‘Popularity’ by Sparks: Why and how we covered it

Dean Sobers explains The Sighs of Monsters’ unvarnished interpretation of Sparks’ synth pop classic.

It’s a well documented fact that every piece of music recorded in the past 150 years is, at some level, attempting to emulate Sparks. We – my band The Sighs of Monsters – are as guilty of this as anyone else. There’s a song on our new album Present that was clearly devised while the 1983 Sparks album, In Outer Space, was spinning in the proverbial tape player.

In particular, two of Sparks’ songs – ‘Lucky Me, Lucky You’ and ‘Popularity’ – with their naïve-sounding, earworm vocal melodies. I hasten to insist it is influence rather than theft…but I ain’t namin’ our influenced song.

Absent another singer with whom to duet ‘Lucky Me, Lucky You’, we turned to ‘Popularity’ in an attempt to pay our dues to the Brothers Mael. Here’s a bit about what the song says to me, our approach in covering it, and the challenges we faced getting our tribute off the ground.

The Song

Like many songs that I love, there’s mystery to ‘Popularity’. I can’t claim to know what it is ‘really about’. Sparks are one of my favourite bands, but I don’t have a great depth of knowledge of them – and know next to nothing about the circumstances in which ‘Popularity’ was written, or what Russell or Ron have said about it.

But here’s what it depicts: A speaker (we’ll call him – if he’s a man – ‘Russell’) addresses a person with whom he has some degree of romantic involvement. This person seems keen on Russell’s company. But carefree, gregarious Russell’s thoughts seesaw between their intimacy and the joyous prospect of spending time with his friends. He ponders the idea of ‘popularity’.

Russell is fond and affectionate in tone, but his words are all avoidance. He ‘likes’ the person (they like him a lot). He’s ‘so glad’ he met them. Spending time with them is ‘nice’. Meanwhile, there’s this dreamy world he romps around in with his friends – which is shrouded by speculative language and a conspicuous lack of specifics:

‘What a night, we all drive into town
Where we’ll park our cars, and meet the rest of our friends
At a place that’s called- I forget what it’s called
But it’s really great, and all our friends will be there.’

I’ll share six of my running theories as to what’s happening – based on the words as written. These are listed in no particular order. Feel free to add your own hypotheses in the comments.

  • Russell is trying to impress the prospective romantic partner. He wants to be seen as a guy who twirls and skates across the Great Roller Boogie Palace of Life. Basically, it’s a social media or dating website profile from 1983.
  • Russell is being drawn into an unwanted commitment and is trying to sweet talk his way round it. The ‘friends’ are an excuse who may or might not exist.
  • Something about Russell’s potential romance won’t go down well with his peers. It presents a genuine threat to how they’ll think of him and therefore places in jeopardy the ‘popularity’ he’s attained or craves. When he sings that word – repeating it for longer each time he revisits it – we’re hearing fear.
  • Russell is sincerely deliberating between the intimacy on offer and his real, cherished time with his friends. He’s wondering which kind of connection he treasures more. Can he have both? Could he sacrifice any part of either?
  • Russell is pondering the ideas of personal intimacy and friendship from a more distant vantage point. These things/scenarios are somewhat hypothetical to him – explaining the vagueness. Perhaps neither his friends nor the love interest actually exist – at least not in the idealised forms he’s given them here. But he’s nonetheless absorbed by those ideas. Perhaps he’s fantasising about this dilemma of the enticing intimate relationship versus the vibrant social life. Perhaps in his mind ‘popularity’ exists in place of meaningful human connection.
  • Russell is nostalgically recalling to us a time in his life when his personal popularity and social life were at their peak. The lack of clarity or specificity calls into question whether these recollections can be trusted.

Our Reinterpretation

Listening to Sparks’ song, I hear Ron’s deft melodies over breezy synth and, gliding over that, Russell’s languid, smiling croon – both earnest and knowing.

We could have tried for this style in our cover. ‘Popularity’ is one of Sparks’ simpler songs and more straightforward arrangements. We could have executed something quite like what they did – perhaps transposing some of the keyboard sections to guitar to mix things up a bit.

We did something a little different. If you’re taking a swing at some bells-and-whistles opus ([don’t] watch this space for our cover of ‘Dick Around’…), approximating the original’s intricacies is its own accomplishment. But the simplicity of a three-chord wonder like ‘Popularity’ demands it be interpreted.

This raises a basic question: Who’s doing the interpreting? Well, in our case, three middle-aged crazy uncles – one of whom lives alone in an attic – who have spent the past three-or-so years in another attic, cobbling together an indie rock album mostly about loneliness. That’s who.

Also, virtuoso players we ain’t. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve been challenging ourselves in the making of Present to up our game as performers – and we’ve definitely made strides. But none of it comes easily and probably never will. It seemed important that our take on ‘Popularity’ fully embrace this.

No synth. No guitars.

‘No synth, no guitars. Anything else’ was the brief I appended to a wobbly piano demo in an email. This was intended simply as a challenge to keep us thinking – and to not lean on old habits. However, beneath that, I think I wanted us to avoid doing anything that would ‘enhance’ or uplift our version of the song. I wanted our quirks and limitations to keep it weighed down. This is probably because the lyric itself seems to have so much to do with insincerity – of smoothing off rough edges.

Instead of synth we used harmonica. In its way, harmonica performs a similar role as a synth – but it’s not a button you press. I don’t think it relieves tension the way some lush strings might. You can hear the performer struggling with it. Meanwhile, in lieu of a guitar solo we went with some whistling.

Both the harmonica player and the whistler – both somewhat out of their depth – had reservations about allowing their respective performances to survive the mix. At one point, the word ‘dogshit’ may have been used to describe the whistling. But survive, both parts did – in all their unflattering glory.

The Final Result

Looking at what we ended up with and comparing with my earlier list of possible readings of Sparks’ song, I think our cover assumes a bit of 1) – with a dash of 5). Our ‘Russell’ paints a fraudulent picture of himself as a majestic social butterfly – implicitly telling us he’s anything but. Yet, I think our crooner is more fantasist than conman – bewitching himself at least as much as he does any third party. If the original’s ebullience gives wings to his blissful BS, I like to think our heavier-hoofed version is a more neutral, harshly lit rendering of the bullshitter.

Of course, I’ve hopefully made it clear that I don’t think our interpretation holds any more ‘truth’ to it than anyone else’s – and it goes without saying that Sparks’ is definitive. But I think our version reveals something honest about us as musicians, while honouring the cleverness and playfulness of the original.

I realise that in this account, I might have made our cover sound like it’s William Shatner reciting something out of Chekhov. Look. In truth, we put our version of ‘Popularity’ together in less time than it’s taken me to write this blog post, we had a laugh while doing it, and it was goofy and rewarding fun. I’m just trying to be a bit analytical about it in the post-mortem. I hope you’ll have a listen yourself, and let us know if you enjoy what you hear.

We’ve Made A New Album

Help us Kickstart it into production!

We began recording Present in November 2021, and exhaustedly downed tools in early March 2024. At some point along the way, it became an album of songs dwelling on the idea of ‘community’: How fundamentally we need community, how it liberates and elevates us, how it oppresses, its capriciousness, its dissolution, trying to survive without it. It’s not a coincidence that it began percolating directly in the wake of the COVID lockdowns.

Dean and Chris in the studio
Dean and Chris in the studio

The Sighs of Monsters make music purely for the love of music creation and to add to the corpus of thoughtful, poetic and expressive albums available for the discerning listener. There is no profit or material gain to be had. In fact, the process is very expensive and drawn out. We usually spend two years or more crafting songs, recording and mixing them and shaping them into albums. We’ve released three to date and our fourth is ready to go to press for a June release.

In today’s world, it is up to patrons of the arts to support the artist directly. That’s why we need your help.

We have a YOUTUBE PLAYLIST of us performing a few of the songs from the album in our studio.

The House In Order in R.E.M.’s ‘Wolves Lower’.

TSOM bassist Brett Houston-Lock ruminates on the subtext of Michael Stipe’s enigmatic lyric

Our decision to cover R.E.M.’s song ‘Wolves, Lower’ this past weekend for a bit of fun got me thinking. It isn’t a particularly difficult song to play, but what is hard is figuring out what the lyrics are all about. Especially with their earlier songs, Michael Stipe’s lyrics seem embedded in his own stream-of-consciousness and there are few, if any, literal clues as to what the song’s words mean. I think they are meant to convey a feeling or generate an emotion.

Sometimes songwriters throw in what we like to call “Hail Mary words”, that is to say, when a songwriter can’t think of anything clever, they insert a common word that elicits an uncritical emotional response in the listener.

But I don’t think that this is what Michael Stipe does. I think he writes in riddles. And, as a gay songwriter myself who began in the 80s, I know full well why: you simply couldn’t say what you wanted to say. Your brain censored your heart.

I can’t speak for Stipe, of course, because this is something most Gen Xish songwriters prefer not to talk about, and Baby Boomers have even less enthusiasm. Perhaps we simply don’t want to admit that we chose safety over bravery, or worse, that we chose a chance at popularity over potentially alienating a part of our audiences. Whatever the case, what’s done is done. Songs are frozen in time. They are what they are. And some are genuinely great … like this one. Even if we’ll never know what it is really about.

Anyway, before going even further down that rabbit hole, suffice it to say, when I know a songwriter is gay or lesbian or bisexual, I keep an ear out for the familiar coded language, the lyrical Polari of popular song, if you will. And ‘Wolves, Lower’ is full of it,

The very opening “Suspicion yourself, don’t get caught” resonates with any gay guy stuck in the closet in the 80s, especially when coupled with the impotent demand of “Let us OUT!”.

Who are these wolves? Is it a metaphor for our animalistic side, our sexual side, unrestrained by the brain admonishing “don’t get caught”? I think these “wilder wolves” are the braver gay men who explore their sexuality.

An article about “The Body Language of Wolves” notes: “In a wolf pack, order is regularly reinforced by displays of dominance and submission through a complex mix of vocal and physical communications.” Sound familiar?

Why is the refrain the reassurance to an unknown third party that this house is “in order?” I think this provides the strongest clue. Consider this from the abstract of scholarly paper Conspiracy to corrupt public morals and the ‘unlawful’ status of homosexuality in Britain after 1967, by Harry Cocks (no, this is not a joke):

“The common law offence of conspiracy to corrupt public morals has a long though controversial history in English law. It was a charge mainly employed against obscenity, procuring prostitution, keeping a disorderly house, public indecency and public mischief. These could be interpreted by the courts as facets of a single offence known as conspiracy to corrupt public morals. The charge was used intermittently in the twentieth century, mainly against the arrangement of prostitution and ‘disorderly houses’ used by homosexual men. It was applied again in 1960 in the Ladies Directory case and was subsequently used against gay men who advertised for friends and partners in the underground magazine International Times….”

The same “disorderly house” terminology of English Common Law is echoed in US law. Gay bars could be denied a liquor license on the basis of being “a disorderly house” until a court challenge put an end to this in the 1950s.

So it makes perfect sense for someone wishing to allay suspicion upon themselves to protest that their house is “in order”.

The odd phrase “suspicion yourself” is also worth exploring. It is a grammatical oddity. But to me it makes sense. As a young gay man growing up, uncomfortable with my own identity, paranoid, afraid (of getting caught out) I was the most suspicious of myself, always wondering if this gesture, or that mannerism, or talking about this subject or professing to like that thing might bring suspicion on me. I had to be more suspicious of myself than I believed others to be.

Other lines are simply evocative of “cruising”. What are these wilder wolves doing in the corner of a garden (park?), who is this threatening posse, and why the renewed urgency of the warning not to get caught? Are there gay-bashers about?

That leads into the mysterious breakdown of the music into a violent cacophony. In the official music video, Stipe can be seen punching an imaginary object on the ground, arms flailing, while drummer Bill Berry swings his sticks as if wielding a baseball bat – the chosen weapon of bashers everywhere – as the thumps his snare. It ends with a howl of screaming feedback as we are cautioned for a final time: “suspicion yourself, don’t get caught!” What can it all mean?

Questions, questions, questions! Few answers, only the admonition to keep an orderly house and and not to get caught, Sage advice, but for whom?

No one except Michael Stipe himself can provide a definitive answer – with the caveat that even songwriters are cagey and evasive when it comes to explaining their lyrics – but I believe my interpretation is not only logically consistent, but may be the only way the song makes any sense.

But then, by nature, I’m very suspicious!

Don’t be scammed. “Music services” that rip off artists are everywhere

When Facebook gets wind you’re getting ready to release a new album, an avalanche is triggered. You’ll experience a mudslide of adverts from disreputable companies promising you the earth, if you’d only pay this amount of cash with them. Yes, you could go from single-figure interest to tens of thousands of Spotify streams a month, and reach hordes of new fans, new followers, ready to like-and-subscribe once they’ve been exposed to your music through one of these curated playlists lovingly compiled by said influencer.

Don’t buy it. Really, don’t believe it and certainly don’t pay for it! It’s a scam.

With the infamous Payola scandals of the past, at least the artist got something for their money. They got airplay. Today you won’t even get that. Typically you’ll pay a few dollars each to a dozen or more “curators” through a “service” that creates a hub for these submissions (and takes a cut). These curators will take your dollars and give you some plausible but opinionated brush-off as to why they’re not playlisting you. Others will claim they’re playlisting you and stroke your ego, and then put you on some graveyard Spotify (or similar) playlist with hundreds of other tracks. You’ll generate few streams, and certainly not enough to recoup the $3 or $5 or whatever you paid to be on it.

And, believe it or not, if you do get a sudden uptick in plays, those could be even worse for you since they have likely bought plays from some click-farm on the other side of the planet, giving you a false sense of your success, screwing up your ‘algorithms’ for developing a genuine following, and even – if some horror stories are true – getting your account banned for violating “terms and conditions” on reputable platforms that ban fake streams.

Honestly, no good can come of it.

It seems the only people who are making a financial success out of the new “music industry” are con artists who prey on increasingly desperate musicians looking for exposure.

Some claim to offer “feedback on your performance, lyrics, production, and so on. But what qualifies them to do this? Few are actually successful songwriters, musicians, or producers themselves, so their opinion is worthless and essentially not constructive.

Some may even believe their own guff, and they’re as delusional as the artists who waste money on this parasitic side-industry.

And yes, of course we’ve tried it. Hasn’t every independent artist trying to explore every avenue to find an audience? You try it because there is so much noise in the “music marketing” milieu, and you’re never sure what works and what doesn’t. We can’t tell you what will work, but we’re absolutely certain that this is not something that will do anything for you as an artist.

Now, having admitted we wasted our own money trying this approach, you must be thinking, “Well, what did you expect!?” However, it really is very hard for an artist to navigate this new and emerging way of doing business when even the mainstream arts and tech press – for example Bloomberg and Wired Magazine – is steering them in this direction and giving legitimacy to this type of marketing service. You go into it thinking you have “done the due diligence”, but some lessons are only learned through bitter experience.

But here’s the bottom line:

Genuine music critics and curators do not make their money off the musicians they review or present. They make their money from their subscribers who trust their opinions, and their advertisers who want to reach the audience they have cultivated. If you pay money to people who will charge you to review or present your music, you’re not paying for exposure, you’re buying vanity and you’re being sold a fantasy. And trust us, the feeling will be fleeting and your wallet will be fleeced. Ultimately both you and your art will be the poorer for the experience.

However, if a service comes along that has confidence in itself and a matching confidence in our music, and is willing to charge us for results, not promises, sign us up!

A Kick in the Teeth for Starters

If running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the release of your band’s album teaches you anything, it is this: there are more scammers and spammers on the internet than honest people. The kindness and support of “The Three F’s” (family, friends, and fans) for your artistry can be overwhelmed by the deluge of messages from people wanting to take advantage of your energy and elation at having produced something you’re excited for people to hear.

Here is just one example of the many approaches I’ve had to swat away this past fortnight. A woman – let’s call her Ms Hope, because that’s what she called herself, though the name was obviously fake and her LinkedIn profile was cloned from a real person – sent me a private message. She says she is a patron of the arts and she’s impressed with our work. She’s recommended it to two friends who shared her excitement and immediately placed an order each. And by golly, no sooner had she said that than my phone went ‘ping’ with a notification of two more sales. One of these friends she informed me was a very influential industry insider and ran a marketing agency for artists crowdfunding their releases. “Should she put us in touch?” she offered helpfully.

Now I wasn’t born yesterday, so I said that I had no marketing budget at all (true) but that if her friend was genuinely so impressed and wanted to help, this would be gratefully received. She replied that a simple starter campaign wouldn’t cost very much and would achieve impressive results. I told her that however little it cost, it was more than I had. She continued to nag and “follow up” and “just touch base” for the next few days. I ignored it. But let me tell you what would have happened if I’d taken the bait.

She would have had her “friend” upsell me from “hardly anything” to a few hundred dollars. This would have achieved some modest success and the new orders pouring in from her network of “patrons of the arts” would have more than paid for it. At this point I would have been persuaded to really go for it and to shell out a grand or two “to reach even more people”. I would have been assured that some Kickstarter campaigns earned hundreds of thousands of dollars with their expert assistance, networking, and marketing know-how.

I’m a humble musician. I’m a writer and designer. I’m an introvert. I don’t know much about marketing, and I’m uncomfortable doing what little I attempt. So many artists like me are in the same boat. And people like ‘Hope’ (so appropriately named I wonder if it is deliberate) are there to prey on us.

So, had someone – or someone like me – coughed up another thousand dollars or more they would have seen dramatic results. Astonishing results. The orders (or in Kickstarter lingo – “pledges”) would have poured in. The fundraising goal would have been met early. Champagne would have been broken out and plans for the future made. Most of all, there would have been elation at having succeeded in getting one’s music heard by a new audience.

And then one day, all these pledges, these orders, would have been cancelled and withdrawn. They would have disappeared like haunting phantoms finally at peace. The Kickstarter campaign, without these orders, will very likely have missed its goal and not paid out. I would have been left with no orders at all, no funding for my band’s release and over a thousand dollars out of pocket, just to add a grotesque insult to this grievous injury. It is an unimaginably cruel scam.

I was lucky. My decision to disengage the moment something seemed ‘off’ meant that ‘Hope’ finally gave up and her ‘friends’ cancelled their pledges, setting our campaign backwards, but at least more secure in going forwards.

We have 30 more days to try and pick up the shortfall by attracting honest backers who are genuinely keen to hear our new music. I’d rather have it this way than have fallen for Hope’s horrible trap, ready to spring… eternally.

A Musical Inventing Shed

We don’t consider ourselves primarily a performing band. Of course, from time to time we do step out onto the stage – usually for a good cause like Oxjam or a fundraiser for humanitarian relief in Syria we helped to organise in aid of Medecins Sans Frontieres – but typically we like to tinker with songs and production in our small studio.

Our DAW of choice is Reason 12, and we like it because it has a very analogue feel and workflow in a digital domain. Added to that we have piles of vintage keyboards and drum machines and a wall of guitars, basses and similar stringed instruments. Augmenting the Roland v-drums are odd percussion instruments we’ve collected from here and there, including a West African balafon we used to great effect through a digital delay pedal on ‘I Hear Drums’. When all else fails, we’ll rummage through the kitchen or garage for something to hit or shake to make a sound that can be digitally manipulated later.

There are few rewards for independent music makers these days, but the joy of making a track to be proud of remains a compelling reason to keep composing and recording.

Bird Shot: A Song About Repeating History

A scene from the Bird Shot video, in which we montage imagery from Battleship Potemkin with our own ersatz news footage. Dean plays the reporter while Chris plays a war victim in a homage to Eisenstein’s famous scene

‘Bird Shot’, the new single by The Sighs of Monsters takes aim at Russian president Vladimir Putin, the latest crazed despot to threaten the world with annihilation. From a satirical fictionalised newsroom of state propaganda channel RT, the video sets Battleship Potemkin imagery against the war crimes of
Russia’s new Tsar.

The brutality of the Tsar’s army portrayed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet film is one of the founding narratives of modern Russia, so the juxtaposition holds a mirror up to their own brutality in Ukraine today.

“Was it worth the blood and the pain?” the lyrics ask, as they poetically examine the mindset of “your mad king on the grounds, writing insane”.

The band’s lyrics typically deal with the personal. “We are not a political band,” says bassist Brett Houston-Lock, “but when a world event takes on a moral and existential dimension such as this, as artists, we cannot stay silent. It is not political, it is humanitarian.”

“Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid years has given me some insight into societies led by paranoid leaders who have the police, the military and the state media at their disposal,” says Houston-Lock, “so I think I understand at least some of the dynamics at play in Russia today, and must have in previous societies led by maniacs with a mad plan for the world.”

Previously the band released a single called “After Charlie” in response to the murders of Jews in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Tackling antisemitism, the song pointed to growing attacks on Jews in Europe and noted “this is not occupied Europe in 1941. This is the present day. This is contemporary”.

“We certainly don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of the increasingly polarised and identity-driven politics poisoning social media these days, but we live in this world and sometimes we have to speak up,” he adds.

The image above shows a scene from the Bird Shot video, in which we montage imagery from Battleship Potemkin with our own ersatz news footage. Dean plays the reporter while Chris plays a war victim in a homage to Eisenstein’s famous scene. The video is set at a fictitious TV News channel as things unravel for the mad tyrant.

Watch the video for Bird Shot on YouTube, or get the single from Bandcamp.