Released today in 1985: Change

London LON69

London LON69

An odd choice for the Smash Hits cover if ever there was one, Sparks were, as the introduction to the article inside the 24 January 1980 issue said, “the strangest musical brothers to have arrived, disappeared without trace, and then re-emerged anew in the past ten years.” Formed as Halfnelson in the late 1960s, Ron (older; keyboardist; moustache; the slightly scary one) and Russell (younger; singer; exhaustingly energetic stage presence) Mael had a string of hits on the Island label in the mid-1970s, most famously This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, during a period in which they were resident in the UK. In 1976 they returned to their native America, leaving behind their English backing band, and completed a sixth album with session musicians which failed to chart. At the time of their appearance in Smash Hits, they were working with disco producer Giorgio Moroder on a largely electronic, new wave-influenced album for Virgin records called Number One In Heaven, the lead single for which (Beat The Clock) delivered them a surprise return to the UK Top 10.

They wouldn’t have another hit here for fifteen years, although they came close with Change, released 30 years ago today, which included on its B-side an acoustic version of This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us. They supported this release with a number of promotional appearances, including a typically theatrical rendering of the song on the early-evening chat show ‘Wogan’, as mainstream a programme as it was possible to guest on. Goodness knows what the audience thought of them: when wide-eyed, unsmiling Ron broke away from his keyboard for his little interpretive dance section mid-song, it was like watching one of those nightmarish sequences from a David Lynch movie. (Footage of the appearance can be tracked down on YouTube.)

Interestingly, while Change wasn’t selected as a single in the US, the 80s did bring them their only hits on the Hot 100. In a reversal of fortune, of the seven studio albums they released during the decade, three charted in the US and none charted here. (In fact, it wasn’t until 1994’s Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins that they would have another hit album in Britain.) Throughout the 80s, the brothers were the only constant members of Sparks and they experimented with the nature of what it meant to be a ‘band’. They remain innovative and creative to this day, ignoring current trends and determinedly following their own muse. Last month they were on stage at Glastonbury 2015, performing as part of a kind of super-group that the BBC website for the event described as the merging of “art-disco indie kids Franz Ferdinand and the theatrically arch post-glam rockers Sparks”. Named FFS, they released a self-title album at the same time. The initials, of course, stand for ‘Franz Ferdinand Sparks’. What did you think they stood for?

NEW SINGLES on sale from Jul. 12
SPARKS Change (London LON69)


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