THIS AIN'T NO DISCO!
How Sparks Parted The New Wave
By Madeline Bocaro
In 1979 punk rock was still the rage in England, and disco was devouring America. So where did Sparks fit in? With disco in England of course! This didn't make much sense at all to their fans, but the Mael brothers made the best of both worlds. Their take on disco had a European edge coupled with Sparks' trademark sensibility. It became the perfect formula for a revolutionary new sound that would resonate through the decades. They may or may not have known it at the time, but Sparks were prophetically writing the Ten Commandments of Synth-Pop. Unfortunately, the commandment most often disobeyed by their eventual followers was, "Thou shalt be original!"
In the days when Sparks were releasing an album per year, No. 1 In Heaven was the follow-up to the surprisingly ordinary Introducing Sparks. Ordinary became extraordinary seemingly overnight. As suddenly as Tyrannosaurus Rex became electric warriors, and as shockingly as when Dylan went electric, Sparks went electronic! They got as much flak from their fans as Dylan and T-Rex did in their time, but some of us were hip to this new change, and new fans became enlightened as well. The music press gave the album equal shares of praise and damnation, but its musical prophecy would ring true in due time.
For almost a decade, the usual Sparks album consisted of ten succinct, highly unusual pop songs. No. 1 In Heaven gave us six extended, highly unusual fluid epics; the shortest just under five minutes, the title track being the longest, outlasting both "Hey Jude" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" at 7:27, not to mention the re-mixes!
In 1977, Donna Summer's disco hit, 'I Feel Love' - a collaboration between man and machine in a musical Metropolis approximating Kraftwerk at 78 rpm - topped the dance charts worldwide for weeks on end. The conflicting warm and sensual vocal performance over robotic trance music intrigued Ron and Russell who were already bored within the constraints of a 4-piece rock band. Sparks went right to the source and recruited Summer's producer Giorgio Moroder for their radical experiment in marrying pop with dance music. He even received co-writing credits on four tracks. The album was recorded at Moroder's own Musicland studios in Munich. Aside from David Bowie who was also recording in Germany with Roxy Music's Brian Eno, using synthetic instruments for a more decadent ambiance (on his albums Low and Heroes), Moroder was the only producer using automated devices within popular dance music. This was a time when synthesizers were quite rare and expensive, despite being primitive - basically a suitcase containing wires and knobs that could be tuned to oscillating frequencies. Moroder took the reins and found Sparks a U.K. deal with the very supportive Virgin Records, and with Elektra in the U.S.
Although the Maels were lured toward new electronic sounds, they maintained that all the drums be played live. The track 'My Other Voice' featured computerized hi-hat cymbals played in reverse.
The high-paid fashion models on the album jacket - one caucasian and one black - look cold and sterile yet still sexy, as their lab coats are blown upwards like Marilyn Monroe's white skirt in that famous film (The Seven Year Itch). Enroute to heaven's laboratory they each hold a microscope, indicative of the groundbreaking musical experiment taking place on this record. The models were also featured on the stylized remix artwork. The "Tryouts For the Human Race" single sleeves and picture discs depicted robotic mannequin hands and test tubes, mixing 2 parts Rock with 2 parts Disco - and just a dash of Chemical X. The results were explosive!
Angelic nurse imagery. Are sexy nurses your idea of heaven?
Russell: Like I've always said, you can't go wrong with a woman in uniform.
The typically brilliant Sparks lyrics were about fast-paced society ("Beat The Clock") and the first song you would hear in heaven (their own 'No. 1 Song In Heaven' of course, which peaked at #14 on earth). "Tryouts For the Human Race" is the album's 'sexiest' song. After a suggestive Sci-Fi intro, Russell lends his voice to those feisty sperm cells - a major aspect of sex that is not usually on people's minds when having it - in a lavish production about reproduction. A twisted Biology lesson with a disco beat. On "Academy Award Performance" as well as on the title song, the double-tracked vocals allow him to sing in two octaves simultaneously! Russell's soaring vocals prevailed over the new synthetic Sparks sound. Ron Mael expanded his keyboard repertoire with the Yamaha DX-7 and a Fairlight Roland JP-8. He favored the coldness and inhumanity of the mechanized sounds and mesmerizing beats contrasted with Russell's glorious vocals. Ron un-slicked his hair and grew it long and wavy, resembling a mad scientist - or was it more 'nutty professor'? Russell told England's Melody Maker in 1979, "I wouldn't be caught dead in a disco!"
'Beat The Clock' was like a Velvet Underground song when I wrote it at the piano, and if you listen to it with that in mind, you can kind of tell, but what Georgio did with it was amazing." – Ron Mael, Mojo magazine UK 2002
The promotional video for 'Beat The Clock' featured Ron & Russell (with a bevy of female factory workers), mass-producing life-size cardboard cutouts of themselves in a race against a giant clock. Perhaps this was an 'indiscreet' commentary upon the tedium and uniformity in rock/pop music, and the stereotypes within disco, until they were effectively mixed into one medium. Charlie Parker never dreamed that 'fusion' could sound like this!
Ultimately, the result of Sparks' stab at disco only remotely resembled the mind-numbing genre. Their special peculiarity predominated and a new form emerged, providing Sparks with two more UK hits. After eight weeks, the title track finally charted, peaking at #14. It was Sparks' first U.K. hit in four years. They performed the second single 'Beat The Clock' on Top of the Pops in November of 1979, which made the top Ten. 'Tryouts…' reached No. 45 in the U.K., and although several more 12-inch U.K. singles were issued from the album on a rainbow of coloured vinyl, overall it did not chart well, reaching No. 73 for one week only. No. 43 was its highest chart position in Sweden. America saw the single release 'Tryouts for the Human Race' (with 'No. 1 Song in Heaven' as the b-side). The Maels portrayed werewolves in the extremely rare video, however, the U.S. remained oblivious. Perhaps Sparks' thought-provoking lyrics were too complex for the mindless dancing masses. But subliminally and with the passing of time, the album became a landmark in music history.
Soon after, Blondie would collaborate with Moroder on their smash hit 'Call Me'. M appeared with the percolating hit 'Pop Muzik'. New bands emerged from the UK two by two, and climbed aboard the ark that Sparks built; Human League, O.M.D., Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode... The atmospheric Ultravox quickened their pace. At first labeled New Romantic or Synth-Pop, the new genre crossed the ocean and became New Wave (eventually spawning Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys and countless others). The Mael/Moroder-penned track 'My Other Voice' contains the foretelling line, "I'll be all you'll hear for years and years and years." European bands were now successful on American radio. Sparks, of course, still were not. Ask any of these groups who their inspiration was, and they will inevitably say…"David Bowie." But we all know who really parted the waves!