A Music Video Introduction to the Wide, Weird World of Sparks

There will always be a region of the music world for which any concession to visual flair is considered anathema, where Vans and sensible jeans are the rule. Y’all do y’all, but Sparks will have no truck in that neck of the woods. Ron and Russell Mael — the two weirdo brothers that are group’s only consistent members — are excellent musicians and caustically funny lyricists whose best work spans prog, disco, and post-everything alien pop, but their visual presentation has always been just as integral to the overall package.

Just look back at any video of Sparks in their early days, and you’ll see what I mean. The first thing most people notice, of course, is Ron at the keyboard, staring down the camera, looking like a cross between Hitler and Dick Dastardly. If you can take your eyes off Ron and move ’em a little more towards center stage, you’ll find Russell flouncing about, a Freddie Mercury for dudes with really strong opinions about John Irving novels and BBC serials. Roxy Music and 10cc were working in roughly the same whip-smart, high-camp field, but really, nobody is quite like Sparks.

Moreover, Sparks handily beat their peers in the department of fully realized, hilarious music videos. It’s easy, and encouraged, to spend a day going down a Sparks wormhole on Youtube: with 40+ years of music videos under their belt, there’s plenty to see! In case you’ve got errands to run today, though, I’ve gone ahead and thrown together some personal favorites to get you on your way. This is by no means a deep dive — Mael aficionados, save your snide comments for some fellow nerd who cares — but it should be a good place to start for the uninitiated.

This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us
Kimono My House, 1974

Sparks weren’t the first band to make promo videos, but their early efforts definitely seemed to grasp the potential of the format a little more fully than most. This isn’t their funniest or most elaborate video, but they were certainly onto something. It doesn’t hurt that this song, their first big UK hit, is among the finer tracks of their early, frenetic art-rock period.

The Number One Song In Heaven
No. 1 in Heaven, 1979

For this all-killer-no-filler LP, the Maels hooked up with electro-disco mastermind Giorgio Moroder to create an album of soaring, plasticine dancefloor burners. It’s a radical departure from their previous records, but as you can see here, they took to the form like fish to water.

When I’m With You
Terminal Jive, 1980

This song was a massive hit in France, but didn’t do much stateside. A damn shame, that, since it’s still futuristic, funny, and even a little touching (despite its best efforts to avoid as much). The video, like pretty much all their videos, is both goofy and ahead of the curve.

Cool Places
In Outer Space, 1983

Sparks at their most Devo-esque and “new wave”. They even recruited a new wave superstar, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos, to join in on the fun! If not their most caustically funny song, it is among their more bonkers videos, a fluorescent ’80s funhouse that feels like the missing link between Salvador Dali and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Say, is that Divine in the background?

All You Ever Think About Is Sex
In Outer Space, 1983

Sorry to double-dip from one album, but this probably is the golden age of Sparks videos. Here are our boys in full synth-pop sleaze mode, competing for their share of the pie with some of their biggest fans (Soft Cell, Human League, etc.). It may’ve been to their commercial detriment that they refused to take the enterprise seriously, literally taking the aforementioned pie in the face like a buncha clowns, but it’s a joy to observe.

The Final Derriere
The Forbidden Room, 2015

Yes, Sparks fans, I’m well aware that I just skipped over about three decades of worthy work to get to this recent nugget. Please don’t read this as a slight: there’s a ton of great work in between, and deep dives into any section of the Sparks catalog are always encouraged. Nonetheless, brevity is the soul of wit, and it is doubly the soul of listicles.

Anyhow: this isn’t exactly a music video, but a section of The Forbidden Room, a 2015 omnibus film the mad-genius Manitoban filmmaker Guy Maddin directed in collaboration with Evan Johnson. The Sparks section, perhaps the centerpiece of the movie, tells the story of a man, played by Udo Kier(!), who… well, you’ll figure it out. Those Maels have still got it!

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