From twilight time 'till dawn: What ‘Number 1 in Heaven’ by SPARKS is really about.
Updated: Aug 12
'Number 1 in Heaven' is far more clever than people have realised. It's been praised for its innovation and for changing what a rock band can be, but what's gone unnoticed is how these songs are written to deliberately work on multiple levels. The imagery of the words (heaven, living in fast forward and the Italian high-life, etc) is tailor-made to suit Georgio Moroder’s music, but it's also full of double meanings. When you look at the album in its entirety, each song can be about nightclub culture and what that means to Sparks.
Tryouts for the human race
The Mael brothers’ first electronic song is the spiritual successor to ‘I feel love’ by Donna Summer. The similarity in production is immediate, and both songs simulate the thrill of sex (“it’s so good, it’s so good...”). This is a staple of disco music, and here they're faithful to the lyrical themes of their newly adopted genre from the outset, but Sparks being Sparks, it’s sex from the point of view of sperm.
Taking an oddball approach to a disco trope does nothing to diminish the giddy excitement in the lyrics. The semen can’t wait to be released in a love explosion, with a quarter billion little sperms rushing to be the lucky one who reaches the egg and creates new life: “We just wanna be someone, be your little daughter or your son”.
But sex isn’t the only disco trope present - there’s also dancing. These lyrics take on a second meaning if you put them in the context of a nightclub. It’s then about boys competing to attract a girl on the dancefloor.
“We’re just a gleam in lover’s eyes,
steam on sweaty bodies in the night,
one of us will break on through,
The rest of us will disappear like dew,
Pressure building, gettin' hot,
give it, give it, give it all you got”
The “Steam on sweaty bodies in the night” can be both in the bedroom and on the dancefloor. One of the boys will get lucky and the others will back off (or disappear like dew). It’s a scene where the boy with the best dance-moves wins the girl, so the word “tryouts” is appropriate here, bringing to mind both physical exertion and competition. It’s “for the human race” because the disco is the modern setting for courtship rituals that date back to the dawn of mankind.
Writing a song about the gamesmanship of seduction is a very Sparks thing to do (think ‘Happy Hunting Ground’, ‘How are you getting home?’ and 'Johnny Delusional'), but this time they’ve written about it in three contexts simultaneously: sex, dancing and the continuing lifecycle of the human race.
Academy Award Performance
Another well used Sparks theme is giving an amazing performance (think ‘When do I get to sing ‘My Way’’, ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall’ and ‘Pulling rabbits out of a hat’). What’s unusual here is that it’s then described with “what a convincing” performance, which emphasizes the artifice of acting. Given this is Sparks entering an established genre where they don’t belong, it can be likening their reinvention to acting (also evidenced in the next song). This isn't just any acting though - it's a classic performance worthy of an Academy Award. They’re writing about their most bold shift yet and the image-change that comes with it. The fakeness is no bad thing given the talent described in the song. This interpretation makes the following lines feel very different if you consider that they’re singing about themselves: “Well produced, clever lines, well-rehearsed, well defined”. It reminds me of “Technical facility, old-world sensibility” on ‘Lil’ Beethoven’.
They then refer to making money, which can also tied to their move to disco: “There's a goldmine in what you do, but of course you know that”. Disco was at a commercial peak as they recorded this, so this can read as an acknowledgement that the change of direction could have been a business decision as well as a creative one. This the second theme here that's shared with the next song.
La Dolce Vita
This song is also firmly rooted in nightlife, being named after Federico Fellini’s 1960 comedy-drama. The movie is structured as seven stories each starting at dusk and ending at dawn (reminding me of “from twilight time ‘till dawn” on ‘Tryouts’). It follows a journalist for a gossip magazine on a fruitless search for love and happiness in Rome’s party scene.
Sparks tell a different story to the movie, about a gold-digger trying to exploit his rich lover. It’s about their night out on the town where she foots the bill:
“You’re the only bank that’s open all night
Now that's clear, can you give me a light, La Dolce Vita
Now that that's clear, when do we eat? La Dolce Vita
Now that that's clear can I have another plate”
These lines each have a smart double meaning. The “bank that’s open all night” is the rich woman but can be seen as a discotheque (after all, that’s where the record buyers will be). Then “now that that’s clear, can you give me a light” is asking for inspiration (which they’re doing by reinterpreting disco staples). “When do we eat” is asking when they’ll get paid. They’re comparing themselves gold-diggers!
It would be incredibly bold of Sparks to write about cashing in on a commercial trend, but they’re an incredibly bold band. ‘The Sparks Brothers’ documentary makes it clear that the brothers have faced financial hardship, so who can blame them if this move is in some part motivated by money? Their career was at a low point so this could be about survival - as in 'I will survive', another disco trope. With lines like “Mira Mira guys, there’s lira in her eyes” they’re compromising none of their artistic integrity. It feels honest of them to acknowledge there may be a commercial element to what they’re doing, after all, they’ve rarely shied away from being accessible.
The character in ‘La Dolce Vita’ is seducing an older woman: “Baby you’re looking younger every day, I really mean it, it ain’t just the pay”. This idea is close to ‘More than a sex machine’, from 2000's 'Balls', in which a male gigolo is hired by “someone who is an eyesore”. 1979’s gold-digger is driven and ambitious, but in 2000 the gigolo is trapped and under-appreciated (coming before they’d achieved creative freedom with ‘Lil Beethoven’).
Both ‘Academy Award Performance’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’ reference making money and also acting, here with the line “looking real bored is what you pay me for... looking real bored is as hard as scrubbing floors”. Ron’s bored keyboard player image alongside Russ’s charismatic singer has been one of the staples in pop music ever since this album, and here they’re acknowledging that artifice (along with the effort that goes into executing it).
Beat the clock
This song is about living life in fast-forward, which fits nicely with the non-stop live-for-the-weekend lifestyle of club-goers (much like ‘Saturday Night Fever’). The main character zipping through his adolescence can also be seen as symbolic of Sparks previous incarnation on the rock scene. They appear to the world as a brand new band but have an established history, hence “I was born a little premature”. The endless touring and years in England are referenced in “I did lots of travelling, parts of me unravelling”. Then their waining career comes up with “the army then rejected me, said I had two flat feet”.
So why all the urgency to beat the clock? What Sparks were doing here was completely new. Nobody else had brought this kind of nuanced songwriting to dance music, let alone over a full album, and Sparks wanted to be the first. They say “no time for relationships, skip the foreplay, let ‘er rip”, which is exactly what they did. They didn’t marry Moroder’s synths with their own rock instrumentation, they jumped right into bed with his electronic sound.
They’ve “seen everything there is” and “done everything there is” in their career so far, but they’ve “met everyone BUT Liz’” so Liz could be symbolic of dance music. Right here they’re making disco so now they’ve “even met ol’ Liz”.
They wish there were more genres available for them to invade - “I could cheat on five of you, and be faithful to you too”. With disco they’re both subverting and being faithful to the genre at the same time.
My Other Voice
This song has a long, drawn-out introduction. This is unlike Sparks and feels like they’re breaking a self-imposed rule, so perhaps there’s a reason for this. The first few minutes have no trace of a Mael brother, as if they’ve stood back to show you the sonic world they now inhabit. When a voice does eventually come in it’s processed through a vocoder, sounding more like another machine in the studio than a human. It’s showing how powerful this music is even when stripped of wordplay and performance, two things that they excel at. The second half of the song is about how Sparks can utilise that.
The brothers had changed genre before, but this was the first time that they were making music for a different type of audience. People listening in their bedrooms or at a rock show are paying close attention to the band, however they’re not the focus in a nightclub - here the audience face each other, not the stage. This is music that you can dance to, so the more primal and immediate the better (“lyrically weak but the music’s the thing”). Sparks seem to be aware that they’re operating in the background here because when the vocoder speaks it says “listen to my other voice”. It feels subliminal as if they’re hypnotising the dancefloor.
When we finally hear the other voice it belongs to Russell, with violent lyrics delivered with the smoothest tone:
“You’re so independent but that’s gonna change real soon,
with my other voice, I will destroy this room,
I’ll wrap my voice around you and I’ll throw you everywhere,
My other voice”
It’s about the power of their music in the context of a nightclub, destroying the room meaning to send the dancers into a frenzy. They can unleash big ideas on an unsuspecting audience who care about the groove above all else.
It’s also a dark twist on another disco classic. The melody of Russell’s opening line is reminiscent of ‘Never can say goodbye’ by Gloria Gaynor, and thematically they have a lot in common. Here are its lyrics:
“Every time I think I’ve had enough
And start heading for the door
There's a very strange vibration
Piercing me right to the core
It says turn around you fool,
You know you love him more and more
Tell me why is it so?
Don't wanna let you go”
This is about a woman who can’t leave a toxic relationship, and here Russell assumes the male character, playing the villain. She asks why she can't leave him, and from his perspective you can see manipulation in play. “You’re so independent, but that’s gonna change real soon”. She wants to leave but he's playing mind games and making her more dependent. The dark but seductive music represents his controlling side and makes a strong opposition to the celebratory tone of ‘never can say goodbye’, in which Gloria Gaynor doesn’t even recognise herself as a victim. The line “you think you're romantic, well I'll whisper in your ear” is particularly chilling in the context. Heartbreak songs are a staple of disco, and here the brothers have subverted another of its tropes.
It feels like Sparks are placing themselves in a position from which they can manipulate, both in the toxic relationship and also on the dancefloor where they can use their voice to control an audience so lost in the moment that they don’t even realise that they’re susceptible. It's saying that they intend to say something through disco beyond its heartbreak, love, survival, sex and dancing themes. They do this by putting an almost subliminal message into ‘Number 1 Song in Heaven’ (more on that later).
Here the people on the dancefloor don’t understand the true purpose of the music. This too is a recurring theme, coming up on ‘I can’t believe that you would fall for all the crap in the song’, ‘Pulling Rabbits out of a Hat’, ‘As I sit down to play the organ’, ‘Ona Matapia’, ‘Probably Nothing’, ‘Giddy Giddy’, ‘So tell me Mrs Lincoln’, ‘’Speak no evil’, iPhone’, ‘Unaware’ and ‘One for the ages’.
A more general reading of ‘My Other Voice’ is about the power of combining two disparate things to make something completely new by placing nuanced songwriting into electronic soundscapes. Two things that are more than the sum of their parts. That’s something you see throughout Sparks music. ‘Strange Animal’ is about Ron’s songwriting process, where he sets two incompatible ideas against each other and works to make them fit a new song. In ‘Hippopotamus’ he draws concepts from his pool of ideas and then brings them all together in a neat and efficient closing verse (it’s as if this is the big reveal of the song he’s been writing over the last few minutes, the culmination of his work). ‘My other voice’ is the same idea but in a purer form. It’s combining unlikely elements to create something unique, which you see examples of in every one of their songs.
So given the number of levels that a Sparks song can operate on, there are lots of candidates for who or what the “other voice” could be. A vocoder, a silent character in another song, a subliminal message, Georgio Moroder or dance music itself. Something core to the concept of the band is that Russell is a charismatic mouthpiece for Ron’s genius angst, which is a satisfying way to tie the song into their own mythology.
The Number 1 Song in Heaven - Part One
The album opens with a song about conception and closes with one about death. It's built to work perfectly at peak time at a nightclub like New York’s Studio 54. The line “All of the angels are sheep in the fold of their master” brings to mind the dancers being lost in music. They’re sheep in that they’ll follow the groove, trusting that the DJ will take them to new heights, not questioning the meaning of the song but losing themselves to it.
The heavenly imagery on the surface perfectly complements the blissful sounds of Moroder’s production, but the message of the song is much darker:
“This is the number one song in heaven.
Why do you hear it now, you ask?
Maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine.
Maybe you’re closer to here than you care to be”.
Sparks are telling their audience that they might be about to die. Think about the context here - these nightclubs were filled with people taking cocaine, alcohol, poppers and heroin. News reports called the drug issue “endemic”. Now imagine being off-your-face and hearing the clean living and angelic Russell Mael tell you that this could be your end. It’s a subversive message hidden in plain sight. This is the concept that they laid out on ‘My other voice’, experimenting with how they can use the power of this music on unsuspecting nightclubbers.
Throughout this album they've subverted disco existing themes, and here they're adding their own. The first disco song about death courtesy of Sparks.
The Number 1 Song in Heaven - Part two
This is a colossal gearshift from shimmering and celestial to urgent and bouncy. It’s easy to imagine the crowd losing their minds here, but this second part isn’t aimed at the dancefloor - it’s for the whole world. Every disco track forged its reputation in the clubs weeks before making it to radio and TV, and here Sparks are representing that shift musically. Part two is far more radio-friendly and immediate, and the subject of part two of song is the part one: “it’s number one all over heaven”, not “this is the number one song in heaven".
Both parts of the song ask the listener to question their own mortality. First with the line “maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine” people were lured in with the hypnotic nature of the music, but that doesn’t work in music for advertisements. This is radio music for people with short attention spans, so this time it’s delivered almost immediately. “If you should die before you wake if you should die while crossing the street”. It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, an existential threat which they quickly move on from with other distractions.
They later describe the song as "Loud as a crowd or soft as a doubt". This is about the different effects that you can get from the same song. At a nightclub the song brings people together so is as loud as a crowd. To somebody else it may have triggered worries about their death, doubting their own mortality if only for a moment - the same song can be as soft as a doubt. It’s covered up further with “lyrically weak, but the musics the thing”.
The Number 1 song filters down to earth and breaks up in millions of ways. It’s now heard on tinny car radios and in commercials, which could suggest that it’s somehow weakening the music, but that’s not the case: “In the streets, it becomes children singing” is a euphoric ending and keeps the magic intact.
I hope this has brought something new to the album for you. Writing this has certainly done that for me, and my admiration for what Sparks have achieved here couldn’t be greater. I’m sure that there’s lots more to find, so I’d love to hear anything new that you see in their songs, on this album and beyond. This way of working didn’t end here - far from it. It’s a thread running through their work, and it’s all there for us to unlock, meaning that we can get to love these songs for a second time around. How many bands can claim that?
Thanks for reading, and thanks to Ron and Russell for their amazing work, which is “Written, of course, by the mightiest hand”.