Sparks: What does it all mean? Part three - All I do now is dick around
Ron and Russell Mael are not like other musicians. Back in the 90s, already a quarter of a century into their career, they staged a comeback that almost put them back at the forefront of pop music. If Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1994) had been a success we wouldn't have the Sparks that we know today. For most bands in their position this failure would have been defeat, but for Sparks it was something that fuelled their ambition to even greater heights.
Most fans are aware of their 2002 reinvention with Lil Beethoven, but it's only recently that a true picture of the scale of that change has become clear. The DNA of it's predecessor Balls (2000) contains their plans to create something significant. This collection of seemingly self-contained pop songs inhabits the same world as Lil Beethoven, the album where you see them execute everything that promised by its predecessor.
But the purpose was never to make just a pair of twin albums - it was bigger than that. If the pop charts wouldn’t have them then they would aim for something higher. However this wasn’t clear to see at first.
When looking at music their music from 2000-2004, I found almost every song could be linked in some way to the Sparks story. This changed on Hello Young Lovers (2006). In the five albums between here and Hippopotamus (2017) there are only occasional calls back to the world they built on Balls and Lil Beethoven. To make more sense of the reasons why, you need to look to their recent past.
Check out time, 11am, was released with little fanfare in 2018. It’s about a pair of cheating lovers having one final fling in a seedy hotel.
"Likely rates are posted on the door but they're inflated
So you think that you are special for the rates you really pay
Hope there's some deduction for the sadness that's contained
Inside the room that we're vacating and the gloom thats on display"
"People say forever and they think they really mean it
But in fact they just demean it by just saying it, that's all
People stay together for a hundred million reasons
But it only takes one reason to feel very, very small"
Those verses don’t help me to explain anything, but I love and admire them, so included the quote. The real link is the chorus:
"Check out time, 11AM
The end of our affair"
Despite it's daytime setting, there's a sense of the eleventh hour; the end of a long night. It was also the last song released prior to a steady drip, drip, drip, an album in which every song can relate back to the Sparks story in some way as Balls and Lil' Beethoven.
So if this is the 11th hour, and the mantle is about to be picked back up, then what happened back at the start of the night? This brought me back to Hello Young Lovers, where I found a link in opening track Dick Around, which acts as framing device for this entire period of Sparks’ music. Both songs are about about affairs.
Dick Around starts with a break-up.
"Tailored to the maximum,
I send another fax to them,
A parking place, a new Corvette,
A manicure, a private jet,
A stock incentive busting out,
'A phone call, sir',
'Well say I'm out''
'Your lady friend'
'Well put her through'
'Uh listen, dear, I'm through with you'"
"Through with you, through with you, through with you, through with you,
Yes I think I got the point and bang there goes my motivation.
What to do, what to do, what to do, what to do
All that I could think of was 'I'm tendering my resignation'"
This is the story a high-flying CEO who quits his Corporation for the easy life following an unexpected break-up. He’s no longer able to find motivation to continue his work and so idly wastes his time:
"All I do now is dick around
When the sun goes up and the moon comes out
When the leaves are green and the leaves are brown
All I do now is dick around
I’ve got so much to do, gotta pick things up, gotta see things through
My, how the time does fly, gotta wave hello to a passer-by"
He still he “has so much to do”, which ties this back to Ron. In conceiving of what Sparks will be post-Balls, Ron has set himself a monumental task for which he was solely responsible. Delivering this greater plan was comparable to running a giant corporation, but for this he needed inspiration, which had just left him.
"Think about the recent past
The cynics said too good to last
But she could change her mind again
Oh, no, this movie said "The End""
While the CEO is pining for his love and source of motivation, this verse also relates to Sparks’ recent past, and how they so neatly executed their musical concepts. However those years were rich in Sparks-lore that he could tap into and dramatise. Lil’ Beethoven had been a critical success with no sights on the pop charts, which is far too comfortable a place to make a compelling story.
"So I will go about my day
Just dicking round, my métier
And realize that life is change
And furniture to rearrange"
Ron sets about writing (his métier, or occupation) but the movie said “The End” on Suburban Homeboy, and so these new songs lack a purpose to him. He needs to make a change.
"Pull yourself up off the ground
You’ve started liking being down
The persecution feels cool
The subtle feel of garden tools
But what about that other life
‘Cause this is more an afterlife
Seducing you each night and day
You’re never gonna break away"
The "subtle feel of garden tools" is familiar, linking back to “sign your name with an x, mow the lawn” on 1994's When do I get to sing “My Way”, and forward to 2020's Lawnmower. He’s dramatising his frustration at finding purpose in the next Sparks project
"Knowing that from now on what you do is strictly non-essential
Knowing that from now on no one wonders if you’ve got potential"
He can’t bear the idea of the next album being less significant, and Ron’s anger grows in parallel to the CEO, who’s pride has been destroyed by his break-up.
"Why the hell did she desert you when you were so influential?
Why did she desert you when you told her she was so essential?"
But it’s not over for the CEO, she gets back in contact.
"Then I got the late-night call
I really miss you after all
I had a fling and that is all
A stupid fling, then hit the wall
So take me, take me, take me back
I love the way you scratched my back"
All looks to be good. The CEO has his source of motivation back, so presumably Ron has found inspiration, however…
Well, there is something you should know
We might not be simpatico
There are now compatibility issues, but apparently that’s not a problem because...
"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."
It’s an open relationship, and with these lines, Ron sets out exactly what Sparks do up until Check Out Time, 11am, twelve years later. Rather than agonise on making each song further the narrative, Ron sets on producing a larger canvas in which the real story emerges when natural.
Back at the hotel in 2018, we now know that this affair was by consent of his true love, the great sparks story, who is to make a grand return on A steady drip, drip, drip. It’s time for Ron to get to work again, and he's aware of the scale of the task ahead.
"It's time to start, don't reminisce
It's time to start, paralysis"
'Check out time
The end of our affair"
The next post will go into more detail about what Sparks did between 'Lil Beethoven and A steady drip, drip, drip.