Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’s Of Rock – S (Part Two)

Part two of our ongoing salute to Sparks.

Part One can be found here.

With no real hits in their native U.S.A., a diminishing presence in the U.K., and a growing fan base in France, times were interesting for the brothers Mael until a former fan club member came to the rescue.

In Outer Space

1983 saw the release of “In Outer Space”, the first album of the post Giorgio Moroder era. It could be considered Spark’s “new wave” album. Helping out was former fan club member and current Go-Go Jane Wiedlin who sang duet with Russell on “Lucky Me, Lucky You” and “Cool Places”. “Cool Places” would go on to become the biggest hit the band would ever have on their home soil. Other gems on the record include “All You Ever Think About is Sex” and “Rockin’ Girls” which contains the classic line ‘You’re the only girl I ever met that hates Hey Jude, maybe that’s the reason I’m so in love with you’. A good return to form.

Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat

Whatever momentum the band had after the hit “Cool Places” ground to a halt with the 1984 release of this, their most disappointing album. Outside of the title track there is not much good to say about this one. I always found the cover kind of creepy as well.

Music That You Can Dance To/Interior Design

Sparks return to their synth-pop dance sound with these two albums from the late eighties. . With the exception of the brilliant “Change” on the “Music” album there is not much to recommend here. At this point I had pretty well given up on the band. Hell they were writing songs about Madonna.

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins

Released in 1994 this was the first album in seven years for the lads. They took a much needed rest from music and spent their time trying to make a movie of the Japanese comic “Mai.The Psychic Girl”. After almost six years trying,  the movie never came to fruition although they did have Tim Burton’s attention for a little while. It was obvious by the album and song titles that the boys were getting back in swing. How can you argue with titles such as ‘When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way?’, ‘(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing’ and ‘The Ghost Of Liberace’? Although it was still in the dance-techno field there were some new hints as to where their sound was going.

Plagiarism

Not really a greatest hits album but a collection of classic Sparks’s songs re-recorded and embellished. The 20 second “Propaganda” becomes a two and a half minute choral explosion, “Something For The Girl With Everything” gets a Faith No More rock re-mix as well a lush orchestral arrangement, which both oddly work as do the Faith No More and orchestral versions of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”. Erasure lends a hand on “Amateur Hour” and totally makes it their own. Jimmy Sommervillle (best known for Bronski Beat) takes on “The No. 1 Song In Heaven” along with Russell and their voices blend perfectly. As Sparks had recorded for a large number of labels I assume this was there way or wrestling back some of the songs they had lost the rights to. It is interesting to note on iTunes that their Island Records versions are not available (“Kimono My House”, “Propaganda”, “Indiscreet”, and “Big Beat”) and these would all be in my top six or seven. Some years ago there was a great Island double CD compilation which highlighted the best of this era but it does not seem to be available any more.

This was a very interesting compilation and it was great to hear new versions of old classics.  Not a bad jumping off point for a newbie as it covers a good stretch of their history and if you don’t like the sound of this you won’t like the band,

Balls

Their first album of the new century and the only Sparks record that I don’t own. Another lush-dance tinged album that spawned little interest and no hits. It seemed at the time that this could be the end of the line for the band but then in 2002……

Lil’ Beethoven

Out of nowhere in 2002 the U.K. press started to rave about the new album “Lil’ Beethoven”. To say I was wary would be an understatement. Once again they had re-invented themselves. They added lush orchestration, went heavy on piano, and upped the repetition of vocals, sometimes just repeating the same line, to a new art form. Songs such as “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall”. “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold” and “My Baby’s Taking Me Home” are classic examples of this new style. They also showed you can make orchestras sound heavy with “What Are All These Bands So Angry About” and “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls”. There is also a tip of the hat to the Bonzo’s with “Suburban Homeboy”.  A perfect introduction to the modern day Sparks.

The band returned in 2006 with “Hello Young Lovers” (which contains the Greg Nisbet fave “Metaphors”) and in 2008 with “Exotic Creatures Of The Deep”. Both kept close to the formula of “Lil’ Beethoven” and continued their adventures in to the field of orch-pop.

One of my major concert regrets is not heading over to London in May and June of 2008 as Sparks performed 20 consecutive nights running through their discography in order on consecutive nights. For the 21st evening they premiered “Exotic Creatures Of The Deep”. I know some Toronto pals who headed over to see a couple of the shows from the “Kimono My House” era and all reports were fantastic. The other big regret was not heading to London for the Mott The Hoople reunion. Maybe if we got paid to write…..

In 2009 the band was commissioned by Swedish public radio to score and record a radio musical “The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergmann”. The musical is 64 minutes long and broken down in to 24 short acts. I don’t really count this as an official album although it did mark the first time that Ron’s voice was heard on record. There is some talk about Guy Maddin making this in to a film. Could be interesting.

If you had to pick five Sparks studio records to start your collection I would suggest:

  1. Indiscreet
  2. Kimono My House
  3. Lil’ Beethoven
  4. Propaganda
  5. Big Beat

No more writing about one band with 22 albums, too much work. Back to the regular format next week.

As always if you are in Toronto and looking for a cool rock’n’roll diner please visit our friends at Shanghai Cowgirl 538 Queen Street West. It is right beside the world famous Bovine and around the corner from Cherry Cola’s.

Cameron’s column appears every Thursday
Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com.

Cameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener,  The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, The Daily XY and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.

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