Top 10 ‘Sparks’ Music Videos
If there’s one thing that marks 2021 in this house it’s the discovery and growing obsession with ‘Sparks’, an American pop group fronted by brothers Russell and Ron Mael. Their incredible 50 year career and more than 300 published songs managed to avoid our attention until the excellent Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers was released earlier this year. We’ve been digging through their catalogue ever since, finding more and more oddities and weird collaborations, and buying t-shirts to share the madness with an unsuspecting public.
It only makes sense that we close out the year by compiling some of their best videos into this top 10 list. Given they have more than 25 studio albums, narrowing this done to 10 took a bit of work. That’s why we cheated and made it 15. Don’t at me.
WHEN I’M WITH YOU
from Terminal Jive (1980)
Ok, so it’s somewhat terrifying to have Ron pull out a ventriloquist doll with the face of his brother Russell superimposed on it, but it really does work to capture the awkwardness expressed in the song. As with all Sparks songs, it sounds like a romantic ditty on the surface, the lyrics tell of an awkward, uncomfortable man unable to keep his composure around the girl he likes. The puppets, dolls and mannequins throughout the video are as uncomfortable as the character being song about.
from FFS (2015)
This comes from one of their more recent collaborations, a 2015 album and tour working with Franz Ferdinand under the name FFS. The album has a number of bangers, but the stand out is another song about an awkward failure with women, the titular Johnny Delusional. The video is a seamless loop around an office meeting with members of both bands unable to approach the girl of their dreams. Maybe avoid this one if you get motion sickness.
LIGHTEN UP, MORRISSEY
from Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)
At a glance this seems like a jab at the moody music of The Smiths frontman Morrissey, but it is all in good fun. The video is certainly fun, and you can’t not smile at the Riverdancing Morrisseys throughout. Allegedly this was written after the Mael brothers learnt that a youthful Morrissey was such a huge Sparks fan that he stole leftover bits of bread from their breakfast. I have some follow up questions about that story.
THIS TOWN AIN’T BIG ENOUGH FOR THE BOTH OF US
from Kimono My House (1974)
The bands first break-out hit, which inspired Beatle-mania levels of fan behaviour (see below), may not have the most technically impressive video but it captures the same energy of oddness that the band embodies. It feels like this was the moment they really found their groove with Russell as the pretty-boy pop star and Ron as…Hitler. It’s a manic double-act that became the bedrock of their image and performance style. The frenetic editing of this video and Russell’s suits contrasting with the modest settings is what Sparks was all about in their first decade.
WHAT THE HELL IS IT THIS TIME?
from Hippopotamus (2017)
An electric mishmash of text and colour against a largely black background. It sounds simple, but the execution is slick and at times hypnotic. It only makes sense that in a song about God growing impatient with petty prayer requests that Ron would play God.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
from Balls (2000)
This video gets an entry because I love old school in the style of Fleischer and Iwerks. The style of Sparks certainly lends itself to this style, with insect versions of the brothers fitting in with the animated world like they were meant to be there. We even have some of their iconic dance movies perfectly recreated.
WHEN DO I GET TO SING ‘MY WAY’
from Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1994)
A strong contender for my favourite Sparks song of all time, and easily the stand out hit from their 1990s output. This heartfelt song about not receiving recognition for your work feels very personal coming from a band who never quite got the adulation they deserve. Even if it’s just a song, the video frames the story as the trailer for a classic Noir thriller for extra enjoyment…and raises some questions about the nature of their working relationship. I hope Ron isn’t actually jealous of Russell!
AMATEUR HOUR (Performed live in Croydon, 1975)
from Kimono My House (1974)
So it’s not a music video, it’s also my list so I can do what I want. This performance occurred following the release of smash hit Kimono My House. With a limited touring budget they were forced to do without a security detail. A nervous looking Russell asks for a bit of restraint from the manic crowd, but to no avail and he spends a fair chunk of the song trying (and failing) to avoid being tackled by a horde of young women overcome with love for the front man. Ron isn’t without his admires either, being climbed across by a 14 year old fan who appears in the 2021 documentary feeling a little embarrassed.
ALL THAT (Performed live in isolation, 2020)
from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020)
Living through a pandemic has been a miserable experience for all, and it’s been a strain on mental health worldwide. Sparks are still here, however, and have a very heartwarming and uplifting track to help us remember what matters most in our lives. The official video is nice enough, but this video call recording of the current band performing from their homes during a lock-down absolutely lifts my spirit.
from In Outer Space (1983)
There’s not much about Sparks that remains consistent over their 50 year existence, changing up their style, look and band members every few items. The only consistent are the Mael brothers and their remarkable ability to stay ahead of the curve. They were years ahead of everyone else in using synthesisers, and the dance moves from this video would explode in popularity after they were borrowed by Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, and this video helped popularise many 80s fashion trends. Iconic 1980s group Devo was literally born from Sparks, with members of latter joining the former not long after this video. Oh, and Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos was an unofficial member of the group during this time, being a welcome addition to this track.
from Hello Young Lovers (2006)
This song…is an epic. An orchestral rock ballad about a man who has worked and strove and fought to reach the heights of ambition, losing his loved ones along the way, and now he’s there. And all he does now is dick around. Such an epic, bombastic song needs an equally epic video and it does not fail. Sparks appears as themselves performing against a surreal landscape of images whilst the audience is made up of cat people. Why didn’t this get more coverage?
MUSIC YOU CAN DANCE TO
from Music That You Can Dance To (1985)
According to the Mael brothers, their studio was unhappy with their sales numbers and encouraged them to produce music that people could dance to. Apparently they took this very literally and produced a music that people could dance to as well as directing a video to help set the pace and teach some new dance moves. We challenge you not to tap your foot.
EDITH PIAF (SAID IT BETTER THAN ME)
from Hippopotamus (2017)
Hippopotamus seems like one of Sparks’ lighter offerings, with the titular track and ‘Giddy Giddy’ being oddball bops. The melancholia of ‘Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)’ hits all the harder in contrast. In the song they sing about Edith Piaf’s legendary ‘Je ne regrette rien’ not sitting right with them, and that it’s too late for them to ‘live fast and die young’. The mood-driven piece is accompanied by stop-motion animated versions of Ron and Russell trying to track a beautiful bird through the streets of 1930s Paris, only for their final encounter to go sour. It’s thought-provoking and beautiful…so long as you don’t mind feeling a bit sad afterwards.
SO MAY WE START
from Annette Soundtrack (2021)
Did you know that Sparks put out a musical this year? With Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg singing their songs? Sparks themselves appear in the meta-AF opening number that seeks to put audiences in their seats and introduce their actors getting into costumes for their roles. All the while they sing about the upcoming movie, how vain the writers are and where the emergency exits are. It’s all so delightfully Sparks.
This track is now in contention for an Oscar nomination, and the chance of Ron and Russell Mael making an acceptance speech might motivate me to watch the bloody award show for the first time in years.
by Paul McCartney, from McCartney II
You might be confused as to why a Paul McCartney song made the list, but there’s a link here. In the video we see a band made up of Paul and Linda McCartney impersonating various musicians such as Buddy Holly, Frank Zappa, Andy Mackay and, yes, Ron Mael from Sparks. Paul makes for a passable Ron, donning the distinct moustache and stern glares at the audience. Definitely watch for Paul as Ron rolling his eyes at Paul as himself during his early days with The Beatles. It’s madness!