Band Tee Stories - Sparks
28 Sep 2021
Kicking off this new blog series is a post on my latest, but most deepest musical love, Sparks.
What is this series of posts about?
Welcome to this edition of Band Tee Stories, a collection of posts dedicated to my favourite musicians of all time.
The title of the post collection comes from the fact that, if a musical artist has won me over to a very large extent, then there will be a t-shirt of theirs taking pride of place in my (growing) collection.
Of course, these posts are heavily biased in favour of the artists, being written by a fan of them. Like most things in life, music is subjective and so if you don’t like them, that’s fine!
These posts will reflect how I got into the band in the first place, how I went there and got the t-shirt and then personal recommendations of songs / albums to jump off onto after reading.
These are the main topics covered in this post:
- Who and what are Sparks?! - a very short ‘about’ of the band
- How I got into them - where the love affair began
- Been there, got the t-shirt(s) - where I got the aforementioned t-shirt(s)
- Where to next for you? - recommendations of getting into them yourself
- Where to next for them? - what the band are doing next
Who and what are Sparks?!
A band that is 50 years in age, with two brothers as the leading members, and of which is still going strong - that’s the short of it.
The long of it is covered in the two-and-a-bit-hours-long 2021 documentary film by Edgar Wright, The Sparks Brothers, which I’d recommend checking out off the back of this blog post, especially if you are an information hoarder like me or just want to sit back and be entertained and educated via moving picture format for a few hours.
In terms of numbers, to date, the band have released 27 albums (including the Annette soundtrack, FFS collaboration project and their live album, Two Hands, One Mouth: Live in Europe). I won’t attempt a song count as that will get complicated, especially if we start including collaborations and production credits!
The band have changed line-up and genre direction rather frequently and drastically, sometimes between individual albums (for example, there is a stark difference between the sequential albums Introducing Sparks and No. 1 In Heaven). Arguably this could easily isolate some of their fan base, but the underlying premise is there, regardless of where the band takes their music next. The thread that weaves between every song and album of theirs is a polarising-yet-symbiotic, brotherly bond between a flamboyant Russell Mael and a modest Ron Mael, littered with highly subtextual and often very comical lyrics based upon even the most mundane aspects of life (prime example below).
With this in mind, it amazes me that Wikipedia has managed to wittle down the genres they have covered over time into just three categories - “art pop, glam rock and synth-pop”. Even so, it casts a wide net but is probably the only way you could possibly pigeonhole them.
How I got into them
I had first heard (and heard of) Sparks as a teenager, with a Top of the Pops (TOTP) rerun on the TV, laughing at my mum saying that she was scared of Ron’s searing facial expressions from behind his keyboard when she was younger. At the time, I stupidly thought it was ‘uncool’ to like any music that wasn’t ‘current’, so just laughed it off and got back to listening to my pile of ‘landfill indie’ bands (many of whom no longer exist). Nowadays, I’d love to tell my younger self that they’d be obsessed with bands from the late 1970s, many years later, including that very band with that fella in with the funny facial expressions.
Fast-forwarding to now, as I type these very words, I’m listening to (the full album version of) The Number One Song in Heaven, from their 1979 album, No. 1 in Heaven. This was the album that got me into Sparks properly.
It technically isn’t the first album I’d heard by them, as they released an album with another all-time favourite band of mine, Franz Ferdinand, in 2015. The collaboration between the two artists was called FFS (yep, pun fully intended!) and they released one album together. To this day, I bear the huge weight of regret in not seeing them live together when the elusive opportunity arose, and I still hold the FFS album in high regard.
After the FFS project, Sparks released Hippopotamus in 2017, with the single of the same name. As a complete newbie to the band, the songs had a similar feel to the FFS stuff, minus the Franz Ferdinand aspect, and so I quite liked it and the underlying ‘quirkiness’ behind the lyrics. I didn’t give the entirety of Hippopotamus a go for a long while, but did enjoy Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), What The Hell Is It This Time? and Missionary Position.
When the inevitable lockdown of 2020 kicked off, Sparks released an album amidst the chaos, namely A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. The first song that was brought to my attention from it via Spotify recommendation was Self-Effacing - and I really truly loved it cos, you know, ~relatable content~. I’m Toast and Please Don’t F-ck Up My World were to follow and had a home on my playlists at the start of 2020, but for some unknown reason, I still wasn’t paying enough attention to them at that point.
Yep, Ron, I'm an idiot...
Fast forward a year, to the start of 2021. News broke that renowned film director, Edgar Wright, had made a full-length documentary film on Sparks. The anecdotes from the trailer can be summarised along the lines of ‘you can pretty much go on the Wikipedia page about the band and still know nothing about them’. Watching the teaser trailer was the turning point and the moment I thought, ‘time to really start paying attention to these guys then’.
Next stop on my get-into-Sparks quest was enjoying some music videos from the recent A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip era, such as iPhone and of course, one of the world’s hardest earworms to extract out your head, Lawnmower. After a few laughs, I then remembered vaguely hearing that-really-catchy-synth-one-they-did from around the start of the 1980s in passing, The Number One Song in Heaven (although I don’t think that it was what I heard on that TOTP rerun). Being a lover of synth-pop, I hoped that the rest of the No. 1 in Heaven album was in the same realm as the (sorta) title track, and was elated to find out it was.
Been there, got the t-shirt(s)
A six-month (and still counting) endless cycle of YouTube rabbit holes and full-discography Spotify playlist listens later and we end up at present day - I’ve banged, crashed and smashed right through the doors of this fandom too many years too late and with the grace of a falling brick.
Every album has been listened to with a few songs / albums in their entirety gaining rightful placements in my list of all-time favourites ever, three viewings of The Sparks Brothers has happened already, tickets are purchased to their 2022 tour, a membership to the Sparks fan club is active complete with lanyard, fan photo and membership number, and a few merch pick-ups include the aforementioned t-shirt (well, two of them!), a tote bag and the In the Words of Sparks… lyric book.
Reppin' the Sparks fam' on a Twitch stream
The best thing of all out of all this, is a new lifelong love for a timeless band with such a deep back catalogue, I can listen to them every day and never get bored due to those dramatic sweeps between genres, and lyrics that make me smile even on the darkest of days. Most mornings, I wake up with one of their many earworms in my head.
The band really inspire me to make stuff, not even necessarily music, but to just plug away whilst at the same time, maintaining integrity and staying true to what I believe in. In many cases, I’m usually listening to them whilst editing videos / writing blog posts (especially this one!).
I’m so glad I took that time out and got round to listening to them, but really should have taken notice when Franz Ferdinand were singing their praises (and alongside them) in 2015 - even better still would have been Googling them after that TOTP rerun.
Where to next for you?
Here is how I tackled the mammoth task of getting into back catalogue of Sparks (as a synth-pop lover - rock lovers, you’re covered shortly after):
- No. 1 In Heaven (album), first and foremost. Short but very sweet, and pride of place in my musical hall of fame.
After that, listened to everything from Terminal Jive up to and including Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins - When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’ (song and video) is nothing short of a modern masterpiece.
Once overly familiar with the ‘synth’ stuff, I then started on their ‘rock’ stuff with Kimono My House and Propaganda.
Went further backwards to the Halfnelson days (band name before they became Sparks) and got into Sparks (debut album) and A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing.
Jumped over Kimono My House and Propaganda to Indiscreet, Big Beat and Introducing Sparks.
Took a time machine forward and finally properly listened to Hippopotamus and A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip in full (and not just the songs I loved from them).
Went back to the 1990s with Plagiarism and the albums that followed it, from Balls up to and including FFS (although I didn’t really need to listen to FFS as I’d played it on repeat throughout the entire summer of 2015).
Now familiar with all of it, I listen to whichever era I’m in the mood for at that given moment, or stick the ‘A to Z of Sparks’ playlist from Spotify on shuffle and enjoy.
However, if you are more partial to rock, I’d recommend starting with Kimono My House (their first commercial success and often called out as one of the most influential albums of all time) and Propaganda, then some sort of variation of the list above from there.
To make the above a little easier, here is a pick from each album (some are the obvious picks, some are a little less so):
- Wonder Girl from Sparks / Halfnelson
- Underground from A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing
- Amateur Hour from Kimono My House
- B.C. from Propaganda
- Hospitality on Parade from Indiscreet
- Everybody’s Stupid from Big Beat
- Those Mysteries from Introducing Sparks
- La Dolce Vita from No. 1 in Heaven
- When I’m With You from Terminal Jive
- Funny Face from Whomp That Sucker
- The Decline and Fall of Me from Angst In My Pants
- Popularity from In Outer Space
- A Song That Sings Itself from Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat
- Modesty Plays from Music That You Can Dance To
- Madonna from Interior Design
- (When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing from Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins
- This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us from Plagiarism
- Calm Before The Opera (bonus track) from Balls
- Suburban Homeboy from Lil’ Beethoven
- Waterproof from Hello Young Lovers
- Good Morning from Exotic Creatures of the Deep
- The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (seems to only be available to stream in its entirety as opposed to individual segments, but it’s still a great body of work)
- Police Encounters from FFS
- I Wish You Were Fun from Hippopotamus
- Left Out In The Cold from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
- So May We Start from Annette (movie soundtrack)
The list above was the main focus of my contribution to #Sparkstember, a month-long Tweetathon in September 2021 dedicated to a different Sparks album / aspect each day. For this, I posted my favourite lyric from (most of) the songs above, and on some days, posted a bonus for the albums where it got really tricky to pick just one song and lyric from.
Behind the scenes, I also listened to the album of each day at least once on its designated day. Yeah… talk about taking it too seriously. ;)
Where to next for them?
Yep, Sparks are still going - there are no ‘comeback’ tours, upcoming ‘best of’ / ‘greatest hits’ compilations or anything like that (well, there is a ‘best of’ compilation about, but they will need another one collating at this rate). They just keep on pushing themselves, always going forwards and never looking back.
2021 and 2022 sees the band on a worldwide tour - a good few new dates in America and then their pandemic-postponed tour is finally back up and running again for the start of 2022 (I cannot wait to see them!).
Annette, a movie-musical directed by Leos Carax, and starring just a few household names in Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg, was released in 2021. Who wrote the story, and the songs, with the musical originally being drafted as a touring live show consisting of the band themselves? Yep, Sparks!
At the time of writing, there is a new album in the works to follow up on 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. The band are tight-lipped on further details, but did sneak out a song they had recorded with Todd Rundgren in the meantime, namely Your Fandango.
(The awesome little backstory to this song is that Todd Rundgren was the producer for Sparks’ self-titled debut album, all the way back when they were originally called Halfnelson. This was the first time that they had closely worked together since the 1970s!)
That’s all folks - see you in the next blog post. Hopefully by then, Edgar Wright and I will have made a Sparks fan out of you too… ;)
The images in this blog post were either photographically taken by me, or were just shamelessly taken. If you are a photographer that deserves credit or would like to request the removal of an image, please contact me.
Any broken links are due to external forces beyond my control, but any false information is cos I’m an idiot so please feel free to call me out via the contact link above if so.
P.S. here’s a bonus image of the band peeping from behind my monitor ensuring that this blog post got written. ;)
P.P.S. the footer of this site is indeed a Sparks reference.