By Matt Keeley
Sparks are awesome.
This is a given.
And, finally, Sparks have joined the rank of awesome things that have books about them. Two books, actually: Talent Is An Asset has already been reviewed in Popshifter, so now we bring you the other unauthorized Sparks bio, Dave Thompson’s Sparks: No. 1 Songs In Heaven.
Like Talent, “unauthorized” doesn’t mean “steamy;” Thompson is no Kitty Kelley, which is fine by me. When I read these sorts of books, I don’t really particularly care about the various paramours Ron’s had, or Russell’s favorite sex position. I want to know about the records: how they were written, how they were recorded, all that sorta stuff. And Thompson delivers; in fact, there’s nothing much at all about Sparks’ personal lives. It’s get about as in depth as featuring interviews where it’s revealed that the Maels:
a) Enjoy eating fancy food at classy restaurants;
b) Are pretty straight-laced, don’t enjoy partying, and look down on drinking, smoking; and drugs; and
c) Are basically pretty nice guys.
It’s also revealed that the Maels are workaholics who are very focused on their music and writing, which makes sense, given the amount of craft and skill that goes into the Sparks records.
But I suppose I’m making it sound that Thompson’s book isn’t enlightening or important, and that’s wrong; it’s got a lot of behind-the-scenes material, along with interviews with many of the people in the different lineups of the backing bands.
David Kendrick (the drummer from the early ’80s era, referred to in the book as the KROQ era, due to that station’s championing of Sparks) gets a lot of pages, which is welcome as he was a Sparks fan before he was their drummer, so you get both perspectives on the band. Likewise with Tammy Glover (their current drummer . . . and, as it’s revealed, the VP in charge of production at Comedy Central!).
In Less Lee’s review of Talent, she mentioned that the book gave a large platform to Martin Gordon (the first bassist of Sparks’ UK lineup) to vent his vitriol against the Maels. While Thompson does interview Gordon (and Adrian Fisher, the guitarist from that lineup who likewise wasn’t 100% happy), it’s relatively even-handed. Gordon mentions good things about Sparks, and while he doesn’t hold back, Thompson cuts the bile by including other views as well as actually following up on some of Gordon’s claims of mistreatment. Thompson doesn’t ever make a final statement either way, but he puts both sides out there.
Sparks: No. 1 Songs In Heaven is thoroughly researched and well written. The prose flows and removes the author from the forefront, something I enjoy in books like this. Thompson isn’t afraid to disclose his opinions on particular records, but he doesn’t go on tirades with pet theories either like some music bios I’ve read (Michael Gray’s Zappa bio Mother comes to mind).
Since Sparks: No. 1 Songs In Heaven was published in the UK, it does focus mostly on the initial Island years (as well as the lead up to that with the Bearsville records), though most of the other records don’t get short shrift. (Interior Design only gets about three pages, but honestly, that’s easily the weakest Sparks record, so that sounds about right.) Thompson doesn’t necessarily stick to the expected canon—Terminal Jive and the absolutely underrated Music That You Can Dance To get more coverage than you might expect—and he even provides an in-depth discography including Exotic Creatures of the Deep, along with just about every bootleg you know and even some you don’t.
The only downside is that the look of the book doesn’t match the content. It’s a relatively expensive book (15 pounds, or about $25), but it looks like it was typeset in Microsoft Word, using—not joking—MS Comic Sans as the font. Likewise, some of the pictures are pixellated or otherwise mangled (including an article reprint that’s rendered unreadable by a huge blur in the middle). I can imagine someone flipping through the book and thinking it’s a cheap cash-in, which is really too bad, as it’s not. And honestly? You never realize what a hard-to-read font Comic Sans is until you read 250 pages of it.
Sparks: No 1. Songs In Heaven deserves much better than that (perhaps Garamond?) and I hope that the ugly look of its contents doesn’t scare folks off from this exceptional volume that’s an essential read for Sparks fans. (Which, if it’s not obvious, you should all be. They’re grand.)
Sparks: No. 1 Songs In Heaven is available from Cherry Red Records.
Still jonesin’ for Sparks? Kittysneezes.com, edited by Matt Keeley, is currently working on an album-by-album guide to the Sparks Albums. Be sure to read along. . . . and if you’ve got somethin’ to say, you’re welcome to contribute! Just email firstname.lastname@example.org for the details!