Sparks, The Number One Song In Heaven (1979)

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Artist: Sparks
Title: The Number One Song In Heaven
Description: single; album track, No. 1 In Heaven
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it …

Some people actually change music. Chuck Berry is one. Bob Dylan is another. Dee Dee Ramone is another still. Many are called “pioneering” and “influential”, but few will be left standing come the revolution. Music is sometimes changed by accident. It is rarely changed in a vacuum. In terms of pop and rock, it has been most evidently changed by Americans, primarily, and by the British, in spurts. In 1976 it was changed by an Italian working in West Germany.

I speak of Giorgio Moroder, who programmed, sequenced, sampled and synthesised the track that would become I Feel Love for Donna Summer in the year of punk. According to the sleeve notes to the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, Brian Eno ran into the studio in Berlin where he was working with David Bowie and declared, of I Feel Love, “I have heard the sound of the future.”

Fast forward, as they say, to 1978. Sibling Los Angelinos Ron and Russell Mael haven’t had a hit for three years. After an incredible, head-turning entrée in 1974 when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops looking and sounding like nothing else on earth with the hysterical This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, they had enjoyed a through-wind of similarly high-pitched, low-riding constellations of camp throughout ’75 – Amateur Hour, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, Something For The Girl With Everything, Get In The Swing and Looks Looks Looks (not all of which made Top Of The Pops) – and then the signal went dead.

Criminally unappreciated in their own country – and thus perfectly used to being ignored – they’d emigrated here to bask in European appreciation of their wild cocktail of Weimar song-and-dance and Glam pomp, but two albums made in LA, Big Beat and the ironically titled Introducing Sparks, yielded not a hit. What had seemed like a pop revolution led by one curly haired man shrieking melodically into a mic and another with a Chaplin moustache and a tie either glaring or grinning from behind a keyboard, needed a kick up the seventies. And Giorgio Moroder was the studio mandarin to provide it.

Apart from clean live drums by the great Keith Forsey, the album they made in Musicland Studios in Munich was entirely created on keyboards and synths (the polar opposite of a Queen LP). In streamlining to the duo most people thought they already were, Sparks set the template for a decade’s worth of electric double acts with no penis substitutes. All three hits from No. 1 In Heaven, with its saucy, nursey sleeve (hey, I was 17 at the time) are top of the shop. The resolute even-bigger-hit Beat The Clock hypnotises me still (“ba-ba-bye!”), and Tryouts For The Human Race is an abandoned groover, but there is nothing to ace Number One Song In Heaven.

It’s like an album condensed into one track, at least it is in the symphonic, seven-and-a-half-minute 12-inch version. (Was it the 12-inch or the album that came as a picture disc? It was mine and Craig’s dedicated disco-kid pal Andy who owned the product; his was the first singles collection I’d encountered that was kept in an albums case. I rather suspect he had the 12-inch of I Feel Love, too. If he was gay, we were too provincial at that stage to appreciate just how cool that might have been. He certainly had a best friend who was a girl. What a guy.)

It’s Sparks, but not as we who enjoyed the brisk pop of Amateur Hour knew it. The defining executive-length version of Number One Song In Heaven is more than a song. It begins, alluringly, with a prelude, motored by a snare rhythm and heralded by angelic hosts proclaiming and syn-drums (as they were regrettably trademarked) calling like space-age seabirds. Although stick is definitely striking some kind of polymer here, the soundscape is essentially binary code. But when Forsey clumps epically around his possibly hexagonal kit and the 7-inch version blooms into effervescent life, the world stands still. We all stood still.

This is pop music to inspire awe. Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it. Russell sounds boyishly engergised by the new, electronic place he’s found to dwell – no more “West Coast” sound; no more touring band – and Ron, a future collector of Nike trainers (or so he told me when I met the superhuman pair in 2002), was already about the keyboards in 1974, so he’s in his boffinly element. Moroder simply thrills, providing a safe place and a new frontier for our old pals from the City of Angels. There’s a bridge where all futuristic bleep-and-booster hell breaks loose, and it sounds for all the world less like a number 14 pop hit and more like the machines have taken over. The Terminator, but benign, and catchy.

It makes perfect sense that the Maels re-emerged in the 21st century as orchestral chamber-pop stylists; had they been born a couple of centuries earlier they’d have been writing concertos for kings and queens.

After this phenomenal rally, Sparks slipped out of the UK charts that had suckled them for so long, finding sanctuary in the US Club Play chart right into the 90s. Sparks always made sense; it was the rest of us that had to catch up and align with their way of working and wry sense of humour (“Written, of course, by the mightiest hand”). I’m stupidly proud that “we” appreciated them when their countrymen didn’t (and it’s not like me to discover national pride). Although their last actual mainstream Top 10 hit was in Germany, where all this began.

Metronomy, The Look (2011)

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Artist: Metronomy
Title: The Look
Description: single; album track, The English Riviera
Label: Because Music
Release date: 2011
First heard: 2011

Oh yeah. I can feel the cool breeze on my face as I risk everything and sail this close to the present. It makes me feel so … alive. Can a song I heard for the very first time just over three years ago really be included in The 143? Well, I’ve just proved it. Yes it can.

In many ways, this entry is perhaps the purest of them all, as the only objective context to subjectively influence my decision to induct it is that I heard the song when the album was dropped in my 6 Music pigeonhole by a friendly radio plugger, loved it at first listen and have been playing it regularly ever since (at the expense of anything else on its parent album). I know next to nothing about the band Metronomy, but that’s not important. I know I saw them on Later around the same time, and they performed this deceptively simple tune (and The Bay) live, so I had in mind that they were a band of three men and one woman and that was enough. I knew that The Look was special.

It wasn’t yet a single when I first heard it in situ, as I am old-fashioned enough to feel duty-bound to do. Then it was simply Track 4 on third album The English Riviera. (I didn’t know they were from Devon; I do now.) She Wants had been the lead-off single choice. But you didn’t need to be Mystic Meg to hear The Look at a potential smash hit. Some light research tells me that it reached 190 in the UK Charts, a giddy height Metronomy singles have yet to match. (It did better in France; they do better in France.) Because the band had somehow filtered through to me, and because I simply take zero interest in the UK Chart, I had assumed, in a cavalier fashion, that Metronomy were a chart band. They most certainly were not in 2011. The album, unhindered by a Mercury nomination, actually broke the Top 30, but only just. Their most recent LP, of whose existence I was blissfully unaware, went Top 10. I’m only discovering all this today. Literally today.

That I appear to love a song that wasn’t a hit single makes no difference to me. I have never heard the band’s previous albums. But The English Riviera is a British album to restore my faith not in modern music but in myself. If you are in my company for long enough, you will hear me exclaim that modern music does very little for me. When, in yesterday’s Guardian, I read that the album is apparently dead (sales of individual downloads have bypassed traditional album sales, suggesting an inevitable shift in listening habits from long-form to quick-fix – actually it’s more like the death of context), my first thought was: well, I’ve got plenty of albums to be going on with.

In truth, I do not add to my record collection that often. Since leaving 6 Music, I have to be sufficiently moved by something on Later, or 6 Music, to actually truffle it out and listen to it again. But then I ask: is it worth money? Usually not. Sometimes – Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire – it is, and I doggedly repair to the actual Rough Trade shop to buy an action clunky old CD. But the gaps between purchases are widening. This is not modern music’s doing, it’s my own. I’ve gone and got older, that’s all.

So, The Look. Such a significant song. So meaningful in that even though it arrived free of charge in my pigeonhole before I had the chance to invest money in the band and their record company, I wanted to keep it. I wanted to cherish it and save it for a rainy day. From the palm-tree cover design, through the seagull noises and crashing waves that open the album and bleed evocatively under We Broke Free, this album is just the sort of archly knowing yet affectionately sincere English statement that used to be a Prefab Sprout album in my graduate years. The dominant, squirky synth sounds are countered by the warm verité of Joseph Mount’s high-pitched Glam vocals and those minor guitar chords, the cocktail salt-rimmed by what sounds like actual school percussion.

There’s more seaside in the ersatz Wurlitzer organ, which fades nostalgically in, artfully placed by Mount within a cavernous ballroom echo, creating melancholy and uplift, irony and sincerity at the same time, and what you would have to pigeonhole as a killer hook. It never wavers, never misses a rep, while Mount trills about “going round in circles”, which might describe the structure of the song itself, nudged on by a remedial but actual, analogue drum beat and given new colours by sunbursts of guitar and what might actually be a Stylophone, strategically inferred to ensnare the mums and dads, who remember which TV star used to advertise it.

I find the lyric about “this town” utterly endearing and personal; double-edged and defiant. The protagonists from this town which we must assume to be Totnes are “always running round” a place Mount describes without a sneer as “the oldest friend of mine”. Its small-mindedness and routines bite hard (“And to think they said we’d never make anything better than this”), but hope springs eternal: “Remember all the things we took, took.”

It’s a song you can play over and over and over again, without pause. It’s almost analgesic. It makes you want to go and live on the South coast and occupy a place where everyone knows you’re trouble. It would be unfair to pin all my jaded, beaten-up, won’t-get-fooled-again hopes on Metronomy, whose names I barely know and whose career I have only half-followed. But on this side of the sea, they seem the best bet for a bright future. And if not, it doesn’t matter. They have achieved greatness in my house, where I do like to be beside this A-side.

Cud, Rich And Strange (1992)

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Artist: Cud
Title: Rich And Strange
Description: single; album track, Asquarius
Label: A&M
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Holy Moses, here we go again …

OK, here’s the timeline.

1985 Cud form around various art courses at Leeds Polytechnic
1990 Cud’s second proper album Leggy Mambo, on Imaginary, reaches me at the NME. I love it
16 October 1991 I see Cud live for the first time and meet them afterwards at Manchester International II
27 May 1992 I see Cud for the second time live at Wakefield Rooftop Gardens and sit in for AWOL drummer Steve Godwin for Rich And Strange at the soundcheck (photographic evidence is taken of this momentous occasion)
June 1992 I see Cud live at Glastonbury
July 1992 As features editor of NME, I commission Cud’s first and only NME cover story (but do not write it)
1995 Cud split
2006 Cud re-form
2003-2011 I develop a happy if inaccurate reputation for being the only DJ on 6 Music who plays Cud (although I do play them a lot)
11 November 2012 Cud invite me to sit it on the drums again at Brixton Academy to play Rich And Strange when they support Carter USM and the Neds, this time to an actual audience of fans. It is one of the greatest moments of my life

Now, can I separate my love of this song and this band from my own personal history with both? Yes, is the resounding answer. (And in any case, when was The 143 not personal?) I will state for the record that, as the timeline indicates, I fell for Cud’s crazy, toe-tapping pop-rock music before meeting them as tremendous people. And I’d already identified Rich And Strange as a high watermark of their already prolific canon based on a promo cassette of it, which will have arrived from A&M Records in the NME mailbag in early 1992. They hooked me in with their music, these voluble art-rockers, and then landed me with their personalities. But what is a great band if not the sum of its own members’ personalities? Cud stood out then, and stand out now, because they created their own cool, rather than follow a signposted footpath. In Carl Puttnam, they had a singer who could sing and a frontman who could front, but did neither job as per the standardised job description.

In the more finely-tuned and less accidental third LP Asquarius, with a major label behind them and the marketing and formatting that once came with that pre-digital patronage, Cud skirted briefly with the mainstream, and they had the hooks and the ideas to live there, but they were, and are, a fringe proposition with their comic timing and their awful shirts, and it suits them, as much as the shirts did, or do. That bassist William Potter, the band’s own Boswell and apparent treasurer, is a comic artist, and Puttnam a painter (his daubing forms the sleeve of Rich And Strange), feeds into not just their sleeves but their attitude: pop as art.

Rich And Strange, whose intricately syncopated drum signatures I will now take to my grave, is a tight, bright, almost claustrophobically self-contained glam racket. It creates a kitchen-sink drama in which Puttnam bellows of lonely tigers in a basement and hurtling “flushed and brash” into “some crazy scheme”. In the words of Tom Waits, what’s he building in there? Our protagonist seems to be looking for love (“a kiss is too much”) and wounded by loss (“you must remember when you loved me like a friend”), but remains upbeat (“I’m never fed up”), wearing his self-awareness like a belt buckle: “I’m fat but I know where it’s at.” (If crueler observers ever thought of Carl as “fat” in the early 90s, it just goes to show how goalposts move.) Mike Dunphy’s guitar comes in starbursts during the verse then scales the heights of melodrama come the chorus, while Godwin’s line of duty never falters and Potter’s bass throbs away.

Having learned and played the drums to this song (don’t know if I mentioned it), I can report that it’s never off the splash cymbals, and that may explain the sheer, crashing, underlined joy it exudes. It is deceptively rich, albeit explicitly strange. A rare Top 30 hit during Cud’s commercial purple patch, the charts were a more interesting place with them in them.

Because Cud don’t fit into any movement (at Select, we gamely shoehorned them into what wasn’t called our 1993 Britpop issue, and I rated Puttnam four out of five in a concurrent sidebar rating indie’s frontfolk for “star quality”, stating, “Cud’s affable, frizzy-haired, chest-beating vocal acrobat minted ’70s retro chic and now carries Crimplenist mantle with much elan”), they are oft forgotten when matters epochal are discussed. But these four men lured to Leeds from Essex, Northumberland, Derbyshire and Surrey (all but one still trading as the Cud Band) boot-stomped a significant footnote into history. They’re one of my favourites, hope they’re one of yours.