Book Review: Dave Thompson – Sparks | No. 1 Songs In Heaven

Cherry Red Books | 2010 | 230 pp.

Cherry Red Books | 2010 | 230 pp.

After finally seeing the splendor and glory of Sparks in concert last month, getting my paws on one of the scant english language books on the band Sparks. As far as I can tell, there are three; each released at approximately the same point in time [2009-2010] after years of being taunted with foreign language efforts. presumably the band’s Guinness Book feat of performing all 21 of their albums live in a looooooong residency in Islington in 2009 raised the band’s profile across the board.

sparks - gratuitous sax CDAOf course, this is an unauthorized biography, and writer Dave Thompson has a CV a mile long with a hundred or so rock books to his credit, so there is a workmanlike quality to it all that one just has to accept going into it. The Mael brothers are notoriously private for being such notable pop stars, so anyone sniffing around for scandalous personal revelations will have to make themselves content with the cover art for “Gratuitous Sax + Senseless Violins.” [left] What personal glimpses of the brothers are here are courtesy of their band members. Current drummer Tammy Glover, who had a parallel career as a VP of production for Comedy Central until very recently, paints a picture of a subdued existence that has little to do with the hubbub normally associated with the “rock + roll lifestyle.” That and previous quotes from Russell reveal that the Maels eschew mood modifiers of all kinds, eat their vegetables, enjoy high culture, and know the value of getting a good night’s sleep! My kind of gents, down to a “T!”

Ms. Glover also paints a portrait of almost unceasing work as creative director Ron constantly applies himself to solving the problem of what it means to be Sparks in an ever-changing world. She does not mince works in describing it as difficult work that sees Ron always probing for new breakthroughs, even after decades in the swim of things. The word “insular” gets bandied about a lot. That it has resulted in truly astonishing, headway making albums like 2002’s game-changing “L’il Beethoven” over 30 years into their career, it testifies to the value of Ron’s diligent work. In spades.

Content like that is where this book gives its greatest value. But even for fans late to the game like myself, who only got into them at the dawn of the eighties, the Sparks story is laid forth here in a fashion typical of the genre. The early, formative period is followed by the early breakthrough. Then the inevitable backlash and fall from grace. Only with Sparks, this happens many times in the course of their long career. Generally speaking, their commercial breakthroughs have been in different territories at different times. First the UK, followed by France, then select US markets, and next it would be Germany. Each of these flare-ups of success and notoriety were with completely different styles/albums/music over the course of 20+ years. Tales of a collaboration with Mick Ronson that withered and died on Sparks insistence that he join their band show how single-minded their vision is in spite of the ever mutable trappings of their music’s style. But their artistic point of view has been untouched by the vagaries of time and fashion. It is their raison d’être.

It’s only now, with the internet providing the possibility of transcending time, distance, and local markets for pop that their audience is coalescing and becoming a mature force to be reckoned with. It’s that fact that allowed the band the conceit of playing every song that they ever recorded in 2009 over the Sparks residency of 21 albums in that never to be repeated feat of artistic stamina. And now when the band tour the world in their “Revenge Of Two Hands, One Mouth” tour, they are capable of finding a responsive audience worldwide.

This book typically succumbs to my least favorite trait of rock bios; doppler timeline compression. The last decade of Sparks, which has seen tremendous work being released, and coincidentally, frames the period which ended with their residency, gets short shrift in the manner of 99% of all rock bios with perhaps 30 [heavily illustrated] pages devoted to their last three albums. For the fan seeking to glean some context for the point of entry of their fandom to the whole story of a band, this tome disappoints with numbing regularity. While all rock bios can’t be like “Shakey” [Neil Young] or Andy Summers’ autobiography, one can still dream, and apart from the lack of participation by the brothers themselves, that’s where this book will let the reader down.

The design is also lacking with many pages having the text [I’d swear Comic Sans was used!] set over greyscale photographic imagery that in the early chapters, fights the reader’s eyeball tooth and nail for supremacy as page and text melt into a nauseating, grey swirl. The less said about the garish cover, the better. As if any book cobbled together by outsiders could come within spitting distance of the wit and eloquence of the typical Sparks cover design.

As a starting point for Sparks fandom and a scattershot précis of the first 40 years of their career, Thompson keeps the facts flowing with slightly less of the florid fannishness of the typical hammered out British rock bio that I’d become accustomed to. I’d grown tired of authors slagging off every band other than the reader’s heroes in books exactly like this one; often from the young Thompson’s own pen, back in the day! Even so, he manages to flex his reactionary muscles by insinuating that Sparks fan Warren Cann, who failed to meet the brothers’ drummer requirements years before meeting with Dennis Leigh brought more than a touch of Sparks to the sound of Ultravox! Balderdash! So take this bio with the requisite grains of salt. It does its job adequately, but not so handily that the Daryl Easlea tome isn’t still a going concern.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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