Terry Welch - Getting Into Sparks
For those who like to read and to celebrate the opening of The Sparks Brothers by Edgar Wright here's a Sparks story from a then 15-year-old lanky, spotty teenager:
In the Spring of 1974, having just turned fifteen and now well and truly a lanky, spotty teenager, living in the UK, I could not have cared less about News, politics, and the state of the country with its Three-day week, Miners strikes and the Tory Heath Govt. being replaced by Labour and Wilson.
No, for me at that age I was already well into music, like all teenagers. The Glam Rock era was at its peak in the first half of the ’70s with Gary Glitter, Slade, Sweet, Wizzard, Bowie & T.Rex being amongst my favourites at the time. The Eurovision song contest had just been held in Brighton and won by a very glam Swedish group called ABBA… Remember them?
In 1974 as a teenage music fan in Britain, you had limited, (by today’s standards,) choices of where to listen, watch & read about all your musical heroes. It didn’t seem limited at the time of course and was more than enough to get your “fix” of all things music and info. It was a “Poptastic” time to be a teen.
When not at school, national broadcaster BBC Radio 1 was the go-to station to hear the hits being played all day by DJs who were celebrities in their own right. The Radio 1 Roadshow was sure to be at a seaside town near you. The Top 40 chart show on a Sunday was a particular radio highlight of the week, seeing where all the new songs had landed in the Top 10.
On TV it was, of course, Top of the Pops on a Thursday evening sat with Mum, Dad & Sisters and the inevitable on repeat comments from the parents that it was: “All rubbish, not like it was in their day, all sounding the same, not real music” and “My God, is that man wearing make-up?!”
As for the printed media, which with hindsight, must have been a Music Mag Golden era, there were a plethora of music publications available to suit every taste and genre, from teeny-bop, girlie mags, (not those sorts!) like Jackie and My Guy, which my sisters all subscribed to, through to the more serious NME, Melody Maker et al for the real aficionados and cool long-haired rocker types. Disco45 was the go-to mag for lyrics of all your fave tunes.
The musical landscape as far as the charts were concerned in April that year included: Slade, Bowie, Status Quo, Bay City Rollers Cockney Rebel and Ray Stevens-The Streak …and dare I mention The Rubettes!
Although Radio 1 was the main UK Radio station for pop, there was another station that all self-respecting teens and Pop lovers would clandestinely tune into at night, in bed, under the sheets before going to sleep and that was Radio Luxembourg or “Fab 208” It wasn’t a pirate radio, they were outlawed in the UK and the BBC dominated, but it felt like it was a pirate. The signal was awful at times and they broadcast on Medium Wave, literally from the middle of Europe. But we didn’t care and you would constantly be re-tuning slightly to get the best reception possible.
They had a slot every night called the “Power-Play.” This was like a record-of-the-day, which they would play every hour on the hour, just after the news so you knew when to listen out again if there was a new song to check out.
This one particular night, there I was, all tucked up in bed, under the covers, transistor radio, torch, and finger on the dial… Fab 208 coming through (not so) loud and clear, but as ever, it was a new Power-Play for the night. I started listening to something... I wasn’t sure what it was, to be honest, was that a man or a woman singing? And what is he/she singing about? It’s so fast and crazy-sounding, singing Nuns came into my head for some reason, don’t ask me why!... Damn that interference and constant signal drop out from the crappy MW beaming in all the way from Europe. (Wikipedia states Re: The 208 freq: “The 208 signal could be received satisfactorily in the United Kingdom only after dark when it was able to strike the ionosphere and bounce back to the British Isles.”) Well, I Never knew that ‘til now.
It goes without saying that I needed to know more and I needed to listen again in an hour. This time, I heard the DJ announce: “That’s our new power-play, tonight folks... Sparks and This town ain’t big enough for the both of us…” Who? What? Say again!
Now, this is where today with the aid of Google, the Internet, and Spotify I would have been all over it and be up to speed in a matter of seconds, but alas we were all still decades away from the above being conceived. So a mental note to self was all that could be done and a hope that over the coming days I would get to hear that song again…
Well, sure enough, I did hear it again as the song gained some air-play traction and ended up being played by Radio 1 in slightly better MW quality and allowing me to at least hear it without too much interference. (Radio 1 in FM stereo would not happen until 1987.) And still no visual reference to this new band either as yet. An unknown band, no one has seen yet. (They had appeared on a late-night music show on the BBC called “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, pre Kimono My House line-up, but that had passed this 15 year old and most of the country by. ) No pictures of them in the music press either at this stage so it was all a guess as to who they were, where they were from, and what they looked like.
The record charted in the next couple of weeks and after some issues, (unbeknownst to me at the time,) with BBC unions, permits, etc. on Thursday, May 9th, 1974 they finally got their slot for TOTP’s and Britain would all get to see Sparks for the very first time. Some TOTP memorable moments live in our subconscious forever. The first time Boy George and Culture Club appeared, for example, the impact of George’s androgynous face and look was a right shocker. But long before that Ron Mael, brother Russell and the band Sparks had the same effect on the nation's psyche. The next day at school the talk was all about that moustache and stare and I was hooked.
The album Kimono My House was soon released and duly purchased by me, a follow-up single Amateur Hour and a ticket to a tour which included my home city of Exeter was secured and so began my lifelong appreciation, some might say obsession and fanboy status of Sparks. I remember “This Town” was initially appreciated by me for the sound, the catchy tune, the weirdness of it, etc.. but, nevertheless it was “skin deep” only so to speak. It was a great single but on the surface, just another song albeit a great one. It would come and go like thousands of songs before it had.
Those “Island years” records, KMH, Propaganda & Indiscreet, was also where, if you were going to “Deep-dive”, and become a real fan, you had to go past the sound of the songs and try to get your head around the lyrics. Russell sang so fast sometimes, you couldn’t always catch what he was singing. Enter; The lyric sheet! Then moments of “That’s clever, that’s funny, that’s poetry!” A song about what? That’s where the real magic is to be found, analyzed, and dissected! And the rest as they say is history.
Fast forward to 2021 and all that has transpired over the 5 decades since then, the ups and downs, the ins and outs, and here we are.. I’m 62 now and I was thinking today how strange it was that at the precise moment in April 1974, as my story above was playing out in my young life, another fanboy was being born. On the 18th of April that very year, little bundle of joy Edgar Howard Wright came into the world.
He was blissfully unaware that I was probably listening to Fab 208 that night eagerly awaiting the Power-Play once more and I was blissfully unaware that “Baby Edgar” had arrived. But some 47 years later, the planets and the synchronicities have successfully aligned and that director (which by now I had heard of, of course,) through his much acclaimed and admired films. Baby Driver & Hot Fuzz are still 2 of my absolute fave EW films.
Having had his own Sparks/TOTP’s moment, aged just 5, with “Beat The Clock”, he would also be blissfully unaware that he would be celebrating the release of his first Documentary “The Sparks Brothers” in 2021.
Musically speaking, my life has run in parallel with Sparks and they have been in it since 1974, 25 albums, several live shows seen and it’s been an absolute blast. I’ve met them a couple of times too, once in 1974 on the station at Bristol Temple Meads and once in 1994, again co-incidentally in Bristol, but backstage after the gig this time! The last time I saw them live before the pandemic struck was in 2017…and yep, you guessed it, in Bristol!
Thank you for reading my little history of how I first got into Sparks. Thank you Ron & Russell for the music, the undying dedication to your craft, and for never giving up. Allowing me to say to peeps… “Yeah, but where are the Rubettes now, eh?” And thank you to Edgar Wright for your vision and passion to see the film take flight, to document their life story, and put Sparks influence on the musical “Spectrum,” where they sit in it and where they truly deserve to be.
Little did that lanky, spotty teenager of 15 know, he’d still be a fan at 62 of the same band fifty-odd years later and that he can listen to “This Town…” (along with all the other 300+ songs) but, no longer has to listen in dreadful lo-fi mono via a little radio, now he can enjoy Sparks in digitally remastered HR quality, still find it fresh as F…! and so can you. Let’s all be grateful for modern digital sound.