In the autumn of 2014, myself and a couple of friends went to see St Vincent playing at the Roundhouse in London. Whilst dropping off our coats, there was a group of familiar looking rock star types meeting up for the evening. The first person I recognised was Ron Mael of Sparks, who I instantly recalled from his memorable TOTP appearances in the 70’s. I then picked out his brother Russell with a far more luxuriant head of hair than his years should allow. Next, I recognised Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and finally the rest of the band. I made a mental note of curiosity as to why they were hanging out and went inside to enjoy the gig.
A few months later, I saw an article in the press confirming that Sparks and Franz Ferdinand were working together. Eventually an album was released – self titles as “FFS.” As my friend Mark said before it was released – “art with a wink”.
The album comes in red vinyl from Rough Trade with four bonus tracks on the fourth side plus a rather wonderful bonus CD – more of that later.
I tend to enjoy alternate Franz Ferdinand albums. The first I enjoyed and I remember seeing them playing Glastonbury. Alex shirt from that day, a striped affair, was rather elegant. We are talking Warren Ellis in “20,000 Days on Earth.” The second felt like a retread of the first. The third album ” Tonight” was excellent with a particularly good dub mix version released at the same time. We saw them put on a fantastic show at Brixton Academy supporting the album. Then when the fourth record was released I really couldn’t summon the enthusiasm.
I always had a soft spot for Sparks when I was growing up. I never really knew any of their albums beyond “Kimono My House.” They were a fantastic singles band though – “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, “No.1 Song In Heaven”, “Beat The Clock”, “Amateur Hour” etc. Their afore mentioned TOTP appearances were always worth watching, Russ theatrical and Ron sat their impassively.
So working on that basis, the FFS should be right up my street.
And it is mostly. The production is way over the top, with many of the songs mini musical numbers. The tracks were written across the Atlantic and then recorded together. The lead hand on many of the numbers is obviously Franz Ferdinand and on a couple of occasions, it does feel a little like FF with the S bolted on. But where the band are writing and performing as equal partners, the difference really tells.
“Things I Won’t Get” is a particular example. The song is a list song, which I’m always partial to. The song focusses on those items that the guys won’t get. Some of them are possessions (“A chair that’s designed by Charles and Ray Eames”) whilst some of them are things that won’t be understood (“Schoenberg and twelve tone and things that are French”). It’s low key and pretty wonderful.
There are some excellent punchy up tempo numbers (“Johnny Delusional”, “Call Girl”) of which “Police Encounters” and “Piss Off” are possibly the picks and lean closest to the Sparks end of the spectrum.
The other highlight is “Collaborations Don’t Work” which is a treatise on how they are going to do it all by themselves, just like Mozart and Frank Lloyd Wright demonstrated. Jealousy takes over and confidence is lost in your partners. It is multi sectioned, completely camp and over the top and works wonderfully in the present day context of formulaic rock by numbers.
This brings us on to the bonus CD which is entitled “Collaborations Do Work”. As the title suggests, it is made up of partnerships that are successful. The tracklist includes some fantastic examples:
- Sonic Youth & Lydia Lunch – “Death Valley 69”
- Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot – “Bonnie and Clyde”
- Ray Charles and Johnny Cash – “Crazy Old Soldier”
Two great tracks in particular from different iconic sources.
Shirley Bassey’s version of “The Rhythm Divine” with Yello is the first example. It is very difficult for me to hear without the late great Billy McKenzie’s vocals but Shirley pulls it off.
The other is a ridiculous piece of hi-energy gay disco – “Male Stripper” by Man 2 Man and Man Parrish. The lyrics are an irony overload
Ladies night Adonis
Working after hours
Ripples on my chest
Never got a nights rest
I was a male stripper in a gogo bar.
And this really arch and non-reverential approach really encapsulates what is enjoyable about the FFS album. It really is a bolt of fun and never takes itself too seriously.
It may not have depth but sometimes you’ve just got to bask in the shallow end with a huge cocktail and a knowing wink.