While some bands loudly extol their own virtues through splits, reformations and 47th farewell tours, there are other bands that just tick along in the cultish shadows being quietly magnificent. Sparks are the epitome of such a band. Formed in 1972 as Halfnelson by two groups of brothers, the Maels and the Mankeys, Sparks only chart success when the Mankey boys departed and the Maels left their native California for glam-era Blighty. They scored a massive hit with This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us and wavered in and out of the charts for the next decade or so. Unlike most glam-era acts, they survived the sinking of the genre by constantly reinventing themselves; as synth-pop pioneers in the late 70s, darlings of the rave scene in the 90s and experimental art rocks in the 2000s. In 2008 they celebrated their many years in the business by giving a live performance of every one of their 22 albums! They’ve released another 4 since then.
Past Tense: The Best of Sparks is available in 2 versions. Firstly, for the casual fan, there’s the 2-disc version, containing all the hits, all the songs you’ve ever heard of and a smattering of others that are guaranteed to become new favourites. For the connoisseur however, we the 3-disc version, which delves deeper into Sparks’ back catalogue and is a thoroughly indulgent collection. It says a lot about the consistent quality of Sparks’ music that, even at a beefy 58 tracks, there’s nothing at all that feels like filler. Like many bands, Sparks had a ‘wilderness’ period, but unlike those bands, they haven’t overlooked those years when it came to this album. Even the largely forgotten late-80s albums Music That You Can Dance To and Interior Design are represented in this collection. And why not? Even Sparks’ wilderness years were better than a lot of bands’ salad days.
Disc One covers the first 10 years or so of Sparks, from their debut album A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing through to their collaboration with synthesiser wunderkind Georgio Moroder on the album No.1 in Heaven. For those who think of Sparks as a 70s band, this is the stuff that they will be familiar with; included here are This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, Amateur Hour, Something for the Girl with Everything and Beat the Clock, which are arguably their biggest and most recognisable hits. But there are also a lot of great album tracks from the LPs that spawned those hit singles and little-heard rarities from their first couple of albums before they made it big in Europe. Songs like Get in the Swing and Looks, Looks, Looks demonstrate that Sparks aren’t just a guitar band or a synth band and are capable of experimenting with lots of different styles and genres. Their smoochy version of the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand isn’t their greatest moment, but it does represent a complete rarity in this collection – a Sparks cover version!
Disc Two contains the bulk of the ‘wilderness’ material, although it begins with a couple of big hits, The Number One Song in Heaven and When I’m With You. The latter is probably a song that a lot of people will remember without actually realising that it was Sparks, though to listen to it now, it contains all the hallmarks of the band. After parting company with Georgio Moroder, the Mael brothers drifted from label to label; so much so that it’s a miracle they’ve managed to bring together a lot of this music in a single collection. As their popularity waned in Europe, they had a slight resurgence in their native US, scoring a hit with Cool Places, a collaboration with Jane Wiedlin. They circled the early days of MTV without making a massive impact and, bafflingly, had a residency as the in-house band at Disneyland! I’ve always had a fondness for the track Music That You Can Dance To (from the album of the same name) and I’m glad to see it popping up here; this is a number that definitely points the way to their dance music revival in the 90s.
1994’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins brought Sparks back into the UK Top 40 with When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’ peaking at No.38. It may not sound like much, but it’s a hell of a lot higher than Sparks had achieved for a good few years and a greater achievement than any other 20+ year old band that I can think of. High profile appearances on trendy music shows like Channel 4’s The White Room demonstrated that Sparks were still a potent musical force. Disc 2 concludes with 3 tracks from Gratuitous Sax; When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’, (When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing and the wonderful Let’s Go Surfing. It’s a much more dance-orientated sound than what has gone before, but it’s still unmistakeably Sparks. Constant reinvention is what has kept the Mael Boys on top and it can be argued that without this foray into dance music, they could have ended up a bit too cultish to be financially viable.
Disc 3 starts with Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat from Plagiarism, an album of reinvented covers of their older songs. Many of the tracks on Plagiarism were collaborations with artists such as Erasure, Jimmy Summerville and Faith No More, but they’ve wisely selected a number that features only the stars of the show. The album Li’l Beethoven featured Sparks at their most experimental, playing with the concept of repetition as a lyrical device. This might sound a little dubious, but Li’l Beethoven was their best album in years, critically lauded across the globe and there are three tracks from that album included here. If you’re not sure what I mean by the use of repetition, try listening to My Baby’s Taking Me Home and I’m sure you’ll get the picture. Also included is Suburban Homeboy, the jauntiest tribute to hardcore rap that you’re ever likely to hear!
A solid collection of tracks from Sparks’ most recent albums makes Disc 3 probably my favourite, including Lighten Up, Morissey from Exotic Creatures of the Deep, Johnny Delusional from Sparks’ collaboration with Franz Ferdinand F.F.S. and the wonderful Edith Piaf (Said It Better) from their most recent album Hippopotamus, which reached No.7 in the UK album charts in 2017. The album wraps up with Check Out Time 11am, previously only available as a digital download. This is a fantastic and very comprehensive collection of Sparks songs that I’d really recommend to anyone who has an interest in good music (if you’re already a fan, I’m sure I don’t have to recommend it) and it’s definitely the definitive compilation album. As I said before, it can’t have been an easy job bringing together tracks from so many different labels over such a space of time, so bravo to all concerned. And this may be called Past Tense, but this is by no means the end for Sparks; they have a new album in the works and a documentary film on the way from Edgar Wright, so you should definitely point one ear towards Past Tense and the other tentatively towards the future.