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  • Writer's picturePaul Barrett

SPARKS: a meta guide to ‘Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins’

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

It’s my theory that Ron and Russell Mael make intricately-plotted concept albums in which the concept is a closely guarded secret. They work in allegories, each song with a second meaning that says something about Sparks. In this post, I look at each track on 1994’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins in the context of the band at that moment in their history - commercially off-the-map but with unrivalled self-belief and ambition. There're recurring themes across these songs that show clear parallels to where they were as a band at that time, and also to where they were heading.

By the early 1990s it looked to the world like Sparks were a spent force. Their last few albums had been career lows, capped with five years lost to the abandoned Mai the psychic girl movie project. They’d been out of the spotlight, and with Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins they sought to turn that around. So many of the songs are about outsiders wanting in - examining whatever power is at their disposal.

(When do I get to sing) My Way [lyrics] is about wanting fame, with hints that it’s the perspective of a minor celebrity whose star has faded. He gets no traction when calling record labels, has his ongoing career compared to a tradition (i.e. from the past) but still signs autographs with an “x”. He knows he deserves better - to be recognised for doing it his way, just like Sinatra and Sid Vicious.

The band’s unjust reputation is also seen in The Ghost of Liberace [lyrics], about the man who was once the highest-paid entertainer in the world but became something of a joke as his act became outdated and appeared cheesy. The song makes the case that Liberace is still great even when out of step with the times. The people make fun of him and try to put him down, representing the critical reception of Sparks’ fallow years, but then they start to applaud. Crowd reactions are a critical recurring theme in their music (not least on the bridge of When do I get to sing My Way) and here it’s used to show the brothers’ firm belief that they’ll soon regain recognition.

The 90s era for Sparks started with National Crime Awareness Week [lyrics] is a one-off single done in collaboration with Scottish dance act Finitribe. The lyrics are ostensibly about a vicious criminal who adores the notoriety when his photo-fit appears in the media, but it also matches the band’s status as outsiders, looking to the world like one-hit-wonders who are deluded enough to think they have another chance: “you honour me, I feel unique, it’s National Crime Awareness Week“. These sneering, sarcastic lyrics are defiantly proud of what others see as crimes. The song ends with a description of the scene from Psycho where Janet Leigh is viciously murdered (the music mimics the high-pitched stabbing violins from the movie). It’s the epitome of gratuitous sex and senseless violence, the phrase that inspired the title of the album that followed. It goes “Every time you shower, are you waiting for the music? The curtain turning back? The water turning red?”. It’s joking about Sparks looking like a horror show, but they get the last word: “Don’t blame that on me, I ain’t no Tony Perkins. I’m saner than you are. I know that for a fact”.

The title National Crime Awareness Week can be seen to comment that this song isn’t the start of a comeback campaign - these criminals are seen on TV and quickly forgotten. It matches that this was a low-profile release with little promotion. The purpose here wasn’t to set the charts on fire or re-launch Sparks, but to develop a contemporary sound alongside younger producers: “This is a case of passion over reason. This is a case where your shoes don’t need a shine. Gimme some space, man, to practice my profession. I’ve got the ace, man, and what is yours is mine”. It was a practice run, aquiring Finitribe’s production techniques to use on their planned comeback: “Maybe next year I’ll break my streak”.

Being on the periphery of fame is further explored on I thought I told you to wait in the car [lyrics], featuring a man whose mega-star girlfriend won’t be seen with him. He eventually gives up waiting outside and enters the party, representing Sparks returning to the fold. He finds his girl with Warren Beatty (who was known for many high-profile flings with beautiful stars), but there’s another comparison that qualifies him as a rival: Beatty was an elder statesman, still making high-grossing movies and winning awards. Sparks too positioned themselves as elder-statesmen, with a promotion campaign showing them as the respected innovators who spawned Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. So like the protagonist in the song, Sparks are stepping back into the spotlight, and adopting a narrative that shows them as worthy of attention. They’re now the kind of band you hear on the radio, but the rest of the album shows that their ambitions go well beyond just chart success.

Opening song Gratuitous Sax [lyrics] is a short acapella skit in the style of Propaganda. They sing that they “need another element... right away”, and this new element turns out to be a saxophone. It’s a reference to Jazz-pioneer Charlie Parker. He’s already a big presence on this album, and he suffered from severe depression (hence “.. and how you blew ‘till you were blue”) He can also be linked forward to the closing song on the album: Senseless Violins [lyrics].

A longstanding desire of Parker's was to perform with a string section. He was a keen student of classical music, and contemporaries reported he was most interested in the music and formal innovations of Igor Stravinsky and longed to engage in a project akin to what later became known as Third Stream, a new kind of music, incorporating both jazz and classical elements as opposed to merely incorporating a string section into performance of jazz standards.

So like Charlie Parker, Sparks are taking a journey from Sax to Violins, representing their desire to forge a new approach to music. The album ends with the words “instead of the usual drums and bass he heard... Senseless Violins”. That works as a neat segue into Lil Beethoven, or at least it could have if they hadn’t been co-opted into re-recording the hits for Plagarism. Interestingly, that album also starts with epic strings and stacked operatic vocals with their remake of Pulling Rabbits out of a hat.

If correct, that means that their reinvention in 2002 was actually planned to happen in 1997, but the record company threw a spanner in the works. It also raises questions about Balls, which doubled down on the drums and bass rather than ditching them. That album also appears to be victim to record company politics, but that’s another story.

When I kiss you, I hear Charlie Parker playing describes the journey that Sparks are taking, first to re-establish themselves in the music industry and then break free to reinvent themselves. They have a plan that they won’t waver from, and this is about the gamesmanship of negotiating with the label. The protagonist wishes he “was a bird that’s migratory”, punning on Parker’s “Bird” nickname. The “illegal substances” and “hour with no kisses” represent the sleazy offers from the industry. “Though I am tempted, they are pre-empted” says that Sparks won’t take the bait. “You and your rosary are exempted, from criminality” is about keeping their vision or songs to themselves. “Still there is a duality” because they’re singing about two things at once. “You’ll never know it, I’ll never show it, only I hear it, only I know it” is about the secret they’re keeping. “What's apropos for me, may for thee be blasphemy” shows that the band’s goals are different to those of the label execs. But ultimately, in all this conflict there is still a huge swell of creativity, and so “the hills are alive with the sound of music”.

They compare their own music to the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.: “The finest of material, a little asymmetrical” - a great description of their music. “Bigger than Fuji” is how they describe their goals, and it’s a theme that comes back on Bullet Train and So desu ne. But it’s not plain sailing, as described using “rebel advances and labour disputes, somebody’s shot and somebody shoots”.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn [lyrics] appears to be a break-up song paraphrasing Rhett Butler from Gone with the wind. It isn’t the first time that Sparks have written about this movie. 1976’s Big Beat features the movie from the perspective of a stunt actor paid to fall down the stairs dressed a Vivian Leigh:

“Gone with the wind - there's a lot to be said for it

But I don't know just what

We didn't catch the plot

…all I did was bruise a lot”

It takes a different meaning if you consider both songs to be set outside of the movie, and look to what happened behind the scenes. It was a troubled production with many rewrites, recasting of key roles weeks into production, one director fired, another replaced due to exhaustion. The stories behind the making of this movie have inspired books and plays, and this song can be considered the same way - Sparks are producing an epic akin to Gone with the Wind and this is a story about the effort that's required to make it happen.

In this case, Scarlett O’Hara can be interpreted as being their muse - this perspective can be applied to every love interest in a song from the second half of their career. It then becomes about the challenges of working in this strict meta way that I’m describing. Here are the words of a songwriter with complete control over his creations: "If I wanted to I could remove all thoughts of him from your head - like this, like this". This act is as simple as Ron shutting the lid on his piano.

It seemingly ends by terminating the relationship. “I know where I’m going now… out”, but for my interpretation to stand, this would mean Ron giving up songwriting. I read it as symbolic of a fresh start. They sing “building are burning to the left of us, buildings are burning to the right of us, those fires are out now”. The epic burning of Atlanta scenes were the first things shot for the movie, weeks before Vivian Leigh had even been cast. They destroyed giant sets from previous movies - the gates from King Kong are seen at one point - and built the new set on top. When Russell sings “those fires are out now”, it’s setting the song in the position where a classic movie is about to be built on the ashes of past greats. This is exactly what Sparks are setting out to achieve by positioning themselves as the inventors of the synth-pop sound that dominated the charts.

Now That I Own The BBC (lyrics) is about a man in a panic after he unexpectedly wins the British Broadcasting Corporation in an auction. It's a metaphor for having the media power of a successful record label at their disposal and wondering what to do with it. They were newly signed to Logic Records, a label that had recent worldwide hits with Snap, Dr Alban and Haddaway. These acts were all over radio and MTV in Europe, and Sparks were about to get this same treatment. It was a far cry from their previous record label, which refused to even pay for a music video. They now had power at their disposal and this song represents how they should use it: “Hey Rupert Murdoch help me out, I’m flying blind, I’m flying blind. Show me the way to lay things out, for the refined and unrefined”. This is describing how Sparks write music that can appeal to the masses without compromising the underlying message.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil (lyrics) is delivered by three powerful female figures, starting with First Lady Hillary Clinton. She knows about her husband’s infidelity, but turns a blind eye, knowing that it could hinder her own quest for power. Interestingly, this pre-dates both the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House. The next verse, from Madam Mao, is similar. She’s aware that her husband sleeps with teens but keeps it a secret.

This can also be a song about Sparks’ toying with the record label, using corporate resources to get their career back in line but planning to step away from straight pop music at the earliest opportunity. The line "you don't know my thinking, who I dream of, all the gifts that I bring" is saying that they have something that the record label is unaware of. It ties up with "you'll never know it, I'll never show it, only I hear it, only I know it" from When I kiss you. They’re both about holding a secret. You'd typically expect women who are victims of infidelity to be in a weak and vulnerable position, but these characters hold power. The record labels "come and go" and as the Maels get older and wiser the people they work with are "still in their teens". “Following the Tao to the extreme” is about their way of working. Tao translates to path or route, and Sparks' music is always a step towards achieving their next grand ambition.

The final verse is from Cleopatra as she seduces Mark Antony in a further quest for power. This could be akin to Sparks seducing the record label in order to obtain commercial success, but only as a stepping stone to something greater. By signing Sparks their label has "bitten off more than they can chew".

Tsui Hark (lyrics) features the Hong Kong film director listing his many movies, predicting their future collaboration on 1998 movie Knockoff. They later repeat this move by featuring Leos Carax’s on When you’re a French Director ahead of Annette. They look forward on other songs too.

Album closer Senseless Violins foreshadows the missing drums and bass of Lil Beethoven, and penultimate song, Lets go surfing (lyrics), also ties in. Lyrically it’s a lot like California Dreaming by The Mammas and The Pappas, about being somewhere grey and boring (“a room only Dickens could love, wearing moth-eaten sweaters and gloves”) while dreaming of sun and surf in a better place. Given Ron and Russell love the beaches, this could be about going home.

As we saw in The Sparks Brothers documentary, 2002’s reinvention is closely tied to their working at Russell’s home studio, free of record company constraints. This creative freedom is the subject of the album (as I wrote about here), and is expressed as their arrival in My baby’s taking me home.

This plays opposite to the final verse in (When do I get to sing) My Way, where they sing “this home that once was serene now is home to the screams, and to flying plates and shoes”. Consider that they were previously working on Mai the psychic girl in a home studio that could have been considered serene, then the metaphor of a troubled home life could mean that all was not well in terms of their creative freedom when the project collapsed.

Their goal is to leave the constraints of their “land-locked town” and once again take full-control of their art: “Grab our boards from the back of the van, paddle out ‘till we can’t see the sand, turn around and drop into a wave we hope will never end”. This creative wave is one they caught in 2002’s Lil Beethoven and rode all the way to Annette and beyond.

All of the concepts that I’ve described here can be brought together, so when their early nineties output is played in sequence it reads as a journey from a band who were commercially nowhere to a band poised to raise their art to the next level. This is how they work on every project, with each album predicting the next. Balls tells how they crash out of their record deal, Lil Beethoven celebrates their freedom, and Hello Young Lovers sets an ambitious goal that they achieve with Annette.

It's my view that all Sparks music should be reappraised, even by those that know their work intimately. Each song can be treated as a puzzle to be cracked, giving fascinating insights into their creative goals, challenges and achievements. If you pull at this thread it unlocks a story that ultimately explains everything they've done, and as far as I'm concerned that's an unparalleled achievement.

Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this, please read more of the blog.

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