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Under the Influence of Sparks

by Barry Walters

Under the Influence of Sparks


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In the beginning, there were Sparks, and the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who led this constantly changing band, caused multiple fires that turned into proto-punk, New Wave, synth-pop and other alternative rock forms that persist to this day. Too tense, too effete and yet too violent for that laid-back early '70s Los Angeles scene in which they were born, the Maels instead pointed to the future with their clipped, crunchy guitars, treble-y Rickenbacker basses, operatic falsetto vocals, Broadway melodies and rapid-fire keyboards that pounded out stiff and steady eighth notes like Johnny Ramone would soon slam from his six strings. Sparks were smart -- smarter lyrically, melodically and harmonically than rock was originally designed to be -- and that cleverness at first actually creeped people out.

But soon their influence was everywhere, particularly in England, the Maels' adopted home. Their 1974 single "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" kicked off a U.K. hit streak that lasted until the brothers tried to bring their success back to Hollywood. Off they fled once again, this time to Munich, where they worked with electronic pioneer Giorgio Moroder, whose production on their 1979 album, [No. 1 in Heaven], another European hit, helped bridge disco and rock. The early '80s albums that followed shaped the decade's sounds, particularly with their crashing snares and neon-bright hooks.

This fall, the brothers Mael are taking their Two Hands, One Mouth tour back across America. Ron plays his keyboards, Russell sings, and that's it. But believe us, what comes of that particular combination adds up to more than what's offered by many ensembles three times the size. In this playlist, we've connected some of Sparks' most influential phases to the bands and singers most indebted to them. Call it fan Mael, if you like.

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