They Are the Most Popular, Influential and Enduring Pop Group to Ever Bounce Out of Pali High—And You Probably Have Never Heard of Them
By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief
Palisades Charter High School is famed for spawning generations of lauded actors, from Jeff Bridges and Amy Smart to Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
And the occasional politician, such as Raffi Hovannisian, Class of 1977, who went on to become the first foreign minister of the independent Republic of Armenia.
But, despite a strong music program, there are fewer musicians of note. Maybe it’s the relative lack of family connections.
There is William Adams, aka will.i.am, formerly of The Black Eyed Peas, Suzanna Hoffs of The Bangles, rapper Syd Tha Kyd, and award-winning film composers David and Thomas Newman—brothers, and cousins of Palisadian Randy Newman.
And then there are those other brothers, a double act who sell out 21 shows in a row in London and are mobbed by young fashionables in Japan. And who are still unknown at home.
They are Ron David Mael and Russell Craig Mael, collectively known as Sparks, who for over half a century have created some extraordinary and lasting tunes while hiding behind their contradictions and myths.
So, are they friends of Andy Warhol? Or children of a famed singing star? Both untrue.
Were they banned by BBC radio—for promoting a jokey song called “Dicking Around”—at the same time BBC radio as broadcasting an hour-long documentary about them? True enough.
Many don’t know what to make of them. Silly, uncomfortable and weird are common pejoratives. It’s not just Russell’s doe-eyed sweetness and still-pure falsetto voice, his high energy contrasting with Ron’s conservatively-dressed (he pioneered “normcore” before Brooklyn hipsters) and deadpan performance at the piano.
And Ron’s pencil-thin moustache—Hitler or Chaplin? That’s up to you.
One year they are producing songs in 90-second punk bursts, then it is “art-pop,” with Dadesque lyrics about monkeys driving cars, the next introducing Italian dance floor maestro Giorgio Moroder to an international audience with “Number One Song in Heaven.”
Or they’re writing the theme for the NPR show “Bookworm” (or a perfume advertisement for Dolce & Gabanna), appearing in “The Gilmore Girls” or writing an opera about the gloomy Scandinavian film director Ingmar Bergman.
Or else they are creating a loosely jointed “supergroup” to play the massive Coachella and Glastonbury festivals with Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand.
It can be tough to keep up, but Sparks have celebrity fans ranging from neo-classical composer Steve Reich (whose spare piano work strikes similar chords as Ron, who eschews modern music—except for Eminem and Morrissey) to Sir Paul McCartney.
Macca even dressed up as Ron on the video for his song “Coming Up.”
They pay for this zigzagging. One album will sell one million copies, the next, taking them in an entirely different direction, barely selling a few thousand.
But they abide, because they are co-dependent brothers and, recording in Russell’s home studio in Coldwater Canyon for their own record label, they do what they want when they
want, even if an album (an antique concept in itself) can take two years to finish.
And they keep their costs down and reap the benefits in a middle-class life.
Last week Sparks set off to Europe to promote their 23rd album, “Hippopotamus,” which has already climbed the German, French and Australian charts.
They return to Los Angeles in mid-October to play three nights at the El Rey for fans who will, if their 2009 show at their alma mater UCLA is any indication, not be local.
They will fly in from Vancouver and Mexico City to share the ironic drollery that is Sparks.
If you have ever heard them at all, it’s probably the 1974 single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” a mock Western complete with six-gun shots about adolescent competition over girls—the most dangerous game. The next single, “Amateur Hour,” ploughed a similar furrow.
Both tunes are rooted in the culture of 1960s Pali High, where Russell was a quarterback, and Ron, the older protective one, was more academic and held a collection of toy cars and bright kitsch.
According to biographer Daryl Easlea, they bonded for life after the sudden death of their father, Meyer Mael, Elvis fan and cartoonist at the old Hollywood-Citizen.
They stayed at home in the Alphabet Streets but it was never the same after their mother Miriam remarried. Together they ran a family novelty store called The Gilded
Prune (our illustration of the lost shop is by another Pali High alum and artist, David Docherty) whose stock, from plastic lips to Beatle toys, would often overflow home.
They were also hoarders of newspapers, which filled the house on Galloway to the ceiling.
Friends say they got their dryly-warped sense of hyper-literate humor from their mother, who took them to see The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.
That prompted the brothers to form their first group, Urban Renewal Project, which practiced in the Pali High gym (albeit tending to all play in different keys at the same time).
Yet they also produced, in around 1965, their first song, “Computer Girl”—an odd ditty about falling in love with a female-voiced computer.
They were not quite sure what a computer did, they admitted later, but the song reportedly influenced Kraftwerk to create their “robotic sound” and, decades later, Spike Jonze to write the film “Her” where the computer is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
Studying film and theater at UCLA, the boys lived the classic 1960s SoCal golden years—chasing girls (though neither have ever married), surfing, following The Doors around.
But, by the time they came of musical age in their next group, Halfnelson, crafting sardonic songs of racial prejudice (bringing a German girl into a Jewish household) side by side with the surreal (hiding under the table with their pet), Los Angeles was going full Laurel Canyon folk with immigrants Joni Mitchel and Graham Nash.
The Maels were, as so often, the wrong talent for the times.
They even got thrown out of the Hyatt House on Sunset for throwing a pastry around.
Other rockers at the Riot House were wrecking televisions, but they, good Jewish boys, got busted for a bagel.
So, after their guitarist was drafted into the Vietnam War, the Maels departed for London where, as Sparks, they briefly became glam-pop superstars, dominating European airwaves.
Brits thought they were New Yorkers. Angelenos thought they were posh Brits. They muddied the waters with fake news about childhood modeling gigs and being the sons of Doris Day.
When that burned out, they began their quixotic wanderings, both musical and geographical.
In some ways, despite Ron living in Westwood and Russell in Coldwater Canyon for the last 20 years, they never came home—they remain too European for many U.S. tastes.
On “Hippopotamus” they are not only concerned about how a hippo ended up in their pool (alongside, in this patter song, a VW bus, a medieval Dutch painting and an Asian lady with an abacus) but also living like French chanson singer Edith Piaf.
They remain, in an age of selfie celebrity, fundamentally mysterious.
They still play peek-a-boo during their stage performances of mime and odd poses, and slides showing Scandinavian furniture or nannies with prams. They never break character.
“They have an ESP thing going on between them but there’s no telling what kind of people they really are under their arty trappings,” said former band member Jim Mankey.
Which may be why this scion of Pali High culture continues to intrigue, amuse, challenge—and, occasionally, like seemingly straight-laced Ron himself, most alarmingly, to dance.
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