What is a band that changes genres from album to album? It sounds like conceptual art, but for brothers Russell and Ron Mael, who’ve been Sparks since 1967, it’s been a storied music career that has earned a large cult following and several hit singles—if “rarely in a row, rarely in the same country, and rarely in the same style,” as Pitchfork observed in an appreciation of 1979 classic No. 1 in Heaven, the pivotal collaboration with disco progenitor Giorgio Moroder. (Read that title out loud for a taste of the cryptic Sparks wit.)
Unlike their hard-rock peers who crassly cashed in on disco—listened to Kiss’s Dynasty lately?—Sparks’ innate musicality, arch theatricality, and sheer pleasure principle fit the newly world-beating genre authentically, and the album produced the euphoric UK hit “The Number One Song in Heaven,” which sounds as current as anything by Daft Punk and, in fine Sparks fashion, purports to be written by god.
It was quite an accomplishment to be an oddity in the UK glam rock scene of the 1970s, but that’s how Sparks started after crashing the party from Los Angeles. Their lean but intricate music both sent up and celebrated the era’s excess, undercutting it with clever lyrics and a distinctive stage presence that would find keyboardist Ron, styled like a bitterly scheming RadioShack employee, staring daggers at foppish frontman Russell.
No wonder filmmakers are drawn to them: 2021 brings the documentary The Sparks Brothers (by Shaun of the Dead and Ant-Man director Edgar Wright) and the feature film Annette, which began as a new Sparks album but evolved into a movie cowritten and directed by Leos Carax—the celebrated French director’s English-language debut, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Along with their performance at Big Ears, the films are the best way to get oriented in roughly two dozen albums that absorb art-rock, new wave, baroque music, opera, heavy metal, house, surf, and points outlying while always sounding only like Sparks.