One of the enduring images of the mid-70s for anyone who had even a vague interest in pop music was Sparks playing 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us' on Top of the Pops. Ron Mael, the deadpan mustachioed keyboard-player, was the one that grabbed our attention - well, scared the shit out of us, to be honest - but in retrospect his brother was equally crucial to the presentation: a camp, quasi-Queen frontman whose flamboyance reflected the extravagance of the songs and set off the immobility of Ron. Mind you, Russell was well aware of his brother's position as a unique selling-point: 'Ron really genuinely frightened people, and to know you're having that effect on a nation, a modern industrial nation, is a pretty powerful tool in your hands'.
Sparks had been together for some time before disturbing the British nation at tea-time, but their first two albums - recorded in America - had failed to make any real impact. It was only when they toured Europe that anyone sat up and took notice: a well-received appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test (where Whispering Bob Harris in a rare outbreak of insight described them as a cross between Frank Zappa and the Monkees), and a residency at the Marquee whetted their appetite for England. When they were subsequently offered a deal with Island, they leapt at the opportunity and re-located.
The first fruit of that contract was Kimono My House and 'This Town', both produced by Muff Winwood. The single launched the band and was an enormous hit, but it could have been even bigger. When they were first offered Top of the Pops, they turned up at the studios only to be told that, not being members of the Musicians' Union, they wouldn't be allowed on the show. The Rubettes were instead given their first TV break, and by the time that Sparks did make the show, the momentum was against them: 'This Town' peaked at #2 in Britain, behind 'Sugar Baby Love'.
It was as big a hit as Sparks would have, but there were some fantastic records still to come. In that first run of success were the frenetic 'Amateur Hour', the gorgeous 'Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth' and the big band parody 'Looks Looks Looks'. It was a schizophrenic existence: on the one hand, they were producing fantastic critically-acclaimed albums like Propaganda and Indiscreet, giving them an art-house reputation somewhat akin to Roxy Music; on the other, they were becoming an established chart act. Even more bizarre, they were attracting a live audience that included large numbers of teenyboppers: 'What we were doing - despite being I think a bit musically challenging, though totally accessible too - was being received as though it was the Bay City Rollers, as far as crowd reaction goes.'
That kind of response couldn't last, but then it was never really appropriate in the first place. The joy of Sparks - and let's be clear, they're one of the most joyous acts ever - is their endless creativity. When that first flush of success faded, they went away, reinvented themselves as a art-disco act and came back at the end of the decade with 'The Number One Song In Heaven' and 'Beat The Clock'. Their contribution can be measured by the proliferation of singer/synthesiser double-acts in the 80s, most of whom had grown up on Sparks and wore their influences on their album-sleeves.
More recently the Maels have come back yet again with the genius of 'When Do I Get To Sing "My Way"' - their biggest-ever hit in Germany - and a 1997 album that revisited their back-catalogue in the company of various hip names. Lil Beethoven in 2002 broke yet more new ground. They are, without question, one of the great institutions of pop music, an enduringly entertaining, witty and charismatic act who never sold out, never compromised and - scarily - never aged.
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Sparks vs Rubettes on Top of the Pops
Melody Maker article from 1974