A Meta Guide to Lil Beethoven
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Sparks’ self-proclaimed “career-defining opus” is misunderstood, and I’d like you to consider another way of looking at it. Think of it as a concept album where the concept is a closely guarded secret, and can be pieced together like a puzzle. Although the songs sound unrelated, they connect to form a bigger picture. Most agree that the band are sometimes meta, so what if we treat everything as meta? The band start Annette with a song about starting Annette, and they end a collaborative album with Collaborations don’t work (and then tell everybody to piss off and leave them alone). If you use that kind of lens to look at Lil Beethoven then every song can tell you something about what Sparks are doing and why.
The Rhythm Thief is a great example of this. There’s a synchronicity between what they’re doing right here as a band and what they’re singing about, with “Oh no! Where did the groove go?” describing their latest sonic reinvention. It has a sly taunt at dance music with “Lights out, Ibiza” (the go-to Island for superclubs), so they’re calling back to their own recent past.
They don’t just “Say goodbye to the beat”, they say “auf wiedersehen” to it, so “you’ll never get it back” could be aimed at the German label - they were now free of contractual obligations (as shown in The Sparks Brothers). It’s also a sentiment that follows on directly from the end of Balls, where The Angels have lost someone who looks “so fucking good” (again - Sparks).
The same comic vanity can be seen in How do I get to Carnegie Hall: “Technical facility, old world sensibility” - an apt description of the band themselves. It reminds me of Simon Helberg’s character from Annette, who describes himself as “the one with the technical expertise”. Both pianists have similar aspirations and trajectories: “One day I’ll lead orchestras near and far, every bar will bear my own signature” and we later see this achieved as the accompanist becomes the conductor, just as “Practice man, practice” leads to chants of “Bravo!”.
It’s about being worthy while referencing performance, just like (When do I get to sing) My Way, Pulling Rabbits out a Hat, Lighten Up, Morrissey, As I sit down and play the organ, Edith Piaf (said it better than me), You used to laugh, Stravinsky’s only hit, The Ghost of Liberace and more. The whole of Sparks’ catalogue can be defined by unlikely thematic similarities between songs.
We feel every step of the pianist’s journey, with the impossibly fast arpeggio never relenting, and his hard work eventually pays off:
“They loved it, they showed it
The audience was deafening
I was ready, I was ready
The critics all said, "riveting””
But there’s a mystery to this song:
“On the Steinway, on the Steinway
I guess it doesn't mean a thing
Still there is no sign of you,
Still there is no sign of you”
That last line haunts the pianist throughout, from when he’s practising in isolation right up to the grand performance at the end. He seems to have achieved all of his desires, and yet the words are still there - it ends still asking how to get to Carnegie Hall and still there’s no sign of you. So no sign of what? He has an audience, he has critical acclaim, so what’s missing? It could be an unimpressed romantic interest (which works for Pulling Rabbit out of a Hat in the same way) but there's a meta explanation.
The key line for me is “I guess it doesn’t mean a thing”, which I take to mean Carnegie Hall itself. The dream concert isn’t important - the relentless practice is what matters. It’s setting a future goal to serve as motivation or a driving force, and maybe by the end of the song the pianist has sights on a yet more prestigious venue.
Nobody can deny that Ron and Russel Mael are two of the hardest working artists around, having not stopped in five decades, and this song plays out that work ethic. It can also explain how they’ve managed to keep their drive for so much longer than others - by always setting themselves more distant goals.
The next song, What Are All These Bands So Angry About fits this narrative, with a similar theme of an artist wanting prestige, and hints of future plans to serve as motivation.
So what do Beethoven, Coltrane and Lady Day have in common with Wagner, Tatum and Howlin’ Wolf? How about this? Creative longevity - their late periods all have work that's counted amongst the true greats.
Lady Sings The Blues came when Billie Holiday was in her 40s, as did The Genius of Art Tatum. John Coltrane was releasing innovative work right up until his untimely death at 41. Howlin' Wolf recorded many of his best-known songs in his 50s. Wagner's later work, considered to be masterpieces, introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process and operatic structure. And finally, Beethoven's 9th, his final and most famous symphony, came at 54 years old.
So what’s this got to do with bands being angry? Consider it the tongue-in-cheek viewpoint of Sparks themselves. They mockingly bemoan the angry hitmakers of the day, like The Prodigy or Korn, who had “stolen our spotlight, Ray” and “bounced us from centre stage”. They acknowledge the futility of competing on these band’s terms: “Hey everybody, what can we do? Crank it up just a notch or two?”. That’s exactly what they’d just done with Balls. cranking up to a more aggressive sound better suited to bands 25 years younger. It didn’t get them any closer to the top because “our profane ain’t profane enough” - it’s not the right style for softly spoken men in their 50s.
It can easily be read as i commenting on their own misfire, but I don’t see it that way, after all, Balls was a great album. It too had a song about an ageing “performer” with More than a sex machine, so maybe it wasn’t as much of a blind spot as it appears:
“I made my reputation, then, when it was expected.
Now, there’s a new equation, who wouldn’t feel dejected?”
The big question is what Sparks mean when they say “some might have done it… broken on through”. To have topped the charts? Be recognised as legends? Whatever it is, “some might have done it.. but not today” - they’re saying that even Beethoven at 50 would have struggled in the charts against Limp Bizkit in the early 2000s!
Whether tongue-in-cheek or with utter conviction, Sparks are placing themselves right beside these musical greats (after all they do admit to being “a little vain” in Annette). But if age is a factor in all this, then consider the album title: LITTLE Beethoven, as in the child genius who published his first work at 12. Despite its classical leanings, this album isn’t their 9th Symphony, it’s Beethoven at the start. Think of it like this: 19 albums in, at the same advanced age as these other artists, they’re telling us that this IS NOT late-period Sparks. The next 20 years of output proved that correct.
This idea resonates in the context of Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. That album starts with “You need another element… right away” which turns out to be a saxophone. “I thought of you, and how you blew ‘till you were blue” is likely to be a reference to Charlie Parker, who had severe depression. He had long-held ambitions to create a new genre fused with classical music, which is similar to what Sparks are doing here on Lil Beethoven. It ends with a skit that says “instead of the usual drums and bass, he heard senseless violins”, a perfect segue into The Rhythm Thief. This can mean that 2002’s reinvention was conceived as early as 1994! In A Meta Guide to Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins and A Meta Guide to Balls I detail the many ways in which these albums look towards their reinvention. They first record a pop album to resuscitate their career, then record a harder dance album to escape their restrictive record contract. While both are great works, they serve as stepping stones to their true ambition. It worked as a driving force in the same way as the lure of Carnegie Hall, and by titling it Little Beethoven they’re setting future goals way beyond this album.
There’s a comic narcissism present in every song mentioned so far, and this is crowned with I Married Myself. It’s a classic Ron title, calling to mind both Falling in love with myself again and I Married a Martian. This celebration of independence fits the end of their previous record deal - they’ve divorced the label and have married themselves - reinforcing the idea that “you’ll never get it back” is a taunt to the music industry.
The Sparks Brothers documentary has a segment for each album, and for the first half of the movie we follow the brothers hopping genre, switching scene and often leaving their audience behind them. For Lil Beethoven that changes - we see them at home for the first time, working away in Russell’s studio and surrounded by all comforts. It’s here that they explain how this was the first time they were able to work completely independently. I Married Myself is a pure expression of that.
Many Sparks songs take on a deeper meaning if you consider their home to represent their creative freedom, and that’s true of the “long, long walks, on the beach” described here. It’s preceded by 1994’s Let’s go surfing, where the main character is living somewhere bleak while dreaming of the Californian coastline. In A meta guide to GSASV I make the case that this song is looking ahead to this creative freedom - "turn around and drop into a wave we hope will never end".
This is also true of the line "Candle-lit dinners home", with the concept of home already a big feature of the album, most notably on My Baby’s Taking Me Home. This loops the title line for its duration, with the music shifting context around it. This is similar to the melodic repeat structures pioneered by Igor Stravinsky. The mood of the song makes me think of them arriving back in California, free of their past, unburdened, and knowing what they’re about to create in the recording studio.
"As we walk through the morning rain
And the skies are clearing
And the streets are glistening
Streets named for New England trees"
This sounds like the other half of The Calm Before the Storm. Its chorus is talking about “something that will change your tune” (signalling Lil Beethoven). The verses describe streets filled with quiet tension, and those lyrics sit perfectly opposite My Baby’s Taking Me Home. This is the calm after the storm, and the skies have cleared. It goes from “everybody’s talk is monotone and everybody’s look is monochrome” to “a rainbow forms, but we’re both colourblind”.
Colourblindness is also a callback to Balls, being referenced on Scheherazade, possibly referring to the greyed-out world of Sparks limited by record company politics. They sing “We can hear what others can’t hear..”, which relates to 1994’s When I kiss you (I hear Charlie Parker Playing) - "You never know it, I never show it, only I hear it, only I know it". In A Meta Guide to GSASV I make the case that this song is about keeping their true intentions (of making LB) a secret from the label.
I Married Myself and My baby’s taking me home are the perfect expressions of creative freedom, both in structure and subject matter. The metaphor of home as Ron’s songwriting headspace comes up lots after this - Hippopotamus, Strange Animal, Dick Around, Lawnmower, Scandinavian Design and Pacific Standard Time all fit this mould.
The biggest moment of the album is the final line of Russell’s spoken monologue - “we can hear what others can’t hear, we can hear the sound of a chorus singing”. Cue the sound of a chorus singing. The synchronicity between the songwriting and actions of the band is there again.
Ride ‘em cowboy is full of ups turning into downs: “I swam, I sank, top seed, unranked”. It’s not hard to tie this back to Sparks given their rollercoaster career, frequently going from hit singles to commercial flops.
“Ride ‘em cowboy, ride ‘em,
I got thrown again,
Ride ‘em cowboy, ride ‘em
Get back on again”
It references this verse from More than a sex machine. It’s about a male gigolo who feels demeaned by performing cheap entertainment, wanting instead to be appreciated for his intellect.
“Oh, what a time
That's what you said
You never asked
Are you well-read
You never sought a sensitive side
All that you said was, "ride, baby, ride."”
It can be read as Sparks addressing the record label (their paymasters - like the woman in the song). They’d been railroaded into chasing hits instead of making something high-brow, so to “ride baby, ride“ is the constant fight to keep control of their own career. To “get thrown again” and “get back on again” is a destructive cycle, and thankfully it ends with Lil Beethoven.
The good-to-bad theme of Ride ‘em cowboy makes a comeback shortly after on side two. Your Call Is Very Important To Us is a more positive spin on a similar idea. It goes “Green, green light, red light” - in other words, it’s two steps forward and one step back, which is much better than the constant falling and remounting seen earlier.
The green lights are progress, and there’s a sense of that over much of the album, on The Rhythm Thief, Carnegie Hall, I Married Myself and My Baby’s Taking Me Home. All of these represent the creative steps forward taken by the band. The red light is a setback, and that too is a recurring theme, also seen on What Are All These Bands So Angry About, Ride ‘Em Cowboy and the next track, Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls.
This song has the narrator sarcastically dismantle all possible explanations for how an ugly man would attract such a fine woman, leaving to one conclusion: He’s rich and she’s a gold-digger (the inverse of La Dolce Vita). It works as being meta if you follow a rule that all romantic interests in Sparks’ songs represent their creative muse. She’s out of reach, so how to get the girl?
It’s not money she’s seeking, this is about “the appeal to her of things”. In terms of the band and their career, this could mean accolades. Think of what they achieved following this album- remixes, orchestral shows, playing 21 albums in their entirety, stripping down for bare-bones shows, a radio play, joining another band, a feature-length documentary and their own movie. These are the marks of an extraordinary band that could be considered alongside Beethoven, Coltrane or Lady Day.
Sparks are setting themselves a more distant goal, just as they did by calling forward to LB on GSASV and Balls. It’s the same as the pianist reaching Carnegie Hall only to realise that he’s not at the end of his journey. It also matches the album title, positioning themselves alongside the young Beethoven rather than the man who wrote his 9th symphony decades later.
It gives a new meaning to Your call is very important to us - after all, red lights eventually turn green and call centre operators get back on the line. The message here is “please hold”, so to wait or show patience. They’ve set themselves lofty targets knowing these won’t be achieved by the next album (or next 6 albums for that matter), and this is yet another long recurring theme in the lyrics. Here Kitty best exemplifies this, featuring a fireman who rescues cats from trees, winning sexual favours from their grateful owners. He shows extreme patience, beckoning each cat forward with a soft mantra of “here kitty”. Later he rescues a tiger from a high pole in a burning circus, earning the affection of the beautiful tiger-tamer. So patience reaps rewards and this scales up to new heights.
This is a new ideology for the band, and we see it play out in the albums that follow. Until now their career has been defined by constant reinvention - always seeking a new sound and image, but from here everything they do follows naturally on from its predecessor. There are no sharp left turns into new sonic territory or image changes, rather it’s a slow build to Annette and beyond, quietly racking up the accolades.
It can be seen in Rock Rock Rock, where they beg the audience for patience, promising that the best is yet to come. They characterise this period as a “soft passage”, as in a quiet section, knowing that a loud rocking finale is in the making. In (Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country they set their sights on the distance: “Countries, planets, stars. Galaxies so far. Don’t let freedom fade. Baby, let’s invade”.
The closing song, Suburban Homeboy, is a great put-down of middle-class white men appropriating black culture, and they’re making fun of themselves a little. Ron famously collects Air Jordan shoes, has curated a Motown compilation, praised Spike Lee movies and loves hip-hop. He is the suburban homeboy.
Thematically, it’s comparable to non-album track The Legend of Lil Beethoven. Here the title character is explained to have the perfect genetic mix of musical genius and street credibility, a combination of Sparks’ own traits (with musical genius already a big theme). Maybe they’re dwelling on street cred to underline that they’re not moving away from pop music despite having the freedom to choose a more prestigious genre.
The Suburban Homeboy sings “we’ve got an old school mentality, an Oxford and Cambridge mentality”, which brings to mind the “old world sensibility” of Carnegie Hall. It points back to a time when music was academic, where famous composers would conduct experiments to push music theory forward. It often centred around meaning in music, and this is the area in which Sparks excel. There’s a reason that they cite Stravinsky as an influence.
All songs on Lil Beethoven are about either progress, setbacks or both. The exception being this closing track. It’s set at home in California (again, representing their creative freedom). This is where they’ll work for the next 20 years quietly achieving many accolades. It reflects a change we see in the band - they’ll no longer seek out new music scenes in far-off territories. It’s a song that gives a sense of them being settled. But being home doesn’t mean they’re not at work: “Props to your peeps and please keep your receipts” - This is something done when claiming back work expenses on tax filings, so it’s a job.
The same theme opens the follow-up album Hello Young Lovers, on Dick Around. It has big parallels to Lil Beethoven as a whole, covering the same themes of progress, setback, home and work. It stars a high-flying CEO, and the opening verse shows the same work ethic as Carnegie Hall’s pianist:
“Overtime, more overtime,
I'm conscientious by design
To reach the heights of academe,
To be the captain of the team,
To CEO a thousand who
Will do the things I say to do
And I will make a lot of bread
And you will find me good in bed”
Then we get the setback. He’s dumped. His lover has left him, sapping him of all motivation, and so he quits his job. It’s good-to-bad, as in Ride ‘em Cowboy and Your Call Is Very Important To Us. He’s rich: “A parking place, a new Corvette, a manicure, a private jet”, making this the inverse of Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls. He has all the “things” she could ask for.
He spends his days wasting time in the garden (so home yet again). But he knows how much work is ahead of him, just as Sparks do: “I’ve got so much to do, gotta pick things up, gotta see things through”.
It’s perhaps the best example of the romantic interest representing their muse, and how they win her back will set their future direction. This time it’s her that rekindles the relationship in a late-night call:
“Take me, take me, take me back
I loved the way you scratch my back”
But he’s reluctant:
“Well, there is something you should know
We might not be simpatico”
It’s expressing concern that the relationship won’t work because he’s changed, but it doesn’t matter. She says:
"I don’t care what you do, dick around, I will too."
"I don’t care what you do, I’ll dick around next to you."
Their muse stays home with them. It’s a neat summation of what they achieved on Lil Beethoven and what they'll develop on Hello Young Lovers. Having worked hard and seized control of their career, they returned home and pondered whats next. Their songwriting previously drew from the scene they were infiltrating, or record industry frustrations, so achieving creative freedom could have been the happy ending that crowned their story: “oh no, this movie said “the end””. Instead, they used 'Lil Beethoven' to start afresh with their muse, and of course, "this time it's gonna last forever".
My claim is that this album is far more intricately plotted than most realise. It's a masterpiece, but Sparks knew it wouldn't be recognised as such, and made that the concept behind the album!
Thank you to anybody who made it this far. I still have so much more to write, with each album from GSAASV (at least) forming a single narrative that takes us to the present day. Over the coming months I'll continue to lay out the story as I see it, and I encourage others to view these songs through the same lens. There is always something more to find in Sparks' music.
Paul Barrett, September 2022.