SPARKS: The dark side of No.1 In Heaven
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
The Number One Song In Heaven, a two-part single by Sparks in collaboration with Georgio Moroder, was the first time that a rock band had fully embraced disco music. Here was a genre known for trite lyrics, being performed by a band who could write about any subject under the sun, and that concept is subverted within the record itself.
It’s story is deceptively simple. Part one is a celestial performance of God’s own music, and in part two the song descends onto the earth to be heard by millions. But there’s a lot more going on below the surface.
Think of it as having two audiences. The speedy second half is the song being released to the masses, commenting on the commercial nature of dance music (“and in your home it becomes advertisements”). The slow, pure version is set in a nightclub, where all dance hits forge their reputation.
“All of the angels are sheep in the fold of their master” evokes imagery of the dancefloor, with the audience lost in music, guided by the DJ: “They always follow the master and his plan”.
The song is “written (of course) by the mightiest hand”, ie God, ie Ron Mael. But it’s not played by him, leaving that to the Angel Gabriel. Similarly, Sparks didn’t play these songs live, leaving their promotion to DJs.
There’s something else that connects the two songs - they make you think of death. It’s subtle in part one:
“This is the number one song in heaven,
Why do you hear it now you ask?
Maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine,
Maybe you’re closer to here than you care to be”
They’re planting an almost subliminal message into the heads of the audience, hidden amongst the euphoric imagery.
It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in part two:
“If you should die before you awake,
if you should die while crossing the street,
the song that you’ll hear, I guarantee…”.
Here it’s exploiting the short attention span of the radio listeners, moving straight back to upbeat territory in the lyrics. It’s an epic dance song that highlights your own mortality, so is “as loud as a crowd and as soft as a doubt”. It’s written to work on both of these levels simultaneously, and they do it twice.
More than twice in fact. Just 4 months after the release of N1IH they wrote and produced a mini LP for a singer called Noel. Is There More To Life Than Dancing is a criminally overlooked album, and it continues the story. The opening song is set in a nightclub, and she sings “Dancing is dangerous, gently embraces us…”. It sounds gloriously upbeat, but there’s a dark twist: “…then won’t let go ‘till the end of our days”. It reminds you that life is finite, so once again you’re made to think of your own death in a catchy disco song.
It continues. In the next song Noel starts to question her lifestyle: “I think I’ve overdone it, I’ve danced my mind away”. Why? It was something that she heard in the music:
“Last night, I’m on the dance floor,
As I’m beginning to hit my stride,
I heard a voice cutting through the music,
I thought it must have been a kid outside”
Not only is this a reference to hearing a dark message delivered through dance music, but the “kid outside” recalls the glorious payoff of The Number One Song In Heaven: “...and in the streets it becomes children singing”.
All of this is foreshadowed on N1IH in My Other Voice, which says “you think you’re romantic, then I’ll whisper in your ear” suggesting the same kind of controlling, malignant influence that Sparks inject into these songs. It’s packaged in a catchy ear-worm, so “I’ll be all you hear for years and years and years”. This brings to mind Noel’s Dancing Is Dangerous, which “gently embraces us, then won’t let go ‘till the end of our days”.
The expectation for disco was “lyrically weak, but the music’s the thing”, so their target on the dance floor “may be deaf to everything but you won’t be deaf to me”.
It makes sense to think of it in as looking down on a nightclub setting:
“You’re so independent but that’s gonna change real soon,
with my other voice I can destroy this room,
I’ll wrap my voice around you and I’ll drag you everywhere,
My other voice”
Over these five songs they made a huge statement on the power of music, duality of meaning and audience manipulation, then hid it from the world. It’s even there in the album title - not The Number One Song In Heaven like the single. It was No.1 In Heaven, as in nobody, as in what if death really is the end? As with the music, it’s about two things simultaneously: pop music and a subtle reminder of our own mortality.
Thanks for reading. Please explore the rest of the site for more Sparks theories, including lots more on N1IH.
Paul Barrett, 2022