Sparks are Strange 


“When you’re strange. Faces come out in the rain. When you’re strange. No one remembers your name.” –The Doors. 

When you’re strange, they will compare you to strange, when you’re strange. Don’t make them look ugly when you feel strange. Don’t make them seem wicked when you feel alone and unwanted. It won’t even things out when you’re feeling down and unloved and strange.  

When I first learned of the documentary being made on the Mael brothers in Sparks called Sparks Brothers, I figured the comparisons to Queen would be inevitable and constant, as they have presumably throughout Sparks’ career. Thankfully, I was wrong on the quantity of comparisons in the documentary, but I was right about the quality. 

When faced with the inevitable comparison questions, most artists follow the time-tested, thoroughly vetted art of embracing comparisons and distancing themselves from it at the same time. After watching comparisons of the unconventional for decades, we’ve seen professionals approach this in two ways. They either embrace it or distance themselves from it, and we’ve even heard some manage to tight wire both, “Thank you for comparing us to them. They achieved what we can only dream of achieving, but I honestly don’t see the comparison. We’re so different in so many ways.” The worst strategy I’ve seen, and that which Sparks employed, albeit subtly, is to bash the other strange artists. The other ones might lose, but you will not win by doing so. 

The Sparks Brothers documentary is a mildly entertaining, overlong discussion of a modern band who started in the 70’s. I’ve now listened to the entire catalog of Sparks, and while I admire the band for their weird, strange, and just plain different efforts, they are not Queen. To someone who appreciates any efforts made at being unconventional and just plain different, in the art-rock milieu, I think they had enough songs to create a quality greatest hits album, but I don’t think their greatest hits would’ve qualified for Queen’s greatest hits volume II.   

The Sparks Brothers documentary also tells the tale of a band who refused to play by the rules. Yet, when you’re strange and experimental in nature, you’re going to drop some duds. The problem with that, of course, is that when a listener chooses to click on one of your songs, and it’s one of the duds, that sample unfortunately marks your entire catalog in their mind. In his review of the documentary, comedian and social critic Adam Carolla concluded his review by saying, “No one listens to Sparks.” Some find the experimental nature of Sparks frustrating, because they come so close to making great songs. Some find it weird for the sake of being weird, but others find it inspirational, and that’s the reason some of us listen to Sparks. Sparks have some great singles, but no great albums, and they are not a great band. We do like them for who they are however.  

Any band who stretches beyond the borders of weird, strange, and just plain different to structured outlandishness will eventually and inevitably be compared to Queen. Any time a band, or musician, attempts to redefine genres, engage in genre-breaking material, or corrupts and disrupts traditional structures in music, the Queen comparisons are inevitable. Queen might not be the weirdest band of all time, and they might not have been the first outlandish band, but they set a standard by which we compare all unconventional acts.  

Comparisons are a way of life in any artistic endeavor. Every artist, and aspiring artist, should prepare for real, perceived, or imagined comparisons. They should prepare for the terms copied, derivative, or an unfair characterization of them as a poor man’s (list artist’s name here). The worst thing an artist can do is subtly diminish and outright bash the other artist. Doing so should be left to Bigfoot enthusiasts, UFO experts, and other conspiracy-theory minded milieus.  

If you’re ever so bored, and you can’t find anything else to watch, the shorts on these subjects can be mildly entertaining at times. It’s almost inevitable, in these shows, that an interviewer will ask one of the experts in their field to augment or refute the theories of another expert. This second expert will inevitably attempt to establish his bona fides by diminishing the first expert and any others who claim expertise in their field. Those of us who know nothing of these fields know that we are supposed to pick one of these experts to follow. I am a bad example, because I don’t believe any of them, and I never will until they provide unquestionable and clear video, a dead body, or something else that I would be a stubborn fool not to consider a fact. The only thing I hear from the second expert is some jealousy that the interviewer would dare to lend some credibility to the first. I only hear the second expert attempt to gain some credibility on the back of the first. I also don’t hear anything the second one says after bashing the first. In this universe, where I have no knowledge, I end up dismissing everyone, and no one wins.    

The Mael brothers did not take the occasion of the Sparks Brothers documentary to bash Queen, as I wrote. The brothers didn’t say anything about Queen, one way or another, but I have to assume that they had some say on the final cut. If that’s true, they allowed a no-name producer to diminish Queen.  

“If I was producing that song,” the producer said in reference to a Sparks’ song, “I’d like put a beat on it or something, and be like oh my God, this is amazing. Everyone’s going to feel so sad about this, and we’re going to sneak it into them, and then Sparks would’ve be like, let Queen do that.” The idea that the Sparks’ Mael brothers didn’t say this might make it okay to some, but they allowed the director to keep it in, thus breaking a cardinal rule of weird art.  

Outside of creating the best piece of art they possibly can, the goal of every artist is to make some sort of connection relative to the artist. Queen, David Bowie, and many others proved that this can be accomplished in unconventional ways that align with their interpretation and personality. We can assume that this producer wanted to add a beat to make a better connection to a wider audience. I understand the whole “sell-out” complaint, but some of the best weird bands learned how to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. I also understand that the artist doesn’t want to compromise on their artistic vision, but to suggest that Queen was more open to compromising themselves than Sparks tells me that they wanted this quote left in to help Sparks explain why Queen proved more popular than them. It doesn’t. It does nothing but slam on Queen, and it accomplishes nothing for Sparks in my humble opinion.    

My advice for anyone being compared to a seminal artist who made an impact that is difficult to defeat is to embrace the comparison. As I wrote, thank the interviewer for the comparison and attempt to distance yourself at the same time. If, however, you find the comparisons exhausting, you say something along the lines of, “Any time an artist attempts to do something out of the ordinary they are compared to Queen. If you listen to our music and Queen’s, you won’t find any comparisons, other than we’re both unconventional. Queen did their thing, and we did ours. All the power to them, but I don’t honestly see the comparison.” Doing otherwise makes you come off sounding like an insecure UFO or Bigfoot expert who knows facts are hard to come by in their field, and the only thing left are competing theories. Those experts slam on each other all the time about intangibles such as findings and theories, and they attempt to establish their bona fides by saying none of the other experts know what they’re talking about except them. In my opinion, it’s a no-win situation.  

If I never heard of Queen, and I didn’t establish my own connection to them, I might’ve dismissed them as a result of this producer’s shot, but I wouldn’t have tilted that vat of credibility back on Sparks. My question, if I were in the Sparks’ camp editing this film, is what are you hoping to accomplish by leaving this in? I would’ve dismissed them as petty, jealous types who want to taint Queen’s credibility to bolster theirs. I know Sparks music, and I know Queen’s, and I judge them to be separate and distinct entities. If I didn’t, neither parties would receive more acclaim, clicks, or anything else from me as a result of one party bashing the other.