Luke Haines is an English musician and writer. He has recorded under the name of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. His books include the bestselling Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. His latest solo album, Smash The System, is out on Cherry Red Records on October 7, 2016. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his website.
“Bloody hell,” laughed my dad into his sailor beard, hands across his large belly, sunk into his armchair, with his legs outstretched onto the pouffe, “it’s Adolf Hitler on Top of the Pops.” Thus spake a Greek chorus of dads across the U.K. at first sight of Sparks pianist Ron Mael on the nation’s greatest music programme. This sacred knowledge spread amongst the kids of the ’70s, and it was acknowledged in playgrounds across the land that the Fuhrer had indeed risen from his Berlin bunker and had decided to make his first public appearance on Top of the Pops in 1974. It’s no understatement that there is a lot of love in the affection pool for the fearlessly maverick Sparks.
My intentions were not good. I came here to bury this collaboration between Scottish post-postmodernist indie band Franz Ferdinand and the veteran art-pop brother-duo Sparks (whilst being kind to Sparks). Franz Ferdinand have never been my cup of poison: arty but not Art, Goody Gumdrops leading a gang of school prefects. Oh, Dad, I was so, so wrong. And I doff my fedora to the gods of artiness over Art, for this slab of demented romp is the gorilla’s nutsack, Jack.
With a clutch of Ron Mael’s stentorian grand piano chords, we’re off with excellent opener “Johnny Delusional,” straight into that pounding Sparks disco militia beat. They should patent that sound. Actually they don’t need to, as no one can do the Barnes Wallis Bouncing Bomb Bop quite like Sparks. But Franz are up for it — pounding and pile-driving away like frenzied oarsman on a mythical disco longship with Sex Pistol Steve Jones as the coxswain, bellowing through a loud-hailer, “Give it some fuckin’ bollocks!” And they do. “Call Girl” and “Dictator’s Son” are classic Sparks, with singer Russell Mael striding around as horny as some mad sex hog. Franz Ferdinand singer Alex Kapranos gamely invokes his rock & roll right to throw some silly voices into the mix. If you are “in rock” and you’ve never affected some ludicrous vocal inflections, then you’ve no right to be here; get out now — and get in, Mr. Kapranos. By “Police Encounters,” we’ve hit the Holy Grail of rock mental. Russ is hanging out in Harlem, either as a psychopathic felon or an innocent bystander. (It’s hard to tell.) Of greater importance, he, with a hard-on like the Hindenburg that casts long shadows over the city and is about to explode, announces in that famous falsetto, “I’ve got eyes for the policeman’s wife/with her dyed black hair….” It’s droolingly great stuff and as mad as pop should always be.
If I were a lesser writer (or a better writer — you decide), I’d go on about FFS exploring “the possibilities of pop.” Fuck that. This is about the “tossibilities of pop”: tossing it all up in the air and not giving a toss — and FFS clearly do not give a tinker’s. My rock & roll radar detects something going on in the pop landscape; the older dudes (Sleaford Mods, the Pre New, Yours Truly, and now FFS) are the ones experimenting and unafraid, whilst the younger dudes are sticking to the stencil. One thing is clear: all the participants in this magnificent pairing sound like they were having a blast in the studio.
There are, of course, a few occasions when the whole crazy concoction almost buckles under its archness. (I know a thing or two about this.) “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” a late-period-Bowie-esque ballad, almost seems like it’s here just to convince the listener that it’s not all one big ironic laugh. (Sparks were never ironic — just gloriously eccentric.) And the self-referential “Collaborations Don’t Work” threatens to disappear into an operatic black hole of twenty-first- century post-everything. Luckily, it’s saved by surgically precise lyrics (and I know a thing or two about this, too) on the futility of collaborations: “Frank Lloyd Wright always ate a la carte/I wish that I had been that smart.” Indeed.
I often wonder why people still form rock bands, given that it almost always ends badly. Maybe it’s all about the indefatigability of the human spirit, as on this album’s best and most untypical track, “Things I Won’t Get,” a simple list song of things the protagonist won’t get: “A Pulitzer Prize…an affair with a star who gives him dope…a job with some hope…Schoenberg and 12-tone.” It’s the beating heart that pumps the blood through the grooves of the rest of this album.
The whole shebang ends with the FFS manifesto: “Piss Off.” Franz’s avowed dictum to “make records that girls dance to” has been achieved. This collaboration — unlike, say, the recent Sunn O)))-Scott Walker hook-up — is a high point for both bands, as nothing has been compromised. Result: a fuckload of heavy fun. If you don’t like this record, you are either a lobotomised eunuch or a British restaurant critic. Either grow some disco balls or, for fuck’s sake, piss off – pop music is not for you.