Sparks – No. 1 in Heaven

Similar to last week’s oldie, SparksNo. 1 in Heaven is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this month. Unlike last week’s, this was the group’s eighth album already.

It opens with the lovely Tryouts for the Human Race, which perhaps surprisingly, was released as the last of the singles from this six-track album, peaking at number 45 in the UK. It’s a great album opener though, launching with pulsing analogue synth sounds. All of the classic Sparks elements are there – silly, but semi-serious lyrics, falsetto vocals, and brilliant rock instrumentation.

This must have come as something a shock to Sparks‘ regular fans, though – if there were any left. Having passed on the rock baton to others, after their initial UK success, the Mael brothers had returned to their native USA, and spent the mid-1970s steadily fading into obscurity. Ignoring a couple of early attempts, No. 1 in Heaven was really their first major reinvention, as they roped in Italian mega-producer Giorgio Moroder to help them go disco.

Actually, Academy Award Performance is the one track on here that didn’t appear on a single, and is a lot of fun, particularly with its manic live drumming, which must have been fun to bring to life alongside the lively electronic instruments. The vocals are brilliantly silly too.

This is a short album, though, clocking in at only thirty-three minutes altogether, and so it moves quickly. Closing Side A is the lovely single La Dolce Vita. Although it was never released in the UK, it appears to have been the lead single in some territories, and it is a catchy and memorable choice, so that wasn’t a bad decision. In a way, it’s a shame that the UK never got to enjoy this one on the charts, but maybe four singles from a six-track album would have been pushing it a little.

Sice B opens with the second single Beat the Clock, brilliantly catchy, and surprisingly a bigger hit than the first in the UK, taking the duo back into the top ten for the first time in five years. It would be difficult to describe this as anything other than exceptional.

My Other Voice was also on a single, as the b-side to La Dolce Vita. It’s not the strongest or most memorable song on here, but if nothing else, it serves a useful purpose in breaking the mood of Side B up a little. It does have a full vocal, but initially it’s a great vocoder-driven piece, making you constantly unsure whether you’re listening to a synth patch or a vocal. For all the synthesiser taboos that had been broken while Sparks were hiding away making the commercial flops Big Beat (1976) and Introducing Sparks (1977), the human side had often been overlooked, and the Mael brothers were using it to full effect here.

This is also true for the lead UK single and near-title-track The Number One Song in Heaven, opening as it does with huge choral vocal samples. It builds gradually and beautifully into the first part of the song (that’s the more traditional, slower part). The faster Part 2 is a bit manic, and comes as something of a surprise half way through the track, but it’s still fun, effectively giving us a seventh hidden track, right on the end. This was, I think somewhat unpredictably, the single version, which perhaps explains why it didn’t perform quite as well as Beat the Clock. Anyway, after a few minutes, it fades out, and that’s it – the album is already over.

So No. 1 in Heaven is a short album, but it is well executed. Without it, it’s hard to imagine that Sparks would have ever achieved the legendary status that they eventually did. I’m not sure how proud Giorgio Moroder really is of it, but he really should be – forget Donna Summer, this is the moment he popularised Italian disco and invented synthpop.

I own the 2013 Repertoire reissue of this, which apparently isn’t sanctioned by the band, and has been criticised in some quarters for poor sound quality. Personally, the only other thing I have to compare against is the original LP, so I have to say it sounds fine to me, but you may wish to wait until the band’s own reissue appears, coming out soon on double CD.

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