'When do I get to sing "My Way"?' - How SPARKS created a career-spanning myth from a 90s pop-record
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
Sparks' 1994 comeback single 'When do I get to sing "My Way"' wasn't a hugely successful record, but it deserves a place in history as one of the most bizarre and wonderful meta stories in pop music. It drew inspiration from their own challenges, changed their fortune and then lay the foundation for a myth that Sparks are still building today, 26-years later.
Unfamiliar to all but Sparks fans and Germans, '.."My Way"' peaked at #32 in the UK chart and fared little better internationally. The song was instantly catchy and beautifully crafted, but despite this, its lack of success should have come as no surprise.
Back then, anybody would have thought that Sparks were at the tail end of a career in decline. They'd experienced success with a handful of minor hits plus one big one, but it'd been fifteen years since they were last seen as a credible force.
With a catalogue of story-filled songs delivered in character, there was no reason to think anything else of this one. Ron and Russell Mael do overly-dramatic hilarity like no other, but that humour has worked against them in the credibility stakes. How often does Bob Dylan make you laugh out loud? When does a comedy ever win the Best Picture Oscar? We should all know that real songs are serious (and the comedy moustache didn't help either).
The high-drama of this song doesn't naturally lend itself to a personal interpretation, but it's easy to read this as a desperate story of where Sparks were in the early nineties. It was a time when pop music aged very quickly, and there was something undignified about any band that stuck around too long after their big hit. Most in this position would have an air of desperation about them, and trying to convince the world of their relevance would have been a challenge.
On it’s surface, When do I get to sing “My Way”? is about wanting fame, a well-trodden subject in music, but here it's from the perspective of a star whose best days are behind them. The verses reveal the problems that this diminishing fame has brought, so what they want isn’t more fame, but more respect.
Everybody loves a story about a self-important minor celebrity with ideas above their station, and in the opening verse they flip that scenario:
“No use in lecturing them, or in threatening them,
they will just say who are you?”
I imagine this as a minor altercation backstage at a TV show while promoting one of their unsuccessful albums, or maybe trying to convince the door staff at a showbiz party that their name is supposed to be on the guest list. Usually you think of a famous person as holding the power, but in this case any reasonable defence makes makes the star look self-important and arrogant.
“Is that a question or not?"
So does the other person even know who they are, or are they being mocked as a has-been or self-important? The “plot is predictable, not new” because they’ve been treated this way before, but even so he is “stunned at the things (he does)” when he reacts badly and falls into a familiar trap, appearing like a prima-donna.
The second verse is about rejection, something that they would now be used to following dropped record deals and cancelled tours.
“No use in taking their time
or in wasting two dimes
on a call to god knows who”.
So many doors would now be closed to them - it must have been frustrating and maybe even humiliating.
“When all you feel is the rain
and it's hard to be vain when no person looks at you,
so just be gracious and wait in the queue”.
This is the kind of line that only Ron Mael could write. He wants to be vain! He deserves it! If only the rest of the world agreed.
“So when do I get to sing "My Way",
when do I get to feel like Sinatra felt?
When do I get to sing “My Way”?
In heaven or hell?”
There are several ways to interpret this chorus. The most obvious is that they’re yearning to be noticed, and there’s also a double entendre about singing your way, in your own voice.
But it might not be a question of whether they’ll get to sing “My Way”, but when. This way it's not yearning, but complete self-belief. It would look delusional if we weren’t already convinced of how good Sparks are. They’ve lived a life on their own terms, just like Frank did, and they’ve earned the right to sing those words. The question is whether they’ll be singing it in heaven or hell - as winners or losers.
“So when do I get to do it "My Way",
when do I get to feel like Sid Vicious felt?”
Sinatra is establishment, Sid Vicious is counter-culture and Sparks are somehow both. They’re pop and underground at the same time, but weren’t really accepted by either. Too pop for the cool kids, too cerebral for the pop kids. In a slightly different world Sparks could have been huge in either camp.
The third verse describes how it doesn’t take an argument or rejection to beat him down. Even a friendly encounter can have its effects:
“Yes, it's a tradition they say,
like a bright Christmas Day
and traditions must go on.
And though I say, "yes I see", no I really don't see,
is my smiley face still on?”
A tradition is when something is done for the sake of it, not something relevant or fresh. They meet somebody who loved ‘this town ain't big enough for both of us’ or ‘number one song in heaven’, who doesn’t know anything else before or since, but thinks it’s great that they’re still going. They're giving an autograph through gritted teeth.
“Sign your name with an X, mow the lawn”.
This line of the song crosses us into their home life, maybe referenced recently on 2020's Lawnmower. But first they drop into a moment of fantasy.
“They'll introduce me, hello, hello
Women seduce me and champagne flows
Then the lights go low
There's only one song I know”
There is a strong parallel to 2020 song One for the ages here.
It's about an anonymous office worker who is writing his great novel.
“When the statues come, I hope they look like me,
when the prizes come, I will look to be,
humble in my speech, basking in applause...”.
I don’t think that this is a coincidence. In ‘One for the ages’ I like to hope that the author will really make it. If so then he’s at peace with himself:
“....Soon the backlash comes,
I don’t care because
...It's one for the ages”
In 2020 Sparks have proven themselves. They’ve crossed the line as one of the greats, albeit as a cult band. Prior to 1994, things weren’t so great:
“There, this home which once was serene,
now is home to the screams
and to flying plates and shoes”
This speaks for itself. If it really is tied to ‘Lawnmower’ then maybe it explains why the girl from Andover is leaving.
“But I have no souvenirs of these crackerjack years,
not a moment I could choose,
And not one offer that I could refuse”
The end of the song should have been the end of the story. Years of work with little to show wouldn't endear them to a record label, so they'd need to prove themselves. They did this by writing this song, which was good enough for Logic Records to spend heavily on promotion and remixes. They changed their own destiny and started a new chapter.
The record didn't sell, but that didn't matter. The sold-out concerts and critical praise meant that Sparks had an audience again. They’d had two big moments in the UK spotlight. This earned them a third, which isn't something that happens by accident. It was the first clear sign to the world that these two could be more than also-rans.
In 'When do I get to sing "My Way"', Ron Mael wrote about the change he wanted to make for himself, and then executed it in real-life. I can't think of anything to parallel that, it's completely unique. And while that's remarkable in itself, Sparks didn't just chalk this down to history, they built on the concept.
Their next album of original work was Balls (2000), coming after a re-recorded greatest hits made to appease the label. Their new work had a harder electronic sound, influenced by The Prodigy but falling well short sonically, and again it was a flop. But across many songs they told a story - their own. Hidden in the subtext were references to being misunderstood by their label, but these weren't complaints, they were a justification.
Lyrically on 'Balls' they set out a plan to crash out of their record deal and redefine the whole purpose of Sparks, and then they execute it two years later on Lil' Beethoven (2002). The two albums couldn't be more different (despite both being quintessentially Sparks), dropping all commercial aspirations and focussing on making great art. But lyrically the songs on both draw from the brothers' journey to creative freedom.
Unbelievably, this story has been driving their work right up to this day and has informed everything that they've produced, including 2020's acclaimed A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. Earlier songs take on a new light with new releases, and they both reflect and drive forward change in the band. It's far too big a story to tell here, which is why I've started this blog. Theres A LOT to unravel and I'd welcome any contributions.
To get started read the blog here.
One final strange thing, on release they were positioned as elder statesmen of synth-pop, maybe near the tail-end of their career. “My Way” is an end-of-career song, but who knew that they weren’t even halfway through? Maybe they would have retired much earlier had this song and album not got them noticed again.