Sparks’ big secret

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

  1. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    In celebration of #Sparkstember I’m sharing some recent posts. I began writing about the band two years ago, looking to start a conversation about some funny self-referential lyrics on ‘A Steady Drip Drip Drip’. I noticed that every time I’d write a theory about one song, I’d justify it using another song. There are countless examples. Think of ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ and what it has in common with ‘Stravinsky’s only hit’. Both have a godlike talent turn their hand to commercial pop music - much like Ron Mael himself!

    If you’re the kind of person who likes finding new things in songs that you already love, then it’s worth looking at Sparks through this lens. They sing about a rhythm thief when their music loses the beats, they start Annette with a song about starting Annette, they end a collaborative album with Collaborations don’t work (and then tell everybody to piss off and leave them alone). There’s a meta synchronicity there, and it’s my theory that they do this A LOT more often that people realise.

    In these posts I discuss the recurring themes threaded between songs, and how these can consistently fit whatever Sparks were up to at the time. First up is ‘No.1 In Heaven’. I hope people enjoy this:
  2. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Who else has noticed these similarities between The Seduction of Igmar Bergman and Annette? There's a lot in common.

    - Both start by transporting the characters into the story, Ingmar via a movie theatre, ‘Annette’ via the recording studio. Both then lead into scenes from the back of a limousine.

    - Both reference anti-comedy: “Good, Evil, God, the Devil, Life, Death – these were my usual concerns. This film, though, was a comedy. A comedy! How far from a comedy the events to follow would be”.

    - The opening scene of ‘The Seduction’ is at Cannes. ‘Annette’ opened here, and the soundtrack is titled ‘The Cannes Edition’.

    - Ingmar is hounded by autograph hunters, and says that “celebrity is destructive”, a central theme to ‘Annette’.

    - Ingmar has “a weakness for the girls”, as does Henry McHenry.

    - Ingmar talks of his struggle to finance his movies in Sweden. The opening song of ‘Annette’ says “the budget is large, but still, it’s not enough”

    - Both are set in the Los Angeles Entertainment Industry while coming from an international art-house perspective.

    Here’s how I see it: Ingmar chooses independent cinema over Hollywood, just as Sparks were about to do the same. They live a short drive from world’s biggest entertainment industry, and could easily capitalize on that. Instead they flew to Cannes to seek out Leos Carax and foreign funding.

    The finale jokes about it not being a Hollywood ending, despite Ingmar’s escape: “He’s home, he’s home, and we’re so glad. No fireworks, no marching band”. It’s comedy vs tragedy, and there’s a clear winner. Comedy (a key component to most Sparks songs), is ripped apart in Annette. The tragedy is amplified beyond anything else they’ve done.

    On When You’re a French Director, LC sings “Hollywood guys, with their CGI lies, but their films lack “le feel””. Next song, The Amazing Mr Repeat, has someone refuse to sign “the dotted line” and sell his talents. With these songs, and TSOIB, Sparks are taking a creative decision about their future and retelling it through metaphor.

    They took the harder path with Annette. It could easily have been a comedy made with someone like Edgar Wright, matching the fun tone of their albums. It could have earned then instant fame and success, and wouldn’t even need to be a sell-out , after all Jaques Tati made comedies, and Sparks' catalogue is full of Hollywood iconography.

    Cinema is the world’s biggest stage, and they used it to deliver an unspeakable tragedy. It’s seen on-screen, with Annette announcing that “Daddy kills people” to the world, while Sparks are doing the same on a creative level, by using their biggest ever platform to alienate. It’s like they said: “where is the stage you wonder? Is it outside or is it within?”. The performance of 'Annette' isn’t just within the movie, it’s the outside decisions of the writers. Sparks still haven’t told us their side of the story, but I’d love to know what happened in the 9 years working with Carax. In an upcoming post I make the case that Annette is full of clues to how this collaboration worked, and it completely changes the tone of the film.

    Finally, Igmar is saved by Greta Garbo, returning him home via a movie theatre. It's playing 'The Saga of Gosta Berling', the movie in which she made her name. Following its release, director Mauritz Stiller
    succumbed to the lure of Hollywood, only for his career to flounder within the studio system. The purpose of the radio play is to spell out why Sparks won't make the same mistake.

    Thanks for reading. As ever, more analysis can be found over at
  3. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    Does anybody want an explanation of Annette beyond it being a mixture of themes? Here’s how to understand it. They start by asking where the stage is - outside or within. There’s the movie we know, but also the off-screen collaboration between Sparks and Leos Carax - outside the film. The project took 9 years, and little has been shared about what happened during this time, but I’ve got an interesting theory.

    When asked what LC had changed from Sparks’ original screenplay, he said that Henry McHenry was rewritten to remove the irony - “irony in cinema is a danger” he said. That’s seen on-screen with both Ann and Henry acknowledging the changed - “I don’t know him, he is a stranger, tonight”. What’s more, we see that same change in Sparks as a band. They’re almost always witty and likeable, and have been for 50 years, but beyond the opening song that’s vanished . It’s a film that fixates on comedy but appears to have had the humour deliberately removed.

    So by changing the character of Henry McHenry, LC has changed a trait of Sparks as a band. He’s a comedian that’s no longer funny, and the same happened to Sparks. They’ve dealt in tragedy before, but always with their ironic wit to sweeten the pill. They claim there were dozens of iterations of these songs during development, so maybe each draft represents a new restriction set by Carax.

    The Accompanist shows a different quality of Sparks - to quote him - “I’m the one with the technical expertise”. He meets an untimely death, and this too is reflected in the make-up of the film. The music is undoubtably great - particularly on the soundtrack album. In the movie its sung live with unflattering reverb, harmonies are lost, characters fall out of microphone range, and old Sparks songs reappear in massively simplified form. The first we hear of the band is the buzz and pop of noisy amplifiers. The Mael brothers’ instructions were to play loosely, with many shots late into the night. This is unlike the Sparks of old, who’d never appear anything less than impeccable. Again, this is LC’s hands at work, moulding them into something else.

    Ann is their muse. Her performances receive rapturous applause, but she’s out of audience view throughout - facing the back of the stage, obscured by drapes, and even when she rushes to the lip of the stage it’s into darkness. Eventually she leaves the opera house altogether, out into the forest. It’s a lot like the way the movie audience don’t understand this real purpose, but love and admire it anyway. She dies, but her voice lives. She returns in good and evil form, one representing Sparks and the other is LC’s muse.

    Ann’s voice is also passed onto Annette, as a gift or a curse. She represents this movie - Annette is Annette. She has the traits of her three parents, she first appears to a young audience, she’s surrounded by imagery of screens, with the moon being the light of the projector under which she must sing. She appears on literally the biggest stage in the world, delivering an unspeakable tragedy at a moment that could have brought musical bliss - just as Sparks are doing with this movie. Ultimately she’s compelled to stay out of the light, just as this movie seems destined for relative obscurity - it was custom made to serve that purpose.

    Why? Real fame would be a kind of death to Sparks. They explore this extensively in The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, where the Swedish Director chooses independent cinema over Hollywood, committed to the harder path in order to stay true to a vision. This radio-play was released shortly before Sparks set off to Cannes to meet Leos Carax, signalling their intention to make a tragedy a decade prior.

    This is a film in which the way it was developed is as much of an artistic statement as the end product. That’s something we see in all archive footage, quotations and operas referenced by the filmmakers. In the 20 examples I’ve found so far there are interesting stories about how these projects endured change, becoming something new as fundamental changes were made. One example, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves started as a comedy but turned into a drama, and we see a nod to this in Annette through Henry’s villainous poses and Ann’s red apple.

    Every scene in Annette tells you something new, and I’m working on a much longer post to justify this view, but here are some interesting details:

    - There are tons of references to Henry being unable to joke: The paparazzi ask him to “Give us a smile” but he refuses to take off his helmet; He reads out a contract that says he’s not allowed to make the public laugh; He performs a rap describing laughter in cold physiological terms; He says that somebody broke into his house and stole his jokes; He riffs extensively on why he became a comedian in the first place; He says that trying to be funny is like trying to enjoy a blowjob in a gas chamber; He tickles Ann - ie laughter without humour.

    - Henry eats a banana and while smoking a cigarette, with further references to smoking coming in his stage entrance, and with Annette saying he can’t smoke in prison. LC is a heavy smoker, even lighting up following the movie’s Cannes premiere. I can only assume that the Mael Brothers, with their healthy living lifestyle enjoy a potassium kick before delivering an energetic show. Mixing these pre-show rituals show the influence of both on the character.

    - Henry ends the movie being filmed by a CCTV camera, and tells up to stop watching him. This is a type of screen with no viewers, a far-cry from the giant HyperBowl screens, tablets and phone screens on which we see Annette perform.

    - The Ape of God is a term for the devil, dating from the Middle Ages. It refers to evil by impersonating good things. Having this as the name of Henry’s show reflects that Henry has been rewritten as an evil character.

    - Sparks albums almost always feature a foreign love interest - it’s a beautifully crafted running joke. Here it makes a reappearance on ‘all the girls”, but in manically depressed form, “Will I ever be loveable again”.

    - What I’m telling you now is “counterintuitive baby” and “so hard to explain it”.

    - It starts with a crackly snippet of ‘Clair de la lune’, which is the first ever recording of a human voice, with the technology to play it back only emerging in the last few years. It captures the moment that lead to all movies and recorded music, and asks “lend me your pen”. This is symbolic of Ron and Russell writing with Carax.

    - The poem Clair de Lune is inspiration for “Well sing and die for you, yes in minor key” . It contains the line to “Singing all the while, in the minor key,� of all-conquering love and life so kind to them”. It’s about performers who sing happy and heroic songs while being sad. It’s the inverse of what Sparks are doing - making sad songs despite this not being true to who they are. This is also the subtext to Sympathy for the Abyss, which is about having an understanding of darkness, rather than succumbing to it.

    - The soundtrack album features earlier versions of the songs, with no trace of McHenry being a villain. His powers are waining because his love for Ann and Annette has taken the edge off his performances. In the demo of You Used to Laugh he sings “I’ll feel a certain level of rage”. In the final product he sings “You’re gonna feel, feel, feel the fire of my rage”. This change is referenced later with “Stepping back in time, I could step aside, not allow my rage to magnified”.

    - Six Women Have Come Forward is a metaphor for six song ideas emerging. Sparks have a knack for writing about the zeitgeist, so addressing #metoo fits their work, albeit in much darker territory. Imagine that these ideas don’t match LC’s strict new rules - “why now?”. This plot-thread is dropped and not referenced again, almost like a failed songwriting experiment.

    - While Henry is babysitting, the TV shows a musical number from Till the clouds roll by, a 1946 Judy Garland movie. The song, ’D’ye love me’, was filmed by a different director (her husband Vincente Minnelli) but then cut from the final movie. The babysitting montage is likely to be where unused song Worth Her Weight in Gold was placed, also cut from the film.

    There’s lots more, but that’s enough for today. I’d love to discuss this with people. As ever, there’s more to be found on

  4. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

    There’s a kind of precision to Sparks’ songwriting that I haven’t seen in other artists. They have an uncanny ability to thread running jokes through their music, and there are so many examples.

    Let’s start with songs featuring foreign love interests:
    • Girl from Germany
    • Hasta Mañana, Monsieur
    • Onamata Pia
    • Good Morning
    • Lawnmower
    • As I sit down to play the organ
    • Johnny Delusional
    • Suburban Homeboy
    • White women
    • (Baby baby) Can I invade your country?
    • Sõ Desu Ne
    • I like girls
    • Upstairs
    • Aeroflot
    • Kiss me quick
    • Hollywood welcoming committee
    • All the girls
    • I Married a Martian
    • The Dictator’s son
    It seems to be there on every album, and often well hidden. Johnny Delusional (who tries his luck with girls that are out of his league), “knows yes and no in a couple dozen other languages”, a subtle yet beautifully crafted joke that can only be fully appreciated when you’ve heard enough Sparks.

    Then there’s dialogue with God / the afterlife:
    • What the hell is it this time?
    • Get in the swing
    • The Number One Song in Heaven
    • As I sit down to play the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral
    • Good morning
    • Here in Heaven
    • The Angels
    • Rosebud
    • Oh my god
    • The Ghost of Liberace
    • Just got back from heaven
    • Bummer
    • I will haunt you
    All great artists dwell on certain themes, but there seems to be more going on here. These songs have virtually nothing in common - each has its own self-contained story and meaning yet they cross over in really specific ways. And I mean REALLY specific.
    • Good Morning follows on from As I Sit Down To Play The Organ chronologically, and both feature a one-night stand with a foreign girl, dialogue with God and drinking.
    • Barbecutie and Left Out In The Cold are both about someone doing hard, thankless research in Arctic conditions
    • The Number One Song in Heaven and Stravinsky’s Only Hit both have a higher power turn their hand to commercial pop music (much like Sparks).
    • Funny Face has a male model who’s glad to be made uglier following plastic surgery, which is like Photoshop, where a celebrity is made to look “as though I were in Hell” through image manipulation software. Both are processes more commonly associated with beauty.
    • Reinforcements and (Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country both portray a relationship in terms of military rank, first using the perspective of an out-flanked infantryman, and then as an invading superpower.
    This is more than a repeat - it’s a complete reimagining of what’s come before, and they do it a lot. In fact, you could pick literally any song from the late 70s ‘till now and connect it to another in interesting and surprising ways. Without exception, every piece has one or more counterpart. It’s as if everything they do is fulfilling a songwriting challenge set to their own secret yet ambitious set of rules.

    I believe that they have a strict creative process. Early in their career they published a short guide on “how to jam proof your composition”, which served as a kind of definition of what Sparks did. What if they’re still working this way, but haven’t shared the updated rulebook with us yet?

    Their music has a big focus on creativity, not least with so many songs about making music:
    • The Number One Song in Heaven
    • Stravinsky’s only hit
    • When do I get to sing “My Way”?
    • Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than me)
    • Music that you can dance to
    • As I sit down to play the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral
    • How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
    • I’m an Accompanist / The Conductor
    • Collaborations don’t work
    • I can’t believe that you would fall for all the crap in this song
    • It’s a knockoff
    • When I’m with you
    • A song that sings itself
    • Strange Animal
    • I Predict
    • The Japanese have come and bought my number one
    • What are all these bands so angry about?
    • When I kiss you (I hear Charlie Parker playing)
    • Upstaged
    • The Rhythm Thief
    • The Ghost of Liberace
    • Two hands, one mouth
    • It’s a Sparks show
    It all has a cryptic quality, so it’s plausible that many other songs are about creativity too, but in a less direct way. Take Metaphor, which gives the impression that it’s about the use of smart language to attract women - that could easily by applied to songwriting. Then in Hippopotamus, everything listed in the song could be drawn from Ron’s pool of ideas, rather than a literal swimming pool. This is reinforced by the final verse, where the full list is neatly summed up in a few words - “Throw in a hippo, a little Dutch art, an actor performing a Shakespearean part”. It’s as if they’ve written a new song from the contents of the preceding verses - Isn’t it grand? Ron has set himself a songwriting challenge to express this crazy mix of ideas in two completely different ways.

    It doesn’t just fall out of Ron’s head like this: It’s crafted. This is a process that’s described in Strange Animal, about a creature that wanders into a song and takes it over. It’s Ron fighting to imbue that Sparks essence into a composition, placing an idea from an old song into a new context. It doesn’t work at first - “There's something 'bout him that is frightening”, but then inspiration strikes - “and right on cue, a bolt of lightning”. It takes patience - “I'll just sit over here, till the chorus appears, would you think it a sin if I start chiming in?". The music reflects the battle to make the two ideas work together, with lyrics that are enormously self-critical - “this song lacks a heart, comes off overly smart”, and it’s ultimately rejected: "You're in need of a fix, or a total remix, so I must kill you all, start again, have a ball”. All that’s kept is the chorus, and if you listen to the background falsetto at 26 seconds in you even hear an overwritten, discarded verse!

    This is what I think makes Sparks so different to their contemporaries. Ron doesn’t write songs just because an interesting idea popped into his head. It’s always about pushing that extra level of meaning in an academic way as much as it’s art and entertainment. At it’s core each song somehow tells you something new about Sparks, be it their creative process, performance, public perception, setbacks or ambitions. These are the base ingredients that spawned hundreds of stories about Heaven, Hell, gigolos, falling in love with yourself, God, audiences, France, aliens, film directors, marriage, one night stands, home and, of course, ladies from abroad.

    For anyone interested in diving in further, I’ve posted detailed analysis of N1IH, GSASV, Balls, Lil Beethoven, Annette and more on my blog -


    Fred1 and BluesOvertookMe like this.
  5. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter

  6. echodeck

    echodeck Well-Known Member Thread Starter


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