While I was laying half asleep the other day, I heard the NPR Morning Edition announcer going through the usual list of sponsors for their show—watered down advertisements that bypass the hype of a product, but simply say who they are.
In that cloudy region of my head I remember hearing something about a new movie/documentary titled the “Sparks Brothers.” Unlike most times, I hear something like this and forget about it, but given the title of the movie, I made a mental note right there in my state of near-awareness to google it when I was more coherent.
As I was making that note, I thought of the band that I came to know way back in the 9th grade—Sparks—and wondered if this movie was about that same band. Although they weren’t called The Sparks Brothers, two brothers formed the band—Russell and Ron Mael—and it was called Sparks.
As it turned out and much to my delight, the movie is indeed about the band from my youth, Sparks, and the two brothers who created it—Russell and Ron Mael.
Before going any further, I must confess that I was never a huge Sparks fan—a fan for sure nonetheless. I did purchase several of their early albums including “Propaganda,” the album that contained the first Sparks songs I heard.
An acquaintance with Sparks…
While attending Schrop Junior High School in the spring semester of 1975, Tim Kittinger and Terry Verble performed a lip-synch video in our 9th-grade English class of the Sparks song “Achoo.” This little in-class video was shot, recorded and played back in class. Beyond the quirkiness of the actual song, Terry Verble played the no-nonsense Ron Mael on the keyboards providing the lion’s share of the visual spectacle it was. Not long after that, I was chasing down the album for my own listening at home.
On a historical side note, I don’t recall a conversation in class about the video recording technology we used that day, but this must have been something very new for the time as VHS wasn’t out yet and Beta tapes had just been released. I’m guessing this was done on a Beta system the school had just purchased. Whatever the case, I recall watching the recording on a normal television after the production, not a reel-to-reel film that had to be processed.
At that time, I didn’t know how obscure Sparks was (or would continue to be), I just took it for granted that I was a little out of touch, and besides, Kittinger and Verble were way cooler than myself. Yet, looking back now, I wonder how my two classmates came to know of Sparks themselves, especially since few people in my circles knew of Sparks whether it was in high school, college, or any time beyond.
Given the suburbia status of Springfield Township just beyond the city limits of Akron, Ohio, it is still somewhat puzzling that there were so many eclectic students in my class (and surrounding classes) with a knack of discovering various non-mainstream acts like Sparks, or The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Todd Rundgren, and some of the local upstarts in The James Gang and The Michael Stanley Band. Although I really didn’t possess the same creative skills or smarts to be one of these students, I enjoyed their company, their keen wit and drew on their energy for those things beyond what were known and well established.
So, energized by this new movie release, I looked into how a few of us could have come to know about Sparks—way back in pre-internet, pre-MTV 1975.
Just who are Sparks?
Sparks (brothers Russell and Ron Mael) originated in Southern California, and like Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, they made their mark in the U.K. first—only before the Pretenders came along. It was after their success in the U.K. that Sparks experienced some popularity in the States, but it was somewhat limited to certain areas of the country—San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Cleveland.
Now the “How-We-Came-To-Know-Sparks Origin Story” was starting to make sense.
In particular, Cleveland’s WMMS jockey Kid Leo and his colleagues were playing Sparks, while the influential radio station sponsored a Sparks concert at the Akron Civic Theater on April 17, 1975 and a follow up show the next day at the Cleveland Music Hall. It’s very possible that my old junior high classmates had actually attended the performance at the nearby Civic Theater. And, given this was a time before MTV and music videos, attending the Civic Theater performance might explain how Verble knew how to mimic Ron Mael on the keyboards.
Passing it on.
It wasn’t long after the purchase of my first Sparks album that my best friend, Steve, who attended one of the Akron High Schools, also came to know of Sparks through me. In return, he would introduce me to other music that I adopted to my music collection starting with Jim Croce, Queen, Tom Waits, Jimmy Buffett and John Prine.
This started me thinking about how I came to know the various musicians and bands in my current music library—especially the ones that share a sense of obscurity with Sparks.
Seniors Mike Walent and Richard Sapronetti would have our art teacher, Mr. Bako, play The Sensational Alex Harvey band during my sophomore year with “Midnight Moses” becoming one of my favorite guitar riffs of all time.
The WMMS jockeys adopted and delivered Springsteen to Northeast Ohio before he was huge, Michael Stanley as he was gaining traction in Northeast Ohio and even the obscure live recording “Friday On My Mind” by a band from San Francisco appropriately called Earth Quake. This song was engrained in all of us as one of three songs played every Friday at 6.00 pm to mark the beginning of the weekend. The other two songs that kicked off the weekend were Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks.” (For those familiar with the WMMS Weekend Salute: Don’t think for one moment that I’ve forgotten Murray Saul. That’s a post of its own for another time.)
More recently, thanks to Wyoming Public Radio, I’ve come to know the music of Cincinnati-based singer and songwriter, Kim Taylor and Chicago/L.A.-based Gold Motel. Finally, during a field trip to Portland, a student of mine arranged for us to see Todrick Hall, while an episode of Letterkenny had my partner and I looking up Canadian artist Peaches and downloading some of her more-than-suggestive music.
Looking back, much of the more obscure music I’ve come to know over the years, seems to have come to me by way of these whimsical, short, odd (and yes, even obscure) moments in life where I happened to be in the right places at the right times. And, after watching this movie, I’m pretty sure I’ll be playing more of Sparks without the worry of explaining the music to anyone who comes along and says, “What/Who the hell is that?”
See the official Sparks Brothers trailer HERE.