Sunday, March 15, 2009

When I'm With You, Sparks Fly

With the synth-laden ‘Number One In Heaven’, sparks had laid the foundations for the next phase of their career, and in the process provided an inspiring template for the burgeoning ‘New Romantic’ and synth-pop movements. The duo’s combination of moody, introverted keyboard player, and charismatic vocalist, was adopted as model by the likes of 80s synth-pop luminaries Soft Cell, Yazoo, and Pet Shop Boys. Though over the next decade, Sparks would often be limited to the margins of mainstream pop success, their body of work to date, continued to be hugely influential on up and coming artists - think Depeche Mode, New Order, and They Might Be Giants (see future post).

Building on the strong foundations of ‘Number One In Heaven’, Sparks partnered up with producer (and Moroder sidekick) Harold Faltermeyer for their follow up album ‘Terminal Jive’. Moroder maintained ties, but his involvement was less substantive than the previous set, co-writing only two of the album’s eight tracks, whilst the Mael brothers took up song writing reigns on the balance. The album acted as an effective conduit between the disco experiment of its predecessor and an all out engagement of new wave synth-pop. The lead out single ‘When I’m With You’, was a serenely infectious synth-pop track, with Russell Mael’s vocals proving an irresistible lure to compliment the song’s relentless melodic hook. I recall seeing a snippet of the promo clip for ‘When I’m With You’ in a segment of Molly Meldrum’s ‘Humdrum’ on the Countdown program. It was a typically eccentric effort, with Russell Mael mouthing the song’s lyrics as a ventriloquist’s dummy, sitting on Ron Mael’s lap. I loved the song on first listen, but in mid 1980 I wasn’t yet purchasing singles, though have picked up several mixes on CD since. ‘When I’m With You’ became Sparks’ biggest hit by far in Australia (#17), and shot to the top ten across Europe. But it was France that embraced the song to an almost feverish degree, sending it to #1 for six weeks, and playing a large part in pushing worldwide sales for ‘When I’m With You’ to over 750,000. The album ‘Terminal Jive’ (OZ#96) also reached the upper reaches of the charts across several European territories.

Rarely content with being becalmed in still musical waters, the Mael brothers charted a new stylistic course for Sparks on their next album, 1981’s ‘Whomp That Sucker’ (US#182), recorded in Munich, and the duo’s first outing for new label RCA. They put some of the crate loads of electronic gear to one side, and formed a new backing band to augment their sound in both studio, and on tour. Ex-Bates Motel members Bob Haag (guitar), Leslie Bohem (bass), and David Kendrick (drums), also continued to record as a separate trio under the moniker of Gleaming Spires. ‘Whomp That Sucker’s opening track, ‘Tips For Teens’, announced that this album packed a serious power-pop punch. It was produced by Mack, a close associate of Giorgio Moroder, and recording engineer with Queen, and he not only achieved a degree of continuity from their previous releases, but doubtless his experience with Queen added more rock clout to the mix. In the late 70s/early 80s power pop was all the rage, but somehow Sparks managed to imbue their slant on the style, more so through their quirky lyrics than anything. The disco style electronica was supplanted by a harder rock edge, harkening back to some of their glam-rock material, circa mid 70s. An L.A. radio station KROQ-FM fell in love with the album, and gave Sparks the first decent dose of airplay they had received on the U.S. West Coast, in…in, well ever.

The same personnel (+ synth player James Goodwin) and production team were on board for Sparks’ next album, 1982’s ‘Angst In My Pants’ (US#173), though in true label hopping tradition, the group was now attached to Atlantic Records. The band continued to enjoy solid sales across Europe, particularly France and Belgium, during this period, but their latest style failed to recapture interest in Britain. Meanwhile, the U.S. had finally caught on to the eccentric genius of Sparks, and their next single ‘I Predict’, lifted from ‘Angst In My Pants’, delivered the Mael brothers their first bona fide U.S. Hot 100 hit (#60). Suddenly Sparks were playing to packed houses, and even raised eyebrows with a memorable appearance on ‘Saturday Night Live’. Their naturally theatrical bent, lent itself to the visual medium of MTV, and Sparks’ oddball promo videos became regulars on the still fledgling cable network. If it wasn’t obvious from their latest album cover (which featured Russell and Ron Mael posing as newly weds) that these guys were out there, then nothing was going to do the trick. KROQ continued to be the champion of all things Sparks, and ‘Angst In My Pants’ was on regular rotation throughout ‘82. The power pop motif continued strong throughout the album, though the Maels couldn’t help but ham it up on tracks like the Beach Boys’ pastiche ‘Sextown U.S.A.’.

The Mael brothers based themselves in Belgium for the recording of their next album, 1983’s ‘Sparks In Outer Space’ (US#88). The album delivered Sparks their biggest U.S. hit single in the form of the breezy pop track ‘Cool Places’ (#49), co-credited to the Go-Gos’ Jane Wiedlin (see June 08 post). Wiedlin, who was a huge Sparks devotee and had even run her own Sparks fan club back in the 70s, also contributed vocals to the lush album track ‘Lucky Me, Lucky You’. The follow up single ‘All You Ever Think About Is Sex’, though hilarious in its lyrics, didn’t do enough to tickle enough funny bones to make the charts. ‘Sparks In Outer Space’ may not have launched the Mael brothers into orbit as pop superstars, but it delivered the third in a trio of early 80s albums, which reinvigorated the band’s fortunes Stateside - unfortunately the surge of interest in Sparks was about to hit a snag in the form of 1984’s critical lampooned ‘Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat’. Any momentum Stateside, that had been established over the previous three albums, dissipated quickly. It may well have been in part due to Giorgio Moroder having withdrawn from the scene, to focus his production talents on Phil Oakey (of Human League - see future post). The synthesizer pop that had returned to the surface on ‘Outer Space’ shifted further to the frontline of the mix for this album, but what was missing were the quirky, caustic lyrical twists.

Enough of the banality of mainstream pop and rock - how about shaking up the musical mix, and seeing what floats to the surface. Now with MCA, Sparks resurfaced in 1986 with the, in part, experimental album ‘Music That You Can Dance To’. No prizes for guessing the style of music involved - dance. Sparks delivered a jolting music-scape of sonic extremes on tracks like ‘Changes’, featuring thought provoking lyrics on the really, really big issues, like the meaning of life. Some reviews I’ve read refer to ‘Music That You Can Dance To’ as underrated, and a hidden gem, whilst others dismiss it as patchy, and misdirected in places - I’ve not heard it in full, so can’t offer any more light on the subject. The Maels built themselves a professional standard, home recording studio in L.A. soon after, and used it as the base to record 1988’s ‘Interior Design’, released on the brothers own Fine Art label. Sparks had now been pruned back once more to the core duo of Russell and Ron Mael, who also acted as producers. Perhaps it was the lack of outside influence, but the ‘Interior Design’ album failed to reignite Sparks’ flagging fortunes. For once, the duo didn’t manage to preface the mood of cutting edge music, or push themselves into new and interesting territory, either musically or lyrically - it was the least Sparks like album to date, though it may have just been a case of returning to the same well of creative inspiration one too many times. Aside from a collaboration with French husband and wife duo Les Rita Mitsouko on the August ‘88 single release ‘Singing In The Shower’, Russell and Ron Mael retreated from the music business for a time, to focus creative energies on a proposed film project.

Their cinematic sojourn centred on a proposed film project, to adapt the Japanese ‘manga’ comic strip ‘Mai, The Psychic Girl’ into a motion picture. It’s not surprising that the Mael brothers were lured into a fully fledged cinematic enterprise, given both had flirted with the medium in their college days, and clearly imbued much of their music with a pungent cinematic aroma. Despite dedicating six years of time and effort to the project, which at one stage promised the involvement of maverick film maker Tim Burton (now that would have been a collaboration to savour), the ‘Mai’ project didn’t come to fruition. During this period the Maels did compose the music to a martial arts film by acclaimed Hong Kong director Tsui Hark.

Having been absent from the pop scene for almost five years, Sparks returned to active duty in 1993. The dance/house music scene of the late 80s and early 90s had drawn substantial inspiration from Sparks’ earlier mastery of electronica music, and that was a contributing factor in the duo being requested by Scottish label Finiflex to release the single ‘National Crime Awareness Week’. The song reflected Sparks’ interest in cutting edge music style, incorporating rap style vocals over an electronic backing, that no doubt received a workout at numerous rave parties. The track brought renewed interest to the extensive inventory of innovative Sparks’ music, and doubtless provided inspiration for the Maels to serve up their most critically acclaimed album in more than a decade. Dance label Logic combined with BMG to back the release of 1994’s album ‘Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins’ (UK#60), the best Sparks’ album title since ‘A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing’. The album’s November ‘94 release had been presaged by the lead out single ‘When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”’, which returned Sparks to the British singles charts for the first time in fifteen years (#38/Ge#7). The track was reissued a few months later and peaked at #32 at its second attempt. All of the infectious melodic structure, and bitingly witty lyrical ruminations were present in abundance, but Sparks had once again successfully married cutting edge musical styles to the mix, this time in the form of the prevailing explosion of techno/house styles, resulting in a musical layer cake of sublime lavishness. Two further singles were released from the album, with both ‘When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)’ (UK#36), and ‘Now That I Own The BBC’ (UK#60) cracking the charts.

In 1997 Sparks built on their new found momentum with the cheekily titled ‘Plagiarism’, an album of cover versions of their own material, featuring contributions from Sparks’ devotees like Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, and Faith No More. Tony Visconti came on board to produce half the album, which in essence was a self produced tribute album. ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ returned to the British charts (#70) in late ‘97, and was followed by a collaborative revamp of the classic ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, credited to Sparks Vs. Faith No More (UK#40). Sell out shows in London and L.A. confirmed that the creative juggernaut of Sparks, was well and truly back in vogue.

2000’s ‘Balls’ album, was backed with a live DVD release, providing a visual showcase of the band’s best work. The ‘Balls’ album also ushered in a prolific period of creative output from Sparks, continued with the ‘Lil’ Beethoven’ album in 2002, described by the band themselves, and many music writers, as the bands “genre-defying opus”. Essentially the album featured nine mini-operettas, resplendent with lush orchestral arrangements. Critics lauded it as one of the best album releases of the year, and a defining moment in the resurgence of Sparks as a creative tour de force. Russell and Ron Mael delivered once more on 2006’s ‘Hello Young Lovers’, which delighted in the absurd, the grand, and the theatrical, and made a point of turning contemporary musical convention on its head. Sparks continue to march to their own unique, and inspiring beat, and their enduring career, which now spans over forty years, shows no signs of waning, with their latest album ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’, continuing to intrigue and delight fans, old and new.

Thanks to the definitive Sparks website for some of the photos used in this post. Check out more great pics and info on the history of Sparks at the following -

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