Albums to Love: No. 1 in Heaven by Sparks (1979)

In which Sparks and Giorgio Moroder swap glam, disco, and synth obsessions…

This is the number one song in heaven.
Written, of course, by the mightiest hand.

If you’ve ever partaken on the magical journey that is getting into Sparks, you are well aware of all its wonderful surprises. Like reading the most gripping and unpredictable of stories – action-packed at one minute and the next abruptly turning to sensual erotica, leaving one wide-eyed and perplexed in absurd entertainment.

Aside from their signature wit and flamboyance, there isn’t much dictating what a Sparks song could sound like on any given phase of theirs. Through the decades, the band has flirted with art rock, glam, disco, new wave, synthpop, chamber pop – and even house – with varying degrees of sophistication. Once you hear a Sparks song, though, you’ll know when you hear another, no matter how it is dressed up, because:

  1. No one can sing like Russell Mael and
  2. No one can write a song like Ron Mael.
In their 40+ years as a band, Sparks has gone through many musical and aesthetic transformations.

But whether you identify more with their fanciful baroque odysseys, their synth-indulgences or their punchy glam-rock, there is one album within their catalog that shines brightly as their most grandiose musical anomaly and it is No. 1 in Heaven.

The album showcases the band’s novel obsession with electronic disco with help from italo-disco giant Giorgio Moroder. With his help, they take an electronic leap, abandoning all traces of their past rock line-up.

So how did all this come to fruition?

It’s 1976 and…

Sparks have officially begun to jump the glam rock shark. They’ve headed back to America after relocating to the UK in ’73 to great success and acclaim. But times are changing, punk is taking over and Saturday Night Fever is about to come out. Their fifth and very avant-garde album Indiscreet, while well-received, is not as commercially successful as its predecessors, so the band heads back home to L.A.

In an attempt to switch things up, they go for a heavier, more sanitized rock sound. Their inflated Big Beat album — heavily reliant on studio musicians in place of their former English backing band — flops commercially and critically, as does the formulaic Introducing Sparks. Gone are the fun little arrangements you might have found on a track like “Without Using Hands” from Indiscreet or Kimono My House‘s climactic “Hasta Mañana, Monsieur.”

“A Big Surprise,” though is still a charming little tune that mildly saves it for me.

Left with only a dim trace of the colorful band they used to be, Sparks made a radical decision: becoming an entirely different kind of band.

During a 1978 German interview, The Mael Bros. expressed their admiration for Moroder, who had recently made a star out of Donna Summer and produced the award-winning soundtrack for the film Midnight Express.

I personally like to imagine the two of them — Russell with his fluffy hair, Ron with his stoic stare (because their stage personas permeate into their everyday lives) — listening to “I Feel Love” for the first time, slack-jawed and hypnotized by its looping groove and Summer’s soaring ethereal voice, all while bobbing their heads to it.

Russell then says (in his overly-enthusiastic mock-American accent) : “Oh man! This is it! We oughta get ourselves some synthesizers!” To which Ron stiffly nods. And it is officially day one of the new Sparks: Disco Sparks.*

*A figment of my imagination. Some would call it a “light dabble into Sparks fanfiction.”

Anyway… fate did its thing and somehow the journalist turned out being a close pal of Moroder’s. He did the world a favor and hooked the two of them up, gifting us this mad marriage of a record.

So, let’s talk about the songs…

As soon as Russell’s voice comes in on opening track “Tryouts for the Human Race” (at the 1:09 mark to be exact), you just know you’re about to experience something extraordinary.

We're just a gleam in lover's eyes, steam on sweaty bodies in the night
One of us might make it through, the rest will disappear like dew
Pressure building, gettin' hot, give it, give it, give it all you got
When that love explosion comes, my, oh my, we want to be someone

"Tryouts for the Human Race," Sparks

The song, which instantly nudges right at “I Feel Love” with its spiraling groove, appears to be about sperm fighting to win first place in the ultimate “race.”

On the album’s exhilarating opener, “Tryouts for the Human Race”, Sparks map out the sort of slow-building, electro-rock epic that would later become James Murphy’s signature. — Pitchfork

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Sparks with Giorgio Moroder.

If anyone ever needed a record to do some cardio to, this is it. Ridiculously upbeat, you’ll find yourself lost in its layered hypnotic production while laughing at its absurd lyrics as sweat gets into your eyes.

It’s the dangling synths that circle all around “Academy Award Performance,” the constant momentum of “La Dolce Vita,” and the eeriness creeping through “My Other Voice” that make these 33 minutes an unforgettably bizarre trip of an album.

But the true star of the show is its closer, “The Number One Song in Heaven,” which is seven minutes of pure grandeur. The celestial song — which was accompanied by an equally divine music video — takes a steady three minutes of pleasantries to show you its true face.

Its meta lyrics first introduce you to the song itself with a steady rhythm of synths marching along the way. And it’s like you’re passing through lush lavender clouds just waiting to meet God himself. Turns out you’ve most likely just died, as Russell points out.

This is the number one song in heaven
Why are you hearing it now? You ask
Maybe you're closer to here than you imagine
Maybe you're closer to here than you care to be

"The Number One Song in Heaven," Sparks

And then, it happens. (At 3:30, if you were curious.)

The song triples in pace and it sounds like you’ve entered a forbidden sonic vortex: heaven itself.

If you should die before you wake
If you should die while crossing the street
The song that you'll hear, I guarantee
It's number one, all over heaven 

And just like that: the song and the record come to an end. And all you’ll want to do is play it again.

Its everlasting legacy…

Stephen Morris of Joy Division once name-dropped the album’s title track as pivotal in writing their signature post-punk anthem “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Following the passing of lead singer, Ian Curtis, the band reformed as New Order, initially following in similar melancholy footsteps as its predecessor. But as post-punk fizzled made way for new wave and synthpop, the band went through an electronic renaissance. Bassist Peter Hook says No. 1 in Heaven inspired them to embrace electronic music and transform into the band that gave the world “Bizarre Love Triangle.”

The album’s influence can also be heard in every cerebral 80’s synthpop band, from the Pet Shop Boys and Soft Cell to The Human League (whose lead singer Philip Oakey later collaborated with Moroder as well.)

Yet, despite Sparks’ cult-like following, they’ve somehow always fallen off the radar of many Americans, a phenomenon similar to what Scott Walker experienced during his career. Both resonated more with British audiences until time turned them into “must-hear” legacy acts.

Hopefully, with Edgar Wright’s well-anticipated upcoming documentary on the band, this will continue to spread the cult gospel of Sparks’ absurdist pop and experimental antics. But until then, this record will remain a hidden number one in the hearts of Sparks fans, everywhere.

Author: Pat

Patricia Cárdenas is a writer, wannabe garden mom, and 80's enthusiast from Miami. She dreams of eventually moving somewhere colder where she can wear lots of sweaters, adopt a fluffy pet, and just drink lots of rooibos tea.

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