Features

Producing Sparks Was the Best Thing Giorgio Moroder Ever Did

We look back at seminal 1979 collaboration between two art-rock weirdos and a producer at the height of his powers.

by Josh Baines
02 June 2017, 11:27am

Yesterday morning I watched the sun rise over the tufty, tatty banks of River Lea. The marshes, filled at weekends with the shouts and cries of a thousand amatuer footballers, hummed with emptiness. All I wanted was a brief respite from the election, just a few minutes without Corbyn, Rudd, and the rest of them.

Even out there in the semi-wilderness, with the Olympic park partially obscured by shrub and scrub, I found myself following mental pathways that saw me wandering right into the pages of The New Statesman. Pained by the perpetuity of politics, I considered dunking my head in amongst the ducks, absconding myself from work in order to spend the day semi-submerged, frying up fish on the sizzling starboard of a dilapidated narrowboat.

Worried that doing so would result in me missing out in very important tweets by DJs and producers—about the election or Trump or global humanitarian crises or the increase in price of Freddo bars over the years—I hot-footed it into the office, casting aside daydreams of momentary self-sufficiency and nettle soup. On the way there, sat on the back seat of the top deck of a 48, I was assaulted by yet more politics; every mouth in my periphery was a vessel for parliamentary discussion. I slammed my lugholes shut with earbuds, supplanting the talk of costs with the soothing sounds of music.

In times like these, times where the world feels a tad suffocating, all of us seek some kind of release, however momentary it may be. The release I sought, and happily found, was provided by two very strange brothers from Los Angeles and a friend who hailed from South Tyrol, a province that straddles Italy and Germany like a pizza eating Franz Beckenbauer.

No. 1 in Heaven by Sparks—everyone's favourite massively OTT, art-rock, baroque-pop sibling double act—is an unimpeachable masterpiece. It is also Giorgio Moroder's masterpiece, too.

Ron and Russ Mael still remain most well known, outside of the kind of people who spend the majority of their free time in piss-stinking basements around the world picking up papercuts from flicking through shabby 12"s in record shop after record shop, for their 1974 glammy-stomper, "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us." That song, which landed at number two in the UK charts in September that year, saw the group burst in the nation's living rooms with a memorable Top of the Pops appearance, prompting a bemused John Lennon to tell Yoko that he'd seen "Hitler on the telly."

Riding the crest of a glam rock wave churned up by the likes of Slade, blessed with an idiosyncratic look—Russ with his poodle 'do and Ron with that tache—Sparks could, and probably should, have been huge. Despite longstanding critical acclaim, and the kind of devoted fanbase that most acts would do terrible, terrible things for, they never really made it big. Which is, on one hand, a pity, and on the other, sort of fantastic for everyone. Apart from their accountants.

What's fantastic about a group never making the kind of money that means they can sit out their old age on marble toilets, slowly drinking themselves to death with cocktails made from the cinnamon schnapps that's riddled with little slivers of gold? Well, for one thing, it gives them room to breathe, and in turn that breathing room allows for exploration and that exploration leads to a situation where a pair of clever blokes who wrote songs called things like "Thank God It's Not Christmas," and "Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)" end up recording a record of hi-NRG club music with a disco producer at the peak of his powers.

I know, I know, it's all too easy to think of Giorgio Moroder as just another embarrassing participant on Daft Punk's ultimately embarrassing Random Access Memories, or the befuddled old grandpa who occasionally stumbles into the light of the press to inform us that Skrillex's tour manager's cousin's older sister's newest boyfriend's ex-best friend's high school geography teacher's stepson is the future of electronic music.

Before all that, and please, let's all commit an act of collective misremembering and pretend that 2015's Déjà Vu never happened, Giorgio was one of the musicians who revolutionised what dance music was and pointed to what it could become. It was his work with disco diva Donna Summer that brought the studio boffin to Sparks' attention. I have often tried to imagine exactly what "I Feel Love" must have felt like upon release, to no avail. I even asked my mum the question one recent bank holiday when Ken Bruce played it on Radio 2. She had no memory of hearing it out at the time. Which given that she would have been twelve sort of makes sense.

Anyway, the basic point is this: oddball, arch glam-tinged American dudes decide to hook up with a man who was turning dancefloors inside out the world over, for a six track mini-album of lugubrious, cokey, shiny disco that still sounds like the future nearly 40 years after its initial release. Why, though, should you care? Here's six reasons why you should care. Oh, and the album too:

1. "Tryouts for the Human Race"

No.1 in Heaven kicks off with a track that sounds like Patrick Cowley collaborating with Klaus Nomi, and basically that's how all albums should start. You've got Moroder's vintage jumpy arpeggios rattling around, Russ' quasi-operating vocals weaving in and out of the mix, singing about god knows what, and some absolutely lacerating synth stabs that slash through the track like a hot fidget spinner through Lurpak. "Tryouts for the Human Race" is a song that'd be just as at home on the dancefloor of Studio 54 as on the soundtrack to an unfinished late-70s space opera. Woosh!

2. "Academy Award Performance"

I've got a mate who likes irritating music, and he makes great, irritating music himself—as The Serious Adults—and he loves Sparks more than pretty much anyone I know. In fact, I'd say a good 94% of the texts we've exchanged over the last 15 years of so have consisted of one of us sending the name of a Sparks song plus "ahahhaahha", with the "ahahhaahha" as a mark of quality. I think he loves Sparks because they are really irritating, and this is the most irritating thing they've ever done. In a good way of course. Giorgio dropping those horrible Syndrums all over the place, the nagging insistence of the chords, and Russell basically sending his voice into dog whistle territory all adds up to a supreme irritation—sort of like falling in a patch of nettles halfway your wedding reception.

3. "La Dolce Vita"

Ever since Aziz Ansari used it in Master of None, everyone and their little brother's playing "Dolce Vita" by Ryan Paris. That's a good song, and I'm sure it's used well in the sitcom, but I wouldn't know because the first series seemed to forget that an integral part of any sitcom is jokes, and I wasn't really sure that just saying "Uber" a lot and being very self-referentially "lol I'm a millennial" counted as jokes. As good as a song as it is, it isn't actually the best with the phrase "Dolce Vita" in the title because that accolade goes to "La Dolce Vita' by Sparks, which might be one of mankind's great achievements of the 20th century. I hope Aziz Ansari never uses it to soundtrack a whimsical scene in which he mistakes a potential partner's Tinder profile for that of an escaped criminals.

4. "Beat the Clock"

BEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCKBEAT THE CLOCK YA GOTTA BEAT THE CLOCK.

5. My Other Voice

We tend to associate old Giorgio with a kind of rambunctious, jumpy, jittery sound—the cokey disco sheen that makes everything sound a bit like being on the waltzers with Grace Jones and Andy Warhol. "My Other Voice", a song that feels like being rolled into a ball of the finest silk at sunset in paradise, is proof that he isn't just a pump-merchant. This is as luxurious as music gets, and smoother than William Hague doused in Vaseline to boot.

6. "The Number One Song in Heaven"

More songs should be about being the number one song in Heaven because surely, in some way, that's what all music aspires to right? From the harshest sociopathic noise producer to Gary Barlow, who wouldn't want to hear their own music as Saint Peter opens those gates? I reckon that Giorgio, Ron, and Russ might be in luck, because they're the only dudes around who've ever admitted to wanting to be the number one in heaven. One day we'll find out, eh lads! And then, if only then, will I be proved conclusively right: No.1 in Heaven by Sparks is the best thing Giorgio Moroder ever did.

Josh is on Twitter