‘No. 1 in Heaven’: the Sparks album inspired by Donna Summer

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The greatest artists in musical history are the ones who do not tie themselves to one specific genre or musical style. Adaptability in songwriting is a far too often overlooked skill that is not afforded to many. The brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as Sparks, are all too aware of the power of switching styles. Over the incredibly long career of the California band, seemingly every individual album has adopted a vastly different sound, moving from classical to techno and everything in between. One of their finest efforts, however, arose from an appreciation for the euphoric sounds of disco.

During the 1970s, Sparks achieved their commercial breakthrough with the release of the seminal record Kimono My House in 1974. Coming out with a record as groundbreaking and popular as Kimono My House is something of a double-edged sword. Indeed, many groups would see the success of the album and proceed to try and recreate it beat-by-beat. However, Sparks were never a band to trap themselves within a musical echo chamber, and the songwriting of Ron Mael was always looking forward to the next thing. While that manifesto is commendable in terms of artistic integrity, it does not help to pay the bills.

Following their 1974 effort proved to be a difficult task, with the brothers getting stuck in something of a rut. “After Big Beat [released in 1976], we were searching around for a new format as we get bored easily,” Russell shared to Uncut, “We wanted to branch out, to take my singing and Ron’s lyrical sensibility and see what other context we could put them in.” Eventually, after a handful of overlooked releases – which, incidentally, are well worth revisiting – Sparks finally struck gold in 1979 with the release of No. 1 in Heaven, an album heavily inspired by disco.

Apparently, the lineage of the record can be traced back to the release of the iconic Donna Summer track ‘I Feel Love’. Released in 1977, at the peak of disco fever, the song became iconic of the entire genre, thanks both to the vocal performance of Summer and the songwriting of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. This writing did not go unnoticed by the Sparks brothers, who recruited Moroder to work on No. 1 in Heaven with them.

“We heard Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, which intrigued us to the extent we decided we had to get Giorgio to produce us,” the Sparks singer attested, “No one knew what the outcome would be, but fortunately, that album turned out to be something special and quite influential on people starting bands at the time.” The record, as Russell attested, was hugely influential in the development of synthpop during the late 1970s.

No. 1 in Heaven marked an important turning point in the discography of Sparks. Not only did it usher in a renewed level of commercial success for the band, but it also affirmed their dedication to forward-thinking, uncompromising pop mastery. Best remembered for hits like ‘Beat the Clock’ and ‘The Number One Song in Heaven’, the whole record is near-flawless and continues to hold up in the modern day – something of a rarity for early synth-pop efforts.

It would be contentious to suggest that the success of the album is down entirely to Moroder. After all, Ron and Russell have repeatedly proven themselves to masters of songwriting, with or without the influence of a disco legend. Nevertheless, it seems as though having the ‘I Feel Love’ songwriter on board did have a colossal impact on the final product, helping to create potentially one of the finest releases of the late 1970s.

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