This week we delve into the vivid canon of Gleaming Spires; the Los Angeles band that began life as the Power Pop band Bates Motel in the late 70s to become Sparks backing band for their fertile 1981-1985 period that saw them finally get some airplay and respect in America. Concurrent with their period of playing with Sparks was their own, even more idiosyncratic band, Gleaming Spires.
Gleaming Spires first surfaced on L.A.’s Posh Boy label; as an outlier to the Punk and Hardcore that the label was perhaps best known for, to something that flirted with Pop. Albeit a Pop which was only superficially lightweight, with their penchant for upbeat melodic sensibilities reacting against the bitter emotional cores of their songwriting.
Gleaming Spires: Songs Of The Spires DLX RM – US – CD 
- Going Hey Hey
- Are You Ready For The Sex Girls?
- While We Can
- When Love Goes Under Glass
- The End Of All Good Things
- Watch Your Blood Beat
- How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism
- Talking In The Dark
- Big Hotels
- The Way Marlena Moves – Bates Motel
- Real Time – Bates Motel
- Only The Young Die Young – Bates Motel
- Dedication – Bates Motel
- Unexpected Overnighters – Bates Motel
- Real Love – Bates Motel
- Walk Right
- Life Out On The Lawn
- Passion Pit
The album got off to an all-guns-blazing start with the brash, hyperkinetic opening salvo of “Going Hey Hey.” The rhythm box mashup was assisted ably by the garbage disposal loop that producer Stephen Hague brought to the table. In what was among his very first productions ever, as the “demo sessions” for the first Gleaming Spires album got the nod as the final product when the label though they sounded great as they were. And that was certainly the case as the next song proved beyond a shadow of a doubt.
With a title taken from a blurb in a sex newspaper, Gleaming Spires made their bid for immortality with the jaunty technopop of “Are You ready For The Sex Girls?” It all could have gone so wrong, but the irony slathered between the provocative title and the lyrics that clearly show that no one is ready for the sex girls. Meanwhile, Les Boheme’s bass line was cheekily cribbed from “Heroes” and set into a completely different context.
The video made for the song might have cost about $96, but it made absolutely certain that their intentions could not be misconstrued as Leslie Bohem and David Kendrick, in matching red gingham aprons, baked a lemon meringue pie and made some damn fine coffee; establishing a role-reversal between the domesticated males and the free-wheeling females depicted in the song. The band were amazed as the song took off on their local KROQ radio to become a bona fide New Wave hit. Ironically, they were stuck half a world away in Germany, recording Sparks’ “Whomp That Sucker” album at the time and had to have their girlfriends hold the phone to the radio to hear the magic. If you’ve ever heard any Gleaming Spires song, changes are it was this one. And if not, then by all means sample below!
A more reflective mood was up next with the pensive “While We Can” being a crystalline ballad with rich guitar offsetting the contemplative rhythm box tempo of this song. Mr. Bohem stated in the liner notes that he was aiming for a vibe like that of “Heroes,” so a similar subdued grandeur underpinned the more typical lyrical fatalism of doomed romance that cast a long shadow over this album.
Speaking of fatalism, both “When Loves Goes Under Glass” and “The End Of All Good Things” [the last title may have been a hint…] took differing approaches with the former wedding tortuous metaphor to more dynamic music with the latter opting for another delicate synthetic ballad full of melancholy poise.
What was once “side two” began with the lush technopop of “Watch Your Blood Beat.” There, the rich music bed coupled with Mr. Bohem’s spirited delivery made me recall Todd Rundgren’s Utopia at their New Wave best. But Rundgren would have never twisted the lyrical knife the way that Gleaming Spires did here.
But none of the songs thus far had the brutal sense of emotional self-flagellation held within the dark heart of “How To Gets Girls Thru Hypnotism.” The duo looked to the books sold out of comic book ads in the past and the kicker on this song was that it was self-hypnosis that presumably bolstered your confidence so that you could act decisively on your desires, or maybe just not notice your failures so much.
In this actually harrowing song, Les Bohem was cracking as he struggled to build his self confidence to a higher level, while quaking with inadequacy. The rigid, martial lockstep rhythms sounded like a blend of modular synth patches with maybe some synth pads added on the top for emphasis. Unlike the 7″ version which I had, the full length album track lasted almost 90 seconds longer. The chaotic and punishing climax, complete with a woman’s harangue, mixed into the atonal music added insult to injury. This was a song that pulled no punches. At all.
It was great sequencing to follow this with one of the more positive songs here. “Talking In The Dark” dealt in quirky, slightly cartoonish New Wave song on a cha-cha chassis which built to an impressive crescendo as the backing vocals helped to lift Bohem’s vocals in the song’s fade. Just when we had some idea of exactly where Gleaming Spires had set their boundaries came the cinematic climax to the album.
“Big Hotels” was an exercise in building a complex, nostalgic narrative using a dramatic shift in the musical palette with just Hague’s accordion playing and delicate piccolo, to craft a song that reeked of Continental sensibilities. It made sense that the last song here would be another love’s lament, but the arrangement really threw the listener a curve ball and perhaps let the listener know that album number two could sound like anything.
The next six tracks were as drastic a volte-face as was possible as we finally got to hear the Bates Motel demos that pre-dated the band’s hookup with Sparks when they were competing in the Power Pop hotbeds of Los Angeles in the era of The Knack. Bohem’s childhood friend Andrew Gold produced the first four tracks by way of netting the band a contract and it is astonishing to my ears that captivating songs like “The Way Marlene Moves” fell on deaf ears!
Even harder to believe that this song was ground zero for the Kendrick/Bohem writing partnership. That anyone right out of the gate could craft such potent Power Pop perfection as this song, which chimed in on the one like a piledriver of Pop was almost inconceivable. The song had a backbeat for days that one could get wonderfully lost in. I’m stunned that it’s just reaching ears now, over 40 years later. At the very least, it has all of the right stuff necessary to have been the start of a Bates Motel cult on the Yellow Pills series back in the 90s. By rights, there should have been an indie 7″ of this on Bomp Records that exchanged hands for an easy three figures…for the last 30 years!!
And the rest of it wasn’t chopped liver, either! “Real Time” gave the mic to guitarist Bob Haag and he acquitted himself roundly as the track would have slotted effortlessly into the same FM airwaves that saw The Cars turning heads. And “Only The Young Die Young” was a stone cold classic as well. A short, sharp Power Pop attack that sported a fantastic lyric that I can’t believe no one had thought of before. Fans of early Joe Jackson will need this.
The band also had two more Bates Motel demos that were self-produced and didn’t suffer for not having a pro like Andrew Gold at the boards. Perhaps the third Bates Motel Power Pop classic from this batch was the incredible “Unexpected Overnighters.” Yep, the song is about exactly what you think but even in this hopeful scenario, the band have looked beyond the obvious.
The last Bates Motel demo was the unexpected country music of “Real Love.” Made when country wasn’t cool and only Elvis Costello dared to cross that line in the Rock sand. It began a thread that the band would get back to develop much further down the line.
Then the program shifted back to Gleaming Spires. The non-LP B-side “Walk Right” was the flip side to “How To Get Girls Thru Hypnotism” with another gleaming serving of technopop that was lyrically dark beneath the shiny textures. The disc was capped by the contents of the “Life Out On The Lawn” EP with the title track proffering Gang-Of-Four Art Funk over a martial beat. If we thought that we knew Gleaming Spires after the first album, this waxing from the following year was as radical a shift as possible. The dissonant sprawl of a song almost had whiffs of Zappa as it progressed to its roaring conclusion.
A surprising yet melancholy cover of “Somewhere” from the “West Side Story” score pitted Bohem against a heartbeat rhythm box that eventually swelled to incorporate a chorale of synths as he gave the song all of the fortissimo that it demanded. The concluding “Passion Pit” laid down a hymn of self-laceration where a minimal synth bed and a fatalistic drum track that sounded like accompaniment to an execution.
Wow. This band didn’t pull any punches and their fists were always aimed at their own faces! Their introspection led to levels of devastating self-critique miles beyond any other New Wave bands that I could name. It’s to our considerable benefit that their facility with perky melodies coupled with the inventive production [and playing] of a young Stephen Hague, raring to go after the collapse of Jules + The Polar Bears, allowed “Songs Of the Spires” to be anything but a wrist slitting downer of Titanic proportions.
The band have duly cited Hague’s boundary pushing approach to sound design [they compare him to Brian Eno in this regard] as being intrinsic to the success of the album. One other thing that this reissue sheds light on was the cover design, which had confounded me for 40 years. The three color print job with heavy Dom Casual type made the LP look like one of those self-released albums that littered the pages of Re-Search’s “Incredibly Strange Records” volumes! What were they aiming at with such a diabolically dated design?
As it turned out, the cover art was a very specific pastiche of a Lawrence Ferlinghetti/Kenneth Rexroth poetry album that Fantasy Records released in 1961! Curse me for the novice! It was the kind of reference that children of the 50s like Bohem and Kendrick would have gotten but one that sailed over this child of the 60s head. Mystery solved.
We are lucky to finally have “Songs Of The Spires” on the silver disc after all of this time. Particularly in the ebbing years of the format! For albums not yet issued on CD, I’m inclined to assume that by this point it would never happen. And that this has happened just weeks after I was planing to make my own CDs was utterly delightful. Particularly when Gleaming Spires were far more that the Sparks-lite that I erroneously assumed they were for far too long! While their mojo as musicians made albums like “Angst In My Pants” classics, their own songwriting was far, far darker than that of their “day job.” Inasmuch as I love the New Wave trope of bouncy, jovial music coupled with sombre lyrical content, I have to admit that I’ve never heard it quite as powerfully than in the hands of Gleaming Spires! “Songs Of The Spires” in in a class all of its own in that regard!
And yet, this reissue is also coupled with one of the best Power Pop releases I’ve ever heard! The six Bates Motel demo tracks will rightly be feted by Power Pop fans the world over as having at least three stone cold classics of the genre! And the other three cuts are hardly an embarrassment. That the recordings, made just two years apart paint such a radical shift of style and vision attest to the artistic growth of these musicians. After such a foundation as the one laid here on the first CD, one truly got the impression that Gleaming Spires could go anywhere, and do anything. Pre-order is strongly suggested.
Next: …The Sophomore Leap