Preview – Sparks

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:

Random jukebox – Sparks

In lieu of an actual video from the time, here’s a great early live performance from Sparks, here giving us Amateur Hour:

Sparks – Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins

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.

Preview – Sparks

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).

Stowaway Awards 2019

So now we finally find out who the winners of the all-important 2019 Stowaways are!

Best Single

Already announced just before the new year, the winner of the Best Single award this year goes to Ladytron, for The Animals.

Best Album

  • Dubstar “One”
  • Front Line Assembly “WarMech”
  • The Future Sound of London “My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Equinoxe Infinity”
  • The Radiophonic Workshop “Possum”

The winner is: The Future Sound of London

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • The Beloved “Reissue Series”
  • The Human League “Secrets”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Planet Jarre”
  • Soft Cell “Keychains & Snowstorms – The Singles”
  • Yazoo “Four Pieces”

The winner is: The Human League

Best Artist

  • The Future Sound of London
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Ladytron
  • The Presets
  • The Radiophonic Workshop

The winner is: The Radiophonic Workshop

Best Live Act

  • Erasure
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  • Sparks

The winner is: Sparks

Outstanding Contribution

  • David Bowie
  • Everything But The Girl
  • The Future Sound of London
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield

The winner is: David Bowie

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.

Stowaway Awards 2019 – Nominations

Who will win in the all-important Stowaway Awards this year? Here are the nominations:

Best Album

  • Dubstar “One”
  • Front Line Assembly “WarMech”
  • The Future Sound of London “My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Equinoxe Infinity”
  • The Radiophonic Workshop “Possum”

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • The Beloved “Reissue Series”
  • The Human League “Secrets”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Planet Jarre”
  • Soft Cell “Keychains & Snowstorms – The Singles”
  • Yazoo “Four Pieces”

Best Artist

  • The Future Sound of London
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Ladytron
  • The Presets
  • The Radiophonic Workshop

Best Live Act

  • Erasure
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  • Sparks

Outstanding Contribution

  • David Bowie
  • Everything But The Girl
  • The Future Sound of London
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield