No. 1 in Heaven
No. 1 One In Heaven: A Tale of Tragedy, Annoyance, Enormous Pain, and Ultimately, Transcendent Redemption
Things started off badly; I don’t travel well. Since moving from Southampton to Leeds, the relatively painless journey to London has become something of a nightmare. The option of flying is right out; airplanes terrify me in a way that probably only readers of Lovecraft can comprehend. The train, my preferred method of transport, was prohibitively expensive for one surviving on a student loan, which left the choice open to hitch-hiking (nuh-uh!) or the National Express coach.
The National Express? Ron, Russell. . . do you see how I suffer for you?
Four hours and twenty minutes on a coach was just about do-able. Or at least it would have been had it not been for some very large sporting function taking place at Wembley. The coach was full of people whose idea of a good time was to sing/shout loudly at the top of their voices to no recognizable tune about the prowess of people I’d never heard of. To make matters worse, they were scaring the four babies on the bus, all of whom responded by screaming for the entire journey.
Of course, I said four hours may have been do-able. Factor in road works and two fans going missing at a service station break and it becomes more like six hours. Once the service station farce was over, we were back on our journey. Journey implies movement in time and space, doesn’t it? I’ve ever had such a timeless journey where no progress seemed to be made. The guy sitting next to me decided to quiz me about my team allegiance. I didn’t even know what sport was being played, let alone what teams were playing. Oh, the joy of being pointed at and abused for three hours. How many people walked up the aisle to “look at the bloke who doesn’t like sport’”?
I was in Hell and, fittingly, waiting for Heaven.
It didn’t come at the hotel, that’s for certain. The room was damp, the wardrobes moldy, the windows made mostly of glass (but patched up with rotting cardboard), and strange things that probably once had a use were partially removed, the remnants jutted forlornly from the walls, their embarrassment covered by a thin layer of distemper. The strange red stuff oozing from the wall was best avoided. The lights above the bed didn’t work and the only place you could plug the kettle in was above the sink, meaning you had to hold it while it boiled. A single sheet tried to cover a double bed.
The bathroom was shared by four rooms and not en suite as advertised, didn’t have a functioning shower, and the guttering needed fixing. We knew that by the constant torrents of water falling outside of our window. It was a converted cellar, interior design by Josef Fritzl.
The kitchen next door woke us at 6:30 a.m. preparing breakfast so outlandishly bad the Geneva Convention should really be informed. The triumph being “raw toast” and instant coffee in a cafetière which they “plunged” for you at the table. Why? Anyway, we left to look for fun and found some at the British Museum in the form of prints by American Artists of the 1920s through the 1950s. Then we went to find food.
The next day (gig day!) was more fun. We found a good exhibition of Artists’ Books at the V & A, met friends for lunch at a cracking Japanese Bento specialist, and prepared ourselves for No. 1 in Heaven.
When we arrived at the venue, we settled into a good space and with good grace gave way to those with a more burning need to be nearer the front. Except once it became full and we really couldn’t move, some idiot about a foot taller than me and several feet wider did probably the rudest and most painful thing anyone could do in that situation. Without so much as an “excuse me,” he put his leg in front of me, trod on my foot, and at the same time pushed my leg back. He barged his body in front of me and trod on my other foot, effectively pinning me to the floor by my feet. He then thrust his arse back to “move me,” forgetting I was pinned, and in the crush, broke my little toe and tore the muscles and ligament in my left calf.
There are words for people like this. I’m sure you know most of them. I couldn’t move and he wouldn’t, despite being pushed and yelled at directly into his ear. My partner had to take something of a flying leap to remove him from my feet. He propped me up for the rest of the gig. Whoever that bloke was, I wish you nothing but pain, you arrogant wanker.
But, onwards. With many gins inside me (hic) and a stash of painkillers usually used for my back, I got through the gig. The healing power of music anyone?
I got through it and enjoyed it enormously, although previously I had been sort of apprehensive. I’ve said before that that only reason I was going to No. 1 in Heaven was to hear “My Other Voice” live for probably it’s one and only airing. This sort of damns the rest of the album with faint praise and that really wasn’t the intention at all. I love the album, the only reservations being with “Academy Award Performance,” which I have a love/hate relationship with.
However, On Came Ron, complete with the ill-advised haircut of the No. 1 in Heaven album photo. Marvelous. Definitely worth an outing just to see that! Some wag yelled, “Get your hair cut!” but Ron just rolled his eyes.
The synth-drums started and we were suddenly into “Tryouts For The Human Race.” When the beat kicked in, I tried to dance. Not the smartest of moves given the situation, but I bobbed happily. I don’t recall seeing this song live before, although I believe it may have been played relatively recently (maybe the Ocean gig which I left early because the sound was so painfully bad). I really don’t remember the album having such punch; “Tryouts” was a triumph! What made it work so perfectly was the two guys on backing vocals. I’m so pleased this was live, rather than keyboard/sample/backing track/whatever. It added so much to the immediacy, the passion, and the overall “liveness.” This was something special.
Next up, “Academy Award Performance,” the one I didn’t really want to see. Consider me converted. Again, the punch—the “liveness”—added so much and the do-do-do choruses were insane, frenetic, manic, and perfect. More nearly-dancing took place, the adrenalin, Paracodol, and gin easing the discomfort and facilitating more movement. (At this rate, I thought, by the time “Beat The Clock” comes round, I’ll be in a frenzy!)
What confused me at this point is that as much of a joy as the live performances of these songs have been before, the sound has always been a bit thin, a bit weak. . . so where the hell is all this power coming from? How are they making it sound so wonderfully visceral? It can’t be just the addition of real drums, although that really, really is helping.
Strangely, “La Dolce Vita,” was a sort of lull in the proceedings. It worked well, did everything it was supposed to do, and somehow didn’t quite hit the heights of the previous two songs. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it; it simply wasn’t as revelatory as the previous songs. “Beat the Clock” was “Beat The Clock” only moreso, again sounding a million times better than previous incarnations, and clearer—so much clearer—with so much more verve.
It’s strange. The next song came as something of a surprise. Yes, yes, I know they were doing all the albums and all the songs from all the albums in order, but MY GOD! THIS IS MY OTHER VOICE! Cue girly scream. Honestly, I’m standing there and they are playing “My Other Voice.” No really! They really are! And it’s wonderful. It’s often overlooked, and Russell seemed a tiny bit embarrassed about playing it (a comment like “Well this rocks, sort of” along with a grimace led me to believe it’s not a favorite of the band), but it’s what I’m here for!
30 years I’ve waited and there it is being played live just, in my little fantasy world, for me. I’m utterly lost. Russell sings and, again in my fantasy world, validates Sparks’ entire output in the space of four lines of song. Transcendent. When the second verse comes along, complete with vocoder/processed vocals, I just lose it. Tears fall, I have to hang onto Andy for dear life. He didn’t really understand the sobbing and weeping, but then he’s not really a fan, rather an incredibly patient partner who understands Sparks’ importance to me. . . from a slightly bemused perspective. I could die now and feel my life is complete. I am sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo gay!
Luckily, having died, I get to go to Heaven. It’s the first time I’ve heard “Number One In Heaven” played live in its entirety ( I was always frustrated by the segue into “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” in live shows) and. . . oh hell, I’m totally lost, totally ecstatic, and dancing like an idiot. The sobbing subsided and I developed a Cheshire Cat grin which lasted for some time.
The encore, “Dancing Is Dangerous,” is a song I was aware of, but which I had never heard. I can’t say it’s the best thing Sparks have ever written, but it was worth hearing and acted as a perfect cooldown. I’ll try and track it down and give it a proper listen. But it was fun and good to see people singing along at the end.
And with that, they were gone. I was very very happy.
I even grinned all the way through the hospital visit. Yup. Broken toes, torn ligaments, strapped up, and on crutches. But I wouldn’t have missed that gig for ANYTHING.
The hotel was just as bad when we got back, the coach home slightly less unpleasant, but I’d seen “My Other Voice” live.
Does it get any better than that?