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  • Writer's picturePaul Barrett

What does it all mean? Part Two - Lil' Beethoven

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Part one of 'What does it all mean' can be found here.

People think of Lil Beethoven (2002) as the start of a new era for Sparks, but the divide between old and new isn't nearly as precise as it seems, with Balls (2000) playing just as big a part of the story. Despite it's radically different sound this is the same narrative but from the other side of the jump. In Balls they set out a plan and in Lil Beethoven they execute it.

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” heralding their departure from commercial dance music. “You‘ll never get it back” isn’t just about the beats, they’re talking to the music industry. Sparks are free and will never relinquish creative control.

On the surface How do I get to Carnegie Hall is a story about a pianist who puts in enough practice to play the great venue. "Practice man, practice". It’s an old joke built up to operatic proportions, but there are also parallels to their own recent history in there.

“Technical Facility,

old-world sensibility,

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 few bought it.

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, their record didn’t chart:

“I guess it doesn't mean a thing

Still there is no sign of you”

The pianist eventually plays his concerts to a cheering crowd, yet the song closes with a repeat of “still there is no sign of you”. 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 tell the most about where they see themselves.

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 them 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 Sparks 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 is correct). 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 classic artists have something in common. They all found success early but produced some of their greatest work in later life. 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 they’re now very happy together.

Ride ‘em cowboy is about their diminishing success. We all know about Sparks’ long battle with popularity, shining bright before falling off the map.

“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."”

So that’s Side A. The first of Scheherazade’s stories is complete, so it’s time to start telling a new one.

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.  While the lyric is romantic, it’s also talking about the band. The Sparks project is the Mael Brothers’ baby, and it’s brought them to a happy place.

"As we walk through the morning rain

And the skies are clearing

And the streets are glistening

Streets named for new england trees"

This feels like The Mael Brothers emerging wide-eyed into their new musical world for the first time. It gives me the feeling of 'The calm after the Storm', remember how grey things looked back then.

"The dogs are letting postmen come and go

The muscle cars are driving way too slow

And everybody's talk is monotone

And everybody's look is monochrome

And everybody's flight has been postponed

The loudest sound's a dial tone"

They're still a little colourblind after their label experience, but this will fade.

"A rainbow forms

But we're both colorblind

But we can hear what others can't hear

We can hear the sound of a chorus singing"

Colourblindness is also mentioned in Schezherazade, in which they sing about their songwriting:

"Ships at sea, all imagined

Bravery, all imagined

Bloodless blood, colorblindness

Scheherazade, you're behind this"

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.

"Ugly guys with beautiful girls

You always know what the story is

Beautiful girls with ugly guys

What do they take us for anyway?"

I'm still searching for hidden depths in Ugly guys with beautiful girls, but there's plenty on the surface here. I wouldn't be surprised if it's drawn from the music industy, they will have been around lots of Harvey Weinstein types over the years.

I have a half-baked theory that they're appropriating styles from Stravinsky's career, in this case an opera, maybe there's a musicologist reading who can shed some light? It certainly heightens the normal world, a rageful telling of a minor irritation. But you've got to question whether it is minor to them. Maybe a Mael Brother really did lose a girl to an ugly millionaire - these last two albums now appear more bedded in the real world than previously thought so it's a possiiblity.

"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.

I hope I've helped some of you enjoy these great songs in a new way. The story continues in Part Three.

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