Yesterday’s Hello Young Lovers performance was great fun to see again — like Lil Beethoven, that tour’s presentation was released on DVD and is only two years old, so it was the most familiar one of the bunch to me, but still great to see again, and the band killed it.
It was also the concluding date at the Islington Academy — the final show, the live debut of Exotic Creatures of the Deep, will be broadcast tomorrow from Shepherd’s Bush — and the conclusion of the whole historical overview of the band’s work, in essence, so the cheers last night were loud, long and all very well deserved. I’ll have some further reflections on what ultimately has to have been one of the most uniquely interesting performance stints in pop music’s wayward career tomorrow, but I will always regret I wasn’t able to attend, but am profoundly thankful I was able to watch and listen from this distance. I love the Net, I really do.
So today is a day off, and that gives me a chance to post something I’ve been meaning to do for a bit, and this seems like an appropriate day to do so — the cut sections from my Arthur discography. The cutting was done without regrets for reasons for space, and as it stands some of it was incomplete anyway, with my review of their recent DVDs being more a collection of notes and thoughts which were never included in any formal draft of the piece to start with. I did, however, include an end section about three key compilations that Sparks had released over the years which were worthy of some attention (although as you’ll see one of them was listed more for completeness’s sake) and so here those drafts are, and with that I am now finished with my ‘director’s cut’ of the discography. I suspect regular readers of the blog might be happy for that! (And I’m looking forward to a little break myself!)
Before moving on to that I’d like to point out a handy resource that’s been assembled by Mytza on LiveJournal — a Sparks Spectacular overview, collecting links to various reviews and pieces on the shows from around the Web, as well as YouTube links where appropriate. Nearly all my pieces here are linked, which is quite flattering! Much thanks.
The amount of compilations released over the band’s career has been extensive, ranging from repackagings of the first two albums as a full set to any number of ‘greatest hits’ sources on a variety of labels – the perhaps inevitable end result of the Maels’ label-hopping over the years. That said, three of them are worth considering in further detail.
Still the best place for any newcomer to get an overview of Sparks’s career – though now extremely outdated, given it was released in 1992 in the dry gulch between Interior Design and Gratuitous Sax – Profile, released by Rhino (a perfect label for the job, and more than making up for the fact that they were also the ones who released Interior Design) was at the time of release a godsend. It works still for a variety of reasons – though it could easily be expanded by at least another full CD (maybe even two) to cover any number of inspired but less familiar numbers from the albums, as a two-disc overview it cherry picks all the big singles and a slew of other tracks, at least one from each of the fifteen albums they had released at that point.
As a result, it conveniently takes the best tracks from less successful albums (such as “When I’m With You,” “Change” or “So Important”) while benefiting as well from Rhino’s usual high standards of remastering, at least in early nineties’ terms. There aren’t many rarities as such – a couple of Island-era B-sides like “Barbecutie” appear (amusingly enough, “Profile” is not one of them), though they had already been included on the CD reissues of the original albums, while the single edit of “Cool Places” and the first, 1982-era single version of “Modesty Plays” also take a bow. The one outright unreleased-until-then number is the original recording of “I Like Girls,” which first saw the light of day on The Big Beat but actually dated back to a session with the Mankey/Weinstein band during the making of Woofer – it’s a nice little curio, though frankly an inclusion of a track or two from the legendary pre-debut album demos would have been even more welcome.
Another reason to get Profile lies in Russell’s liner notes for every song, providing as close to a biography to their first two decades’ work in their own words as yet exists. Covering everything from Ron destroying a piano stool in front of a quietly bemused French TV audience to the joy of Mary Jo Kopechne’s photo being used in one of their videos, it’s an all-too-brief but still essential take on a body of work that even then was of a range that few other bands have ever approached. The best comment, regarding “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”: “Ray Davies inaccurately accused the lyrics of relating to some sort of hippy, earth-child theme. Yeah, right, Ray. Stick to writing about transvestites.”
THE HELL COLLECTION
A year following Profile, a single disc collection called The Heaven Collection appeared in France, one of many singles/greatest hits collections that have appeared over the moons that can be safely ignored in favor of Profile. However, the other disc that was released as a counterpart to Heaven is another matter entirely. Still the only odds and sods album that Sparks have yet released, though like Profile it doesn’t go further than the end of the eighties, The Hell Collection isn’t a deathless release by any means – it mostly covers the eighties version of the group and unfortunately contains some of the least inspired moments of that era. Its high points, though, often times random as they are, make it worth investigating by the dedicated Sparks freak.
Subtitled “Obscurities, Oddities and Rarities,” Hell is organized in no particular way, but as with Profile it has often hilarious liner notes from Russell – in English, happily – explaining the provenance of each song. Some of the best choices aren’t songs at all, but commercials for concerts – one for a Belgian show and two for Los Angeles dates at the height of their early eighties fame, including one where Ron insists that he now owns the Magic Mountain amusement park. Songs from a few eighties movie soundtracks that never appeared on the full albums turn up, as do alternate versions and demos of other compositions – a French version of Interior Design’s “Madonna,” “Singing in the Shower,” which the band Les Rita Mitsuoko later covered, and two otherwise unreleased songs, “The Japanese Have Come (And They’ve Bought My Number One)” and the amusing “Je M’Appelle Russell.”
Scattered throughout are some live tracks – notably, the band have never released a concert album, so these are particular treats. Besides an a capella take on the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and a great 1985 version of “I Predict,” there’s an unexpected bonus in two 1975 performances of “Achoo” and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” the latter featuring an otherwise unrecorded extra verse. Both are pretty murky though as Russell notes, “We sprayed down the tape with a little Lysol disinfectant and today it doesn’t sound half bad.”
THE 12” MIXES
First released in Europe in 1996, Oglio Records released a slightly longer version of this in America in 1999 as part of its late nineties reissue program of the albums running from Terminal Jive through Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat. The contents, as might be guessed, consist of exactly that, 12” extended dance remixes from the era as well as an apparently archival “Beat the Clock” mix and a new Plagiarism-era mix of “The Number One Song in Heaven.” Rather unfortunately, the liner notes are pretty well nonexistent, saying nothing about the original release information or who did the remixes. It leaves an unfortunate impression that this was a bit of a slapdash effort, slightly enhanced further by a bit on the sleeve admitting that some of the selections had to be taken from vinyl due to the unavailability of the master tapes.
If this was an absolutely essential collection, then there’d be even more reason to complain, but unfortunately most of the mixes on here are far too typically examples of their time – for the most part unimaginative or at their best merely functional extensions of the basic songs themselves rather than dramatic reinventions. [EDIT: in relistening to both this and The Hell Collection recently I also realized that some of the same mixes are on both -- not too surprising, really!] For all that Sparks showed a clear affinity for modern dance music off and on over the years, their remixers – or possibly even themselves, if they ever did such work – didn’t grasp the full potential available there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best effort comes from the Moroder era itself, with Keith Forsey’s drum attack turned into a massive echoed rampage on “Beat the Clock.” One or two tracks otherwise, like the surprisingly enjoyable take on “Kiss Me Quick,” while this is handy enough for people who want to relive memories of New Wave dance clubs, otherwise The 12” Mixes pretty much has a limited appeal even to Sparks fans, who would otherwise own the perfectly fine originals.