SPARKS: Why Stravinsky?
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Stravinsky’s Only Hit tells a wild tale in which composer Igor Stravinsky makes a foray into pop music. He strikes big with a grammy-winning smash and hits the party scene. But, in a drunken stupor, he fears for his reputation so returns to the classical world. Despite the song’s success, it’s not accepted as one of his greats. It’s only pop-music after all.
It’s not hard to see parallels with Ron and Russell here. Sparks are unashamedly pop. It’s in their DNA. But this makes them easy to dismiss - serious musicians don’t crack jokes in their songs, and serious musicians don’t have comedy moustaches.
It could be a complaint about their perceived lack of credibility, but I don’t think that’s the case. Sparks could have taken an easier path for themselves. They could have followed trends instead of inventing them, they could have produced songs that at least tried to feign sincerity instead of claiming that they’re Micky Mouse. But they didn’t, because that wouldn’t be Sparks.
It makes more sense to think about this song as a celebration of commitment to their vision. At the start they sing about helping Stravinsky to turn his ideas into pop, recommending minor thirds and writing his lyrics. This mirrors their process of making their music fit the remit of Sparks.
There are rules to what constitutes a Sparks song. They don’t have extended solos or long introductions (only My Other Voice comes to mind). Even when they tackle jazz or classical, it sounds like Sparks, and not only because of Russell’s distinctive voice.
It doesn’t just fall out of Ron’s head this way: It’s crafted. This is a process that’s also described in Strange Animal, where Ron fights to imbue that Sparks essence into an otherwise normal song.
Here he pits two musical ideas against each other and layers in meaning on top of meaning. The “Blood on his Hands” is from an otherwise abandoned song about drugged up “government men”. Both lyrics and music show a songwriting journey through inspiration (“and right on cue a bolt of lightning”), perspiration (“if I may be quite frank and I’m not pulling rank”) and then the efforts to make it catchy (as they did for Stravinsky).
Finally they question the whole purpose of the song before throwing it away - all except the chorus (“that can stay, here’s the end”). Maybe it makes its way into a new song. Possibly even this song.
The stand out line for me is "Entertainment or art - One should know from the start". They've moved much closer to art in the second half of their career without becoming any less entertaining.
So why Stravinsky? It’s partly referencing the orchestral hit sound that’s been sampled extensively in pop since the 1980s. There’s also a geographical link from Stravinsky’s years residing in Los Angeles, but it might not end there.
Stravinsky has lots in common with Sparks. He is known for the changing face of his compositional style while maintaining a distinctive, essential identity - what better way of describing Sparks’ work? He would place a motif into different guises throughout a composition (as in "My baby's taking me home"). He was fascinated with ordering and heightening the ingredients of the actual world (see "At first she said, your call is very important to us"). He presented new concepts in music..
There can be little doubt of Stravinsky’s influence on Sparks, and since they collaborated with him on his only hit, they could see themselves alongside him, maybe even furthering his work, and this work went way beyond making music as entertainment.
Stravinsky was an academic - a music theorist. He would develop technical innovations and discuss them at length in publications, even lecturing at Harvard. In these, he went beyond time signatures and scales and looked at meaning in music. He studied how and why music can both influence and reflect human emotion, and what meaning you could take from or put into music.
It’s reasonable to believe that Sparks are taking an academic approach to their music, too. How many of their songs come to mind that are open to many interpretations? I believe that this is by design. They’re layering meaning into their music and across songs sometimes years apart. As an example, 'Strange Animal' and 'Stravinsky’s Only Hit' are both songs about songs, so let’s look at more:
No.1 Song in Heaven
Music that you can dance to
Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than me)
When do I get to sing “My Way”?
As I sit down to play the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral
Collaborations don’t work
How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
I can’t believe that you would fall for all the crap in this song
It’s a knockoff
Rock Rock Rock
This list won’t end with the music that explicitly mentions a song; we know how much Sparks love a metaphor (and incidentally, Metaphor is about writing songs too). So which other songs could plausibly be related to the journey and ambitions of a songwriter and performer?
Pulling Rabbits out a Hat
One for the Ages
The Rhythm Thief
Left Out in the Cold
More Than a Sex Machine
Nothing Travels Faster Than the Speed of Light
The Calm Before The Storm
The Ghost of Liberace
What Are All These Bands So Angry About?
The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman
My Other Voice
If 'Strange Animal' and 'Stravinsky’s Only Hit' tell us about the efforts taken by Ron and Russell to imbue meaning and forge it into a pop song, then the common themes across their work won’t always have been plucked from the ether - they’ll have been put there with intent.
When you look at the songs from this perspective you start to see new meanings. Take Hippopotamus. Each of the outlandish things in the swimming pool are ideas brewing in Ron’s mind during composition - his mind pool. He pulls these together in the closing verse as a neat summary of his songwriting efforts: 'Isn’t it grand?'
A lot of their work is about their own relationship with music, but that’s part of a bigger story: Their own. At key points they both reflect and drive forward the Sparks story. If that sounds far fetched then consider the song 'Schezerazade'.
'She is a character from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. The story goes that the monarch Shahryar found out one day that his first wife was unfaithful to him. He decided to marry a new virgin each day as well as behead the previous day's wife, so that she would not have the opportunity to be unfaithful to him.
Against her father's wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the king. She told a story over the course of the long night. The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by and Scheherazade stopped in the middle. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was no time, as dawn was breaking. So, the king spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. The following night, Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, more exciting tale, which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. Again, the king spared her life for one more day so she could finish the second story. This went on for one thousand and one nights, until the King fell in love with her.'*
The story of Schezherazade is made-up of several half-told tales, scattered into smaller pieces. More than just the subject of this song alone, it could serve as a driving force: it's a promise to begin a story that will be furthered in their future work. The closing line: "Scheherazade, I won't kill you".
This isn't its first appearance in music. Russian art drew heavily from the East, and in 1888 it was the basis of a symphonic suite by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He too was an academic and served as private tutor and champion to a young Igor Stravinsky. His Scheherazade is considered his greatest work, and it had a strong influence on Stravinsky's Petrouchka.
This story was an early example of a framing device as it tied together the tales of the Arabian Nights. In songs about thieves and movie directors Sparks are writing the tales that she tells the King, but there is a larger story being told, and one that can only be made sense of since the release of 'A Steady drip, drip, drip' .
For the last few weeks I've been unravelling all of this, and I have no doubt that they've been concealing a wonderfully ambitious story in their music for a very long time. This will be told better by the Mael Brothers themselves in upcoming projects, but if you're interested, then my next post does try to lay it out.
Thanks for reading.