Sparks’ big secret

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by echodeck, May 23, 2022.

  1. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    I’ve found something pretty amazing in Sparks’ music. Ron and Russell Mael make intricately plotted concept albums in which the concept is a closely guarded secret. For decades everything they’ve done has had a purpose, with each song acting as an analogy for the creative process that spawned it. It’s meta as hell.

    As an example, I’m going to talk about 1979’s ‘The number one song in Heaven’. This two-part single done in collaboration with Georgia Moroder was arguably the first time that a rock band had fully embraced dance music. This was a genre known for trite lyrics being performed by a band known for lyrical dexterity. That’s a concept that they explore within the record itself.

    The lyrics are deceptively simple. Part one is a celestial performance of God’s own music, and in part two the song descends onto the earth to be adored by millions. But there’s a lot more going on below the surface.

    Lyrics: Sparks – The Number One Song in Heaven Lyrics | Genius Lyrics

    Think of the song as having two audiences. The speedy second half is the song being released to the masses, commenting on the commercial nature of dance music (“and in your home it becomes advertisements”). The slow, pure version is set in a nightclub, where all dance hits forge their reputation.

    “All of the angels are sheep in the fold of their master” evokes imagery of the dancefloor, with the audience is lost in music, guided by the DJ: “They always follow the master and his plan”.

    The song is “written (of course) by the mightiest hand”, ie God, ie Ron Mael. But it’s not played by him, leaving that to Angel Gabriel. Similarly, Sparks didn’t play these songs live, leaving their promotion to DJs.

    There’s something else that connects the two songs - death. It’s subtle in part one:

    “This is the number one song in heaven,
    Why do you hear it now you ask?
    Maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine,
    Maybe you’re closer to here than you care to be”

    They’re planting an almost subliminal message into the heads of the audience, hidden amongst the euphoric imagery.

    It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in part two:

    “If you should die before you awake, if you should die before crossing the street”.

    Here it’s exploiting the short attention span of the radio listeners, moving straight back to upbeat territory in the lyrics. Both versions are epic dance songs that plant a seed of doubt about the listeners mortality. The song is therefore “as loud as a crowd and as soft as a doubt”.

    This is the culmination of an album that explores what it means for a rock band like Sparks to make music for the nightclub. It’s done entirely in allegories, threading a meta storyline through songs about rich older women, life in fast forward and the moment of ***********. I’ve posted the details here for those who are interested in more of this.

    Thanks for reading. I’d love thoughts on this theory. If people are interested I can post more of Sparks’ hidden-in-plain-site big ideas in the comments below.
  2. speedracer

    speedracer Forum Resident

    Excellent piece, thanks!

    I can't offer any insight, I am in the baby pool on Sparks, am only familiar with the recent documentary and seeing them on tv as a kid and getting only the vaguest surreal cabaret impression - the documentary was excellent.

    Re your metaSparks concept, I would like to hear more of your breakdowns of Sparks. Go ahead and solo thread, if you wait for replies to drive the thread this one may drop off.
    I will be lurking, as will others I am sure.
    Last edited: May 23, 2022
  3. bRETT

    bRETT Senior Member

    Boston MA
    It's also interestingly a song about itself-- When has a number one song ever had a lyric like "This is the number one song?" Is it the instrumental in the background that's actually number one, and the singer is just there to tell you about it? Wouldn't people in heaven want to hear a song about something other than itself? And since nothing becomes a number one song immediately, wouldn't there have been a time when the song in question was not number one?

    But I do think that like many Sparks songs, it was intended to be intriguing but also humorous.
  4. blutiga

    blutiga Forum Resident

    Personally I've tried to get into Sparks, but there's just too much gratuitous sax and senseless violins for my liking.
  5. ceddy10165

    ceddy10165 My life was saved by rock n roll

    Avon, CT
    Fascinating and perceptive - thanks for sharing.
    tug_of_war and echodeck like this.
  6. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Thanks everybody for the warm welcome. I was fully expecting this post to go unnoticed so I appreciate the interest in this, and will keep posting. There really is so much to say about what they’ve hidden in these songs, with a kind of self-referential narrative that runs through everything they do, right up to 2021’s ‘Annette’ movie with Adam Driver and Leos Carax.

    I love your way of looking at it, and I’m sure this depth is deliberate. It’s a funny joke, but goes much further than is obvious. They pulled a similar trick on 2020’s ‘Stravinsky’s only hit’, another song that’s about itself. Check out this lyric video:

    In it, Stravinsky ditches the classical world to make a pop hit (with Sparks helping him out with the lyrics). The song is a huge hit, winning Grammies and topping the charts, but it sends the composer into a drunken stupor in which he fears for his reputation, so returns to his classical roots. Ultimately the hit isn’t counted amongst his greats despite being loved (it’s only pop music after all).

    Both ‘Number 1 in Heaven’ and ‘Stravinsky’s only hit’ pit the disposable nature of pop music against true genius, which is a beautifully narcisistic comment on the band itself, and they both refer to themselves. Think about this bit:

    “Stravinsky’s only hit
    Hasn’t aged a bit
    Seems as timely now,
    as you’ll hear now…”​

    It follows this with a crazy section of “la ha ha” singing that we can only assume is the hit song itself. It’s the same idea in 2020 as 1979’s “Gabriel plays it, let’s hear him play it” line, which leads into a mad arpeggiated riff, a burst of the Number One song itself.

    I’ve found this kind of thing throughout Sparks’ music. Their songs have weirdly specific concepts that return in new completed new forms. It’s not an occasional thing - it applies to everything they’ve done in the second half of their career, each song with interesting connections which give insight into what they’re doing.

    Here’s a post I wrote about ‘Stravinsky’s only hit’ which ties Sparks’ approach to songwriting to the great composer’s experiments with meaning in music:

    Thanks for reading!
  7. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Here’s my theory on what Grat Sax and senseless violins is about:

    Opening song ‘Gratuitous Sax’ is a short acapella skit in the style of ‘Propaganda’. They sing that they “need another element... right away”, and this new element turns out to be a saxophone. It’s a reference to Jazz-pioneer Charlie Parker. He’s already a big presence on this album, and he suffered from severe depression (hence “.. and how you blew ‘till you were blue”) He can also be linked forward to the closing song on the album: ‘Senseless violins’.

    A longstanding desire of Parker's was to perform with a string section. He was a keen student of classical music, and contemporaries reported he was most interested in the music and formal innovations of Igor Stravinsky and longed to engage in a project akin to what later became known as Third Stream, a new kind of music, incorporating both jazz and classical elements as opposed to merely incorporating a string section into performance of jazz standards.

    So like Charlie Parker, Sparks are taking a journey from Sax to Violins, representing their desire to forge a new approach to music. The album ends with the words “instead of the usual drums and bass he heard... Senseless Violins”. That works as a neat segue into ‘Lil Beethoven’, or at least it could have if they hadn’t been co-opted into re-recording the hits for ‘Plagarism’. Interestingly, that album also starts with epic strings and stacked operatic vocals with their remake of ‘Pulling Rabbits out of a hat’.

    If correct, that means that their reinvention in 2002 was actually planned to happen in 1997, but the record company threw a spanner in the works. It also raises questions about ‘Balls’, which doubled down on the drums and bass rather than ditching them. That album also appears to be victim to record company politics, but that’s another story.

    ‘When I kiss you, I hear Charlie Parker playing’ describes the journey that Sparks are taking, first to re-establish themselves in the music industry and then break free to reinvent themselves. They have a plan that they won’t waver from, and this is about the gamesmanship of negotiating with the label. The protagonist wishes he “was a bird that’s migratory”, punning on Parker’s “Bird” nickname. The “illegal substances” and “hour with no kisses” represent the sleazy offers from industry. “Though I am tempted, they are pre-empted” says that Sparks won’t take the bait. “You and your rosary are exempted, from criminality” is about keeping their vision or songs to themselves. “Still there is a duality”, because they’re singing about two things at once. “You’ll never know it, I’ll never show it, only I hear it, only I know it” is about the secret they’re keeping. “What's apropos for me, may for thee be blasphemy” shows that the band’s goals are different to those of the label execs. But ultimately, in all this conflict there is still a huge swell of creativity, and so “the hills are alive with the sound of music”.

    They compare their own music to the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.: “The finest of material, a little asymmetrical” - a great description of their music. “Bigger than Fuji” is how they describe their goals, and it’s a theme that comes back on ‘Bullet Train’ and ‘So desu ne’. But it’s not plain sailing, as described using “rebel advances and labour disputes, somebody’s shot and somebody shoots”.

    What I’m claiming that Sparks are pushing forward their own story in the subtext of their music. At the heart of every song is something that relates to their creative endeavours in that very moment.
    tug_of_war, speedracer and willy like this.
  8. DJ LX

    DJ LX Forum Resident

    Madison WI
    Any insight into "She Got Me Pregnant," or "I've Never Been High," or "Pineapple?"
  9. blutiga

    blutiga Forum Resident

    Which Mael brother are you :D
  10. Davido

    Davido All in all is all we are

    Subliminal with a capital "S"! Only saw Sparks in concert once, in 1983, opening for the Go.Go's so am ready to learn more.
    tug_of_war and echodeck like this.
  11. MortSahlFan

    MortSahlFan Forum Resident

    This is one band I've been hearing of initially because of that disaster movie. A friend and I were hanging out, and the third friend said, "I think I saw this movie where Supertramp is in it" and then by the next day my friend figured it out.. I also like prog-rock, and a few have mentioned these guys to me.

    I saw the documentary. Would have liked more of the band, people who played with them, or knew them as opposed to all the others' opinions.... But, I didn't hear anything that grabbed me.
    100423 and echodeck like this.
  12. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    I do, but it takes some explaining! ‘I’ve never been high’ and ‘She got me pregnant’ can be interpreted as being about Sparks’ creative process. Please show patience with this because it’s like jumping in three quarters of the way through a book, so the ideas I speak about here are supported on the songs around them, and are less of a leap than they might sound..

    ‘I’ve never been high’ makes sense as being first-person - its the perspective of Sparks. Here’s the opening verse:

    “Thrill rides and places, wide-open spaces
    Played in a band, such harmless novelties
    Where’s the forgetting, where's the regretting
    Of lurid acts that never came to be”​

    So the narrator has lived a good life and played in a band, but regrets never trying weed. Sparks are notoriously clean-living, so this applies to them as people, however I don’t interpret this as meaning they actually want to get high, rather they want the life experience necessary to make great art. It’s about improving their craft.

    The same idea is revisited on 2017’s ‘Edit Piaf (said it better than me)’. Both are delivered by straight-edged people looking back at their lives, regretting only that they have nothing to regret: “Live fast and die young - too late for that”.

    If they’re saying that Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ is a song that doesn’t apply to them as a band, then a similar thing can be said of ‘Lighten up, Morrissey’, where the narrator is losing a girl because he doesn’t live up to the lofty standards of The Smiths singer (though perceptions of him have changed since its’ release). Consider that the Morrissey-infatuated love interest is their muse (or way of working) then it’s a self-deprecating way of saying that they don’t live up to her expectations.

    Sparks have a goal - nothing less than to be counted besides the true greats such as Stravinsky, Beethoven and Billie Holliday. Their music can be seen as laying out their path to this, setting future goals that are sometimes near and sometimes distant. The songs I’ve discussed are posing problems that stand in their way, with others playing out the solutions.

    The final verse looks forward to achieving this goal:

    “I've celebrated, birthdays and waited
    Waited and waited, tomorrow's just a tease
    Then I'll be something, then I'll be something
    Look there's a camera, smile and say cheese”​

    Lots of the songs around this time reference a distant goal. ‘Baby Baby Can I invade your country’ has them reaching for “countries, planets, stars, galaxies so far”, ‘Here Kitty’ has someone reap a great reward for showing patience, ‘Rock Rock Rock’ can be about asking for patience from their audience while developing their big idea, they “don’t care if you love me, just so you like me” on an album that has no intention of breaking through to a new audience. In ‘Photoshop’ they use the software to make themselves worse, and produce the least flattering album cover of their career.

    ‘Exotic Creature of the Deep’ is an album that celebrates that it won’t be their grand masterpiece, but lays the seeds that define 2021’s ‘Annette’. Each song serves as research and introspection into their craft, so the songs have no purpose beyond getting the band to the next point (which turned out to be playing their entire back-catalogue, bare-bones shows as a duo, a radio play, joining another band with FFS and playing with an orchestra).

    The love interest in ‘She got me pregnant’ is their muse or way-of-working (this always seems to be the case in the latter half of their career). She is far away, concerned with the distant goals such as ‘Annette’, but still puts something of herself into Sparks’ work. It’s a song that acknowledging that it’s not important, so it feels used!

    As for ‘Pineapple’, I have no idea! I’ve noticed a thread that starts on N1IH (though I suspect it goes back a lot further). I pick the thread back up on Gratuitous Sax right through to their latest releases, with justifications for each song.

    Thanks for reading, and I’m happy to expand on any of this.
    speedracer, DJ LX and Davido like this.
  13. OwnedByAnAustrian

    OwnedByAnAustrian Forum Resident

    Tell us about ‘Tits’.
  14. Isolar801

    Isolar801 Forum Resident

    Pittsburgh, Pa.
    "Let's Go Surfing" is fraking brilliant.
    echodeck and RAZORMADE like this.
  15. englishbob

    englishbob Its a s*** business

    Kent, England
    I had a conversation on Wednesday with a 30 year old telling me they watched a video on YouTube of the Wizard of Oz sequenced with an album she couldn't remember the name of.

    I debunked it, but she said it was a fact.

    I'm not sure where this thread can possibly go, but lets assume the kids of tomorrow will be talking about this - even if the Brothers Mael have no idea what it means.
    Lost In The Flood likes this.
  16. speedracer

    speedracer Forum Resident

    Dark Side of the Moon. Perfect soundtrack, fits exactly.
  17. englishbob

    englishbob Its a s*** business

    Kent, England
    As a happy accident, not by design
  18. Randoms

    Randoms Aerie Faerie Nonsense

    @Andy Smith, have you seen this thread?

    Am I right to say that this wasn't what the brothers wanted to call the song!??
    Andy Smith likes this.
  19. speedracer

    speedracer Forum Resident

    A reasonable assumption.
  20. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Before N1IH they’re a little harder to interpret, but there is an interesting way of looking at this one. My best guess for ‘Tits’ is that it’s a metaphor for songwriting being a job now. It was a source of fun but now it’s a necessity. Harry could be the audience, in that the pressures of success are breaking up his home, yet he still stays out and drinks with him - “Harry, forgive me Harry, let’s have just one more”.
    BluesOvertookMe likes this.
  21. Slim Pickins

    Slim Pickins Forum Resident

    A Vegas act for nerds.
  22. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    It’s fair to have a dose of cynicism about my claims here. Hopefully it stands up to scrutiny, and I’m happy discuss any of the points in it. Some Sparks songs are obviously meta, like singing ‘Collaborations don’t work’ in collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, or ‘When you’re a French Director’ with Leos Carax, or ‘Tsui Hark’ featuring Tsui Hark. What I’m claiming is that they’re doing this on every song, not just on occasion.
    englishbob likes this.
  23. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    They didn’t want to call it ‘Tits’?
  24. OwnedByAnAustrian

    OwnedByAnAustrian Forum Resident

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.
  25. OwnedByAnAustrian

    OwnedByAnAustrian Forum Resident

    Certainly more considered than any idea I had. I guess you could apply a similar theory to Happy Hunting Ground and Thanks But No Thanks which is Ron Mael trying to work out how to write songs that would appeal to their new fans who scream at Russell.
    echodeck likes this.

Share This Page