Pioneers ever since Sparks began in the late 1960s, Russell and Ron Mael were among the first duos to make synthpop after teaming up with producer Giorgio Moroder on 1979’s album No. 1 In Heaven. Still ploughing their own furrow, Classic Pop asked keyboardist Ron for his views on the genre…

ron mael

Were you aware of just how influential the No. 1 In Heaven album would turn out to be?

No. It was a pretty lonely area to be. Kraftwerk were working in electronics, but we felt different, using electronics as part of a true band. We didn’t set out to make dance music, it was about trying to learn how to use electronics.

Were you surprised at the mauling the album received from critics at the time?

It was because there was no standard comparison for it, so it was hard to know where to place it. But it struck a chord with the public. It sounds defensive, but a lot of history has been rewritten as to what came fi rst in synthpop. We had enough success that it covered over extreme bitterness, but whenever synthpop pioneers are written about, we think: “Hmm, someone’s missing from that list!” It’s just comical to us now.

Sparks, Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure… why does the synthpop duo template of a stern-looking keyboardist work so well?

The singer is always the fl ashy and sexy guy, so it’s about making the obvious contrast. In my experience, it’s hard for a keyboard player to be fl ashy in the way a guitarist is without looking ludicrous. The way to go is in the opposite direction and be immobile, so that it comes across as an intentional artistic move, when really it’s made out of necessity. It distils the whole band to its barest parts.

What are you thinking about when you’re giving the patented Ron Mael ‘death stare’ on stage?

I’m just concentrating! I was aware when Sparks started doing Top Of The Pops that there were a lot of close-ups. Rather than look distracted, I took it to the extreme as a way to focus on what I’m doing, not just look like I’m vaguely wandering through a song. Some people look good smiling, some don’t – and I’m in the latter camp. A slight scowl is more my style than an amiable grin.