Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Russell Mael, Sparks

In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Sparks frontman Russell Mael

Sparks appeared in the 1977 disaster movie Rollercoaster. Which band originally turned down the role?



Rollercoaster is probably something we should have said no to! (Laughs) It was built up as, ‘This is going to be the next Jaws!’, because it was by the same producers. The film’s about a guy who does extortion schemes around the US at various amusement parks where he threatens to blow up rollercoasters. We filmed it at Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, and we appear in a climatic scene where actor Timothy Bottoms is getting ready to detonate his bombs. As he’s on the rollercoaster setting the fuses, it’s intercut with us performing two songs from our ‘Big Beat’ album – ‘Big Boy’ and ‘Fill ‘Er Up’.

I’m not sure about the quality, but it’s a cult movie. We just tell people it was our first co-starring role with Henry Fonda and Richard Windmark. Somehow they convinced those two really great actors to be in it! (Laughs)”


Sparks cameo in the video for The Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins’ solo cover (under his alias of British Whale) of your 1974 single ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’. Who do you play?

“We play referees at the darts competition.”


“We were happy that Justin covered such an iconic Sparks song that a lot of artists, even if they like it, are wary to try to because it’s a real hard one to sing. So I give him credit and I think he did a great job. We were asked to take part in the video which was cool because it featured the world darts champion [Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor]. His name escapes me, so I’m glad you didn’t ask that! But we’re from LA – so we’re not supposed to know about darts, so that’s my excuse!”


Can you name any of the newspaper-style headlines on the cover of Sparks’ 1994 album ‘Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins’?

“Ooh! Is there one next to a picture of Ron that says: “Angriest man in the United States”? Hang on – wait! It actually says: “America’s most miserable man’.”

CORRECT. You could have also had: ‘The smear campaign that ran afoul’, ‘Those bare scenes they tried to suppress!’ ‘Exclusive! Room Service cover up! It was hot but it wasn’t on the menu’ or ‘The moustache, the crooner, and the Brazilian Bombshell’.

Sparks used to have great fun making up things in press interviews, which were then printed as gospel. Did any of those lies come back to haunt you?

“Because we once said in an interview – just for fun, as we do – that we were Doris Day’s sons, we were once approached by her publishing company when we were playing Scandinavia, who were trying to contact her son and had heard we were on tour. So we were almost given publishing royalties from Doris Day, but at that point we turned mortal and said we cannot accept this money – we’re not really Doris Day’s sons.”


Which Morrissey song did Sparks remix in 2006? 



“It was a reconceptualising. We tried to do something unconventional in our reworking, while being conscious about Morrissey’s obvious preciousness about his music. He was happy with our version – which made us happy.”

Who impersonated Ron Mael in the video for his 1980 single ‘Coming Up’?

Paul McCartney.”


“You can retire from your career after having a Beatle portray you in any sort of way, let alone in a music video that lasts forever. My only regret was that Paul McCartney didn’t pick me! (Laughs) I wish one of the singers had been me! But he impersonated Ron admirably well. When he premiered the song on Saturday Night Live, he announced that one of the characters he was portraying was ‘the keyboard guy, Ron, from Sparks’, which was heart-warming to us. Linda McCartney had taken photos of him playing the different people, and Ron later found a nice photo poster of Paul dressed as him. We got Paul to autograph it and he wrote ‘To Ron and Russell – Paul McCartney (Yes that one)’. So he wanted to remind us which one he was! (Laughs) Just in case! ‘Oh, that Paul McCartney!’”


Sparks were guests on the ladette talk show Pyjama Party in 1996. What did Ron show the drunken nightwear-clad audience how to cook?

“Oh God! Um… oh, damn! I remember that show well, but I’m drawing a blank. I know I was wearing a bathrobe if that gives me any points?”

WRONG. Surreally, he demonstrated how to cook a Walter Keane painting!

“(Laughs) A great breakfast treat! You’ll get all the nutrition you need from a Walter Keane panting! I would never have gotten that. But he did!”

Other highlights of the show included the hen-party-like crowd chanting for Ron to take his trousers “Off! Off! Off!”

“I’ve seen that clip more recently and it becomes even more bizarre over time!”

Talking of art – Andy Warhol was a big fan of Sparks. What’s your favourite memory of him?

“He interviewed us for his Interview magazine at The Factory in downtown New York, and he asked if he could take black and white photos of us during it. We said: ‘Wow, of course’. If Andy Warhol asks if he can take your photo, you say yeah! We had our little cameras with us, and got the nerve to ask: ‘Is it OK if we take photos of you too?’. He said yes, then exclaimed: ‘God, are you using colour photography? You’re so gifted to be able to work in colour!’. We thought: ‘Whaaaaaaat?’ (Laughs) He was really sincere, and he would make comments like that where you weren’t sure if he was having you on even though he seemed genuine. He seemed fascinated by everything, like the clothes we were wearing. He’d ask: ‘Wow, where did you get your trousers from? They’re so cool and amazing!’. And we’d reply: ‘Walmart’. (Laughs) Everything seemed amazing and interesting to him.”

“But my biggest regret is that when we got back to LA after that, we wanted him to duet with me on [Sparks’ 1979 song] ‘Beat The Clock’. We contacted his office and he said: ‘Yeah, I’d love to do that’. And then put us back on to his business manager who said: ‘Andy will do that – for $10,000’. We went: ‘Ooh, you’ve caught us a little short!’ (Laughs) We’d have robbed a bank to get that money, because to have a duet with Andy Warhol would have been amazing.”

Which long-haired, badger-loving guitar legend did you try to recruit to join Sparks?

Brian May!”


“It was in the ‘70s when Queen were starting to happen. They’d done one tour of America, but it wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped for. So it could have gone either way and we really liked his guitar playing and thought his sensibility would work with Sparks. I mean, obviously it really worked with Queen! (Laughs) We approached him and met at his flat in Hammersmith and discussed it, but for his career, Brian made probably the good decision for himself!”

“Queen supported us at the Marquee Club [in 1972] and I remember them unloading their own gear from their little van in blue jeans and stuff, lugging their own equipment around, and then they put on their stage clothes and became Queen rather than their roadies (Laughs). Even then they were strong as a band.”


When Sparks placed an advert for a bassist in Melody Maker in 1973, what were your two requirements?

“One for sure was no beards. No beards and good-looking?”

CORRECT-ISH. HALF A POINT. You stipulated: ‘Must be beard-free and exciting’.

“Well, exciting means good-looking in our terms! (Laughs) Obviously now times have changed and there are cool beards around, so our guidelines have probably changed. A nice beard would also work in this day and age. But at the time, we were huge anglophiles and liked the image of the British bands who were all perfectly manicured. How you dressed onstage and your image and character were so important, so it seemed like the beard was so contrary to that whole thing. The beard was what we were escaping from in Los Angeles – that Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter school of music.

Who did ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ producer Muff Winwood allegedly bet £300 that the song would become a hit?

Elton John.”


“Muff was right – and Elton was wrong. They were both great buddies and so Muff Winwood had played him ‘This Town’, saying ‘This is going to be a big hit’ and Elton put money on the opposite side of the bet. So Elton John doesn’t know everything! (Laughs) I remember when we were recording ‘Big Beat’ in New York, Elton John invited us to a gig – which we didn’t realise was in Philadelphia that night. So he just told us: ‘Come along in the private jet!’, as one does if one’s Elton John (Laughs). So he sent his private jet to pick us up just so we could see him play.”


How many times do you repeat the title of ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ during the 2002 song of the same name?

“(Laughs) Oh no! I should know that one! I’ll get it wrong, but 273?”

WRONG. It’s repeated 104 times, with no other lyrics bar a spoken interlude.

“I overestimated! 104 doesn’t seem as impressive in comparison now! (Laughs)”

“That album, ‘Lil’ Beethoven’, was special to us because we wanted to try to figure out a new context to place our music in, and not rely on the usual instrumentation – guitars, bass and drums – that gives rock or pop music its power, energy and excitement. So we tried stripping away those elements, replacing them with really big stacked-up vocals and aggressive strings.”


The verdict: 7.5/10

“I’m proud of that!”

Sparks’ new album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ is released digitally on May 15th and physically on July 3rd on BMG. They are also heading out on tour