Sparks’ heyday was/is –
(A.) In the mid-70s when, as part of the glam movement that included Bowie and T. Rex, they scored several Top 20 hits,
(B.) In the early 80s, when they broke thru into the American market with massive MTV airplay for “Cool Places”, their duet with the Go-Go’s Jane Weidlin,
(C.) In the mid-90s, when they had dance club hits with “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’”, “When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)” and “The Number One Song in Heaven” (featuring Jimmy Sommerville) or,
(D.) Currently happening with the release of their critically acclaimed “Lil’ Beethoven” in 2002 and “Hello Young Lovers” just last month.
If you’re from the UK, you probably answered (A). If you’re from the U.S., you probably answered (B). If you’re a fading club kid, you may have answered (C), and if you’re a twenty-something hipster and part-time Pitchfork writer, you surely answered (D). After 35 years and 20 albums touching upon just about every era and sub-genre of pop music, any answer is really acceptable.
Ron and Russell Mael recorded the first Sparks album back in 1971to a largely indifferent public. It wasn’t until three years and two albums later that the UK got into the witty wordplay and unconventional song structures (and subjects) to make Sparks unlikely teen idols. It took America a few more years to catch on, but by 1982, Sparks finally broke into the Hot 100 with “I Predict”, a single inspired by the National Enquirer:
You’re gonna take
A walk in the rain
And you’re gonna get wet
You’re gonna eat
A bowl of chow mein
And be hungry real soon
Sparks were flying high after having adopted another band called Bates Motel to back them up. “Angst In My Pants” was the second album to come from this lineup, and lead-off single “I Predict” was a fairly big hit along the west coast. It even nabbed the boys a spot on “American Bandstand”. This was probably Sparks’ most successful period in the States – they finally charted on the Hot 100, they were featured on the soundtrack to the movie “Valley Girl”, they were one of the most played artists on the nation’s most influential new wave radio station, KROQ, and here they were trading quips with Dick Clark. Make sure you watch the interview between songs to see Ron leave eternal teenager Dick Clark in hysterics:
I firmly believe you must have a specific type of brain wiring to be a Sparks fan. I’ve played Sparks songs for friends of mine that have nearly similar tastes in music and have been rewarded with blank stares. Some people just don’t get it and that’s okay. While the early 80s were probably Sparks’ most accessible period for America, it seems most of the nation just wasn’t quite ready for songs about instant weight loss, living female cigarettes who die a fiery, ashy death, and the dangers of being “Eaten By The Monster Of Love”.
“Angst In My Pants” laid the groundwork for Sparks in the States that they built upon a year later with…well, that’s another Lost in the 80s post. Trust me, Sparks gave me a lot to work with here – as one of my all-time favorite bands from the 80s(…and 70s, and 90s, and 00s…), you’ll be reading about them here again soon.
”I Predict” peaked at #60 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart.
“Angst In My Pants” peaked at #173 on the Pop Albums Chart.
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