And now we have, for all intents and purposes, the last (and in a way, first) great song of the Glam Slam era; I say last as outside of a couple of hits by Mud and Sweet that era is nearly done at MSBWT, and first as while all of these bands are - or aren't - going to continue, Sparks are just getting started. To say there's no one really like them is an understatement; only this year has another band (Franz Ferdinand) been able to join them onstage as equals, and indeed record an entire album with them as FFS.
And wouldn't it be a couple of Americans - Ron and Russell Mael - who would be able to storm the charts (and, infamously, Top Of The Pops) and show up the scene as being over? Not that I think this is a confrontational song in that way. After all, it starts quietly, with that high nervous tinkle of piano and Russell Mael singing about, of all things, "zoo time" (yes, it's a romantic triangle that starts in a zoo - all those musky smells!) being "she and you time" and the song seems to come into focus as he mentions the "stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers" that then JUMP out into the song and are, as the guitars and drums come in, all but rampaging around, the gunshot like a trigger for their rebellion. And our narrator is brave enough (though nervous, heartbeat increasing) to stay around....
...but this is no song of macho heroism, as that first nervous tinkle propels the song, pausing for breath at times (this always sounds like a song climbing and climbing, trying to avoid vertigo) and appropriately, the next verse sees our triangle in the air, she a stewardess and he is a bombardier and it's Hiroshima they are nearing - but still, the narrator won't leave. All this on a domestic flight? This is romantic anxiety that is blowing everything up, making it bigger than life, but it's not exaggeration if you're experiencing it. And then it descends to a cafe, where he meets her each day, and the rival sees "twenty cannibals" there eating him - they've got to eat too, after all! - and suddenly the idea of Glam seems to fade, right here in front of us. This is not good-time music per se, nor is it about romantic languor (HA) or some kind of dystopian world where the kids will be feral but all right (Bowie)*.
This is sweaty palms, shallow breathing, sure, but also determination. The narrator won't give in no matter how dangerous things are, and scenario after scenario is conjured up and defied. The rival takes a shower ("you've got to look your best for her and be clean everywhere" - that's just not Glam lyricism, there) and in the rainy foreign town "the bullets" can't hit him - because he's too clean, too sleek? And then the last scene, where a census (?!) shows there will be more girls in town, but still not enough - and the derring-do nerves come back once more, leaping up and down - "this town AIN'T big enough not BIG ENOUgh for the Both OF US" - and ends on a high ascending "I ain't gonna LEEAVE" and stops abruptly, so the audience can get used to what they've just heard.
The narrator has more than made his case, if only in his own mind. No wild animals, nuclear explosions, gunfights on deserted streets by cafes, no, nothing is going to stop our high-voiced narrator from getting the girl and defeating his rival. Guitars wail, pianos pound (one Ron Mael stares into the camera and doesn't blink and this just adds to the steely determination of the song) and drums beat time that is Anglophile but somehow not - more fleet of foot, less teathered to "the blues" - Sparks are just different and I've seen them compared to Queen (um, NO) and 10cc (a bit closer, but still, no). ("Amateur Hour" was their next hit, and is funny and sexy and yes, the girls did scream...)
This is instinctive music, dramatic, playful - you get the idea that no genre of music is off limits to Sparks, no lyrical idea too weird. (This song seems to come out of a musical, for instance.) This song marks the real start, I feel, towards not punk so much as post-punk**; a kind of follow-your-own-path sense that prizes skill, sure, but also awkwardness, singularity, experimental-mindedness. Compare this to the Glam-by-numbers of "Sugar Baby Love" and you can see how this song's increasing heartbeats are somehow truer to life than the 50s throwback at the top; it's more alive, it's rock music without being beholden to "rock" - it is the leap forward, forward to Glasgow, to London, to Dundee, to anywhere that longs for something new. Just as The Beatles brought American music back to America, Sparks have brought British music back to the British; a big claim, but a valid one, I feel...
Next up: There, and yet not.
*In case you were wondering, I was supposed to write about ChangesBowie over at Then Play Long, but the prospect of doing so gave me a literal headache.
** Siouxie and the Banshees covered this on their Through The Looking Glass album
in '87, which is when I first heard the song; Sparks have always been
more popular in the UK than in their native land - and while she tries
her best, she's too serious. This is a tough song to sing though, and she does get through it very well.