❉ 21 of the best from Sparks, a band who are cult with a capital C.
“Entertainment or Art, or Entertainment AND Art. Silly and smart. Clever and puerile. Experimental with mixed success, and an effort to be applauded instead of taking the easy option.”
Top of the Pops 2 has a lot to answer for. Airing weekly on BBC 2, the show largely mixed archive performances from bands and artists with more current, mostly indie records, and quickly became must-watch TV for me. It was the show that introduced me to Pet Shop Boys’ cover version of Always on my Mind, triggering a lifelong adoration for the band; the show that introduced me to songs such as The House of the Rising Sun by The Animals, Real Love by The Beatles, and The Boston Tea Party by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
It was also the show that led me to discovering a band (though arguably a duo, really) which has stuck with me for life. A band whose lyrics showed me that you can be clever, complex and silly all at once, and whose music and vocals firmly said, “You think there’s only one way to sing a song? Try again.”
That band was Sparks. Formed of the brothers Ron and Russell Mael with an assortment of backing musicians, they have proven themselves influential, cult with a capital C, and to this day simultaneously baffle some whilst invoking utter adoration in others.
On 8 September 2017 their latest album, Hippopotamus, is being released to an unsuspecting public. It seems as good a time as any to skim through their past albums and pick a song from each to form a fantasy Best Of. Is this going to be a hyper-critical, unbiased analysis? No. But it has its heart(beat, increasing heartbeat) on its sleeve at least, and may entice some to give them a whirl. This is, to coin a phrase, hospitality on parade. (I’m looking at the first 21 albums proper they did, and not including The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, a lovely record but technically a single piece and not disparate songs.)
‘Wonder Girl’ – Halfnelson aka Sparks, 1971
Why Wonder Girl? Two reasons. First, it’s an understated album opener, but, secondly, it’s one which is deceptively tricky. Note the way near the end it decides on a whim to move from four beats in a bar to two, throwing the drums slightly out of sync but in a way which still works. It’s a small moment, but one which already shows that this is a band which isn’t always interested in doing things you’d expect.
It was around this time that Sparks also recorded the song Arts and Craft Spectacular, a song in which people try to “push their quilt” for the attention of watching judges. This is not a band who wanted to do simple love songs over and again.
‘Batteries Not Included’ – A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing, 1973
Lasting under 50 seconds, this continues the trend in writing songs about things no-one else would even consider putting pen to paper for. In this case, we’ve the tale of a man frustrated by his inability to use his new toy. Why? Batteries not included. Silly, slight, but a little bit wonderful, the final punchline showcasing Russell Mael’s voice in stark, minimalist solo after the OTT instrumentation from a few moments before.
‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ – Kimono My House, 1974
The album and song which will forever be the ones most associated with the band. Oh sure, there are other songs on the album that I arguably prefer: Here In Heaven, a catchy rock number about a suicide pact where one person chickens out at the last moment is wonderful; Talent Is An Asset, a pop song about Albert Einstein is filled with clever lyrics and shows that desire to write about things others wish not to; and Equator is a masterful mixture of falsetto and production that sounds otherworldly and evokes imagery of cold, ice, snow and wilderness.
But it’d be silly to choose any of them over This Town, showing the sort of attitude where someone says, “Oh, you like that film of mine? Well, my personal favourite film was [OBSCURE INDIE FLICK EVEN THEIR OWN MOTHER AVOIDED WATCHING].”
This Town is the song people remember, and the one which grabbed me all those years ago when watching Top of the Pops 2. A song about sex told through symbolism, of heartbeat and tacky tigers and cannibalism, it remains to this day fresh, notable and utterly unlike anything else anyone has ever done before or since. What’s more, forty years on, Russell Mael is still able to hit it out of the park when singing it live, and it was difficult as heck to do that back in 1974 let alone now. Impressive stuff.
‘Bon Voyage’ – Propaganda, 1974
A tricky one to choose from. This is arguably my favourite Sparks album. Whilst individual songs do not necessarily better or topple the highs of Kimono My House, it holds together as an album amazingly well, and anyone who has bought a CD re-issue years down the line will have the sublime Alabamy Right as a bonus track, which is worth anyone’s money.
This is littered with songs worthy of attention, from the one-two opening punch of Propaganda and At Home, At Work, At Play to the singles Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth and Something For The Girl With Everything, but to my mind it’s the finale, a tale of sweeping orchestration and tragedy, that wins the day. Telling the tale of Noah’s Ark from the perspective of the animals who didn’t quite make it, it’s intelligent songwriting at its best. (On an incidental note, it was also the subject matter for a short story I wrote years ago, genuinely unaware Sparks had beaten me to it. Unsurprisingly, they did it far better than I ever could.)
‘Under the Table With Her’ – Indiscreet, 1975
A mixture of strings and vocals only, this is the story of two children bored at a dinner party who would rather spend their time beneath the table whilst the adults socialize. Every child has been in that situation, but rarely has that boredom and sense of amused freedom been so well captured. Back when I worked in childcare, I would occasionally sing this song to crowds of parents and children, much to their general bafflement.
‘Gone with the Wind’ – Big Beat, 1976
Okay, okay, so I am cheating here. Gone with the Wind was never on the album, but a bonus track added in later editions. It’s the highlight though by far. Written by Russell Mael himself (Ron Mael tends to write all the songs and lyrics), this catchy but odd tale is told from the point of view of an extra from the film Gone with the Wind, reflecting that he’s shot his scenes but has no idea what the film is about as his type never get to read the actual script.
I’m not saying that every band ever should write like this, but I’m eternally grateful that one is giving it a shot regardless.
‘Over The Summer’ – Introducing Sparks, 1977
An odd album overall, and one shrouded in mystery for years due to not being re-released on CD until 2007, Introducing Sparks eschews the production sound of previous outings for something more… well, American. This is typified in Over The Summer, a song taken straight from the Beach Boys’ book of close harmonies, girls, hot weather and guitar. It may not sound a lot like Sparks’s other output, but that doesn’t detract from a solid and fun pop song all the same.
‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ – No. 1 In Heaven, 1979
As with Kimono My House and This Town, it would be churlish to pick any song other than this. The one that reminded people who Sparks were and completely reinvented their sound and audience, this disco tribute with Giorgio Moroder himself behind the scenes working with the brothers matches (altogether now) an acrobatic vocal performance with lyrics beyond the usual and music that grabs your ears.
Is it Sparks’s take on I Feel Love complete with that song’s synthesized ambience and sound? Yes, but as with Over The Summer, it shows an artist paying homage whilst placing it firmly into their own mould.
‘When I’m with You’ – Terminal Jive, 1980
Admittedly not without reason, this album is often cited as the lesser follow-up to No. 1 in Heaven, yet it still scored a number one hit in France with When I’m with You, a love song told in the way only Sparks can tell it: postmodern, catchy, silly and smart. Think of this album as the Invasion of Time to the previous album’s Deadly Assassin. It’ll rarely be any listener’s favourite of the two, but to dismiss it out of hand is foolish. There is worthy stuff in here, and just as Dire Straits bemoaned they couldn’t write a love song the way others do, so Sparks do likewise here with solid, poptastic results.
‘Funny Face’ – Whomp That Sucker, 1981
How many songs do you hear about average people trying their best to look beautiful? Now, how many songs do you hear about beautiful people trying their best to look average? Step forward Ron and Russell Mael.
I’d argue (and will do in a few albums’ time) that when they revisited this territory, this time with feet in the first camp, years later it worked better, but this rare viewpoint in pop music is amusingly ungrateful, and the gospel-lite backing vocals at times show Ron Mael’s love for close harmonies and multi-layered vocals coming to the fore once again.
‘The Decline and Fall of Me’ – Angst In My Pants, 1982
Oh, how many bands would kill for a title as funny as this album’s? It was a flip of coin result that didn’t flag that song up for the one of choice here, too, and I am sure that I will alternate between the two forever more when picking a favourite. (Sherlock Holmes comes very close, too. Name another song which uses a fictional detective as the object of lust/aspiration for a man who wants to impress his girl more… actually, since Benedict Cumberbatch took on the role, that’s probably more likely material nowadays, isn’t it?)
The Decline and Fall of Me is, again, a killer title and surely the name of my autobiography in years to come. Its production may be firmly early 80s but the slightly too loud and distorted blend of guitar, falsetto, overwhelming drums and keyboard make for a song you wish was performed in concert time and again. It screams out for a live rendition, and when we got one in Islington as part of a series of concerts to promote the album Exotic Creatures of the Deep, it didn’t disappoint.
‘I Wish I Looked a Little Better’ – In Outer Space, 1983
The cousin/sequel to Funny Face, this short pop song of hoping for beauty whilst reflecting that their parents are lovely houses a more stripped synth and vocal production than previous albums, but the self-deprecating lyrics and wit are still at home for all to see.
This was also the album which housed Cool Places, a duet with Jane Wiedlin from The Go-Go’s and the band’s biggest hit in America. A rare foray into letting someone other than Russell Mael do all the singing, it showcases this new sound and production perfectly as an album opener.
‘With All My Might’ – Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat, 1984
It is arguably unfair when people criticize the sound and production values of a song or album when what they really mean is that they don’t care for that era’s technology or ‘feel’. Nonetheless, it would be remiss of me not to look at With All My Might and wonder how a newly recorded take of this song with beefier and less tinny instrumentation would fare. As it stands, it’s a beautiful little love song (and as with Under The Table earlier, it’s one I sometimes sang to children to help them to sleep), but the cynic and dreamer in me wonders if there is a better version by the same band to be heard.
‘Shopping Mall of Love’ – Music That You Can Dance To, 1986
I’m skirting controversy with this one. Depending on which territory you live in, this album was either released with the song Change on it or Armies of the Night. Good though Armies is, Change is the standout number and by some distance the strongest song on this album, one which the brothers memorably mimed on TV-am. The story of a loser in love vowing that “every dog is gonna have his day”, and increasingly showing himself to be the reason a relationship broke up whilst remaining utterly oblivious to the fact he’s the one to blame, it’s one hell of a song.
Since it’s not technically on the album though depending on your country of origin, I’m plumping for Shopping Mall of Love. So there.
Is it as good? No, but it does have Ron Mael on lead vocals (well, spoken word anyway) and that’s to be cherished.
‘So Important’ – Interior Design, 1988
Bless Interior Design. This album gets a very rough ride from people, and it’s not difficult to see why. It feels tired and uninspired in places, the production values are the most dated of any album they released in the 1980s, and the fact this came out prior to a whole shift in musical direction yet again is arguably indicative of a band knowing they need to stop ignoring this fork in the road and do something about it. It’s an album that really came to life when performed live in the aforementioned Islington gigs, though frankly even that couldn’t detract from the lesser quality of some tracks.
None of this stops So Important from being a strong song though, and the album has further peaks amid the troughs as it carries on (Let’s Make Love is worth a mention).
Silence followed for years to come. We had National Crime Awareness Week and Singing in the Shower to occupy us, and they penned Katharine Hepburn, one of their greatest triumphs from this era, but it took 1994 and some gratuitous sax to entice them back proper.
‘I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car’ – Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, 1994
I’m breaking my own rules here. Earlier, I cited songs that were popular/ important from albums over ones I necessarily thought better, but I’m going to place that reasoning to one side now. You can keep your UK top 40 singles (sorry, When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”) and the Propaganda nods with the opening and closing tracks (and, again, what a brilliant album title we have here). For me, this is the highlight. We are in Gone with the Wind territory again, this time with a driver wishing to step into the world of his more famous passenger, and the result is nightmarishly oppressive backing vocals and music melded with an eerie set of spoken vocals from Russell Mael.
The album as a whole is also beautifully refreshing and ‘new’ after all that came before. It’s not the radical departure that Heaven gave us, but there is a sense of reinvigoration embodied in every song, from The Ghost of LIberace back to Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. If not their mojo, then Sparks had at least rekindled the lyrical imagination and flair of yesteryear.
‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ – Plagiarism, 1997
So, you’ve reached that point in your career when people expect you to try your hand at something new. Do you go for another new sound? (Sort of.) Do you do some cover versions of songs you like? (Ish.) Or do you do both? (Kinda.)
Sparks, being Sparks, decided to come close to both and steer clear simultaneously, releasing this album of cover versions… of their own songs. Remember back a few albums ago, I wished With All My Might could be re-recorded? I still do, and I wish it had been here because tracks from that era such as Funny Face and Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat sound incredible here.
It’s not all successful. Change and Propaganda lack the bite of the originals, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a band looking backwards and forwards at the same time. There are in fact two recordings of This Town on here, but the orchestrated splendour of their solo take on their biggest hit is the more notable for being different whilst retaining the energy and appeal of the original. It’s also, by dint of being their most recognizable song, the one that’s the easiest to play compare and contrast with.
Is the album self-indulgent? Undoubtedly so, yet the nod and wink in even attempting this project makes it worthwhile.
‘The Angels’ – Balls, 2000
Do you remember when Eurodisco was a thing? Give this album a whirl and you soon will. It’s lyrically sparse for sure and doesn’t have the same Sparks-idiosyncratic touch that their take on Beach Boys or Donna Summer housed, but it does show a deep understanding of the genre and Balls is a catchy opener.
The one to really note though is The Angels, a decent song in its own right that went on to get a fantastic remix by Brian Reeves. It’s a bit like when Pet Shop Boys had Brothers in Rhythm remix How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? and made a good song better still. It’s worth listening to both versions, but one clearly stands triumphant. (Cue disagreement in the comments section in three… two… one… and go!)
‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ – Lil’ Beethoven, 2002
Well. Where to start with this album? If Heaven before it showed a departure and new sound, that was just teasing us compared to Lil’ Beethoven. It’s a mix of minimal lyrics that tell stories perfectly in an handful of words when others fail to do in hundreds, orchestral arrangements that arrest the ear, vocals that are perfectly suited to Russell’s voice, and an overall maturity and confidence that a band with its nineteenth album arguably shouldn’t come close to.
The highlight for me, though nearly every song on the album is a contender, is My Baby’s Taking Me Home. I’m not sure how a love song that mostly consists of the title being sung time and again can work so well. It shouldn’t… and yet. And yet on what has to be the two-hundredth playthrough for me, it still packs a punch. It’s triumph bottled. Oblivious to all around, the lovers can hear the chorus singing, and when it crashes in I always smile. Perfect. It had been over thirty years since the first album, and Sparks went and made their best yet.
‘As I Sit Down to Play The Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral’ – Hello Young Lovers, 2006
This album as a whole is very much Lil’ Beethoven Part Two. Like so many sequels, it seeks to push certain concepts further still whilst sticking with a winning formula, and like so many sequels it has flashes of brilliance and moments that arguably surpass the original, but never reaches those dizzy heights and sometimes falls short.
Dick Around is a solid opener, even at over six minutes in length, and a later radio edit (which fell foul to censorship due to its title) does well to cut it down whilst retaining its essence.
The finale though is the one to watch out for. What Notre Dame and Dick Around do so well is pushing on the orchestral elements of the previous album with larger stories lyrically-speaking and fuse them with heavier guitar and rock elements. (Conversely, where other songs falter is by stripping everything back to the brink of repetition where the jokes run thin.)
A song of love, work and excessive organ, Notre Dame is a fitting ending which points to a future direction where this new blend is refined and solidified. Cue Exotic Creatures.
‘Strange Animal’ – Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, 2008
Exotic Creatures is the album that Hello Young Lovers birthed. I don’t think it could exist without the cautious poking of the previous one, but it is in nearly every way stronger and more successful with what it sets out to do: pushing that mix of orchestra and rock into an album of its own. What most stands out about the album is that it’s superbly and intelligently structured, with the opening track proving a lynchpin thematically and spiritually for the album as a whole. The very ending brings a sense of uniformity, clarity and circular closure to proceedings and lyrically feels smart.
I don’t think Strange Animal is my favourite song on the album, but I think it’s probably the one that best showcases Sparks on it. It’s the story of a strange animal, or critic, literally living inside a song and criticizing it within. Think of it as Anxiety and Self-Doubt in your own inner monologue having an independent voice and articulating itself in song and you’re close: is this actually any good? Are you clever or novelty? Intelligent or daft?
If there is one quotation that sums it all up from the song itself, it is undoubtedly the lyrics, “Entertainment or Art? One should know from the start.”
Should they though? Better still to listen and find out for yourself, surely, and foolish to dismiss the idea that something can be both out of hand. Entertainment or Art, or Entertainment and Art. Silly and smart. Clever and puerile. Experimental with mixed success, and an effort to be applauded instead of taking the easy option.
In September of this year, after a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand and live gigs aplenty, Sparks will ask the above of us again. Successful or a joke worn thin? Experiment that wins or ends in disaster? Entertaining Art or Messy Failure?
I don’t know, but that heartbeat, increasing heartbeat in anticipation remains all the same.
❉ The new album H I P P O P O T A M U S is out 8 September 2017. Click here to pre-order from the official site.
❉ Click here for dates, prices and venues of the accompanying tour.