I’ve been hearing lots of chatter about Sparks bubbling up on the internet these days. I’m not sure why this is, but it makes me happy, because Sparks makes me happy. In my younger and more naïve days I would have taken this internet murmuring as an indication that Sparks are ready for some kind of popular comeback, but I’m older and wiser and more disappointed in the human race now and I’ve learned first of all that these things go in cycles and second of all that – in America at least – Sparks are never going to get the respect they deserve. Though Russell and Ron Mael spent four decades making some of of the most creative and iconoclastic pop-leaning music put on tape, that music was always a little bit too creative, too iconoclastic, and too “quirky” to have made them the household name they could have been. There just aren’t enough cool households in America I guess.
Brian Beattie – who co-produced Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, Black Sheep Boy, and The Stage Names – played in a band called Glass Eye in the 80s, and he always used to tell me about how the whole band’s teeth got set on edge by the word “quirky.” Words that critics apply to bands early on tend to stick, no matter how inaccurate they may be; for that reason Okkervil River’s always going to be called a “country” band by some people, no matter how many synthesizers and drum machines we use. And for that reason every Glass Eye record, no matter how it actually sounded, always came back labeled “quirky.” By the end Brian tells me the band was desperate for any other word, that even “terrible” or “nauseating” would have been better than “quirky.” Because “quirky,” of course, is a euphemism for “This music is sort of weird. I kind of don’t get it? And probably it wouldn’t be your thing either.” Working on our first real record together, when nobody had really heard our band, he told me, “Just pray that they don’t call you “quirky.”
It’s Sparks’ “quirkiness” that I think has unfairly limited their household-name-ness. Though a devil’s advocate might say that Sparks played the “quirky” card knowingly, intentionally, and with some idea of what the consequences might be. Maybe so. It happens that they also played the humor card, sometimes to their detriment. A lot of people get uncomfortable when music is trying to be funny; it undercuts the sense that “real” art is supposed to be a very serious business practiced exclusively by tortured artists. When you don’t seem to be taking yourself seriously, people who think of themselves as serious sometimes have difficulty taking you seriously. This same problem afflicts They Might Be Giants, incredibly skilled and canny pop writers who are not above ruining some of their best songs with a left-field polka breakdown, and I’ll confess that there are times when both bands’ detours into humor disappoint even me. It seems, at times, like their music promises pop transcendence but then the lyrics bait-and-switch it out for a cheap joke.
On the other hand, I’ve always admired the way Sparks steadfastly refused the “tortured artist you should take very seriously” image and yet clearly were incredibly musically serious, and hardworking on top of that. Because the tortured serious artist thing sometimes feels almost oppressively boring to me. In life people are playful and goof off and have fun as much as they are dour, and in life people sometimes need a lighthearted laugh, and there is a lot of seriousness in play. Music should be allowed to represent that.
Sparks often displayed a kind of iconoclasm that’s both easy to admire and seems like it became eventually isolating. Their arrangements were complex and required a lot of skill to play, but on the other hand their music had nothing to do with the stone-faced prog rock of the 70s with which it was contemporary. On Kimono My House and Propaganda their sound briefly dovetailed with glam rock, but it was almost a coincidence. Their terminal snickering could have fit in with punk rock, but they was too proudly brainy, dorky even.
Some musicians are dumb mainstream popmeisters without a thought in their head except making money. Other musicians are snobby too-smart-for-their-own-good types who think it would be beneath them to actually entertain an audience. Sparks is a great example of a band who sailed past both of those traps. They were always sniffing around for a hit, but never on anyone’s terms but their own. When Russell and Ron heard Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” on the radio they were blown away, and while punk bands and rock snobs were shouting “disco sucks” and calling for “death to disco”* the Maels heard a new direction for their rock band.** When they sung the praises of Summer’s producer Giorgio Moroder to a German journalist, the journalist mentioned he was a friend and offered to arrange a meeting, and the seeds for No 1 in Heaven, my favorite Sparks record and maybe my favorite Giorgio Moroder record (and maybe my favorite record title), were planted.
The Moroder connection might be why I’ve noticed people talking more about Sparks these days, as Daft Punk have more recently re-elevated Moroder’s profile (as an aside, I will admit to being almost paralyzed with jealousy that Daft Punk got to work with both Nile Rodgers and Moroder, though their Moroder collaboration didn’t yield anything as exciting as their Rodgers one) and No 1 in Heaven is a good entrée into Moroder for more rock-inclined fans. Giorgio Moroder is undeniably one of the most important architects of the way everything sounded in the 1980s, an utter visionary, but as a producer and as a writer he didn’t place nearly as much emphasis on lyrics as he did on music, which sometimes resulted in transcendently glorious singles with totally ridiculous lyrics. On No 1 in Heaven Russell and Ron brought him two of their best and most (relatively) serious songs, which act as bookends for the record.
Lyrics aside, musically Moroder’s songs always feel like they’re about transcendence. Those pulsing arpeggios and pounding quarternotes feel both sensual and spiritual, questing forward and fully inhabiting the moment at the same time. “Flashdance” is about transcending everything your life that’s holding you back and fully achieving your potential (which is what every montage song in every 80s movie had to be about afterwards). “I Feel Love” is about being fully immersed in the moment, overridden by your emotions. “From Here to Eternity” says it all. Moroder is both transcendent and goofy, and Sparks played to that in their songwriting for No 1 in Heaven, maybe alluding to Donna Summer’s sultry and controversial first Moroder megahit “Love to Love You Baby” by writing their own song about fucking – this time written from the point of view of the sperm.
What’s so great about “Tryouts for the Human Race” is that the Maels could have kept the song a one-note joke but instead took it somewhere almost mystical. Really, this song is about unformed souls, sitting around in some cosmic waiting room, desperately hoping for the “chance to join the race,” to “be your little daughter or your son,” and to “live and die” as human beings. “Tryouts for the Human Race” reminds you how precious and incredible and lucky it is to be alive, and how mysterious life is, and how little we understand of what’s before and after life. Even the silly and throwaway parts of the lyric are well-crafted – the cheeky sex scene in the first verse, with all its puns, is fascinating and filled with little rhymes. “One of us might make it though,” the narrator says, but “all the rest will disappear like dew.” What we’re hearing in this line is a euphemistic description of semen evaporating – just as naughty a thing to put into a song as Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” moans – but the choice of the word “dew” is perfect, because being conceived is the start of a whole entire beautiful lifetime, just like dew is the very, very start of a new day.
No 1 in Heaven starts with birth and it ends with death or, again, transcendence, in a song that purports to be “The number one song in heaven – written, of course, by the mightiest hand.” The cockiness of this line is great – again, what a phenomenal joke! What a great concept for a song! As in “Tryouts for the Human Race,” though, Russell and Ron take this idea further into a bigger and more beautiful thematic place. They ask the inevitable question – if this is the number one song in heaven, “Why are you hearing it now?” Then they offer that, “Maybe you’re closer to here than you care to imagine. Maybe you’re closer to here than you care to be.” The first sentence could indicate an almost Gnostic “heaven is under every stone and behind every leaf” idea, something beautiful and optimistic. Or maybe it’s the second sentence. Maybe you’re closer to death than you realize. Maybe you could get hit by a bus walking out your front door. The song doesn’t indicate that either answer is correct, but it promises that, “if you should die before you wake,” this is “the song that you’ll hear, I guarantee.”
And “The Number One Song in Heaven” goes even further. It takes a quick detour in a passage you could almost see as defending the type of music Moroder usually traffics in (“loud as a crowd, or soft as a doubt…lyrically weak, but the music’s the thing”), and then it kind of posits a kind of cosmic origin for music and all the smaller emanations a more universal music might take:
The song filters down, down through the clouds.
It reaches the earth and it winds all around
and then it breaks up in millions of ways…
In cars it becomes a hit.
In your homes it becomes advertisements.
And in the streets it becomes the children singing.
Expert musicians and the authors of several hits themselves (No 1 in Heaven’s “Beat the Clock ended up in the Top 40 in fact), Sparks understand how music is put together, how the building blocks of a jingle, or a Billboard number one, or a nursery rhyme are all the same (I often remember how Kurt Cobain, a Sparks fan, described his songs to the other members of Nirvana as nursery rhymes), and like true modernists and seasoned hitmakers they’re fine with that. They don’t see a distinction between a TV ad jingle and something Gabriel might play on his heavenly horn.
And I know I haven’t talked about Moroder’s production a ton in this piece, but I think I’ve sufficiently breathlessly raved about Moroder enough in general? It’s some of his best work, let’s leave it at that. Sparks get all of Moroder’s strengths and they provide a conceptual and lyrical framework that ties them all together. Even the cover art for this record is perfect, in a room that recalls the heaven of the last song on this record and the waiting room of the first song we see this platinum-haired and severe-looking babe, standing in her modernist white room, a pre-David-Lynch image that Lynch would have killed for and a perfect representation of Sparks’ weird mix of cheekiness and progressivism and of pleasure and coldness.
I don’t know if the Mael brothers are athiests or to what extent they meant a lot of these connections I’m drawing (a lot of the songs in the middle of this album, it should be said, are less high-minded and as a result don’t rise to the same heights) and I sort of don’t care. This is what all this means to me! This is my personal Sparks high point, among so many, and part of what I love about it is hearing a brilliant but sometimes spiky band bring out the best in a brilliant but sometimes uneven producer, and hearing both of them work together to make something so god damned cosmic.
*Incidentally, this has been said a million times before but the “Disco Sucks” movement truly was complete and utter garbage, fuelled by racism, homophobia, classism, and the most unpalatable kind of snobbery. If the “Disco Demolition Night” riot hadn’t happened and disco had enjoyed longer mainstream success I believe we would be living in a cooler and better musical world today.
**There’s also a famous story among Bowie fans about Brian Eno rushing into one of Bowie’s Berlin recording sessions, throwing on “I Feel Love,” and pronouncing, “I have heard the sound of the future…This is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.”
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Alice Swoboda and By the Way They Actually Can Take Away Your Dignity