Here’s Half Way There, from the early 1990s indie-dance group:
This is an odd thing that artists keep doing – it would be perfectly possible to release albums a year or two apart and keep the enthusiasm flowing, but instead they choose to pile everything together. Just a couple of years ago, we learned about Sparks‘ new greatest hits album, and this week, it’s a lovely-looking 3CD / LP version of 1993’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. Well, never mind – here’s an original performance of their new single, Let’s Go Surfing:
Heaven 17 famously never used to play live. It just wasn’t what they did. But somehow, in 1997, well over a decade since anyone remembered hearing anything new from them, they decided to tour, supporting Erasure. Released a couple of years later, the budget live album that recorded the first date on that tour, in Glasgow, has appeared under about ten different names now, initially as Live at Last through their own website, and then as How Live Is for the first commercial release.
This set opened with (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, the 1993 remix performed live. Their debut single is, honestly, every bit as good, or as awful, as it ever was. The whole Penthouse and Pavement album is, for me, a bit like a joke that everyone else gets but you just can’t see why it’s funny. You probably just had to be there at the time – and the remix didn’t do this one too many favours for me either.
But what does strike you, even despite that, is just how good a vocalist Glenn Gregory is. He may have barely sung live at this stage, but he’s a natural, which is clearly going to pay dividends as this album continues. This is even clearer on Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, which follows, giving Gregory the chance to really shine.
We Blame Love was their latest single at the time, and while it never quite made it into the shops in the UK, it sold a few copies in Germany. The whole Bigger Than America album, from which this is taken, is a bit of a sad tale, really, as the songs are among Heaven 17‘s best for at least a decade, but it barely sold anything.
Time for another hit – they were just a support act on this date, after all. Come Live with Me seems very seedy indeed now, three and a half decades after its original release, and I imagine Heaven 17 have done some soul searching about its lyrics in recent years, but at its heart is what I think is intended, at least, to be a very sweet love song about an age gap that really doesn’t matter to either party. Even if it sounds as though it’s about a middle-aged man obsessing over a teenager.
New track Freak! is next, proving that they’re still capable of recording rubbish. You have to wonder what Erasure‘s audience were making of this at this point – I’m sure they loved hearing the eighties hits, but the applause at the end of this track seems a little surprising, given that I can’t imagine many would have known it, and fewer still would have liked it much. Maybe the visual performance made up for it at this point.
I should clarify my feelings about Heaven 17, as it’s probably coming across as though I hate them here. I really don’t – I think they have written a lot of great songs, and Gregory always delivers a good vocal. I just think they’ve tended towards repetitive, unmelodic chants a few too many times, and Freak! is another example of that for me.
What Heaven 17 do have is a decent collection of songs to fix this with, and so here comes the brilliant Let Me Go to the rescue. Such a good song, and barely messed around with here – they have added a few extra wizzes and bangs here and there, but nothing too major. It redeems the previous track at least, if not the last few albums as well.
Let’s All Make a Bomb, originally an album track on Penthouse and Pavement, has been given an overdue update. There’s actually another version on this release, hidden away among the enhanced video section, and that’s a better rendition, but this one isn’t bad. Proof that there was often little wrong with the actual songs in the early eighties – just a lot of overambitious production, perhaps? Even so, this does get a little overwrought during the chorus.
The nineties were not kind to Heaven 17, though, and while some of their 1992 remixes brought a degree of new life to the songs, the house version of Penthouse and Pavement didn’t even make the charts, so this lively performance is worthy but just seems very waily here. For fans, it must have been amazing to finally see them live, and they have certainly got better over time – I saw an exceptional performance of theirs about ten years ago in Manchester – but the performance on this CD sometimes just isn’t that good.
Every time you have that feeling, though, they rescue it with something, and this time it’s 1995’s comeback, the number 128 hit single Designing Heaven. Again, they go over the top with the vocals, and Gregory trills his Rs in “running” to almost comedic effect, but while this was never going to hit the top spot, it isn’t a bad track or a bad performance.
It would, of course, be pretty disappointing if they couldn’t get Temptation right, performed here in its jaunty 1992 Brothers in Rhythm remix form. The dance nature of the version means that much of the track is given over to backing singers telling us that they can’t see our hands, which is probably something that works better when you’re there in the room than listening on CD. But all in all, this is a great track, a competent remix, and a good performance.
The treats are all stacked up towards the end here, which is entirely appropriate for a support act. But it’s the final track that really packs a punch – for the first time, Heaven 17 cover The Human League‘s (i.e. their own) debut single Being Boiled, in its punchier album version form. Obviously nobody could ever replace Phil Oakey, but Glenn Gregory gives it his best, adding vocal power and punch to a brilliant track. It’s an exceptional way to close the concert, and in a way it’s a pity that there wasn’t more of this.
So How Live Is, or whatever you know the album as, is, appropriately for Heaven 17‘s career, a bit of a mixed bag. When they’re good, they’re very very good, but when they aren’t they’re pretty dreadful. I’d love to be able to recommend the recording of this first concert as a great introduction to the trio, but let’s just say they have made better setlist choices in more recent years. For all its failings, though, this isn’t a bad live album.
There are numerous versions of this album floating around with different titles – the latest appears to have returned to the original Live at Last, although it loses the video tracks, but it’s available here.
In lieu of an actual video from the time, here’s a great early live performance from Sparks, here giving us Amateur Hour:
Twenty-five years ago is, as you might have realised in the last few months, roughly the time when I started listening to music in earnest. I was discovering electronic artists left, right, and centre, and loving pretty much all of them. Perhaps my oddest discovery of that time, though, was Sparks.
I’ve written before about their curious fame in the UK – by this stage, they had already been having hits for over two decades, but for me, they arrived from nowhere, in late 1994 or early 1995, with an intelligent, witty, silly, and also American form of Europop, with When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”. It snuck into the lower reaches of the Top 40 twice, getting nothing like its just desserts, but the mystique that they held for me was incredible.
Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins was an easy album to miss, if you didn’t realise who Sparks were, and I did – I don’t think I heard the album until two or three years later, and even when I did, I would have been utterly confused by opening track Gratuitous Sax. It’s an acapella piece, which really serves little purpose except to bookend the album and remind you of who Sparks used to be.
After that, the hits – or what should have been hits, anyway – come thick and fast. When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” still sounds catchy and majestic, with its huge synth lines and beautifully underplayed witty lyrics. Second single When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) brings an uncomfortably fast, entirely daft lyric. Unlike the earlier single, this probably shouldn’t have been a chart topper, but it should at least have been all over the radio – “For me it’s all just fine / Because she’s a Frank Lloyd Wright design,” must be one of the finest pop lyrics ever written.
The eighties had not been kind to Sparks – they had followed up the huge No. 1 in Heaven with the better formed Terminal Jive, but despite trying pretty much ever year after that, nothing had really lived up to their earlier material. But after a six year career break (they had gone off for their first attempt to break the Hollywood movie industry), Sparks had returned with some of their best songs yet.
Some of the best titles, too – Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn is brilliant from the get go. By 1994, analogue synthesisers were making a long-awaited comeback, and the haunting warmth in the background of this song is particularly striking. Couple that with more great lyrics, and you basically have all the ingredients you need.
It doesn’t let up, either – I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car has a sillier feel initially, as the title is chanted a few times over, but there’s a huge acid bass line (I desperately want to describe it as “burping like a bullfrog,” which was stated of another Sparks single National Crime Awareness Week when that came out, but for some reason that didn’t make it onto this album). One you realise that and start enjoying the verse, you’ll realise that this is yet another excellent track.
By Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil, which closes Side A of the ultra-rare vinyl edition, it’s starting to get a bit silly. The quality really ought to have let up a little by now, but it really hasn’t. The opening lyric “I’m the wife of Clinton / I don’t have a problem with all of this,” is, of course, timeless, and the chorus is a bit anticlimactic this time, but the verses are adorable.
Side B opens with third single Now That I Own the BBC, which I think might be my least favourite track on here apart from the bookends, but that really isn’t saying a lot. More clever, instantly quotable lyrics, more catchy melodies – just a slightly cheesy house piano part that perhaps makes Motiv8‘s single mix the better version of this (which should probably be a surprise, given how rude I’ve been about him in the past).
Sparks were, though, clearly masters of their trade by this stage. There was no sign of any of the mistakes they might have made on previous albums – they were letting themselves be gloriously silly, while also being entirely professional and slick. This was, I think, the start of their time of being seen as legendary, which would probably peak with Lil’ Beethoven a few years later.
If you weren’t familiar with Tsui Hark at this point, it won’t take you long to catch up – he’s a film director, he’s made several films, and he’s won several awards for his films. This is a typically hilarious laid back track which samples Hark, interviewed by Bill Kong, and listing his films. Perhaps because of their LA upbringing, the movie industry has always played a big role for Sparks, but this might be the album where it really comes to a fore. Tsui Hark is a silly track, yes, but it’s great fun too.
The thing is, though, Sparks‘ silliness is always carefully played, and so while The Ghost of Liberace may joke about blinding drivers with shiny suits, it’s also a tender love song at heart, with a rippling piano line. Then Let’s Go Surfing, a catchy West Coast sunseeker anthem that always felt a little confusing to the teenage me in grey middle England. Now, it just feels triumphant.
There’s just one track left, the other bookend piece, Senseless Violins. As with the opener, you probably have to have a decent understanding of Sparks to understand why it’s here, but at worse you’ll think it’s a daft way to close the album, so it doesn’t do too much harm.
So Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is Sparks‘ grand comeback, after what was then their longest career break to date. Somehow in the meantime, they had found a confidence and strength that really shines on this album. There’s really little to fault here – sixteen albums into their career, and it must, surely, be one of their best?
The remastered edition of Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is still widely available, and while I’m not really sure about what they did with the artwork, this is probably the easiest version to track down.
Here’s an old selection from the energetic Apollo 440:
After many years without a Best Of compilation, Sparks seem to have now fallen into the trap of releasing a new one every couple of years. Now we have Past Tense, which seems to have a pretty good track listing. Let’s take a look at the lovely video for Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me).