Sparks, sex and violence — well, sorta

And after a rather tumultuous week on the technical front for Sparks fans everything’s a little more settled now, with both the mael-list working again and, more importantly, the cdpulse stream of the show now up and running properly as well. That meant being able to see the Interior Design show properly, and while it didn’t hit the mark as well as the Introducing run-through did, it was a step up from Terminal Jive, the songs’ smoother overall feeling turning out to benefit from the live performance more than I’d have guessed, though there’s an unavoidably clunky sound to some of the samples from the time that were used. Still, a fine turn, and as that’ll be the last of the ‘lesser’ albums (at least to my ears), it was a nice way to bow out of the eighties phase of the group.

Before talking a bit about the next album from today’s show, here’s a couple of links — Plan B, who I write for on a low-key basis, has Sparks featured as the cover story of their latest issue. It’s a very good piece, bringing out the pessimism and melancholy that has always lurked among the playfulness in the band’s work from the start. Both Ron and Russell haven’t ever entirely hidden this — Chris Ziegler’s great interview for Arthur contains some similar sentiments — but this piece brings it out fully thanks in part to the perspective given to their work by the interviewer, Joseph Stannard (hope I’ve remembered that right!). The piece is not online but the issue is worth seeking out — and as you can see, excellent cover (as is the rest of the photography with the article):

Ron and Russ!

Meantime, over on another site I need to get into doing more with, The Quietus, last week Simon Price published his own well chosen guide to Sparks highlights, so give it a read:

This all said — Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins! Yes, a groanworthy pun, but the nowhere-near-as-worthy Talking Heads had already done something similar so blame them first. This is easily one of my favorite albums by them, but it doesn’t totally hold up as one — which may sound strange, but I think it’s a good capturing of them being reenergized rather than necessarily a full-on standout. As such it’s very necessary, and if not as monumental as No 1 in Heaven is as important for showing how the Maels continued to be aware of their time and react as they chose to it. I’ve seen them perform a number of songs from it live (including “The Ghost of Liberace,” which I’ve underrated for some time) and I’ll be interested to see if they give it a more rock-band approach or if they’ll do as they did for No 1 and have Steven Listor concentrate on holding down the beat while everyone else sings.

Going to be a heck of a weekend — the show I think everyone is wondering about the most, Plagiarism, is tomorrow, and exactly what guests will or won’t show, if any, is going to be the thing! Can’t know until then!

As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show will be accessible here:


After Interior Design Sparks seemed to hibernate for six years, and in the pre-commercial Internet days information was few and far between, with the occasional compilation and one-off single being the band’s only sign of life, though in fact the group was trying to get a movie musical adaptation of Mai the Psychic Girl off the ground. When that finally died and the Maels focused their attention back on a straight-up album, presumably they hoped at the least just to reestablish themselves a bit in a musical environment that had radically changed in their absence. But Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins did more than just that, kicking off their third great period of extended commercial success, this time around initially based in Germany. Far from being out of it, Sparks ended up back in the thick of things seemingly without effort.

The key to success here lay in Ron and Russell keeping their ears open to what was going on around them a lot more readily than in the late eighties – in the same way that hearing “I Feel Love” led them to work with Moroder, they realized that European electronic pop in the nineties in particular was entering a classic phase as the techno revolution took hold throughout the continent, resulting in (to paraphrase a Russell comment in a mid-nineties interview) musical approaches that hadn’t yet become clichés. They took to it like ducks to water – it didn’t hurt at all, certainly, that the fast pace perfectly suited Ron and Russell’s abilities with hyperspeed melodies. Another clear role model was the splashy, theatrical disco that the Pet Shop Boys cooked up for Very (the songtitles in particular had that air – samples include “I Thought I Told You To Wait in the Car” and “Now That I Own the BBC”). It was a knowing, in fact barbed, homage, given the PSB’s clear borrowing of a fair amount of Sparks’s overall approach in the Moroder years, not least in Chris Lowe’s near-perfect impersonation of Ron’s unemotional appearances at the keyboards.

The result wasn’t quite a classic along the lines of No. 1 in Heaven, admittedly, though there’s plenty of enjoyable numbers throughout, not to mention a surging conclusion in “Let’s Go Surfing.” One of their oddest numbers yet, “Tsui Hark,” featured the legendary Hong Kong director, a longtime favorite of the brothers, talking briefly about his body of work, and that’s about it. But the highlights were absolutely addictive techno-influenced classics, most notably “When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing),” which featured Russell doing his best version of rapping – not too surprising given his own abilities with rapid-fire tongue-twisting lyrics – and the gorgeous “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?”, the tale of someone waiting for his chance, whatever it might be, which ended up referencing both Sinatra and Sid Vicious. Sleek and winning, it was just the recharge that Sparks needed – and it wouldn’t be the last.


One Response to “Sparks, sex and violence — well, sorta”

  1. Joseph Stannard Says:

    Hello Ned!

    You did indeed remember right! Many thanks for your kind words, sir. That piece was quite a labour of love for me, and meeting the Maels was reward in itself.

    An interesting footnote… after the piece was published, I discovered that my father played drums on the Mael brothers’ first sessions after arriving in the UK, presided over by producer John Porter (Roxy Music). Almost eerie…!

    Peace and SPARKS,


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