[continued from last post…]
The slyly playful melody of “Bob Hope” managed to convey the famed comic’s mid-century wiseguy vibe fairly well. This song was an homage to the platonic ideal of early Bob Hope; the snarky everyman who called power to question instead of the consort of Presidents and Orange County Republican. Still, the lyrics were ambiguously ironic as they compared the man to timeless natural phenomena… and found nature wanting in comparison. Ron’s mock-heroic arrangement was just over the line of irony enough that a confirmed anti-Hoper like myself could enjoy it as much as a fan might. But on an album where the far more interesting and complex nuances of “The Ghost of Liberace” held court, I can see why “Bob Hope ” was relegated to the discard pile, even as it was a cracking Sparks number.
I much preferred the demo of “She’s An Anchorman” to the B-side version on disc two. I put it down to the U2-like rhythm guitar on the demo version having a stronger instrumental presence. The churning, berserk rhythm track of “Love Can Conquer All” almost reminded me of the hip hop-slash-New Jack Swing of the 12″ mix of Robert Plant’s “Tall Cool One” 12″ remix, but on second thought, it might simply have been a piece with “The Farmer’s Daughter” as an outlier to nowhere in the Sparks universe. Over a steampunk hip hop bed, Russell provided a high vocal of extreme contrast to the surrounding music.
It must be admitted that the ability to hear Ron Mael singing two of the songs on this disc was enough reason to buy this package! We first heard Ron singing “This Angry Young Man Ain’t Angry Any More” in what was clearly a demo of the track that played earlier on this CD. the music bed here was simpler, as was Ron’s vocal. While Russell referred to Ron’s “singing” in the liner notes to these recordings, he acquitted himself admirably with his plaintive, if a tad colorless, singing. While the anti-spectacle of Ron Mael singing all by his lonesome was clearly astounding, we also noted that the lyrics to this earlier version of the song were completely different to what Russell eventually put his tonsils to. Adding a further insight to the man’s creative process as the second set of lyrics were clearly more incisive and polished.
Ron’s version of “Mid Atlantic” showed that the music bed on the demo was close to being fully cooked in comparison to the previous track. It was very close to being identical, though once again, the lyrics were completely different to the version that Russell eventually sang. I would imagine that Ron really slaves over the lyrics as a comparison of the two ultimately unreleased songs here in both versions reveals that by the time Russell puts his voice to them Ron has completely re-written them to a much higher standard. That doesn’t take anything away from the rare gift of hearing these songs at near point zero where they first emerged from Ron’s skull. They are undeniably gripping curios no matter how we slice them.
The odd one out here was the one song sung by erstwhile 80s Sparks bassist Les Bohem. “That’s Entertainment” posited a world where a Sparks song could be built on an edifice of guitar feedback and fingersnaps; with a vocal by Mr. Bohem that positively dripped with distaste. The lyric seemed to really rake Hollywood over the coals. Perhaps ex-post-facto fallout from their unsuccessful attempts at producing the film of “Mai: Psychic Girl” that occupied the brothers from 1989-1992? Perhaps, but you could play this and not mistake it for a Sparks song. So outside their norms it lived.
Next came the EPs worth of tunes the Brother’s Mael had written and produced for a potential solo turn by their drummer at the time; Christi Haydon. The full story on Ms. Haydon is fascinating, but we’ll stick to the music here, because it’s fascinating enough. The songs were intended to get her a solo deal, but it never came to that. Fortunately, there’s plenty in them to appeal to Sparks fans though they differ somewhat in attack from typical Sparks product.
“Katherine Hepburn” was a song that I had the pleasure of hearing at my [so far] sole Sparks concert in 2013. The tune as played here featured Ms. Haydon’s multi-tracked, harmonized voices over a music bed constructed out of the then-new development of loops and samples. The lyrics were pure Sparks, even as the music was pointing at the mainstream. Nevertheless, the song had hooks for days, and has managed to get stuck in my cranium all morning. I utterly love that she sings “it’s the kind of love that doesn’t get uptight” and followed it with “outsight” tucked right in there as an aside. It’s that atention to detail that is a hallmark of the Mael’s songwriting.
It’s too bad that “Titanic” was about three years early in the zeitgeist for the cinematic craze that followed on this song’s heels. The sleek, Eurohouse production was very much a precursor to the sound that would be integral to the band’s “Balls” album of even more years down the road. The lyrics celebrated the luxury of the maiden voyage of the doomed vessel as the ultimate change of pace. More than anyone could have suspected!
The wildest outlier here was the brilliant version of The Who’s quirky classic “Boris the Spider.” The original was probably beloved by the lads as youths, and giving the song to a woman to sing was completely bonkers. But it gets better than that. The genius move here was injecting the song with a radical drum + bass production! At what looked like at least 4 years before Bowie got there. I loved how Ms. Haydon sang the chorus; obviously sidestepping the basso profundo approach of John Entwhistle.
The mastering of this disc was superb. It sounded very similar to the 1994 mastering [which was great] and given that this was probably recorded digitally, not much could have been done to mid-90s digital to improve it. Certainly no taint of brickwalling compression has been applied to the music! The wave forms from then and now are close to identical in their dynamic range.
The liner notes were fantastic as well. Lyrics for all of the songs and most of the new songs were provided. Best of all were the essays by Ron, Russell, and Christi Haydon. Russell ironically referred to them as their “abandoned children” in his essay. Christi Haydon revealed how Ron and Russell caught their eye in a department store story only a hair’s breadth from Lana Turner’s malt shop legend. She went on after their demos crashed on the rocks of rejection to drum for the band and got to sing “Katherine Hepburn” live on the encore for this album’s tour. Ron went deep into the tale of how 1989-1994 was taken up with the abandoned “Mai, The Psychic Girl” film, of which he stated:
“The thought that this project, here in 2019 would remain unmade never crossed our minds.”Ron Mael
I especially loved that Ron related how “When Do I get To Sing My Way” came to be written, with the reveal that it was originally called “Punch + Judy Show.” Apparently Russell commanded him to return to his cubicle and come up with a title that was more emotionally in keeping with the tone of the music! In such ways the songs were refined as gold in fire. And hearing the demos in this package only served to depict how Ron was a classic songwriting talent. The early demos were good, but nowhere near as good as the finished product we eventually heard on even songs which were abandoned. We’ve read tales of Ron sitting in his office during business hours, writing the music from day to gay. Listening to Sparks one can certainly hear how his ear had been attuned to the classic songwriting of the American Songbook. And yet, the joy of Sparks was how one could tell that they were also swayed by this new Rock + Roll thing as it happened in their midst as boys.
So, in conclusion, I’ll lay it on the line here. Just disc three was worth the price of buying this set! The original album should be in every home, and even the first half of the remix disc was very worthwhile. The Bernard Butler remix of “[When I Kiss You] I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” was a world class remix that would have soothed my fevered brow in the godawful 90s, had I but heard it. Let’s be thankful that Sparks have returned to this album period and have given us this fantastically curated reissue. The inclusion of a full disc of unreleased songs and performances managed to make us fervently wish that the band had their own Prince-like Vault of hundreds of unreleased songs that were recorded and judged unworthy. Dreaming that they might one day reach our ears and convince us otherwise!