Sparks is an American pop-rock duo consisting of brothers Ron and Russell Mael. They are known for their eclectic songwriting and theatrical stage presence embodied by the juxtaposition of Russell’s animated frontman persona and Ron’s deadpan, monotonal scowling. Despite maintaining more success in Europe, they have a loyal cult following in their native United States.
After attending UCLA and recording under the name “Urban Renewal Project,” their recordings under the name “Halfnelson” captured the attention of famed producer Todd Rundgren in 1968. Rundgren introduced the brothers to Albert Grossman, who signed them to his Bearsville record label. Their debut album was released on the label in 1971 with an additional lineup of Earle Mankey on guitar, his brother, James, on bass, Harley Feinstein on drums, and Rundgren returning to produce.
Initially selling poorly, the album was re-released the next year under the band’s new name, Sparks. Their followup album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, was released in 1972, spawning a tour of the United Kingdom which secured their significant cult following.
The band relocated to England in 1973 with a new manager and a deal with Island Records. Placing an ad in Melody Maker, the band added Martin Gordon (bass), Adrian Fisher (guitar), and Norman “Dinky” Diamond (drums) to the lineup. Their breakout album, Kimono My House, was released in 1973, spawning a No. 2 single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.”
Gordon and Fisher were later replaced with Trevor White and Ian Hampton, later returning to the U.S. in 1975 to tour in support of albums Kimoni and Propaganda, which gained attention in major cities. They simultaneously became a sensation in the UK, appearing on the covers of Melody Maker, Record Mirror, and other publications throughout the UK and Europe in addition to frequent performances on Top of the Pops. They also performed on American Bandstand in the US in 1975.
The Mael brothers returned home to Los Angeles in 1976, adopting a more “American” sound with albums Big Beat and introducing Sparks. It was during this time that they began working in film, making cameos in Rollercoaster. In 1977 they pivoted to a more synthesizer-based sound with the Giorgio Moroder-produced album No. 1 In Heaven, which became a significant influence on emerging electronic pop artists. It spawned the top-fifteen UK singles “The Number One Song in Heaven” and “Beat the Clock.” The band returned to a more conventional band format for their next releases in the 1980s: Whomp that Sucker, Angst in My Pants, and In Outer Space.
Sparks returned in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, their first album since 1988’s Interior Design. The album’s “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” was the No. 1 airplay song for 1994 in Germany in addition to receiving critical acclaim. They received album Plagiarism in 1997, acting as a meta cover album with the brothers covering their own songs with collaborations. In 1998 they recorded the soundtrack for the action film Knock Off.
The band returned to electronic instrumentation with the release of Balls in 2000. Their subsequent 2002 album Lil’ Beethoven is considered to be their “genre-defining opus,” featuring semi-classical string and choral arrangements. The release of the album led to a resurgence in interest in the band. The critical acclaim continued with the 2006 album Hello Young Lovers.
The band performed at Coachella Festival in 2013 with a short US tour following. Their first live album, Two Hands, One Mouth: Live in Europe was released the same year, containing recordings from their 2012 European tour. In 2015, it was announced that Sparks was collaborating with Franz Ferdinand, forming a supergroup under the name FFS. Their debut album as a supergroup was released in June of that year.
A new album as Sparks, Hippopotamus, was released in 2017. Their most recent album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, was released in January 2020, garnering universal critical acclaim.
In 2021, Sparks wrote all of the songs for the Leos Carax musical film Annette, and were also involved with the Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers, which recounts the history of the band. Additionally, Sparks embarked on a tour of North America, the UK, and Europe in 2022, acting as their longest US tour in decades.