1994’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins marks the point at which I really got into Sparks. Sure, I was aware of them from my childhood in the 70s, when they were frequent visitors to Top of the Pops (I’m sure I don’t have to repeat the story about John Lennon seeing Ron Mael and commenting “Hitler’s on the telly!”), but my awareness of them faded along with their UK public profile in the mid-80s and I thought, as I’m sure most people did, that they had stopped recording. Not so, of course; they were releasing albums throughout the late 80s and early 90s, but they were so under-promoted as to be non-existent. Something changed in 1994 however; there was a stirring in the ether, a rumbling in the pop underworld that seemed to suggest Sparks were back – and in a big way.
As I recall, sometime in about 1993, my cousin Neil Johnson had a ‘Best of Sparks’ compilation CD which he was really raving about. I think it was probably 1990’s Mael Intuition, which collected a lot of the Island Records recordings from Kimono My House through to Big Beat. We used the obscure album track Reinforcements from Propaganda to create a scratch video for one of our early spoof sci-fi films and played it a lot when we were editing or just mucking about. We were both aware that Sparks were due to release a new album, as they had started to appear on TV again. Before too long I was in a local branch of Our Price (yup, it was the 90s alright) buying a copy of Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. It wasn’t like the stuff on the 70s compilation – this was a new Sparks, building the foundations for a new millennium.
The music on this album is very dance oriented, but this wasn’t something that just came about with Gratuitous Sax; Music That You Can Dance To from the album of the same name points in this direction, but it’s not until Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins that the Mael boys really nail the dance floor sound. After the 30-second opening number entitled Gratuitous Sax, it’s straight into a pair of songs that define this new version of Sparks. When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way?’ is a laid back dance track that reached Number 32 in the UK charts, the highest charting Sparks single since When I’m With You in 1980. Like all the tracks on this album, it’s entirely electronic – Sparks wouldn’t play with electric guitars as part of the main ‘band’ again until Li’l Beethoven in 2002. When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) was also a moderate hit, reaching Number 36 in the charts; it’s a much harder, balls-to-the-wall dance number – almost a rave number, and 20+ years after their first hit, Russell Mael shows he’s still not remotely lacking in energy.
Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn comes next. It’s a much slower, more reflective piece and is the second time that Sparks have done a Gone with the Wind related song, after their Indiscreet outtake entitled… erm, Gone with the Wind. That’s followed by I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car, a very Sparksian and angular number that could have fitted comfortably on any of Sparks’ previous albums, but its production sets it out as a product of this one. Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil follows a similar pattern to Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn in its laid-back style. Both these songs are delivered in a Sprechgesang style; that’s a German term for a song that is spoken rather than sung, and it’s something and it’s something that Russell Mael has excelled in since the earliest days of Sparks. When I say that he ‘speaks’ the lyrics, I don’t mean in a Rex Harrison ‘I’m doing this because I can’t sing’ way – quite the contrary – Russell speaks them in a smooth, lyrical way that sets Sparks apart from all other bands.
Also released as a single was Now That I Own the BBC, though it did less well than its predecessors, reaching only Number 60 in the UK chart. That’s a shame because it’s a very good song, amusingly detailing how the protagonist buys the British Broadcasting Corporation for £5.00, but then doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s lack of chart success may be down to the fact that it’s jauntier and jokier than the two previous singles, making it less suited for the dance floor, though it does have a an excellent semi-animated video that is well worth a look. This is followed by Tsui Hark, a tribute to the Hong Kong director of such films as Once Upon a Time in China. Russell’s vocals don’t appear at all on this track, which is mainly built around samples from a spoken interview with Tsui Hark himself and Bill Kong, his producer. The Mael brothers are well established fans of Chinese and Japanese cinema and had planned to produce a movie version of Japanese manga Mai the Psychic Girl back in the 1980s, though the project fell through.
The Ghost of Liberace is another number that brings a smile to the face, detailing the ghostly presence of the famous high-camp pianist with a suitably haunting piano-led riff and that is followed by the last full-length track on the original album Let’s Go Surfing. The Mael brothers experimented with Beach Boys-esque sounds on their album Introducing Sparks back in 1977, but despite its title, Let’s Go Surfing isn’t really a paean to Californian surf culture – in fact, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what it’s about (typical Sparks song then) but it’s a great number; probably my favourite on the whole album! In retrospect, Sparks might have been better served in releasing Let’s Go Surfing as the third single instead of Now That I Own the BBC, but hindsight is a pleasing, if impractical, indulgence. With only the brief coda Senseless Violins to button things up, that’s the end of the original release of Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins.
This Special Edition release comes with a further 2 discs worth of material though. Disc 2 starts off with National Crime Awareness Week, a song that was never on any studio album, but which has become a live standard. There are a couple of other unreleased numbers, She’s an Anchorman and an odd version of the Christmas classic Little Drummer Boy, but the majority of this disc is composed of dance remixes of tracks from the main album by artists such as The Grid and Vince Clark. These are an acquired taste and at anything up to 13 minutes in length can often be indulgently long. For me – and this is just a personal opinion – they exist mainly for the dance floor and are pretty unsatisfying listening when sitting at home; basically, they mostly make me want to skip back to the original track.
Disc 3 is much more interesting, consisting of outtakes and demos from the Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins sessions. There are some fascinating unheard numbers on here like Where Did I Leave My Halo and The Farmer’s Daughter, but even more fascinating are a number of demos that feature Ron Mael performing vocals in place of his brother. He’s not actually a terrible singer, though his voice lacks confidence and is much less strident and dramatic than Russell. Also on here are a number of demo tracks produced and performed by Sparks with Christi Haydon. Who’s Christi Haydon, you may ask? Well, she was the dark-haired girl who appeared as drummer with Sparks on the videos and tour for this album; she was a protege of the Mael boys and her demos (including a quirky version of The Who’s Boris the Spider) though very good, failed to earn her a recording contract.
I’ve always loved this album and this Special Edition only serves to make it better. Listening to the tracks that never made it to the album, it’s clear to see that Sparks’ judicious selection of what to include on the final release are what made it the album it is and got it recognised by an apathetic 90s music press. Some of the numbers dropped from the album might have sat very comfortably on Music That You Can Dance To or Interior Design, but it was the choice to concentrate the edgier, dance orientated stuff that drove Sparks forward and arguably put them where they are today. When Sparks launched their Sparks Spectacular in 2008, performing every one of their 21 albums live, my cousin and I had to choose one that we would like to see and, for me at least, there was no choice – it had to be Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. A great Sparks concert and a great Sparks album!