Ron Mael - Russell Mael Biography Sparks

Ron Mael Biography - Sparks
Ronald Mael
and songwriter
Russell Mael Biography Sparks
Russell Mael
vocalist and

Ronald David Mael is born August 12, 1948, in Culver City, California. He's the elder of the brothers. Russell Craig Mael is born October 5, 1953, in Santa Monica, but according to real birthdates could be 1945 and 1948.
There has been a lot of rumours about the alleged "Day" surname instead of Mael : In the early 70's, Joseph Fleury (later Sparks manager) once printed an interview in the Fan Club magazine, in which the Maels claimed they were the sons of Doris Day. For some reason, this rumour has never quite been refuted but it was a nonsense.

Ron & Russell's father was a graphic designer for the old daily the Hollywood Citizen-News, their mother, Miriam, a librarian. The Mael brothers grew up in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, at the lower edge of middle-class comfort. It was a nice, rather out of the way suburb, with tree-lined streets and rows of neat little houses.
Driving down the motorway to reach Galloway Street (the former Mael residence), you passed a striking pink stucco ranch house which any starry eyed tourist from Spokane will tell you, was Marilyn Monroe died in.

Ronnie Mael and his brother Russell spent their childhood modeling young men's apparel for mail-order catalogue (everybody's still searching for the pics !) and going to movies at least twice a week at an early age. Ron Mael : "Every parent in Los Angeles sees their child as a potential movie star; when success eluded us in that field, piano lessons for me and violin lessons for Russell followed". But The Mael brothers received their main musical education through rock'n'roll. Ron Mael affirms that he only started listening to classical music after people kept telling him that Sparks sounded as if they were influenced by it.

Ron Mael : "Our father bought us Hound Dog by Elvis Presley and Long Tall Sally by Little Richard, so those were the first records we owned. I don't know what his inspiration was for doing that... They weren't the kind of records you usually bought as educational tools for your child !". Then Ron Mael loved surf music and an atmospheric instrumental like "Pipeline" by the Chantays thinking these kind of tune was the perfect background music for surf, sun, and picking up sun-bleached blondes. Ron also liked guitar player Link Wray and pop girl group, The Shangri Las...
Later The Maels had play baseball at Palisades Park trying to impress the local girls with their batting prowess and golden summer tans, Russell Mael was quarterback for his Palisades High School Dolphins Football Team. But as soon as the brothers started fending for themselves, they developed an anglophile obsession...

The British Invasion : Young Ron & Russell loved the rash of teenage bands that sprang up across the States in the mid-60s, copying the Rolling Stones in the hope of getting girlfriends. So the Maels were definitely more in spiritual kinship with the British bands. In the sixties, everyone in California wanted to be British anyway... but it's hard to look good in Mod gear when it's 400 degrees outside !

Russell Mael : "Even before Ron and I moved to England we thought Sparks was like a British band. I liked British bands and I kind of admired Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones but Ron's earliest listening influences were The Kinks with Ray Davies, The Move and above all the early Who..."

Pacific Palisades - Santa Monica, where Ron Mael & Russell Mael grew up
Pacific Palisades - Santa Monica in the early fifties
The place where Ron Mael & Russell Mael grew up
Russell Mael was quarterback for his Palisades High School Dolphins football team.
Quaterback Russ Mael
Dolphins Football Team

Ron Mael : "In the early '60s I was absolutly mad about The Who. I was an absolute fan of guitarist Pete Towhshend. I considered the band my exclusive "property" because I was the only person in the neighborhood who owned "A Quick One". I had have given anything to have been the young Pete Townshend with his Rickenbacker guitar doing the windmill thing with his arm... But during our first gigs Russell dressed in a sailor suit was wheeled on stage in a little ocean liner made of papier-maché, waving hello to the crowd of four or even five people. That's when we realised maybe we were not going to be The Who..." (Rock & Folk, French magazine, October 1974)

Russell Mael : "My brother Ron liked flamboyant, outgoing rock stars like Pete Townshend from The Who, but he couldn’t emulate them on the keyboard, so he stayed stoic and calm. Ron was in the vein of silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati and became a sort of trademark of the band..." (Rock & Folk, French magazine, October 1974)

Concerts : Ron Mael & Russell Mael were teenagers during Los Angeles' musical golden period, where bands like the Doors, Love, the Standells and the Leaves played at the Whisky-a-Go-Go on Sunset Strip and Brian Wilson & the Beach Boys would play at the Teenage Fair, an afternoon event where bands performed in one tent and an exhibition for a new line of hipster jeans filled another.
Living in California Ron Mael & Russell Mael were privileged to see many great concerts : The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, a triple bill of the Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Paul Revere and the Raiders, T-Rex at the Whisky A GoGo, Led Zeppelin’s first tour, The Move, Humble Pie, Free, Jeff Beck Group and many others.
Folk music was also big at the time, but it held little sway with the Mael brothers.
Ron Mael : "We detested folk music because it was cerebral and sedate and we had no time for that, but Gene Clark & the Byrds were OK because they had electric guitars and English hairstyles..."

At the time Ronald Mael was entering college and becoming involved with Cinema and Graphic Arts at UCLA. Ron Mael : "Going to movies at least twice a week at an early age can have the effect of eliminating a need for realism in your work. When I was a student at the UCLA film school my final project was to show the classic Fritz Lang's film "M" upside down to his class, the point being that it would then be called "W"..."
Russell Mael was in Theater Arts and Filmmaking but he also used to compose songs : the track "Big Bands" from the very first Sparks Lp, was in a early incarnation, a ditty called "Summer Days" which Russell Mael wrote and performed on tape for a school film project. At time Russell Mael finishing high-school was the regular beach blanket bingo, though he tended to wear a T-Shirt on the hot sand in a paranoid attempt to preserve a skin of lily white.

Sparks Russell and Ron Mael in the mid-sixties. The Urban Renewal Project band
The Maels 1966
The Big TNT Show

In 1966, the Mael brothers appeared few seconds in "The Big T.N.T Show" a movie directed by Larry Peerce... but they were in the audience. Nevertheless Ron & Russell commenced banging around, first in separate groups, then together in Farmer's Market, Moonbaker Abbey and in 1967 Urban Renewal Project.
Ron Mael : "We've always just been interested in pop music. It's appealing. We were in various bands, not at the same time, and we finally just joined forces..."
The Urban Renewal Project started around 1967, made up of Russell's friend guitarist Fred Frank, and his wife Ronna who played drums. Urban Renewal Project played some gigs - mostly Battles of the Bands - and taped a song "Computer Girl"... -

The Urban Renewal Project died when Ron & Russell met Earle Mankey in 1968. The Maels and Earle Mankey formed Halfnelson - sometimes spelled Half-Nelson. This monicker was from a term for a certain wrestling hold. The others in and out of the band around this time were Surly Raph Oswald on bass, and John Mendelsohn on drums. Ron Mael played keyboards and was the main composer.
On the "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing" demo Russell Mael penned two songs, sang all the songs - except one, sung by Earle Mankey - and most of the bass lines on the tape were by him. After the release of the demo, Jim Mankey & Harley Feinstein joined the band. Hafnelson became Sparks and recorded two albums on Albert Grossman's Bearsville records. -

At the end of 1973, figuring that Sparks' british-style music and lyrics would be more appreciated overseas than in the United States, Ron Mael and his brother phoned the guy who had looked after them while they toured Europe in 1972. British Island label decided to just bring over the nucleus of the songwriting and singing and they told the Maels if they were willing to relocate and get a band together over here, they would sign them and the original band sort of disintegrated.
Ron & Russ Mael moved to England where their parents were living, and Sparks relocated in the UK but without the Mankey brothers and Harley Feinstein. ...and the rest is history.

Sparks became a British band
SPARKS 1969-1973
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the glorious British years
©2006 by XAVIER LORENTE-DARRACQ / GRAPHIK DESIGNS - FRANCE duplication strictly prohibited