Skip the foreplay: Sparks become disco infiltrators on Beat the Clock (1979)

JUST last year, art-rock pranksters Sparks finally created an official YouTube channel, hoping to round up some of the greatest pop clips of the last five decades. So far they’ve got 45 videos and counting, offering them up in a tweet last November “in light of last week’s events”, meaning the election of Donald Trump.

It’s true, Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell Mael are the antidote to just about any shit thing. They’re one of the most singular double acts in pop history, whose sense of the absurd hides a rigorous intellect. Whether they’re revelling in camp vaudeville, punchy glam rock, minimal composition, opera, synth-pop, disco or metal, Sparks will always add at least a smirk to any situation.

The pair infamously crept into public consciousness in 1974 with the glam stomp of This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us, Ron giving the side eye to the Top of the Pops camera in his Hitler moustache, while a bug-eyed Russell pranced around in a polyester jumpsuit.

By 1978 they were the first rock band to collaborate on an album with Giorgio Moroder, whose sci-fi analogue synth pulses formed the backbone to their album No1 Song In Heaven. Of the seven synth disco cuts on the LP, Beat the Clock is the standout — a record that still turns up in DJ sets by Optimo, I-F or DJ Hell and laid down the analogue template for electro-pop duos like Erasure and Pet Shop Boys.

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 14.55.16

A play on the American TV game show, Beat the Clock whomps along on a propulsive synthetic drum beat, timed in the video by Ron’s head on the end of a metronome, as the pair riff on loads of other time-related sight gags — encased in an hourglass, becoming human clock hands and cartoon factory machines churning out cardboard clones of the brothers. Ron stands stony-faced behind his synth in a suit while Russell bounds around in mismatched jumble sale get-up, chanting some of his greatest lines: “Entered school when I was two… PhD’d that afternoon… Got divorced when I was four…”

Sparks’ 24th studio album is out this year, and considering their last LP was a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand and the one before that was an opera about Swedish existentialist director Ingmar Bergman, who knows what to expect.

Till then, have some Ron & Russell and try not to smirk.