A Meta Guide to Lil' Beethoven by Sparks [first draft]
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
Most people see 'Lil Beethoven' as a concept, but only in terms of sound and attitude. The songs on this album appear to unrelated to any bigger picture, but in this post I'm setting out to prove this isn't the case. All of the songs can be united under a single banner - creative freedom and what that means to Sparks.
Edgar Wright’s excellent documentary ’The Sparks Brothers’ has a moment of pure catharsis. Having been shown 30+ years where they switch from style-to-style (and leaving their audience behind them so many times), we’re invited into Russell’s home recording studio. It’ marks a new era for Sparks where they have complete creative freedom. Lil Beethoven (2002) was the first album they delivered with no oversight from a record label and no pressure to seek out new fans. This situation Is the concept that underpins the whole album.
They open with The Rhythm Thief, which serves as a manifesto for their new classically-influenced sound; it’s calls of “where did the the groove go?” and “lights out, Ibiza” announce their departure from dance music that defined their 90s sound. “You’ll never get it back” sounds gleeeful, because it’s aimed at the music industry. They don’t only say goodbye to the beat, they also say auf wiedersehen, a reference to the German record labels that they‘d worked with most recently. It works as a follow on to ‘The Angels’, the closing song on previous album ‘Balls’, where someone who looks “so fucking good“ is leaving, much to the dismay of those who oversee him.
On the surface How do I get to Carnegie Hall? is a story about a pianist who puts in enough hard work to play the great venue. "Practice man, practice". It’s an old joke built up to operatic proportions, but there are also parallels if you consider Sparks to be talking about their own work here:
all of this I did for you
still there is no sign of you”
So while it’s about the pianist on his journey to greatness, it could also apply to Sparks’ close-to-successful comeback with When do I get to sing “My Way”. They’d crafted a perfect pop song with all the technical facility and old-world sensibility that anyone could ask for, and yet it only cracked the Top 10 in Germany and The Netherlands.
All the signs had been positive when they arrived back in London in 1994, playing to a rapturous audience for the first time in years, much to their own surprise and delight. The “Bravo!” section applies as much to Sparks as it does to the fictional pianist.
“They loved it, they showed it
The audience was deafening
I was ready, I was ready
The critics all said “riveting””
But despite rave reviews and sold out gigs, the record only just scraped into the Top 40 in the UK, and did nothing in the other countries where they’d had previous success.
“I guess it doesn't mean a thing
Still there is no sign of you”
Like at the London concerts, the pianist eventually plays to an adoring crowd, yet the song closes with a repeat of “still there is no sign of you” coming after the ’Bravo’ section. This closing lament actually fits the Sparks story more neatly than the Pianist’s story.
What are all these bands so angry about is where they address the music industry directly, rather than metaphorically.
Hey everybody, what do you say
Someone's stolen our spotlight, Ray
Hey everybody, what do you say
What are all these bands so angry about?
They sing that "someone has bounced us from centre stage", referencing the bands that were outselling them at the time, getting the hit records that Sparks deserved. It then spells out what they did when Gratuitous Sax and Plagarism failed to sell. They modernised their sound:
“Hey everybody, what can we do?
Crank it up just a notch or two?”
They crank up their music. Balls was inspired by The Prodigy, but sonically they just couldn’t compete with bands who were 20 years younger. It was a misfire (or maybe by design if my last post holds water). They know that copying new styles isn’t the way to greatness, so instead they look to the classics:
“Some might have done it, but not today
Beethoven, Coltrane, or Lady Day
Some might have done it, broken on through
Wagner, Tatum, or Howlin' Wolf”
Each of these artists have something in common. They all found success early but produced some of their greatest work in later life. For example,Billie Holiday’s ‘Lady sings the blues’ came twenty-six years into her career (and was followed by a live recording from Carnegie Hall). Art Tatum recorded 14 LPs of acclaimed music twenty-six years after starting.
If 'When do I get to sing “My Way”' had been a success then they would've qualified to join this list of greats.
The funniest thing here is that R&R don’t see this as their own failings - they don’t place themselves behind these people. “Some might have done it.... but not today”. They compare themselves to the greats and conclude that even Wagner couldn’t beat Limp Bizkit in today's charts!
I married myself calls back Kimono my house track Falling in love with myself again. The album was released on their own Lil’ Beethoven Records, it was the first time that they weren’t answerable to a label, also the first time they didn’t have one eye on the pop charts. Following the divorce from the record label they married themselves, and “this time it’s gonna last”.
Ride ‘em cowboy is about their career battles. It’s the cycle of shining bright before falling off the map and starting again.
“Ride ‘em cowboy, ride ‘em,
I got thrown again,
Ride ‘em cowboy, ride ‘em
Get back on again
They experienced these failures a few times, and they always got back on that horse, but this song is most closely linked to their most recent fall. It references this verse from More than a sex machine, which also runs from good to bad, just like "they laughed with me, then laughed at me".
“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."”
My baby’s taking me home loops a single 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’. It’s chorus is talking about “something that will change your tune” (signalling ‘Lil Beethoven’). The verses describe streets filled with quiet tension, and those lyrics site perfectly beside ‘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”.
“We can hear what others can’t hear” calls back to 1994’s ‘When I kiss you (I hear Charlie Parker Playing)’, which is about hiding their plans from the record label: “You’ll never know it, I’ll never show it, only I hear it, only I know it”.
Your call's very important to us takes us takes another leaf from Stravinsky's book. He would theorise about the symbolical analogue, where the real world is ordered and heightened within music. The double meaning of "green, green light, red light" as a romantic rebuttal is nice, and it also calls back When do I get to sing "My Way" and Balls, which both reference blocked telephone calls and the music industry.
The point it’s making about taking two steps forward and one back must apply to Sparks at this point, having achieved their long sought goal of achieving creative freedom. It’s possible that the ”red light” that’s stopping them from progressing can be found on the next song.
"Ugly guys with beautiful girls
You always know what the story is
Beautiful girls with ugly guys
What do they take us for anyway?"
Ugly guys with beautiful girls has narrator venting his rage at losing a girl to someone undeserving of her. By now, you may be onboard with the idea that every song tells us something about how Sparks are pushing their art forward. Well, consider the beautiful girls to be their muse - something I consider true of all love interests in their songs from here on.
It’s setting out a problem. How to be deserving of the girl? “The need, for her, of things”. If this is ground zero for the next two decades then consider the “things” that Sparks have since claimed - radio plays, unplugged, with orchestras, joining a new band, playing the entire back catalogue and making a movie. Consider this the seed for that whole story - Sparks working to earn the right to be considered amongst the greats and excel in every area.
"She yo yo's me and I yo yo her back
And I'm a suburban homeboy"
Suburban Homeboy serves as a great putdown to any middle-aged man who feign a hip-hop lifestyle, but maybe it's not just poking fun at others. Ron famously has a collection of Air Jordan shoes and enjoys hip-hop, and this era of Sparks is very much centred on their returning home. It's a vibe thats stayed with them right up to 2020's Lawnmower.
Most of the song puts a sensible middle-class life into a world of cool cultural references. The chorus says more:
“We’ve got an old school mentality - an Oxford and Cambridge mentality”
This hints at their academic approach to music - like Beethoven and Stravinsky pushing music theory forward.
”Props to your peeps and please keep your receipts”
It’s street slang for “respect to your people” followed by shopping advice. You keep your receipt when working, to claim back your expenses, Looking at it this way, Suburban Homeboy can be about being home and still having work to do, which happens to be a central theme of ‘Dick Around’, the next song to emerge a few years later.
The song’s combination of the cool and old fashioned is something we see again on non-album track The Ballad of Lil’ Beethoven, a short spoken-word song telling the story of the composer having a child with an ear-doctor’s streetwise daughter.
There’s also a reference to Beethoven in ‘What are all these bands so angry about?’, he’s one of the artists that did their greatest work later in life. By casting Beethoven as a child at the time of SPARKS’ own rebirth, are they saying that their best years are still ahead of them?