The cast

Oral histories



'Bright Sparks'
by Chris Welch
from Melody Maker
13th April 1974

It had to be said. The gentleman with the black, slicked-back hair, Charlie Chaplin moustache and thoroughly English cricket pullover, in no manner resembled a rock or indeed a roll artiste.

'Thank you Mr Welch, that's the nicest thing anybody has said to me all day,' said the vision, breaking into a smile of real pleasure. It's another case of a failure acting as a strength, because I always really had a desire to look like Alvin Lee. But something happened. I'd look in the mirror and put spikes in my hair, and look gaunt, and I'd have a fag hanging out of my mouth and say, "Ta. Fanks very much." And I had my teeth rotted away a little bit - but I still couldn't look like Alvin Lee.'

The Chaplineseque figure remained cool, while his younger brother, complete with frizzy hair and rotted tooth, laughed heartily.

They really are an odd couple, Ron and Russell Mael. From the UCLA in Los Angeles, now resident in London, and on the verge of causing a sensation. It may be that 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us' has escaped your ears, possibly as a result of being locked in a basement for three weeks. It's probably the most original single sound heard in several celestial rotations, and Sparks (for that indeed is the name of the orchestra) are sending a tremor through the nation that will result in missed heartbeats, beads of perspiration and raised eyebrows.

The brothers Ron (elder, moustachioed) and Russell (good looking, broken tooth) are Europeanized Americans, with a wry but active sense of humour, a fascinating background and a rapidly growing fan club. Such is the new popularity of Sparks, they have brought from New York their dedicated fan club secretary, Joseph, to cope with the deluge of enquiries from girls in Bromley and music buffs in Wardour Street.

'It's remarkable,' says Joe, in immaculate suit and reverential tones. 'Every time they play anywhere, or go on television, they get so much mail you just wouldn't believe it.'

Sparks began life as Halfnelson, formed among friends from the UCLA, where the brothers studied graphic design, literature and cinema. They made some tapes, sent them to Todd Rundgren who produced their first album Halfnelson for Albert Grossman's Bearsville label. The group and album died. So they changed the name to Sparks and reissued the album with a new cover. Success.

In 1972 the band came to England and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test and at the Marquee, and in early '73 released a second album A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing.

But then the band broke up, disappointed with the American rock scene.

Enter John Hewlett, founder of that legendary group John's Children, which at one time included Marc Bolan. John had helped them on a European tour, and told Muff Winwood of Island Records about the brothers Mael.

They returned to London and formed a new version of Sparks with English musicians, including Dinky Diamond (drums), Adrian Fisher (guitar), Martin Gordon (bass) and for live gigs the unlikely named Sir Peter Oxendale from the Royal Academy of Music (organ).

Muff (who was of course the famed bass player with the Spencer Davis Group) decided to produce the group and the results were 'This Town' and their first Island album Kimono My House. And John Hewlett became their manager. But back to the teeth situation ... Ron and Russell were sipping coffee at the MM's plush interviewing complex, and after initial nervousness and formality, were laughing and jesting, mostly about Ron's startling normal appearance.

'I have a tooth missing and that goes over really well,' said Russell proudly. 'You see in the States, most of the English groups that come over appeal because there seems to be something about English teeth. 'We haven't yet found the exact solution to the problem, but English teeth appear to be different from American. Something happened to one of mine, and when I went on stage and smiled, they said, "God the guy must be English."'

'The secret of English bands is having rotten teeth,' added Ron, baring his perfect molars. Everybody thinks it's their boots or some mystical heritage. But it's definitely not the boots. If you ever have a better dental service than the English balance of payments will be in a lot worse shape, because none of the English bands will be making it.'

But seriously men - you consciously avoid the rock and roll image?

'There was a time when I tried hard to have one, and failed miserably,' said Ron, 'and now ... well it sounds pretentious and all, but I'm myself...'

'And it'll work in the end,' said Russell. 'Our goal is to have all the little ten-year-old boys in England slicking back their hair and growing tiny moustaches. And the ones that can't grow them will have to pencil them in before they come to the concerts.'

Sparks found in the past that their best reactions have come from English audiences, and said Ron: 'Our main aim in life was to come here and work on a permanent basis. We took our holidays in Colorado where we became friendly with the Kennedy clan, who are tied in with some of the Island biggies. It was the perfect situation, and we finally found a way to be with an English label and base ourselves here with local musicians. We tried to get them through ads in a well-known pop paper, but things didn't work out so well.'

'Then it got weird,' said Russell. 'John had seen this band who were Sparks-philes, and were fanatical about what we had done. I didn't think there were that many people in the world who had. They were doing Sparks songs in a pub. It was amazing. And we found we could get along on a personal level so they became our band. They were English - and they could even play!

'The old group never actually broke up. We were at a stalemate. Sparks weren't getting any bigger and we wanted to change the outside elements surrounding us to see what would happen. So we changed members and changed countries, record labels and managers. The one element we didn't want to change to gain acceptance was the music. And we've stayed with Sparks music - whatever that might be. There's nothing else the two of us can do. We're very poor at being a copy-band and doing other people's songs.'

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