The Secret Behind Sparks’ Terminal Jive. A concept album about having nothing to say
Updated: Mar 4
In 1980, Sparks released an album that's widely considered to be amongst their worst , but as with anything by Ron & Russell Mael, it shouldn’t be written off. Following on from their pioneering disco reinvention for No.1 In Heaven, Terminal Jive appeared to show the band in decline. They claimed that 20 demo songs were rejected by Giorgio Moroder, who then delegated studio duties to assistant producer Harold Faltermeier. Ron even says that he didn’t play keyboards on his own album, which helps paint a picture of a failed project.
But I’m here to make the case that the band weren’t short on ideas, in fact, it’s a kind of irony-laced joke. It’s told in two halves, where all songs on Side 1 are about having nothing to say, and Side 2 plots the future of the band. It might sound unlikely, but it's all there in the lyrics.
Opener When I’m With You (lyrics) is about a guy who’s struck dumb in the presence of a woman, the kind of subtle anxiety we see so often from Ron:
“It’s the break in the song where I should say something special,
But the pressure is on, and I can’t make up nothing special”.
It doesn’t only work as a quirky love song. Think of it as being about the songwriting process. He has so little to say that he can’t even find a rhyme for the word “special”. The verses are deliberately unpoetic too: “I never have a problem when I’m with you, I’m really well adjusted when I’m with you”. It’s expressing a kind of creative block in a brilliantly creative way.
That’s a great joke, and it has a callback. Track 4 is an instrumental version of the same song, coming less than 10 minutes later. Over the years it's been seen as a filler track, more evidence that nobody involved truly cared for Terminal Jive. But they’re rehashing a song about having nothing to say and this time without words. That’s a profound statement disguised as laziness!
Just Because You Love Me (lyrics) opens with “Baby, baby, give it to me, give it to me”, which is strangely generic for a band as verbally dexterous as Sparks. Once again, if you take romance out of the equation then it can be a comment on songwriting, with the repeated question of “is that all I get” expressing disappointment at its own terrible opening lines. It’s using simple lyrics to comment on its own simple lyrics. As with When I’m With You, it works to think of the love interest as Ron’s muse, and she’s not putting out: “Level with me… what should I do when you say no?”. But even with intentionally substandard songwriting it still sounds good - their muse never lets them down. Why? It's “Just because you love me”.
Rock ‘n’ Roll People In A Disco World (lyrics) is a joke about being out-of-touch, which is a vibe they put out around the whole album, and as ever, more is going on. They’ve said all they wanted to with disco (see my posts the dark side of N1IH and a meta guide to N1IH), but can’t go back to a rock-band format. These people “sing A Hard Day’s Night”, which is a thing of the past. They “make a few comebacks”, whereas Sparks reinvent themselves every time. They don’t want to just “sing and play and carry on” like other bands. It’s ruling out a backwards step or they may end up “selling shoes”, as former stars.
They need to find a direction, so on Side 2 they develop on this seemingly simplistic style of songwriting.
Young Girls (lyrics) is creepy as hell, being about a shameless older man who pursues adolescents. Rather than being a product of its times, Ron is aware that it’s morally dubious:
“And they will hold you,
though it might not be tight,
and they will kiss you,
though it might not be right,
because they are young girls”
So why celebrate something that “might not be right”? Well, take sex off your mind and think of it as a song made for young girls, with a simple hook and romantic lyrics. But in brilliantly meta fashion, it also comments on being written for young girls, using “small little words” like “I like their arms”. It has “less of the guile” and the songwriting is kept direct with “don’t analyse”. He likes “their radios” because that’s where Sparks will be played. So, they’re seeking out a new, young audience and figuring out how to write for them.
If you leap ahead to the next album, Whomp That Sucker, it starts with Tips For Teens, which also features adults interfering in the lives of youngsters. Think of it as an analysis of whether it’s appropriate for men in their 30s to be writing songs to appeal to teenagers. That record has wacky humour, about marrying a Martian, having a funny face and willys. It’s aimed down a generation.
Noisy Boys (lyrics) further refines this same idea, defining the juvenile sound that was to come. It starts with imagery typical of songs aimed at the young girls of the last track (a whispering breeze, the sound of rain, candlelight), saying “all of that makes me feel nervous, I know it's part of your life”. It’s as if Ron can’t bear to write the kind of “straight” love song they parodied on Young Girls, but knows a wacky, youth-friendly rock style that would take the band somewhere new:
“But once in a while I just got to be riled
You know it ain't nothin' personal babe
But noisy boys are happy boys
Let it out, let it out, get it crashing”
A perfect definition for Whomp That Sucker era Sparks.
Stereo (lyrics) is about how “good things come from more than just one side”, which can apply to rock vs disco, after all “each of you has other scenes”. The opening verse is about picking a direction:
“Make your choice and that is that
Live with her and don't look back
Easy, simple, tidy, ultra-clean
Not with me, I don't know why”
What should be an “easy” choice is difficult for them. It could be “simple, tidy, ultra-clean” electronic music, but we know they took a far more difficult path. Having just invented a genre that forged the way for Depeche Mode, Human League, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, New Order and so many others, they decided instead to make music exclusively for the ears of LA teenagers.
That brave decision is celebrated on album closer The Greatest Show On Earth (lyrics). He talks about a huge concert watched by half-a-million people, featuring “The Four Tops, Moptops, Boston Pops, and Art Laboe” (all known for straight, commercial pop music). But he turns it down, because to him “the greatest show” is a night inside with his new lover. He’s giving up a huge audience to follow his heart, just like Sparks, so it’s “steady as she goes” to the niche, wacky rock sound of Whomp That Sucker. She “taps her foot to nothing but your heavy breathing”, after three albums driven by metronomic sequencers. But of course, there’s a cost:
“And she's worth it even when you got to push and shove and fight...
..She’s worth it even when you gotta pay a heavy price”.
They defined the biggest sound of the 1980s and walked away from it, and in many ways that must hurt. Hidden in the background of this album is an explanation of that. It’s a thread that starts with Sparks having no inspiration - with nothing left to say via the medium of disco - all expressed with intentionally clumsy lyrics, a world away from the Maels of past albums. By dumbing it down, they unlock the ideas for the fun music they made for American Teens over the next few years.
Terminal Jive is named after the end of disco for Sparks, predicting the upcoming change to their sound. It’s always been seen as thrown together and lacking direction, but song-by-song, it explains why this is end-of-the-line for their Moroder-period.
It was a low point in their career, but all of this makes me wonder if the real-world performance of the album could be as carefully authored as the songs themselves, as a kind of situationist art. Sparks only promoted Terminal Jive in France, where When I’m With You became a smash - it’s easily one of their biggest-selling songs! But they chose not to hop over the channel to the UK and didn’t even release it in the states. All this, despite it having the names of Sparks and Giorgio Moroder attached, and some seriously catchy and radio-friendly pop music. Could it be that they didn't want to find a big audience?
What's easily forgotten is how great these songs are, leaving aside a few amateurish moments (done knowingly). These are front-loaded onto Side 1 along with the “filler” instrumental retread, giving the listener a bad first impression, and maybe that’s by design. Don’t be fooled though. This album is amazing.
Why would they do this? I believe that Sparks excel when taking the harder path. Disco was too easy for them, and the inevitable fame and success would’ve killed their creativity. There’s a world where the band could’ve repeated their N1IH sound, only this time they wouldn’t be too early, and they would have taken the world by storm, but that would’ve been a far less interesting story than the one they’re telling here.
As ever, thanks for reading. There’s lots more on the blog and lots more yet to come.
Paul Barrett, 2022