Number One in Heaven? 50 years of Sparks

A group of seven white men in blue and white stripe t-shirts play musical instruments.

Made up of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, Sparks has been one of the most influential yet least known bands of the last 40 years.

Starting in the early 1970s, they have released 25 albums and various top 40 singles, attracting fans from Duran Duran, Franz Ferdinand, Morrissey & Nirvana, among other bands, their influence can still be heard in every genre of music.

Yet with all this influence, they are rarely heard of outside of their doted fanbase. With the release of Egar Wight’s (Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead) long-awaited documentary about the brothers, we look back at the band’s defining moments and fan’s memories of them.

While the brothers had been recording since 1967, it was not until 1973 they would record under the Sparks name. The burgeoning glam and prog rock scene had a clear influence on A Woofer In Tweeter Clothing, yet it had a much darker sound than other records of the time.

The lyrics were also quite unusual, with songs about post-second world war dating paranoia and hero-worshipping. This habit of writing songs about unusual subject matters would be one they’d never quit.

“My introduction to Sparks came through an article on new bands in Circus magazine in 1972, the other new band was Roxy Music. Between the band’s look and that Todd Rundgren (who I already liked) produced, I knew this was a band I had to hear,” said Virginia Willcox, a Sparks fan since the ’70s.

“I didn’t get an opportunity until Kimono My House came out, but it was worth waiting for! Being 12 at the time, I had to prevail upon my mother to take me to the local record store/head shop to order the first two albums. I played them endlessly, particularly Girl from Germany.

Woofer shipped without the lyric sheet in the US, so I had to guess some of the lyrics. When I was supposed to hear, ‘With its splendid castles and fine cuisine’, I heard ‘With its splendid castles and bad cuisine’. This was the mid-70s, and German food had a reputation!

“I had a brief opportunity to test that reputation in 1977 when I visited West Germany and France. As I recall it, most German food I saw was grey/brown breaded meat and potatoes. This confirmed it. The line was ‘bad cuisine’. Imagine my surprise when I finally got a lyric sheet years later.”

After two albums that made little impact, Sparks ended up on tour in the UK. This was the turning point in the band’s career. An appearance on the BBC’s Old Gray Whistle Test would lead to the band having a sold-out run at the Marquee club.

This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, the first single of the band’s first album recorded in the UK, would end up being number two on the charts and, of course, led to many appearances on Top Of The Pops.

During this time, Sparkmania had begun in the UK. Stage inversion, stalking, and papparazzi attention would become a part of the brother’s life for the next few years.

The brother’s first British album, Kimono My House (1974), would incorporate opera and vaudeville aspects while fitting into the time’s glam rock trend.

“All the qualities that make Sparks unique converge on this song. The idiosyncratic vocals of Russell Mael, often residing in the highest of registers; the evocative and, when necessary, to convey deeper thoughts,” said Sparks fan Monte Mallin about Thank God It’s not Christmas, which featured on Kimono My House.

“Complex lyrics and attention to songwriting by Ron Mael, Russell’s brother; and the attention to detail in borrowing from pop, opera, classical music, and other sources to develop and execute complex arrangements that far transcend the “typical” pop song come together in this story of a melancholy and love-lorn traveller who fails to find meaningful love in Paris,” Monte explained.

“The arrangement is complex and expertly executed by the musicians. Russell has never been better in telling this sad story, and the lyrics are evocative as hell. How can you beat, ‘If this were the Seine, we’d be very suave / but it’s just the rain, washing down the boulevard.’ The answer is, you can’t. It’s a perfect song, perfectly executed, and in my humble view, shows what Ron is capable of at his very best. And it rocks like hell.”

After the success of Kimono My House, the band would record two more albums for Island Records, Propaganda in 1974 and Indiscreet in 1975, which both met with critical and financial success.

Sadly, by 1976 glam rock was being replaced with punk and Sparks were seen as old fashioned. The band was seen as outdated by the time they released their 1977 album Introducing Sparks with one punk zine saying “Sadly, we’ve met them.”

The 1979 album Number One in Heaven responded to the band’s rejection during the punk era. Working with producer Giorgio Moroder (who most famously produced Donna Summer’s I Feel Love), the brothers would move away from the guitar music that dominated popular music at the time.

Instead, the album was recorded only using synthesisers and drums, thereby creating the sound that dominated 1980s synthpop.

The overly passionate singer and synth musical genius trope that first appeared on the album would directly influence bands from the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure to New Order and Bronski Beat.

When Sparks recorded a retrospective album of their career, Plagiarism (1997), they would join Erasure and Jimmy Somerville on several songs.

“In a career full of abrupt stylistic shifts, the Giorgio Moroder-produced Number One In Heaven album is probably the biggest of all and remains an outlier in the band’s catalogue to this day. Despite that, its near-title track is possibly the most Sparksian track of all,” said Sparks fan Marc Nikiperowicz.

“It’s ambitious, audacious – this isn’t a song about the number one song in heaven; this is the number one song in heaven – epic, and it’s innovative. Even more so than the rest of their work. It’s also catchy as hell. To make a pop classic is achievement enough in itself, but to bring all these other elements to it is what makes Sparks Sparks.”

Monte remembers La Dolce Vita from the same album: “This song came out in 1979 when I was in my first year of college and miserable. I was in the wrong place, and I was hating almost every minute of it. Listening to the Number One In Heaven album was one of the few genuine joys I had in my life at the time. One song on the album, La Dolce Vita, is a top ten Sparks song for me,” he said.

“The song is propulsive and tells a complex story, but what puts it over the top for me is the final line of the song, which is repeated a few times as the song closes: ‘Life isn’t much, but there’s nothing else to do. La Dolce Vita’.

“That line captured my mood precisely, but the cool part is that walking to my dorm one day, I went under an overpass, and there were those words, written in large graffiti by some kindred soul that I’d never meet, but who felt the need to share the sentiment with the world,” Monte recalls.

“I took great comfort in knowing that somewhere, there was somebody that ‘got it’. It made me so happy, and a smile came to my face for the first time in a long, long while. I remember seeing it to this day.”

The lead single from 1983 album In Outer Space was a collaboration between the band and the Gogo’s Jane Wiedlin, who was formally a Sparks fan club president.

With its simple tale of hanging out with friends and its synth-pop melody that was typical of the ’80s, it was far away from the art-pop the band had spent the last decade creating. Still, it was an enjoyable single that managed to reach the American Billboard Top 50.

“For me, Sparks are a solo pursuit. To be enjoyed in isolation, like showering or onanism. This is not due to any lack of effort to attempt to convince others of the Mael brother’s charms,” said fan Stuart Aspinall.

“Since a fateful Saturday morning in 2004 when I heard Amateur Hour on Radio 2, sat bolt upright in bed and became instantly obsessed, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve bored rigid, droning on about the inner sleeve of Propaganda and side two of Woofer in Tweeter’s clothing. Yet the result is always the same, a disinterested shrug and swift conversational gear change,” he recalled.

“And so to Cool Places. Taken from an album that, upon first listen, left me rather cold. A cleaner, crisper, sparser collection of songs than those that preceded it with an apparent “dumbing down” of lyrical content.

“I finally developed an astronomical appreciation of In Outer Space thanks to a series of alcohol-fuelled late-night listening sessions, during which the LP’s subversive nature finally revealed itself. Upon hearing Cool Places today, I’m instantly whisked back to the bedroom floor of the house in Wigan I inhabited during the mid-00s. It’s 2:00 am on a Saturday morning. I’m drinking Strongbow while trying to count the number of times they sing the word ‘cool’.”

After a decade of creating records that made little to no impact outside of their native Los Angeles, the brothers were in dire need of a hit.

With the 1994 album Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violin, the brothers would embrace the growing rave and house scene. While it might have seemed a strange move to fans and casual onlookers alike, the risk would playoff.

The lead single of the album When Do I Get To Sing My Way seems to be the brothers asking when will we have success, when will they be loved as much as Frank Sinatra or Sid Vicious.

The song provided the key to that long for success. It reached the top ten in Germany and appeared on various Dance Music top 40 shows around the world.

Other singles from the album would also make appearances on various music charts. Unlike previous moments of success, this time, it would last. When Do I Get To Sing My Way would lead to a renewed interested which has never died.

When Do I Get To Sing My Way is the first Sparks song I had ever heard back in 2019. This introduction to Sparks was not what I was expecting at all: it’s a dance song, a genre I’m not usually much into, but this was different. The grandiose, thundering melody is a strong contrast to the mundane lyrics depicting the struggle of an average artist craving fame,” said recent Sparks fan Raffaelle Rossato.

“There is an underlying sense of melancholy and regret in this track, creeping under the boisterous dance tune, and it strongly resonated with me. Yet, simultaneously, the (self) irony is so powerful this song really cannot be perceived as sad or depressing,” said Raffaelle.

“I love Sparks because, in all their musical genius, they have space for negative human moods such as a feeling of failure and disappointment, but, in the end, they are always extremely uplifting. The last year has been very difficult for everyone, but Sparks’ music has been a blessing and real support to me; it has kept me sane in the madness, and this song exemplifies it well.”

A “career-defining opus” was how Sparks describe 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven. Record mainly on a Yamaha S80, and it was a simpler record than their previous effort.

The band’s use of classical music techniques and often simple lyrics, such as My Baby, Taking Me Home, which is just the title repeated over and over, was promoted in Record Collector magazine as “possibly the most exciting and interesting release ever from such a long-established act.”

“I’ve always been fascinated with this song as the meaning isn’t so transparent, but maybe that’s just it. Just enjoy the moment, take a lovely walk with someone you love. The repetition in this song is hypnotic, and the repeated phrase leads you to this grand but unspecified reveal, whatever that reveal is, I don’t know, but I think that’s entirely up to the listener,” said Artist & Sparks fan Moon Lust.

Born and raised in California in the 1950s, the brothers always had a keen interest in films. While several failed film projects with the likes of Tim Burton and Taki Hourto would haunt their career, it wouldn’t be until 2009 that they would be able to celebrate their love of film.

A fictional operatic tale about Ingmar Bergman going Hollywood, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman offers the Maels the chance to experiment with narrative songs.

“Sparks’ 22nd studio album marked another milestone in their career. Functioning as a radio musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009) tells a Kafkaesque story of film director Ingmar Bergman’s experience in Hollywood,” said Sparks fan for 15 years Aled Thomas.

“The record marks a departure from the albums which preceded it; it features a cast of actors and singers to play its various characters, in addition to Russell Mael, of course, spoken dialogue entirely set to music, and a singular narrative that demands the attention of the listener. While remaining a tight singular piece, the record meshes together a range of sounds that Sparks had recently explored with their three prior records.

“Beyond its artistic merits, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman was an opportunity for Ron and Russell Mael to express their fondness of cinema and the work of Bergman in particular; the narrative itself features several of the themes prominent in his work,” Aled continued.

“But perhaps most notably, Bergman’s tale in The Seduction mirrors Sparks’ continuously creative journey. Faced with the opportunity of gaining higher budgets and fame in Hollywood, Bergman chooses instead to maintain his artistic integrity by focusing on filmmaking that is uncompromised by corporate interests.

“The listener can’t help but be reminded of Sparks’ own creative ethos here. The Seduction was not only a creative milestone in Sparks’ already significant career, but a reminder of their boundary-pushing approach to pop music: uncompromising, creative, and utterly brilliant.”

While Sparks have collaborated with many musicians over the year, including Faith No More and Yoko Ono, among others, it’s their album with Franz Ferdinand that is best known.

Both bands were known fans of each other and had started working on songs in 2004. Sadly due to their busy schedules, it would take them a decade to record an album.

Naming themselves FFS (Franz Ferdinand Sparks), they would release a self-titled album in 2015. The album proved to be a critical and commercial success, a mix of Franz Ferdinand’s post-punk revival sound and Spark’s art-pop tendencies.

“Words are in my head, but I can’t enunciate them clearly. The opening lyrics to one of my favourite Sparks songs (though technically an FFS song) neatly encapsulates my opinion of Sparks, one of adulation but difficulty articulating this adulation. How does one explain Ron and Russel’s zany lyrics and Ron Mael’s deadpan stares?” Sparks fan Dan Baker asked.

“The genre-defying and genre-bending nature of Sparks’ discography are on show throughout their collaboration with the British band Franz Ferdinand in the supergroup FFS, no more so than on the self-titled album’s lead single, Johnny Delusional.

“The single mixes many genres, from the glam rock of Indiscreet to the dance-rock of Terminal Jive and the indie rock of Franz Ferdinand’s 2004 debut. Russell Mael’s staple falsetto harmonises surprisingly well with Alex Kapranos’ vocals’ croon to create an operatic glam stomper,” Dan said.

“As a lifelong Franz Ferdinand fan, I found FFS before Sparks, which would make Johnny Delusional the first Sparks single I listened to. Still, it remains one of my all-time favourites. The single is also a gateway drug to the more idiosyncratic classics, Kimono my House and Lil’ Beethoven.”

While the late noughties and early teenies were productive for the band, one thing was missing. After Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (2008), it would take the Maels a decade to release a new Sparks album.

The FFS project would lead the brothers to renew their love for pop music. Containing songs about Auteur Theory, Ikea, and the joys of the missionary position and with a more conventional sound than their previous work, Hippopotamus would signal a new era for a band.

It was both their first record on a major label for decades and their first UK top ten albums since the 1970s.

“I love Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) because it evokes so many feelings. Piaf, the famous French singer, is a great favourite of mine. In other songs recently, Sparks have broached the theme of ageing and reflection on life, as in Probably Nothing, and regrets or frustrations have always featured in their work,” said Sparks fan Penny Brown.

“Here, a typically Sparksian twist is given to Piaf’s assertion in her best-known song that Je ne regrette rien (I regret nothing): the singer does have a regret: that he has had nothing in his life to regret. The elements of an exciting and dangerous life have been missing (fights, sex, drugs, dubious liaisons), all have just been ‘just prose’, his life summed up in a single sentence,” said Penny.

“So Piaf’s song, which in her case had personal echoes, is here a ‘pretty song but not intended for me’. This melancholic mood prompts a similar self-examination on the part of the listener, especially an ageing one!

“Add to this a gorgeous melody and a catchy chorus. In Joseph Wallace’s superb official stop-motion video, the puppet figures of Sparks pursue an elusive, colourful bird through Paris. (Piaf was known as the ‘little sparrow’). This song is certainly one of Sparks’ ‘mini-operas’, profound and moving.”

Since the release of Hippopotamus, Sparks have continued working. The Hippopotamus tour, an album called Steady Drip in 2020, the musical film Annette, starring Adam Driver, which is out in 2021, and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers have kept the 70-plus-year-olds very busy indeed.

 

 

 


Featured image by Raph PH.
Edited by Tom Tyers, Charlotte Gamage and Emil Brierley.

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