We’ve really been slacking on catching the uncategorizable duo Sparks on their “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour. Not only did we skip seeing them at Coachella—a move I don’t regret at all, I might add, because seeing one of your favorite bands at Coachella is like kissing your biggest high school crush through a T-shirt soaked in other people’s sweat—we also totally missed the boat on seeing them perform at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which is a gorgeous venue and way less sweaty. (We saw Matmos there earlier this year and it was awesome.) Fortunately, Sparks have decided to be kind to us slackers and return to North America this fall for another round of tour dates.
This time, Ron and Russell Mael have redubbed their “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour and are calling it “The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth”—on account of that terrible thing you people did to Sparks on the first “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Whatever you want to call it, “Two Hands, One Mouth” is just that: Ron Mael’s two hands on keyboards, and Russell Mael’s mouth on vocals. No band, no computers, no pre-recorded backing tracks. Just one of the weirdest and most eclectic catalogs in pop history, whittled down to its bare essentials. Here’s a taste of the format from that Masonic Lodge show we missed; full tour dates after the clip.
The Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth Tour Dates:
10/23: Atlanta, GA @ The Variety Playhouse
10/25: Asheville, NC @ Mountain Oasis Festival
10/27: Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
10/28: New York, NY @ Webster Hall
10/30: Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
11/1: Montreal, QC @ Le National
11/2: Toronto, ON @Lee’s Palace
11/4: Detroit/Pontiac, MI @ Crofoot Ballroom
11/6: Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
11/7: Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
11/8-11/10: Austin, TX @ Fun Fun Fun Fest
11/11: Los Angeles, CA @ Fonda Theatre
Of all the bands on our Weird List, The Residents probably offer the richest vein of subject matter for a documentary. You don’t last 40 years performing in outlandish costumes and releasing tons of music, video and multimedia work without racking up some serious film fodder.
And yet, apart from a short, satirical 1990 film called The Eyes Scream: A History of The Residents, no one has ever really captured the story of one of the weirdest and most mysterious bands of all time in cinematic form. A group of filmmakers from a company called Well Dang! Productions tried just a few years ago, but that project was apparently abandoned, probably due to some combination of lack of funds, the band’s unwillingness to participate, and being called Well Dang! Productions. But now, it looks like The Residents documentary void is finally about to be filled.
The film, called Theory of Obscurity, is being made with The Residents’ full participation, which is a big plus. They just completed shooting the band’s 40th anniversary tour, and claim to have been granted “unprecedented access” to the Residents archives. They’re aiming for a 2014 release, but they’ve already released a preliminary trailer, which you can watch below. You can also watch their ongoing 143-part Vimeo series called “In My Room,” featuring interviews with Randy, the band’s old-man-masked lead singer. In the latest installment, he talks about his wishbone collection.
No self-respecting independent film project doesn’t invite some form of crowdfunding these days, and Theory of Obscurity is no different. So if you want to help the first official Residents documentary see the light of day, follow this link and give generously. Hey, it’s way cheaper than a box set in a refrigerator.
This week marks the third anniversary of the launch of TWBITW. The traditional third anniversary gift, in case you’re wondering, is leather. Thanks in advance.
Actually, we like to celebrate anniversaries around here with two things: The consumption of booze (although let’s face it, we celebrate everything with the consumption of booze) and the addition to The Weird List of a classic artist. Last year, it was Primus; the year before that, it was Parliament-Funkadelic. This year, we’d like to finally make a whole shit-ton of you readers happy by belatedly inducting one Frank Vincent Zappa into our hallowed halls of weirdness. Welcome, Frank! Your arrival is long overdue, we know.
Full disclosure: Although I’ve come to appreciate him in small doses, I never was much of a Frank Zappa fan. Way back in high school, I knew a kid who owned a copy of Joe’s Garage, and he would occasionally play it for us with all the usual Zappa-head exhortations: “The guitar on this track will blow your mind,” “The rhythm changes on this part are nuts,” “Check it out—this whole song is about sausage!” I wish I could say he eventually won the rest of us over, but honestly, we all just shrugged and went back to our U2 records.
So despite being the keeper of a weird band blog, I’m not really the best person to expound on the weirdness of Zappa’s colossal ouevre, which encompasses more than 60 albums and a mind-bending mishmash of rock, jazz, funk, doo-wop, classical and avant-garde tape loop and sound collage experiments, sometimes all of the same album and always shot through with a surreal sense of humor that made it hard to tell when he was trying to make a point and when he was just fucking around.
Still, I will endeavor to enumerate just a few of the many, many reasons why Frank Zappa not only deserves to be on The Weird List—he should probably be the patron saint of this whole damn blog:
- At the age of 22, he played a bicycle as a musical instrument on the Steve Allen Show. Yes, video of this exists.
- In 1968, at the height of the Flower Power era, he and his band the Mothers of Invention released an album called We’re Only in It for the Money that was basically a giant fuck-you to hippie culture.
- He is the inventor of a recording technique called “xenochrony,” in which two different studio takes done in entirely different tempos, keys and/or time signatures are merged together to jarring effect. You can hear a good example of it in
this track. (Reader Waffenspiel referred us to this later track, which is actually a better example.)
- He ran a pair of independent record labels called Bizarre and Straight. Among the artists signed to them was this guy. Also this guy. Oh, and Alice Cooper.
- At a time when most people were too chickenshit to openly criticize Scientology, he openly mocked it with his made-up religion, Appliantology, led by a con artist named L. Ron Hoover, on Joe’s Garage. Had I known all this back in high school, I might have been more inclined to dig Joe’s Garage.
- This was his only Top 40 hit in America.
- He helped give the world Steve Vai.
- His most controversial work was a 1984 rock musical called Thing-Fish, which has been variously condemned as being racist, sexist, homophobic and just in general bad taste. Here, judge for yourself. When he couldn’t get the musical produced on Broadway as he originally intended, Zappa instead partially staged the whole thing for a photo shoot for Hustler magazine. (All of this helped set the stage for Zappa’s anti-censorship campaign against the Parents Music Resource Center, Tipper Gore’s lobbying group that prompted the advent of parental advisory stickers. Zappa’s Senate testimony against the PMRC ranks among the most entertaining performances of his career.)
- For much of the last decade of his life, he composed and recorded almost entirely on the Synclavier.
- The same year he released Joe’s Garage (1979), he also released albums called Orchestral Favorites and Sheik Yerbouti. Yes, Orchestral Favorites featured a full orchestra. No, Sheik Yerbouti was not a disco record.
I could go on, but you get the idea. No one colored outside the lines like Frank Zappa.
“I never set out to be weird,” Zappa told his hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, in 1986. “It was always other people who called me weird.” Don’t all the best weirdos say that? (And in case we haven’t made this clear by now: Around these parts, we consider “weird” to be a high form of praise. “Weird” means you’re doing something original and exciting that changes people’s perceptions of what music or art can be. “Weird” should be a badge of fucking honor, not something used to belittle or trivialize an artist’s work. Can someone place explain that to this guy? Thanks.)
I’ll leave you, selfishly, with a song that’s not Zappa’s weirdest by a longshot. It just happens to be my favorite. After all, it’s our anniversary! Crank it up, and don’t forget to air out those python-skin boots.
P.S. As of Aug. 14th, Frank Zappa’s entire catalog is now available on iTunes. Frank would’ve been totally down with it.
Well, lookee here, campers. It says right here that the latest Primus tour is gonna be in 3D! That’s great, because that last tour where they just stuck cardboard cutouts of Les, Larry and Jay onstage was kinda bullshit.
No, but seriously: Primus’s fall tour dates will be “3D-enhanced,” creating what their latest press release promises will be a “one-of-a-kind psychedelic experience.” (Your mileage may vary, depending on the potency of those shrooms you saved from Bonnaroo.) We’re not sure if that means any 2Pac hologram cameos or what, but knowing these wacky fellows, anything’s possible. Oh, and the shows will also feature Quad Surround Sound. Dude! It’ll be as if Les’s bass strings are slapping against the inside of your skull.
Primus Tour Dates:
Oct. 12 – Poughkeepsie, NY – Mid Hudson Civic Center
Oct. 13 – Burlington, VT – Memorial Auditorium
Oct. 15 – Washington, DC – The Fillmore
Oct. 16 – Wilkes Barre, PA – Kirby Center
Oct. 17 – Philadelphia, PA – Tower Theater
Oct. 19 – New York NY – Hammerstein
Oct. 20 – Boston, MA – Orpheum Theater
Oct. 21 – Providence, RI – Veterans Memorial Auditorium
Oct. 23 – Niagra Falls, NY – Rapids Theater
Oct. 24 – Detroit, MI – Fillmore
Oct. 26 – Asheville, NC – Moogfest
Oct. 27 – Indianapolis, IN – Murat Theater
Oct. 28 – St Louis, MO – Peabody Opera House
Oct. 30 – Cincinnati, OH – Taft Theater
Oct. 31 – Atlanta, GA – The Tabernacle
Nov. 2 – Kansas City, MO – Uptown
Nov. 3 – Denver, CO – The Fillmore
Nov. 4 – Wichita, KS – Cotillion Ballroom
Nov. 5 – Dallas, TX – McFarlin
Nov. 7 – Austin, TX – Bass Hall
Nov. 9 – Orlando, FL – Hard Rock
Nov. 10 – Miami, FL – Fillmore
We’ll play this post out with Primus’s new-ish video for “Lee Van Cleef,” which premiered on Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco website back in May. Apparently we’re kinda out of it when it comes to Primus news. I blame the shrooms.
Sad news in the world of weird bands this week: Ween have broken up. At least according to Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman they have; Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo, heartbreakingly, seems to have been totally blindsided by the whole thing. “This is news to me, all I can say for now I guess,” Dean posted on Ween’s Facebook page. Poor guy.
We never got around to adding Ween to the Weird List sooner because, frankly, we’ve always classified them more as “quirky” than out-and-out weird—more left-of-center than, say, They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies, but part of that same continuum of late ’80s/early ’90s bands whose reaction to the bloviated mainstream rock of the era was to genre-hop with cheeky abandon. But we know plenty of our readers are big fans, so when news of Freeman’s breakup announcement hit yesterday, we decided to revisit their gargantuan catalog (extra-gargantuan, if you include all their self-released ’80s material). And you know what? These dudes were pretty weird.
The hardcore fans don’t really need a tally of all their wackiest moments, but for the punters, let’s include one anyway:
Their early, self-released cassettes, mostly recorded when they were still in their teens and getting baked in the totally adorable Philadelphia exurb of New Hope, PA (I’ve been there and, trust me, it’s like if Martha Stewart designed an entire town), included such immortal titles as Axis: Bold as Boognish and Erica Petersen’s Flaming Crib Death. They recorded everything on four-track and would frequently speed up or slow down the playback to achieve various creepy psychedelic and underwater effects, like on this track.
Their first major-label release, 1992’s Pure Guava, included such track titles as “Reggaejunkiejew,” “Poop Ship Destroyer” and “Touch My Tooter.” Amazingly, it also produced a hit single, “Push th’ Little Daisies.” When their label, Elektra, made them release a radio edit of the song that omitted the word “shit” from the lyrics, they replaced the word with a Prince sample and titled the new version “Push th’ Little Daisies (Shitless Radio Edit – No Shit).”
In 1996, they went to Nashville and made a country album. It was actually pretty good, too.
They followed that up in 1997 with The Mollusk, a nautical-themed concept album that many consider to be their best work—or at least their weirdest. It also inspired at least one great Lego-mation video.
They became one of the first bands to fully embraced digital music formats in 1999, when they released their next album, Craters of the Sac, exclusively on MP3.
They committed fewer acts of weirdness in the ’00s, although they did release their one and only full-on house track, the awesomely ridiculous “Friends.”
Even post-Ween, Dean and Gene have been keeping it weird. Gene’s first solo album under his real name, Aaron Freeman, is made up entirely of Rod McKuen songs. Dean Ween, meanwhile, has mostly gone fishin’—literally. You can charter a fishing trip with him on the Delaware River or off the Jersey Shore through Mickey’s Guide Service.
It’s also worth mentioning that arguably no other band, over the course of the past 20 years, covered more musical terrain. Ween songs range from punk to psychedelic rock to lo-fi bedroom folk to ambient tape loop experiments to country to reggae to bossa nova to funk to sea shanties to Led Zeppelin covers and back to punk again. They could seemingly do anything—and while much of it was done with tongue firmly in cheek, it was all executed with undeniable skill, which may be the single quality their fans love about them the most. Listening to the Ween catalog is like listening to a really good barroom jukebox after a really good bong rip.
We’ll leave you with “Push th’ Little Daisies,” which for me remains Ween’s crowning achievement (and yes, I know, that’s sacrilege to all you hardcore fans, but c’mon—how great is this song?). Also, how freakin’ cute are Dean and Gene in this video? They look like they’re barely old enough to drive.
We look forward to your Coachella 2014 reunion, guys!
So the other day this reader writes into us and goes, “You know who’s way weirder than all these bands? The Bloodhound Gang.” And we’re like, “You mean the guys who had that song about the Discovery Channel? What the fuck is weird about that?” And apparently, this guy thinks they’re, like, the weirdest band ever because they’ve been known to occasionally piss on each other and drink vomit onstage. Which at this point in rock history is not even that weird anymore. It’s so not weird that the other current band semi-famous for such things, The Black Lips, got bored with it and stopped doing it. It’s a post-“Jackass” world, people! Grossout stage antics just aren’t that interesting anymore…especially if the best you can provide for musical accompiment is shit like that Discovery Channel song.
But one positive did come out of the whole Bloodhound Gang thing…it reminded us that, holy shit! We haven’t written about GG Allin yet! What the fuck is wrong with us? Time to drop a little punk-rock history on you young’ns.
For those not familiar, GG Allin was a punk rock singer active in the ’80s and early ’90s whose entire shtick was basically to get naked, start fights with people in the audience, and spew various bodily fluids everywhere until someone called the cops, venue security hauled him off, or he passed out—whichever came first. Oh, he’d shit onstage, too. Although he was also known to take laxatives before each show, so very often his feces qualified as just another bodily fluid.
A little backstory: GG was born Jesus Christ Allin (no, really) in New Hampshire in 1956. His dad was apparently one of those wackjob Christian fundametalists who swore that Jesus came to him in a vision and told him his son would be the messiah. Dad skeedaddled while little J.C. Allin was still a toddler, and mom eventually changed his name to Kevin Michael, but the nickname GG—his brother’s mispronunciation of “Jesus”—stuck.
Apparently, so did dad’s messianic visions and mental health issues. As he got older, little GG fell in with various punk bands, first as drummer, eventually as a frontman. Pretty early on, by all accounts, he decided that he was the savior of rock ‘n’ roll—that rock was becoming safe and commercialized and he was going to bring it back to its rebellious roots. Eventually, he pretty much dropped the rock ‘n’ roll part and just decided that he was The Savior, period—come to rescue America’s youth from all that is boring and conformist. He would do this, apparently, by flinging poo at them when they came to his shows.
Not surprisingly, GG had a hard time keeping bands together and he churned through a bunch of them: The Jabbers, The Scumfucs, The Texas Nazis, Bulge, The AIDS Brigade, and his final and most famous outfit, The Murder Junkies, featuring his equally batshit older brother Merle on bass. The music was all pretty much the same, though: noisy three-chord punk rock with lyrics that sound like they were cribbed from some middle school boy’s bathroom. Sample song titles: “Bite It You Scum”, “I Wanna Fuck the Shit Out of You”, “Suck My Ass It Smells”…you get the idea. There were also a few more grandiose songs about things like penal code reform (“Legalize Murder”), pedophilia (“Expose Yourself to Kids”) and religion (“Jesus Over New York”). But mostly, it was all just so GG would have a soundtrack while he was writhing in his own filth and smacking a microphone against his head.
The best document of GG Allin’s antics is a documentary called Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, which came out literally three days before his death. Weirdly—or maybe not so weirdly—it was shot by the same guy who directed Old School and The Hangover, Todd Phillips. Back then he was a film school student at NYU. Wonder if it’s still on his reel? (You can watch most of the documentary online. Heads up: It’s what the squares call “not suitable for children.”)
Despite GG’s best efforts, he did not die onstage—after a pretty extraordinary life, his death was all too ordinary. He died of a heroin overdose in New York on June 28, 1993. His last show ended in a mini-riot that found GG running naked through the streets with his fans in pursuit—or at least that’s how one version of the story goes. In another account, by punk writer Mykel Board, the cops showed up and GG fled to avoid arrest. Who knows? Either way, he turned up dead the next morning.
Even GG Allin’s funeral, which was videotaped, turned into a piece of transgressive rock ‘n’ roll theater. It was an open casket service, with the rock messiah’s bloated, unwashed body in full view, clad in his trademark leather jacket and dirty jockstrap. People stuck bottles of booze in the casket and his brother put in a Walkman and stuck a pair of headphones on his head, playing some of Allin’s own music. His gravesite is routinely vandalized. Apparently, people really like pissing and shitting on it.
Fun little side note: You can still actually see the Murder Junkies, from time to time. Merle Allin and the band’s perpetually naked drummer, Dino Sex, have kept the group going as a GG Allin tribute band, with various fill-in singers and guitarists. Judging from this video, we think the group’s current lead singer, PP Duvee, doesn’t try to start fistfights with the audience, but we make no guarantees.
Second fun little side note: If there’s an aging punk rocker in your life who already owns GG’s greatest hits, and you’re too lazy to figure out the rest of his bewildering catalog…well, now you can just get the dude a GG Allin bobblehead doll for Christmas instead.
Listen, let’s be clear here: GG Allin was a delusional asshole. He wasn’t some punk DIY purist like Fugazi. He wasn’t above going on The Jerry Springer Show. If any major record label had the balls to give him a record contract, he probably would have taken it. Behind all his talk about putting the danger back in rock ‘n’ roll and calling out the hypocrisies of society was a violent sociopath with a severe messiah complex. He says he was building an army of followers who would do anything he asked of them, and he probably believed it. How could he not, when he saw how many of his fans actually enjoyed getting kicked and punched and even raped by their hero?
So we’re not trying to canonize this guy. But we are saying this: To all you would-be weird bands out there, how far are you willing to take it? “It” doesn’t have to be pissing on each other—in fact, we’d rather you try something else, because GG Allin pretty much took care of the whole pissing and shitting thing. That ship has sailed.
So what else you got? That was kind of the whole original purpose of this blog, actually—to find and single out bands that are doing something really, truly unique. It doesn’t have to be the kind of shit that lands you on Jerry Springer—but it should be the kind of thing where, when people see it, or hear it, or read about it for the first time, they go, “Wow—I wasn’t expecting that!”
We’ll leave you with that thought—and with this little
GG Allin highlight reel* highly NSFW live clip of a naked GG and the Junkies ripping through “Bite It You Scum” in 1991. Truly, the man was one of a kind. And we’re kinda glad we never made it to one of his shows.
*The highlight reel was removed from YouTube due to “multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement.” We believe that’s legalese for “Bite It You Scum.”
Not many bands can claim to have invented an entire genre of music, but Negativland actually goes one better than that: They invented an entire art form, a technique called culture jamming, that is now such an accepted part of consumerist, mass media culture that it’s hard to imagine anyone having to invent it. From Adbusters to Banksy to self-aware Sprite commercials to fake BP Twitter accounts, the basic concepts of culture jamming are part of our everyday vernacular at this point. But yep, Negativland coined the term back in 1984. Before that, it was hard to know what to call the band’s mix of intercepted CB-radio conversations, sampled radio announcers and commercial jingles, krautrock, processed guitars, and ambient noise. Except really, really weird.
Negativland was started all the way back in 1979 by Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons, who were then still going to high school in the East Bay. Early on, they recruited a reclusive cable TV repairman named David “The Weatherman” Wills to join the group; his homemade devices, like cellphone scanners and a sampler/oscillator called The Booper, really helped the group perfect their sound collage approach to making music.
The group’s 1987 album Escape From Noise got them a little attention, but what really put Negativland on the map was their 1991 U2 EP, which famously featured a spoof of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” accompanied by a profanity-laced, anti-U2 rant by Top 40 radio DJ Casey Kasem. The track earned Negativland its first lawsuit, from U2’s label, Island Records. After a four-year legal battle, chronicled in a book called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, the two parties settled—Island dropped their suit, and Negativland stopped distributing the U2 EP (although they later reissued it as a “bootleg” under the fairly awesome title—quoted from part of Kasem’s anti-U2 rant—These Guys Are From England and Who Gives a Shit).
Thirty years later, Negativland are still at it: They’ve got a new project called It’s All in Your Head FM v2.0 due out later this year, along with a handful of reissues, and band member Don Joyce continues to host a public radio “audio collage” show called Over the Edge on Berkeley’s KPFA. And hey, kids—you can book one of two totally different Negativland shows in your local planetarium, art gallery, or high school auditorium! Take your choice between either a “two-hour-long, action-packed look at monotheism” or “a wordless wall of electronic sound.” Either way, you’re bound to impress all your snooty art friends and vastly increase your chances of scoring with girls whose panties drop at words like “semiotics” and “Noam Chomsky.” [Update: That link is now dead, so apparently they’re not playing planetariums anymore. Sorry.]
We’ll leave you with a classic Negativland video from their 1989 opus No Other Possibility. The cigarettes are probably a metaphor for something, but we prefer not to dig too deep on this one and just appreciate it for its delightfully Pythonesque silliness.
Sorry things have been a little quiet here at TWBITW—it took us longer to sleep off our South by Southwest hangovers than we had anticipated. Also, our ears are still ringing from seeing GWAR. If you’ve never been sonically assaulted by Oderus and co. before in person, seriously—we can’t recommend it highly enough. Just plan on taking a few vacation days after the show—you’ll need them.
Anyway, today’s weird band is another oldie but goodie, and comes to us all the way from the former Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia. Formed in 1980, when Yugoslavia was still under Communist rule, Laibach was a sort of proto-industrial rock band-slash-performance art project that managed to simultaneously celebrate and mock the trappings of totalitarianism in all its forms. They’ve described their own music and iconography as “radically ambiguous” and, judging from the range of responses they’ve gotten, they seem to have succeeded: Detractors and critics (not to mention the censorship-happy Communist regime in Yugoslavia, which frequently banned the group’s performances) have accused them of being fascists, Stalinists, Nazi sympathizers and/or radical Slovenian nationalists, while their fan base seems to include everyone from arty types who treat the band’s militaristic costumes and Wagnerian martial-industrial music as sly satire of fascist/skinhead culture to…well, actual skinheads.
Is all of this starting to sound a little too much like a post-modernist graduate thesis project? Well, not to worry, because here’s the most brilliant thing about Laibach: Much of their music is actually highly accessible, and frequently takes the form of Teutonic/industrial-style covers of familiar pop music. Laibach have tackled everything from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” to the Beatles’ “Let It Be” to Europe’s “Final Countdown.” They even did “Jesus Christ Superstar” and an album of national anthems called Volk. If you thought Jimi Hendrix did weird things to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” wait till you hear Laibach’s version of it.
As great as Laibach’s covers can be, their most memorable musical moments tend to come on their original compositions, when the jackboots hit the dance floor and all “Heil!” breaks loose. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.) Although the “Fear the Kittens” video for this song (courtesy of Rathergood.com) is pretty awesome, it still can’t top the original.
- New Laibach covers compilation coming this November (9/16/12)
- Nazis on the moon! “Iron Sky” sci-fi film featuring the music of Laibach coming soon (2/18/12)
- Weirdify Playlist 8: Covers for Kooks (4/23/12)
(Bonus factoid: Laibach may be the only industrial band to have a winery named after them. Suck on that, Rammstein!)
Some bands, when you first encounter them, might seem a bit quirky, but they don’t strike you as especially weird. Then you find out they’ve been at this for 40 years—and during that time, they’ve gone from everything to glam-rock to disco to New Wave to chamber-pop to (no joke) Swedish radio musicals. Oh, and one of the guys favors creepy Hitler/John Waters mustaches.
Sparks was started in 1968—1968!—by a pair of brothers from L.A. named Ron and Russell Mael. Originally calling themselves Halfnelson, they signed to Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville record label, changed their name to Sparks, and put out a couple of albums of eccentric but unremarkable, Pink Floyd-influenced psychedelic rock. Their first big break came after they parted ways with Bearsville, relocated to London, and got involved in the glam-rock scene. Their two 1974 albums, Kimono My House and Propaganda, were big hits in the U.K., even landing the band on Top of the Pops. Their music from this era was sort of a weird mix of Roxy Music, T. Rex and bubblegum pop, and seemed to anticipate the rise of New Wave.
By the time the rest of the rock world had caught up to Sparks, the Mael brothers had moved on, teaming up with disco/electronica pioneer Giorgio Moroder for their synth-heavy 1979 album, No. 1 in Heaven. The band continued to explore various synth-pop and New Wave styles for the next decade, scoring their first U.S. hit in 1983 with “Cool Places,” a song they recorded with one of their biggest American fans, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s.
After a late ’80s/early ’90s hiatus, the band resurfaced in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. Although not a commercial success—except, for some reason, in Germany—it was one of the most well-reviewed albums of Sparks’ career and was instrumental in establishing the Mael brothers as icons of campy, outsidery pop music. Ron, the principal lyricist, was writing increasingly eccentric and sometimes flat-out goofy songs like “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” and “Now That I Own the BBC”—both of which kind of sound like send-ups of the Pet Shop Boys, except that the Pet Shop Boys actually stole most of their ideas from Sparks in the first place.
Since then, Sparks have released an album of alternate versions of their own songs (called, appropriately, Plagiarism, and featuring cameos from Mike Patton, Erasure and Jimmy Sommerville), an experimental symphonic album called Lil’ Beethoven, a satirical concept album about modern romance called Hello Young Lovers, and this year, a radio musical commissioned by Swedish National Radio called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. Clearly, these guys will try pretty much anything. In 2008, they even performed all 21 of their albums on consecutive nights in London (Ingmar Bergman was album #22).
Taken individually, any one Sparks song—or even any single album—isn’t that weird. With this band, it’s more of a cumulative effect thing. Still, much of the material on 2006’s outstanding Hello Young Lovers stands as some of the weirdest stuff they’ve ever recorded—and how many bands can claim to be out-weirding themselves 38 years into their career? To quote the song featured in the video below, “Screw the past!”