Peter Cook’s Hidden Messages On Sparks Records

The two secret tracks by the legendary comedian that appeared as surprise extras on Sparks’ 12-inch singles in 1979.

The end of the 1970s was a boom time for lovers of gimmicky records. While picture discs, coloured vinyl, oddly shaped vinyl and so on had been around since the birth of the LP and seven-inch single, they had rarely been used outside of children’s records and novelty discs – but in the punk, disco and new wave era, these gimmicks became commonplace, creating a glorious variety of limited editions for collectors to snap up. Also coming into its own at the time was the twelve-inch single, originally a necessity for disco acts and DJs who wanted longer dance mixes than could be squeezed onto a conventional single but quickly becoming a requirement across all musical genres. The twelve-inch appealed to LP fans because you could sit them alongside your albums and because they often featured additional content – alongside the traditional ‘non-album’ B-side you might get an additional unreleased studio or live recording, or an alternative version of the main track. If you are an obsessive fan, ‘more’ always equals ‘better’.

The expanded capacity of the twelve-inch led to some eccentric decisions about just what to do with that extra space. It could, of course, simply have been used to provide a more high-fidelity version of the standard single with thicker grooves but that would only be a selling point to the sort of sound purists who were unlikely to be buying singles in the first place. Furthermore, the concept of the ‘extended twelve-inch mix’ quickly became established as a necessity without anyone really seeming to understand how to remix pop and rock music, leading to some genuinely atrocious rubbish appearing where random Fairlight squarks and drum machine fills were thrown in, seemingly at random. As a result, early 1980s twelve-inch mixes are notoriously hit and miss, with tracks that were never really designed to be danced to nevertheless expanded with random filler and over-produced nonsense. But sometimes, someone had a stroke of mad genius about how to add value to the vinyl – and never more so than with a pair of singles from Sparks that pushed novelty to its limits.

In 1979, Sparks had stripped down to a two-piece line-up of founder brothers Ron and Russell Mael and were experimenting with synth-pop on the classic album No. 1 In Heaven, produced by Giorgio Moroder. A couple of the singles from that album went all-out in terms of gimmicky presentation. Both the Beat the Clock and Tryouts for the Human Race twelve-inchers came as a coloured vinyl/picture disc combo – a ‘playable label’ as the format was hyped, which meant that it was effectively a seven-inch picture disc in the middle of a twelve-inch on blue or yellow vinyl. The single contained two versions of the song in question – one an extended mix that filled the whole side and the other the standard single version. The latter version did not run into the picture disc section and instead comes to a halt with a standard size blank playout area. But if you were to just leave the record playing, you eventually get the ‘hidden’ track – which of course isn’t really hidden because keen-eyed purchasers would spot that there was an extra section on the disc. But just what was this extra track? Another Sparks tune, perhaps? Well, no.

In fact, what you got was an odd little comedy routine from Peter Cook. On the Beat the Clock disc, it’s a brief bit with him playing God’s lawyer complaining about the title No.1 in Heaven and exists mainly to feature clips from various album tracks, lest the single you’d just bought for a pretty penny hadn’t already sold you on the band. The Tryouts for the Human Race track was more fun, a proper little routine with Cook discussing the song and the band. Was there a point to this? Probably not beyond the fact that Cook was available, working with Virgin (his final collaboration with Dudley Moore, Ad Nauseum, had been released a year earlier and the documentary about that recording, Derek and Clive Get the Horn, was produced in 1979) and there was no one to say “hang on a minute, guys…”. Hearing this for the first time after buying the Tryouts for the Human Race disc as a kid, I was naturally baffled. I think it was the first twelve-inch single that I’d ever bought and remember thinking “are they ALL like this?”. But I was tickled enough by it to play this track almost as often as I played the actual song, even though at the time I had no idea who the voice belonged to. It would be many years before I finally found out that Peter Cook was the man responsible.

The two Cook tracks would become the stuff of myth and legend for many years before turning up as bonus tracks on the 40th anniversary CD edition of No. 1 in Heaven.

DAVID FLINT

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