Sparks (Russell and Ron Mael, above) have an informative new website
at London's Capital Radio, 1979
The following transcript features Russell Mael of Sparks being interviewed on London's Capital Radio early in 1979, just prior to the release of 'Number One In Heaven' (the slightly combative interviewer is Maggie Norden).
Music: Tryouts For The Human Race
Maggie Norden: This is where we go disco for the next few moments. Disco produced by Giorgio Moroder but with vocals from - well see if you can recognise them...
The music continues
That's it, it's Sparks! Which did seem to me a curious combination!
Russell Mael: Yeah, it does!
Giorgio and Sparks! Russell Mael welcome back to London. I think it's an incredible mixture. Whose idea was it?
Well, it was actually our idea. About a year ago we approached Giorgio wanting to do an electronic sort of album that had touches of disco elements in it as well. We wanted to work in a format similar to the way Giorgio's worked but Ron play all the keyboard-synthesizer things and just do a lot of multi-tracking, building up the things all on his own and then, later, adding a drummer to overdub on top of what's already been there and finally adding my vocals.
And it's a style that Ron really like working in and we wanted to find somebody that was compatible to that method - and we approached Giorgio and he said 'Sì, sì ragazzi! [translation: yes, boys!] I'd like to work with you'. And we, er, recorded the album!
It has taken about a year, over a year's time, to do the album. We haven't worked steady on it for that time but it's been recorded over about a period of a year.
Well, I think the question has to asked: how important is the vocal on a record with such rhythm and drive anyhow, the 'disco beat' he produces?
I think that's one of the interesting elements of our record: that it's not just another disco record. I think the combination of my singing and some more, or some less, traditional disco elements makes it a really bizarre album. And I think that makes it a lot harder to pinpoint exactly what it is. My singing definitely isn't your average black female 'shouter'. And I think the combination of the two elements is what excited Giorgio, in fact, to get involved with the project.
Music: My Other Voice
Ron basically came with a lot of ideas and we never, I mean, it was never really discussed that this would be a 'disco' album it was just, sort of, done in that kind of format. We didn't sit around and say 'Giorgio, we need to go disco', it was just we kicked around ideas and we came with songs and with some of the songs Giorgio said 'Yes, I like that song', and other ones he said 'No, I don't like that song', and it was really a democratic sort of situation. Everybody kicked around ideas.
And this was the first album that we've ever done where we've really let a producer get involved in the writing - because we've always been really strong individuals and have never wanted anybody tampering with our precious little songs! This was the first time where we had somebody else get involved on that level and somebody that we really respect musically.
I supposed what interested me is how important is the song? You give it to this great producer, everything he touches has that marvelous feel to it, you can dance to it. But when we're thinking about a Sparks song, in the past, it was the vehicle for a lot of melody. 'Looks, Looks, Looks', for example. I mean, you've said the song is no longer untouchable, it's not a precious Sparks song, help us, produce us, but what happens to the song? I mean, I think it becomes relatively unimportant?
Well, I don't know. I still think that the basis for all of, you know, pop music, rock music, whatever, is songs - are songs, whatever - I don't know my grammar too well! And if the song isn't there then the thing, I don't know, there isn't much to it. I think the songs still are incredibly important.
And then it's just when you do have the song how you shape it, what sort of method you choose to record it. What sort of style and what sort of instrumentation. We still went from the song angle as opposed to just the sound, even though this album has a sound all to itself with the synthesizers and everything, we still started with songs. We didn't just go in and try for interesting effects
Music: La Dolce Vita
Ron played everything on this album. All the synthesizers. But we are going to tour sometime in the near future and we're going to have three synthesizer players. Ron and two other fellows, and it's going to be 'goodbye to guitars!' for Sparks. No more guitars. They're a thing of the past, anyway. Who needs another lead guitar player in a rock band?!
Well I must say I had the album on at home and someone walked into the room and said "That sounds like the Space album 'Just Blue'", and then someone else walked in and said "Ah, that sounds like the soundtrack from the Alan Parker movie". And yet some people think that disco keyboard is anonymous...
Music: The Number One Song In Heaven
Er... well, I don't know. I suppose it has got a certain icy, cold quality to it that gives it a certain 'sameness' to some of the tracks. But, I don't know, I think that the sound in it is a much more futuristic sort of sound. And for me it's the present and it's possibly the future and I don't know - I was just bored with rock and roll guitars! Just the whole concept of it turns my stomach these days!
How optimistic are you? If we take the single 'Number One Song In Heaven', as you know on Capital we made friends with Sparks quite a while ago with 'This Town Ain't Big Enough' what about this song -
Those were the good old days when you made friends with us! Now you've got to start playing our records so we can continue our friendship!
Actually, it was Ron's idea, lyrically it was Ron's idea, just the concept of when you get up there - if you get up there, if you make it there - instead of the other place, the idea of what they would be playing up there. Just that whole idea sounded kind of interesting and, since he's got such a warped mind, he came up with that whole thing. And then he just decided to base a song around it. Melodically it's a collaboration of the three of us. But Ron wrote all the lyrics on this it.
Just before I came to London he [Moroder] phoned me up and said he's got this revolutionary new recording technique which he won't tell a soul, he wouldn't tell me, what it was. And he said that he's going to use it on his next solo album which he's going to start at the end of April. And he said if all turns out well we'll use whatever this mystery technique is on our album. So we'll see what that is all about!
A silly thought really: if you were being a purist would you say there's anyone who couldn't work with Giorgio? It really wouldn't gel?
Oh yeah! Because for Giorgio it's not only the musical side to it. He'll never work with a person unless he can get along with them personally. Because for him now, with his success with Donna Summer and everything, he just doesn't need the headaches of a lot of temperamental artists.
And so for him it's sort of a total package. If he finds the person stimulating in different avenues he'll pursue it. But if it's going to be somebody that's going to present a lot of headaches for him he's just rather stay out of it. So it's not only a musical thing. He's been approached now by, I mean, literally every out of work performer that there is wants to get in touch with Giorgio!
He's really - I feel honoured, too - he's really discriminating with who he's working with these days.
Mael, thank you.