Sparks and the number one album in heaven

Well, yesterday’s take on the Introducing Sparks album was a total treat and a half. My hunch that it would be the ‘lesser’ albums that ended up providing the greater thrills has been readily confirmed over the last couple of days, and the performances of songs like “Goofin Off,” “Those Mysteries” and “Occupation” among others last night — heck, as I said on the Sparks list, just withdraw the reissue of the album from last year and put that set out instead! An attendee at the show felt it was actually not the best show in the series, thinking that the crowd carried much of it, but since said crowd by definition had to be the hardest of hardcore fans it’s little surprise they were able to give it an extra push on the evening.

There was a slight lineup change as well, with Steve Macdonald only appearing on the encore — a fun take on “Alabamy Right” — and that heralds what apparently will be further changes as the concert series progresses — starting with tonight. The original and much, much longer take on No. 1 in Heaven below gives you a sense of how much I value this album, and hearing a rock band take on it frankly wouldn’t be thrilling to me, but I gather such will not be the case tonight. It would be great to get the original quartet up there, though — Ron, Russell, Keith Forsey on drums and Giorgio Moroder on extra keyboards — but you can’t have everything!

So tonight will be what it is and I can’t wait — as time progresses, the more I’m convinced that this is one of the great ‘lost’ albums in popular culture, not obscure by any means but underappreciated in terms of its long-term impact over the decades now. To give you an idea — Justice’s entry in the Fabric mix series starts with “Tryouts for the Human Race.” This album ain’t aging.

As has been the case from the start, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show is accessible here:

NO. 1 IN HEAVEN

There’s a lot of debate over which album of Sparks is the best of all among fans of the Maels, precisely because there’s such a sense of whatever favorite is chosen being first among many equals. Some will swear by the Island-era classics, others have their fond memories of the early eighties new wave era. As for myself, though, I’ll say this – I think the most important album they ever released, for their own career and long-term longevity’s sake, was also, in many ways, their best. And it wouldn’t have happened without Donna Summer.

There’s a story that David Bowie tells which goes like this: during the recording of one of his Berlin albums with Brian Eno, he was in the studio when Eno burst in with a copy of a new single, excited as all hell. The record got played – “I Feel Love,” which would indeed become an epochal, era-defining smash for Summer as part of her continuing work with producer Giorgio Moroder, who created the music along with drummer Keith Forsey. “This is it, this is the future of music for the next fifteen years,” Eno allegedly said, with Bowie jokingly noting that he thought that the two of them were supposed to be doing that themselves.

Ron and Russell heard it as well and did Bowie one better. They decided to work with Moroder directly.

There’s a certain bravery about No. 1 in Heaven that has to be considered in context, at least of American rock. In 1978, if a retrospective and simplifying media was to be believed (it shouldn’t, of course) on the one hand there were the incipient punk explosions starting to go full force, on the other hand there was, indeed, disco and plenty of it, not to mention any amount of funk and soul and reggae and more besides. Overarching above it all, though, was the massive entrenched success of bands like Fleetwood Mac and Boston, with Journey coming up quick. Groups like Sparks really didn’t fit in anywhere there, but in ways that left them free to find their own course – and doing so proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Moroder and Forsey were already based in LA, so it was just a matter of booking some time and going for it, which both sides did to the full.

Just hearing the start of the album is like a message from the future still, but hearing it in the context of 1978 must have caused jaws to collectively drop around the world. It was unlike anything that Sparks had done before, of course – instead of Ron’s hyperactive keyboards there were gentle space tones and a bit of synth shimmer, a hint of motorik starting to speed up and up and up until a trademark Moroder synth-bass line comes in, Forsey’s beat suddenly moving into a massive propulsive push (his fills and breaks later are pure drama in the space of seconds). It’s an example of that partnership at its considerable best, then topped off by Russell’s voice materializing:

“We’re just gleams in lovers’ eyes
Steam on sweaty bodies in the night
One of us might make it through
All the rest will disappear like dew.”

The dramatic, massive synth-drone melody that follows after the chorus and a brief break sounds like it could be Gary Numan in 1979 or Depeche Mode circa 1983 – but in part that’s the point, not that this album invented Numan or Depeche, it invented a LOT of things. Everyone seems to think that the history of electronic pop starts and stops with Kraftwerk, it seems, and their role is truly indescribable – but Moroder was the great popularizer of motorik-disco, the true unheralded genius of a sound and time ignored precisely because he was omnipresent. Calling this album a disco album positively underrates its range, calling it one negatively is just plain stupid.

But hearing the combination at work here – the frenetic melodies from Ron, Russell’s beautiful voice, suddenly seeming so much more freer than before, set against the relentless electronic hyperactivity Moroder conjures up along with Forsey’s just plain monstrous beats – and you hear the ‘eighties’ getting invented, at least one version of it. Or several perhaps – New Wave, again (given Sparks had already helped partially invent it already), synth-pop in specific. The incipient members of Depeche were listening in, and so by default Erasure, but surely the Human League as well. Those who would become Soft Cell and the Pet Shop Boys, not to mention many other acts, couldn’t ignore it as well, as they had to be out dancing to these – and noticing the TV appearances at the time, building on some of their already legendary ones from earlier in the decade. If you don’t think the appearance of Ron’s usual stern look behind a keyboard set against Russell’s flamboyant stage presence had an impact, go back and take a look at any synth duo’s videos from 1980 to 1985 and ask yourself who they were trying to be.

Even the non-singles on the album – out of six songs, three were hits – have all the pieces in place. “Academy Award Performance” is definitely playful, hearing Ron’s melodies on the instrumental break, but the klaxon-bass snarl underneath, not to mention the don’t-stop-for-breath beats, while “La Dolce Vita” has a winning performance from Russell, sung just smoothly enough against the relentless beat and synth attack, with Moroder adding in sudden, abbreviated blasts of electric vocal sighs. The chopped up cymbal hits opening “My Other Voice” sound like they could either be from, indeed, Kraftwerk 1970 or anything on Warp Records 1995.

But man, those singles. “Tryouts” was mentioned already, then there was “Beat the Clock,” another bona fide classic, Russell semi-whispering the title like a mantra and breaking into glorious falsetto on the chorus, Ron’s melodies riding on top of a rhythm so clean and strong you could run transit systems off of it – and dig Forsey’s breakdown on the midsong break – and lyrics saying, among other things, “Entered school when I was two/PhD’d that afternoon.”

And then there’s “The Number One Song in Heaven,” all seven and a half minutes of it. In a career of perfect songs, this might be the most perfect Sparks ever did, a moment of pure sonic celebration and exaltation. Certainly it’s one of Moroder’s best moments as well, and the massive success of the song in Europe and the UK testifies to it, with its vocal overdub intro like, but of course, angels singing down from on high.

And the lyrics! You want meta, this is it. It wasn’t the first example, it definitely wasn’t the last – not least from Sparks themselves. Consider the opening lines alone:

“This is the number one song in heaven
Written, of course, by the mightiest hand
All of the angels are sheep in the fold of their master
They always follow the Master and his plan.”

Not to mention these other gems:

“If you should die before you wake
If you should die while crossing the street
The song that you’ll hear, I guarantee.”

“In cars it becomes a hit
In your homes it becomes advertisements
And in the streets it becomes the children singing”

So in the end, it’s important to say again – this is collaboration, not ‘selling out’ – or if it is, it’s the selling out that’s motivated by the right intentions, the excitement of a new sound, the sense that something is happening, and that one can add to it in one’s own way. It’s a complete 180 to the attempt at success with Introducing Sparks, it’s the beginning of Sparks’s own irregular association with resultant dance and electronic music scenes, it’s the album that showed that Sparks kept their ears open to what was around them, and it holds up and then some today. It is one of the greatest records ever made.

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