Thursday, September 17, 2015

A New Hope: Sparks: "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us"

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.                 


Robin Carmody said...

This song, and this band, had a huge importance and status for one particular relative who, I fear, has confined herself to slow death-in-life and slow personal obliteration, entirely through her own misjudgements (and possibly also through a lack of social skills comparable in some ways to mine, it's just that she doesn't know about that).

It should also be noted that the Hitler resemblance would still have cut through to more British nerves in terms of direct, first-hand memories - or at least, for much of Sparks' audience and the general pop audience, only one generation away - than if it had happened later; the relative I referred to, and her siblings, would probably have watched TOTP with their father who had fought in The War, and there would still have been many such families at the time.

I was thinking yesterday about Too English for the English (from Chad & Jeremy to Love & Rockets) and Not English Enough for the English (The Outfield, Wang Chung or Bush); Sparks, obviously (very much like Scotts 1-3 in this respect), are in the equivalent of the latter category, just as some of those Duane Eddy or Johnny and the Hurricanes songs which fared better here might have been in the equivalent of the *former* category, even then.

I would have been interested in seeing you write at length about Bowie, but given the cynical, rush-job nature of that compilation, the choice of songs and the way they are presented, I don't blame you for backing out. There's still a lot to say about him, but not really in that form.

vinylscot said...

I was thirteen in 1974 and Sparks was the first band I went to see at the Glasgow Apollo, in November of that year. I've seen them about a dozen times since, including two FFS gigs this year.

I'll be honest enough to admit it was "This Town" which turned me on to Sparks. It's amazing how many of their fans claim to have been there since the Halfnelson / Wonder Girl days - like the Pistols in Manchester a couple of years later, no one person's story can be disproved, but the sheer weight of numbers mean a hell of a lot of people were lying.

"This Town" isn't one of their greatest songs; if you only half-listen, it's VERY repetitive, and the lyrics aren't among Ron's best, although far more intelligent than anything else in the genre at the time. But, as you say, it hit at just the right time. Glam was effectively over, co-opted by rock and roll revivalism (Showaddywaddy, Rubettes, Mud), overdone jokes (Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust), boy bands (BCRs) and safe middle-of-the-roaders (Smokey/Smokie). Bolan and Bowie appeared to have waned, and Sparks were there to save us from Buddy Holly and Four Seasons covers and Chinnichap paint-by-numbers tosh. Although I have continued to love good pop music, I was probably just the right age for it, ready to move away from much of the manufactured crap, and (properly) ready for music which encourages thought as well as pure joy.

You mentioned Queen and 10cc as comparable contemporaries. Add to them Roxy Music and Be Bop Deluxe, but none of them had anything NEW to give us in 1974. Robin's comment above about Englishness is apt. Wherever it came from, Sparks use of English music hall influences marked them as too English for the Americans, but their otherworldliness stopped them being truly accepted over here. Despite the retro-fitting in more recent appraisals of their career, Sparks had two or (at a push) three successful albums in Britain, and their initial success was all but over in eighteen months. A brief re-appearance at the end of the decade and they were gone.

I stuck with them, but some of the late 70s and 80s albums were awful, although they have steadied the ship somewhat by being rather more selective with what they have released over the past twenty years or so. I still love Sparks, and will always be grateful to "This Town" for bringing them to my attention. I enjoyed your piece, and thanks for not mentioning Justin Hawkins.

David Ellis said...

An incredible song that was a massive hit at the time. Considering it was so "different" to everything else back then, it was popular with almost everyone I knew whether they were into heavy metal or soul music. Thank you for your thoughtful and perceptive evaluation.