The teacher for these one-on-one sessions was a kind man named Jim. In addition to teaching computer classes, Jim had an affinity for music, and for many years he had his own radio show at the local college radio station.
Fast-forward twelve years or so, and I was in graduate school in Buffalo. I found out that Jim was also living in the city, so we got together for coffee and traded stories. We talked about music some, he asked if I was still into They Might Be Giants (of course, yes), and he told me that he thought I would like Sparks. I had never heard of Sparks, but the name stuck in my head. When I got around to looking into it, I was hooked: here was some fun, clever, jaunty music, perfect for lifting a sour mood. The early stuff like "Something for the Girl with Everything" has a great powerhouse sound,
and pop just doesn't get any better than "Moustache."
The album that I spin the most has got to be Balls. The title track is just the thing to push through some challenging programming.
The trio of more recent albums Lil' Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers, and Exotic Creatures of the Deep explore some interesting themes and layered sounds. Even though the sound is different from the earlier work, tending toward melancholy, but still with the signature catchy tunes and clever lyrics, such as in "Metaphor."
I picked up their latest album, a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand called FFS (Franz Ferdinand & Sparks, naturally). The album has a lot of winners on it, but just to give you a taste, check out "Call Girl."
But I digress.
I had been listening to a lot of jazz while painting, but a few months ago I decided to try out Google Play Music. At first I just listened to my own albums, and then I decided to try Sparks Radio—Google's auto-generated collection of songs for folks who like Sparks.
The channel features classic Sparks music and lots of contemporary music that I had never heard of before. It introduced me to the likes of Lene Lovich, John Foxx, Bill Nelson, XTC, Tubeway Army, and Pete Shelley. Most of these I had never heard of before; I only knew of XTC because of the They Might Be Giants song about them.
Once I looked up Tubeway Army, I recognized Gary Numan, and there are some nice grooves in his early work.
Bill Nelson has some great synth-powered pop, like "Flaming Desire"
and "Do you dream in color?"
Some of John Foxx's songs are what the future used to sound like.
On the lighter side, Lene Lovich has some great catchy pop sounds, such "Be Stiff" with a simple chord progression and a touch of brass (which my searching just told me is a cover of Devo's third single).
How about the groove on "Meccanic Dancing" by XTC?
I heard a few great songs by Dukes of the Stratosphear before I found out that they're basically XTC doing psychadelic pop. This one feels like it came right out of the 1960s.
I don't subscribe to Google Play Music's service, so I tend to get the same songs coming up quite a bit, but really that's been fine: some nice tunes I'm coming to enjoy interspersed with new ones, perfect to listen to while painting.
People sometimes ask me why it took until 2017 for me to try streaming Internet radio. The reason is fairly simple. I was actually one of the first people on Pandora when it came out. Great, thought I, here's something that I can use to capture my esoteric and impeccable taste in music! Let's see: here's Ween, They Might Be Giants, Prince—augh, no, I don't like Prince! Down vote. Try again. Devo, Talking Heads, Prince—Stop, no, downvote! Bonzo Dog Band, Weird Al, Prince. Seriously? You have no idea how often this happened. Every path led to Prince. There was no way out except to continue buying physical discs and ripping them to a digital library for convenience.
OK, time to take another giant step back in time. Some time in the early 1990s, give or take, my friend Matt recorded a special where Weird Al took over MTV for "Al TV." This was a combination of mock interviews, sketches, and wonderful music. This special introduced me to artists who would later come to be some of my very favorites, including They Might Be Giants with "The Statue Got Me High",
David Byrne with "She's Mad",
Matthew Sweet with "Girlfriend" (just about the coolest video for fans of 1980s anime),
are you ready for this?
Hilly Michaels with "Calling All Girls."
Oh man. That is so ... 1980. I love it. When I found a cassette of the album Calling All Girls, I had to have it, and I don't think it ever left my car. Here's another for you, the "High quality audio" version of "Shake It and Dance."
There is one particular song that is so very bad that it has become, to me and my wife, an anthem for bad pop music. I speak, of course, of "U.S. Male," which I'm sorry to see does not appear to be on YouTube at all. Wouldn't it be convenient if some kindly soul hid a copy somewhere so that you could hear it? It's bad, but I love it, like a cheesy B-grade science fiction movie.
Incidentally, assuming Wikipedia can be believed, Hilly Michaels drummed for Sparks. I didn't know that until well after enjoying both artists. I'm sure it's not a coincidence: I seem to have a soft spot and a keen ear for this kind of stuff. Also, I know from Wikipedia that he had a second album, 1981's "Lumia", which I have never been able to find, neither on cassette nor on the deepest, darkest places of the Internet where one looks for forgotten culture.
For some time, I've thought to myself, "I should look up Hilly Michaels Radio on Google Play Music sometime when I'm painting," but inevitably I would think about this when I was doing something else and then forget about it. Well, today, I did it. Hilly Michaels Radio. My hopes were up.
The first song was a tune by Hilly Michaels I had never heard before—"It Ain't Fair."
Success! The song is... fine. It's not from the mysterious Lumia, but I found out later that this is from his previously-unknown-to-me 2010 release, Pop This! The next song came on, an atmospheric piece, something familar... Danny Elfman? I wasn't sure, so I checked the app, ... Elfman, yes, with the theme from Tales from the Crypt.
Strange. Skipped that track, not quite the mood I wanted. The next piece was also instrumental, a selection from the Knight Rider soundtrack. (I looked for it to link here, but I couldn't recognize which one it was from what I could find. However, imagine 1980s action television background music. Yes, that's it, that's exactly right.)
OK, so was this just all going to be 1980's cheese?
The next song came on, sounds like synth pop...
And, ladies and gentlemen, I think that's the worst song I've ever heard—and I've listened to The Shaggs. I just listened to it again. My goodness, it's bad. There's a little tiny hint of Jonathan Richman in there, the rawness and earnestness. It's not like a good bad B-grade science fiction movie; it's like the ones that are so bad that they're just bad.
The next thing to come up was a TV commercial for Halloween III. Yes, I'll link it here, but I have not listened to more than 20 seconds of it. Caveat emptor.
I saw that the next track was from the soundtrack to Stripes, and I just couldn't take it any more.
The moral of the story is probably this: when your tastes run obscure, be careful on the Internet.