SPARKS: Why Stravinsky? - Part Two
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
In my last post I suggested that Sparks may be attempting to further the work of Stravinsky and other great composers, but for what reason?
It started with a recalibration coming at a point where they didn't feel in control of their own career. When they signed a record deal for 'Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins' their label mates were artists like 'Snap!' and 'Dr. Alban' - straightforward, uncomplicated pop music.
1994's 'Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins' would have been bittersweet for the band. They saw an audience return for the first time and gained new fans and critical praise. But when the record didn't sell in the numbers expected, the label didn't know what to do with them, and so pushed them in a commercial direction, going against the Mael's instincts.
It was time to stop chasing chart positions. In the 90s music scene even "Beethoven, Coltraine and Lady Day" (all of whom produced great work late into their career) would have lost out to Limp Bizkit in sales. Sparks had to transcend that.
Rather than reinventing themselves, they built on what they already had. In 'Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat' they'd sung about a magician who performed impossible feats to uninterested audience, and for Sparks, years of diminishing success followed.
That changed with 'When do I get to sing "My Way", their song about a passed-it singer wanting another chance to prove his worth. It was parallel to their lowly position in the music world, and the success gained from writing that song granted the wish they'd made within it.
Whether by accident or design, this trick was the basis for what's been driving their career forward ever since and on 'Balls' they perform the same trick, but bigger. Here they make the whole album a wish for creative freedom, which we see come true on Lil' Beethoven. The opening track says "you can wait for saviours, dealing out their favours, you can wait and wait". They weren't going to wait, they were going to crash themselves out of their record deal. That takes Balls.
More than a sex machine targets their label - "oh what a ride, that's what you said, you never asked, are you well read?". They clearly want to go in a more sophisticated direction but are being held back. In other parts of the album the bigger story is more hidden (such as their journey to Russia on the 'Aeroflot'), but it can be seen in almost every song, and then again on 'Lil' Beethoven'.
It's telling that there's virtually no hint on Balls of the orchestration and layered vocals that followed just two years later. Only on The Calm Before The Storm do these two styles meet. where the bridge of the song also serves as a bridge between albums.
I go into more detail about these two albums here and here.
By the time of 'Hello Young Lovers,' the brothers had achieved their goal. They had creative freedom, a devoted audience and critical acclaim. But none of this make makes for a good story, or to put it in Ron's words: "oh no, this movie said "The End"".
This is from 'Dick Around', It's about a CEO who loses his lover, bringing on a crisis of confidence. Without motivation, he retreats to the garden (another recurring metaphor) and contemplates his situation. For Sparks the happy ending expressed in 'Suburban homeboy' had passed, but their story couldn't be over: "This is more an afterlife." They
set a new target, an even more audacious one.
The CEO finally gets a call from his lover - another chance to continue the story. But things have changed - they're no longer "simpatico".
This doesn't matter: "I'll dick around, next to you". It's now an open relationship. Since 'Balls,' all songs would further the narrative, but from here they would have affairs with different subject matter, sleeping around to improve their skills. The larger story would be a constant presence throughout the coming years, but this phase of their career would now be about preparation.
If they could grant their own wishes for recognition and creative freedom, then why not try a third time? Their new goal was to create no less than a masterpiece: 'One for the Ages'. It would need years of effort. They set themselves a distant target and went about honing their craft, building a body of work where each song held layer over layer of meaning. A great example is 'As I sit down to play the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral'.
On its surface, it's a neat circular story where the organist wakes each day and goes to play at the service. He whips the congregation into a spiritual frenzy with his music, but God gets the credit despite his remarkable performance. But this doesn't matter to him because his only aim is to get noticed by a tourist, each night seducing a new girl from foreign shores. His music is aimed only at her.
Within this song, the music played by the organist is understood differently by the tourist as to the congregation. It's a song whose second meaning is about a song with a second meaning! Also, their approach of imbuing meaning has been kept to themselves, so we are the congregation and "the message is lost on us". If that sounds like they're poking fun, also consider "I can't believe that you would fall for all the crap in this song".
The presence of the overall story lurks over several songs, quite prominently in 'Tell me Mrs. Lincoln aside from that how was the play'.
Like 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall,' it plays out on an old joke in song. Her husband has been shot, so why would the First Lady care about the performance? The focus is in the wrong place, just as we're being misdirected. They sing about "always the subtext, never the text" and "what lies underneath it all?". Along similar lines, see 'Unaware' and 'Probably nothing'.
As well as their albums, their research included a musical, jingles, remixes, covers and a collaboration (which they knew wouldn't work, as they can only do all of this by themselves). Even the 21x21 series of live concerts makes more sense in this context. Part of their training for greatness was to play every note of their career.
Then in 2018 they release 'Check Out Time 11am'.
This calls back to 'Dick Around', where this research period began. The CEO had entered into an open relationship, and 12 years later this was "the end of our affair". There was to be no more sleeping around with other subject matter, it was time to further the Sparks story. “It’s time to start, don’t reminisce, it’s time to start, paralysis”.
Like all of their work since 2000, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is drenched in meaning and references back to themselves. The album has a sense of finality to it, particularly in the first and last songs, both sincere and direct (unlike most of their work) and from the perspective of someone older. But the story is clearly not over.
Every song is self-referential. 'Ona Matapia' is about someone whose voice delights everyone but nobody understands what she is saying.'Self-effecing' is a good way to describe anybody who has done all this work without telling the world. 'Left out in the cold' is a metaphor for all the bands who enjoyed success based on work pioneered by Sparks. They don't mind though, because someday they'll "have another shot".
Even 'Lawnmower' ties in, if you're willing to believe that "sign your name with and x / mow the lawn" and "the subtle feel of garden tools" were placed into '..My Way' and Dick Around' with intent.
Like 'When do I get to sing "My Way"' and 'Balls', there are songs that feel like they're pushing the main story forward - making another wish which we'll see granted on future projects. In 'One for the Ages', an anonymous office worker is ready to prove his genius, and nobody suspects a thing.
In 'Nothing Travels Faster than the Speed of Light,' they are about to prove that the title of the song is untrue - they are at the "physics" forum with Stravinsky, ready to show their "marvellous breakthrough that creates a show". The brothers are working to a "clear grand design".
There's a prominent moment in 'I'm Toast' where they sing "What does it all mean?".
Over the decades Sparks have infused more meaning into their music than even the great composers who first defined these rules. It's a monumental achievement which they are about to cap, and I can't wait to see how the story ends. They've kept their cards close to their chest until now, with a steady drip, drip, drip of clues, and lots more will come to light when the curtain is pulled back in Edgar Wright's upcoming documentary.
What they've achieved is a feat that can't be topped and will elevate them to legendary status. It's academic and artful without ever losing sight of the entertainment. People have always sought meaning in music and here Sparks have redefined what that can mean. It makes other classic songwriters look two-dimensional in comparison. I feel that my favourite cult band are about to become one of the Greats, and I can't wait to share them with the rest of the world.
There's lots more that I haven't spoken about, and I'd encourage everybody to listen again and read through these lyrics. I've found it so rewarding to find new things in these songs that I thought I knew so well.
Thank you to Ron and Russell Mael for their phenomenal work.