Let’s honor the year of my birth with a song about what happens when you die. A disco song, no less. Sparks are a group that some are fated to love, the band you might graduate to from They Might Be Giants. Both consist of two American nerds who coat a protective veneer of humor over fundamentally serious subjects. Both have flirted with commercial success, but essentially remained cult artists. Both have long, winding discographies with plenty of high (and low) points. Sparks have managed to maintain more hipster cachet, possibly due to their relative inaccessibility – anyone who likes TMBG has seen them 3 or 4 times without really trying. There’s a wall around Sparks, an aura of mystery that remains largely unpenetrated almost 50 years on.
If you’re not attuned to Sparks’ particular wavelength, their arch style and mannered presentation most likely grate like any other goofball novelty act. But if you can dial in, their hidden sincerity and commitment to catharsis-by-hook becomes almost unbearably touching. Even the persistent smirk of Ron Mael seems to hide a knowing melancholy, a silent counterpart to brother Russell’s exuberant gyration.
The song, from the album of the same name, came at the close of the band’s first decade, during which they’d seen their first flush of success (largely in England) already fade. “No. 1 Song” would be the first of many quasi-comebacks over the years – for some reason, except for the die hard fans for which they are a light that never goes out, people need to be periodically reminded that they like Sparks.
It’s divided into two parts – the single edit (used in the video) excises the first, slower half, which cuts things down to a manageable sub-4 minutes, but loses much of the drama of the buildup. “This is the Number One song in Heaven. Why are you hearing it now, you ask?” croons Russell Mael disingenuously in the first verse. Like most wiseacres, Sparks joke about the things that matter the most to them, and death and mortality are never far from their mind. One of their best-known songs, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” contemplates the inherent danger in nature. “Bon Voyage,” the closing song from their 1974 LP Propaganda, is sung from the perspective of those left behind as Noah’s Ark embarks on its voyage. The narrator laments the randomness of how the passengers were selected. “All governed by the rules of chance/they’re about to leave and we will stay.” Later, he offers resigned well-wishes. “Bon voyage / peace be with all of you / I wish that I were one of you.”
What set “Number One Song” (the song and the album) apart from everything from the band’s earlier catalog is the relentless disco production by Giorgio Moroder. It’s hard to quibble with the idea that one would hear a record produced by Moroder upon entering eternal paradise. He was on an eclectic tear in the late ’70s, riding a hot hand and producing the single “Life in Tokyo” for the moody UK art boys Japan, and Donna Summer’s mighty double LP “Bad Girls.” (This coming two years after they collaborated on the epochal “I Feel Love.”)
It’s easy enough to verify the unique mojo Moroder brought to the collaboration, since Sparks re-recorded the song in 1997 for their cheeky self-covers album “Plagiarism.” That recording uses an off-the-rack disco beat (programming is credited to the Maels), instead placing the emphasis on Russell’s still-impressive falsetto and Tony Visconti’s swooping orchestrations. An interesting and not ineffective reworking, yet one can’t help but miss Moroder’s trademark throb, like a phantom limb.
There’s another pop duo that can, in the right light, call to mind the Mael Brothers. A few years after “Number One Song in Heaven,” Pet Shop Boys made their almost instantaneous mark on pop music, and their extrovert singer/introvert keyboardist tandem act certainly bring Sparks to mind (even if Neil Tennant’s theatrics rarely extend past an arched eyebrow or an elaborate costume). PSB’s commercial run was far more sustained (their imperial period was so emblematic of the concept, they, well, literally coined the phrase “imperial period.”) But what Tennant and Lowe share with Ron and Russell are the belief of all pop conceptualizers – that a great song can temporarily free you from your brain, your life or any other temporal circumstances that are holding you down. We’re done with Sparks for now, but we’ll hear from Pet Shop Boys again.