gets repeatedly pelted with pie. Nobody besides Ron reacts to it.
- Unwanted Assistance: The title character of "Suzie Safety" is always helping and protecting the narrator from every little possible danger, and he's starting to resent it.
- Visual Pun: The cover art for No. 1 in Heaven has a spark plug in the top right corner.
- Whammy Bid: The subject of "Now That I Own the BBC", in one of the most delightfully preposterous auctions ever. The punchline is that the winning bid was a measly £5, but it still had the whammy effect.
- You Can Leave Your Hat On: The video for "I Predict", courtesy of Ron. In drag.