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  • Writer's picturePaul Barrett

The Secret Behind: Hello Young Lovers by Sparks



Sparks’ Hello Young Lovers (2006) has a subtle yet brilliant concept at its core. It’s full of repetition, with the same phrases being reused in new contexts, but it’s not just in the words - it’s in the stories too. These are characters that do the same thing over-and-over and concepts that are replayed twice or more. 


  • Dick Around is a story about a man who does the same thing “Every day, every day, every day” and “every night, every night, every night” and “as the leaves turn green and the leaves turn brown”.


  • Perfume names his past girlfriends, so repeats relationships alongside the scents they wear.


  • The Very Next Fight is a cycle of violence, with the title showing that another fight is inevitable.


  • (Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country is another cycle of violence. It uses the US National Anthem, based on the Battle of Baltimore, where American troops were out-gunned but stood firm. Then, it repeats the concept, this time as an invading force. It’s about military victory as the underdog, then global superpower, right up to invading “galaxies so far”. Also, the song itself is repeated with an alternative version with different verses.


  • For Rock Rock Rock they say “It’s always the same”, over-and-over. It is a line that could just as easily apply to the story of the former CEO that starts the album, or the organist that ends it. It’s about repeating soft passages, for now, knowing that will change in the future.


  • One of the metaphors in Metaphor is “A remake whose actions are louder than words”.


  • Here Kitty features a fireman who repeatedly wins women’s affections by rescuing their cats from various trees: “I climb the Eucalyptus, bring her kitty back, I climb the Douglas fir and bring her kitty back”. This is a history of short relationships, just like Perfume. It ends by repeating the same scenario on a larger scale, with the cat switched for a tiger stuck on a high wire in a burning circus. The beautiful tiger-tamer promises that “if you save him I will be yours every night”.


  • There’s no such thing as Aliens has the main character “Look out the window every night”.


  • As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral has a circular story, each day starts with the organist waving goodbye to his one-night stand, only to seek out a new tourist girl amongst the afternoon’s congregation. For each performance, he’s upstaged by God “again and again”.


The lyrical themes of repetition and continuation are a perfect match for the structure of the songs themselves, which all use the same phrases over-and-over. Therefore it’s a concept seen in both the subject and execution of these songs, so while the album sounds like ten unrelated stories, they link together in how they’re told.


And then there’s the title. Hello Young Lovers is a song from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical The King and I, which also has themes of repetition and continuation. It’s sung by Anna, who tells of her past love, recalling the romantic time spent with her late husband on a hillside. But now their time has passed, and so she passes the baton to new young couples:


“There are new lovers now on the same silent hill,
Looking on the same blue sea,
And I know Tom and I are a part of them all,
And they’re all a part of Tom and me”

The premise of this song is similar to what we see all over Sparks’ namesake, with Anna recalling the romantic hillside setting of her young love, one which is then repeated down the ages. There’s another verse that stamps its identity all over this Sparks album:


“I know how it feels
To have wings on your heels
And to fly down a street in a trance.
You fly down a street
On the chance that you’ll meet,
And you meet not really by chance”

Notice the clever repetition in “fly down the street” and “you’ll meet/you meet”? As with Ron’s lyrics, it serves the storytelling as much as being aesthetically pleasing. But it goes further than that, talking about a kind of inevitable fate. Throughout Sparks’ Hello Young Lovers are stories where characters achieve something, just by continuing to do the same thing over-and-over.


There’s an interesting explanation for all of this if you run with the theory that I’ve applied many times before - that each song works as an allegory for Sparks’ creative processes and decision-making. Every time their sound or image shifts somewhere new, nuanced concepts within the lyrics can be found to justify this reinvention. These albums explain every counterintuitive decision that’s brought Sparks so far (dating back to at least 1979’s No.1 in Heaven LP).


The lyrics of Hello Young Lovers explains where Sparks were as a band in 2006. Think of it like this: as radical as this album is, it doesn’t reinvent the band’s sound. It has stacked vocals, strings and heavy rock segments that would fit its predecessor, Lil Beethoven. In that sense, they're repeating themselves, using songs that also repeat themselves - please take a moment to process that!


In this post, I’m taking a deep-dive into all of these songs, and the interesting ways that they connect with each other. There’s an overall message on this album that’s much greater than the stories delivered on each seemingly self-contained track.

 

From the outset, the album delivers repetition in both words and story:


“All I do now is dick around,
All I do now is dick around, dick around,
Every day, every day, every day, every day, every day,
Every night, every night, every night,
every night, every night”

Dick Around is about a high-flying CEO who loses all motivation and quits his job after being ditched by his lover. It starts with him at the top of his game:

“Overtime, more overtime, 
I'm conscientious by design
To reach the heights of academe,
To be the captain of the team
To CEO a thousand who
Will do the things I say to do
And I will make a lot of bread
And you will find me good in bed”

It shows a kind of determination to achieve greatness that we see in so much of Sparks’ work (albeit usually relating to a character’s creative endeavours, as opposed to white-collar business). But then his world falls apart when he receives a phone call from his lover, ending their relationship: “Why the hell did she desert you when you were so influential?”. He quits his job, heads home, and wastes day-after-day in the garden.


But this is no standard break-up song. There’s no heartbreak or loneliness, just frustration and rage. Why? It’s because he’s no longer motivated: “I’ve got so much to do, gotta pick things up, gotta see things through”.


But there’s a happy ending. He gets a late-night call from his ex - she wants him back. Despite him worrying they “might not be simpatico” now that he’s not an important businessman, but she vows to stay nonetheless:

“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”

The song ends with “All I do now is dick around”, neatly looping back to the start, but this time the repeated "every day" is happier because he’s now dicking around with his lover. He hasn't done anything different, but his lady friend is back with him, so they can dick around together.


While this sounds a million miles from the story of Sparks, it can work as a metaphor for where they found themselves in 2006. Despite the tension in the song, a garden is a really comfortable and stress-free setting, and I’d argue that this was the most comfortable point in the band’s career to date. As they explain in The Sparks Brothers documentary, they'd proven themselves artistically with Lil Beethoven, had a devoted fanbase and could work with complete freedom in Russell’s home studio. They’d stopped chasing music scenes in far-off territories and were free of record label control.


At 58 and 61 respectively, Russel and Ron could have retired and taken up gardening themselves, with Lil Beethoven as the crowning glory of their forty-year pop career - what other band would have the drive to improve on that? So the song can also be about retirement, in which case, the protagonist’s frustration at not getting anything done because he’s enjoying a bit of gardening speaks volumes. And so having the girl (or their muse) come back into his life is a statement that their inspiration hasn’t left them. There’s no such thing as creative decline for Ron and Russell Mael, even after decades on top of their game. 


I consider Dick Around to be about Sparks finding a way to keep their drive while their peers all turn into legacy acts. The same logic fits every song on the album, with many clues to their creative ambitions.

 

The repetition continues with Perfume, from someone who lists his former lovers by the scent they wear, suggesting a history of short affairs. This too features a character doing the same thing over-and-over, just like Dick Around, and both end with a long-term commitment: “That’s why I want to spend my life with you”. It’s all very romantic, but if you put love to one side then there’s a clear message: “Screw the past!”. What this means is open to interpretation, but interestingly, the first three songs on the album all look back. In Dick Around they sing “Think about the recent past, the cynics said “too good to last””, then on the next track the character decides that he’s okay with his past.


The Very Next Fight is about repeating mistakes, from someone with a history of altercations with the men who eye-up his girlfriend. The title suggests that he’s in a cycle, just like these other songs, knowing that the same thing will happen again.

But this time he comes to a realisation:

“Blood on the floor of some posh restaurant
Deep down I'm sure this is what you want
And what you want, is what I want
What you want is what I want”

He’s either suppressing his jealousy or revelling in it, whichever it is that makes her happy. Either way, it’s another character making a commitment to his lover, for the third song in a row. They’re looking back to define a way forward. What his muse wants is “blood on the floor of some posh restaurant”. It’s not some dive-bar, where violence is the norm. Its a place where you’re expected to behave a certain way. It could be symbolic of how their career has been a fight against the status quo, never choosing to fit in despite so many opportunities for easy success. Putting themselves in difficult situations is what they do - ditching the UK band, inventing then abandoning the synth-duo format, and so many other counterintuitive moves. The fight is what drives them, and on the next song we see that the very next fight is one they can win.

 

(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country is about seducing the girl, played out in terms of global warfare. It follows on from 1975’s Reinforcements because both songs deal with relationships using military language, first as an out-flanked infantryman on the front line, and now as the US army exerting dominance over a foreign state. Read into that what you will! 


The verses are lifted verbatim from the US National Anthem. The words to the Star-Spangled Banner were written by Francis Scott Key, based on the time he'd served as a lawyer negotiating for the release of American prisoners during the Battle of Baltimore (1812). He was held captive overnight because he knew the British battle plans, and so watched Baltimore’s last line of defence be attacked from onboard a Royal Navy boat. If the US endured the battering then the flag would still be flying, and so Key spent a long night listening to the battle, unable to see the flag in the darkness. But then by the dawn’s early light, he sees that it's still flying.


In Sparks’ version of the anthem, they don’t only survive the bombardment, they add “one more thing”: complete world domination. This army will conquer “countries, planets, stars, galaxies so far”. It’s victory on two different scales, which is another form of repetition, and also a continuation of the violence of The Very Next Fight. Yet again they’re engaging in precision songwriting, so what are they trying to say? The Battle of Baltimore is akin to Sparks' own hard-fought career, and by now placing themselves in the position of a global superpower, they’re showing supreme confidence in their own future - “Baby, let’s invade!”.


This interpretation makes it sound like the band are determined to take over the world as if they’re poised for big commercial success, but they recorded alternative lyrics for (Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country in which the invasion is put on hold, setting a more distant target instead. This is a song that they do twice, so it’s more repetition. In the second version, the lead character’s love interest is the Head of State of the country he plans to invade:


“I need the enjoyment of rapid deployment,
I need a decision,
I’m waiting for “Move ‘em out””

Nobody writes about seduction like Ron Mael, but it can be about the pursuit of creative greatness, rather than sex (or war for that matter). The verses are full of simple questions as if they’re probing their muse to find out what she wants (after all, what she wants is what they want).


“I wait for your answer, but while I’m waiting, 
I may as well ask you what’s your favourite colour?
I wait for your answer, but while I’m waiting, 
I may as well ask you what’s your favourite song?
I wait for your answer, but while I’m waiting, 
I may as well ask you who’s your favourite Beatle?”

The questions that get more nuanced as the song progresses:


 “Who’s your favourite Beatle? 
Has it always been Ringo? 
The least outspoken,
the apolitical one?”

“Least outspoken” fits one of Sparks' most-fascinating traits - they've never cashed in on their rich legacy. Think about the 21x21 shows - their next major project after this album. Here they faithfully performed all of their albums (plus b-sides) during a London residency, all in the original key and tempo with faithful arrangements. It was a phenomenal feat which no other band could equal, and they even included a catchy song recorded to mark the occasion. Yet they did little to promote the song or shows. Anyone else would have the box set in the shops by Christmas, but not Sparks. It was the perfect chance to shine a spotlight on their rich and unique legacy, and yet they chose not to.


So instead of invading her country, the war is called off: “Your ladyship, your statesmanship has killed our hip relationship”. The ‘statesmanship’ represents the dignity in not cashing in, doing nothing to highlight their unique selling point of ‘genius band who are always in the shadows’. They’re writing their own story, and for it to resonate they need to stay as underdogs for now. In time they’ll conquer “countries, planets, stars, galaxies so far”, but not yet, and that’s the theme of the next song.

 

‘Rock Rock Rock’ is a promise that Sparks will deliver something truly great, but for now we must show patience. 


"Soft passages, they get you into trouble"

A passage is something you move through, leading to something more significant. In music it's a short section of the bigger piece, so why would this get you into trouble? They spell it out:

“A lack of passion, a lack of commitment,
A lack of feeling, a lack of fervour,
A lack of decisiveness”

It’s the risk that the audience will lose interest because they don’t know that the Sparks story is leading somewhere even bigger, hence the repeated pleas of “don’t leave me”. In terms of their career, this point could be a soft passage as it continues the existing sound of the band, rather than reinventing it and surprising the audience. The production style of Rock Rock Rock is a repeat of The Rhythm Thief, with near identical instrumentation (strings, piano, part spoken, timpani drums and even the same distinctive gated “ah-ah” sample of Russell’s voice). This underlines the fear in the song that people will grow bored by them doing the same thing, not knowing that in time they’ll conquer “countries, planets, stars, galaxies so far”.


They promise that if we stick with them they’ll rock like motherfuckers, but we’re only told this “since you put a gun to my head”, so it’s with reluctance. It’s something they’re doing in secret.

 

Metaphor is about using clever language to pick up girls, and these girls are themselves metaphors for songs. If they “use them wisely, use them well” then they’ll “never know the hell of loneliness” (with a melodramatic delivery acting as a direct response to the “don’t leave me, don’t leave me” pleading of the last track). In the context of Rock Rock Rock, this is about how they’ll achieve the long-term greatness described on the previous tracks - with great skill and care.


All of the metaphors listed in the song can be applied to what the band are doing. A diamond ring is a symbol of love and commitment, which reminds me of “That’s why I wanna spend my life with you” and “I don’t care what you do, I’ll dick around, next to you”. It’s the start of better things, as is the first day of summer, a breath of fresh air, a turn-on, an aphrodisiac. 


Sparks have many songs about popularity, and even more about places, so “a popular place” is already a frequently deployed metaphor. “A multiplex showing” has many stories in a shared place, and all Sparks songs are different stories in the same place. “A remake who’s action is louder than words” sounds like a bad movie, but it plays on “action speaks louder than words”, which is a good thing and applies to Sparks’ pioneering spirit. Having the movie be a remake calls back to the repetition seen all over the album.

 

Waterproof is about being unaffected by the misery of rain. It symbolises a couple’s argument in which he’s gloriously indifferent to her attempts at emotional manipulation: 


“I see you crying, but I’m not buying your Meryl Streep mimicry, 
it’s misdirected, your voice inflected for maximum sympathy”. 

Take human relationships out of the equation and it fits the narrative that I’ve laid out. Sparks have set a long-term target of achieving greatness, so short-term recognition just isn’t important. They don’t need to chase the spotlight, so it’s easy to resist the urge to sell-out in any way, therefore the pressures that would usually affect a band of their stature (such as critical acclaim and chart positions) no longer matter: “the barometric pressure is irrelevant to me”.


It’s the only song to not feature repetition, but it still connects in a deep way to Rogers & Hammerstein’s Hello Young Lovers:


“There are new lovers now on the same silent hill,
Looking on the same blue sea,
And I know Tom and I are a part of them all,
And they’re all a part of Tom and me”

It’s a bittersweet image: a woman declares that true love endures despite her time having passed. Sparks take this situation somewhere new:


Niagara Falls
Romantic getaway for lovers of all creeds
They're all agreed, impressive indeed
Till the Falls stall before me

They stop time, as if their time will never pass, as it did for Anna.


 

Here Kitty is about a fireman who rescues cats from trees, and his heroics are repaid in kind by grateful ladies. Like lots of Sparks songs, it's about sleeping around, so having him gently beckon the cat forward without scaring it and causing it to fall feels like a metaphor for careful seduction. The fireman is then called to a blazing circus. Amid the chaos is a tiger which is stuck up on a tightrope, with the beautiful tiger-tamer calling out for help. Again he comes to the rescue, climbing the pole and saving the day.


It’s about patience reaping great rewards (like Rock Rock Rock), which fits the same interpretation of the band thinking in the long term. It features repetition, first by rescuing cats from various trees, then a tiger from tightropes, scaling up as in “countries, plane, stars”. This shows how they evolve an idea from one thing into another, and say the same thing in two ways. She promises that she’ll “be yours every night”: more repetition plus a long-term commitment, just like songs 1 to 3.

 

In the penultimate track, we’re emphatically told that There’s no such thing as Aliens 


“No, no, no, no
No, no, no, no
There’s no such thing as aliens, no such thing as aliens
No such thing as aliens, no such thing as aliens
No such thing as aliens, no such thing as aliens
No, no, no, no”

But despite this, he’s still on the lookout:


“Look out the door
Look out the window every night”

He’s doing the same thing every night, which is yet another song where repetition is a story element. So, what’s he looking out for? He “looks at his watch”, so is waiting, and also “looks at his TV in despair”. This is Sparks’ second song to feature both aliens and TV, with 1983’s A Fun Bunch of Guys From Outer Space saying the following:

“On our TVs in the sky, your re-runs come in fine”

That song also works from the perspective of songwriters. They say “On the planet where we're from War is even fun”, and this is true for Sparks, who write fun songs about war, like Reinforcements. They’re here “to infiltrate and get a tan”, which is a metaphor for breaking into the pop scene (based on a ton of other songs that use suntans and living in the cold in a similar way). So, by watching re-runs they’re absorbing popular culture that they can take as their own. By revisiting this idea in 2006, saying that aliens don’t exist, they could mean that they have no interest in copying or joining the mainstream pop culture of the day. It’s an end to the genre hopping that was saw up until Lil Beethoven.

 

The album closes with As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral, in which the protagonist plays an epic performance at each afternoon service. The congregation is moved by the music, but gives all the credit to God. However, the organist's motivation isn't spiritual or religious, instead, he's reaching out to find his next one-night stand. Every day he finds a beautiful tourist who's moved by his music, seduces her, then moves on to the next.


The cyclical structure of this story is perhaps the strongest example of repetition appearing in both story and lyrics, but it goes much further. Sparks have a gift for revisiting certain tropes, and this song includes several: One night stands, performance, dialogue with god, foreign women, drinking, songs-about-songs, Paris and audiences each come up numerous times in their back-catalogue (incidentally, five of those tropes also appear in Good Morning, which opens the next album). 


So every day the organist performs with the audience having no idea what the true intent of the music. They think it’s divine inspiration, but “the message is lost on them”. We, as an audience, haven’t noticed that Sparks’ music has a purpose. They tell us again-and-again that we’re missing the point, from the crowd at the Gettysburg Address whipping out their iPhones, to Mrs Lincoln being asked how she enjoyed the play, via their disbelief at us falling for all the crap they put into this song. 


This isn’t a new topic for Sparks. They named a whole album after it, with Pulling Rabbits out of a Hat. A magician performs actual miracles, raising the Titanic and turning water to wine, but these are received as simple tricks - “all I get is polite applause”. Back in 1984, this story expressed frustration and sadness, but when retold from the organist’s perspective it’s sheer joy.. Every day he wins. It “doesn’t matter that he’s upstaged” because he gets the girl then gets to do it all over again. This is an expression of how good it feels to be a Mael brother in 2006, with infinite inspiration to tap into.

Finally the album cover: what better symbol of religion than a rabbit? Plus we could also be seeing what happens when Sparks continue to pull rabbits out of the hat, performing their hidden miracles year after year.


So what’s the purpose of Sparks that we’re all unaware of? In my view, this: to drive Ron and Russell to ever greater heights by challenging themselves to meet seemingly impossible artistic goals. These songs are about songwriting, performance, setbacks and achievements, and they don’t just tell the story of Sparks, they propel it to ever greater heights. This is why Sparks have a creative streak that runs over decades.




Thanks for reading. As ever, there’s a lot more to come and I can’t wait to share more of these ideas with you. 


Please comment, like and share far and wide.


Paul Barrett, 2023



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