33 years after Sparks released their debut album, their Scottish admirers Franz Ferdinand surfaced. Along with Arcade Fire, MGMT, Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth and They Might Be Giants, the indie quartet see Sparks as a major influence for their music. We take a look at the blooming of Franz Ferdinand including their four album journey, Mercury Prize Award winning achievement and whether that announced inspiration is clear.
The Seed Stage:
Franz Ferdinand were already a supergroup of sorts with the members being plucked from different corners of the music world, including: jazz trumpet rock act The Karelia – who had an association with Greece, from the name and the fact that Alex Kapranos played the Greek string instrument Bouzouki- German progressive rock fusion band Embryo, 10p Invaders and Glaswegian indie band The Yummy Fur. The latter group was like an antecedent model for Franz Ferdinand because Kapranos and drummer/percussionist Paul Thomson already teamed together for that project. The signs were immediately good for their new band with NME magazine drooling over their debut single and establishing themselves as early ambassadors with the headline “The Band That Will Save Your Life”. Even tastemaker John Peel declared them as the “saviours of rock and roll” with their post-punk revival swagger. Possibly too much pressure for a band but they handled it humbly: “we couldn’t believe we were in the Top 50”. Their first song was called Darts of Pleasure. The darts referred to words and how they aid seduction. Additionally, the track ends with German language lyrics.
You can feel my lips undress your eyes
Undress your eyes, undress your eyes
Words of love and words so leisured
Words of poisoned darts of pleasure
Died… and so you died
Their surge to success continued at such a rapid rate with their debut album Franz Ferdinand, that it was less of a bloom and more tainted with Miracle-Gro. Recorded with Swedish producer Tore Johansson, it was awarded the Mercury Prize Award, with the hipster world hailing their garage rock/post punk revival (Kaizer Chiefs, Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys) as an rebellion against the nu metal, manufactured pop competitions and Americanized British bands of the time. Which is ironic considering Sparks spent much of their career blending into Britain.
The eponymous album was spearheaded by Take Me Out, which is still their most famous song and to emphasize this, it was performed with Sparks on Later…with Jools Holland in May. The combination of different chapters in the song – in terms of pace and typical indie vocal accent- kept it constantly interesting and refreshing with every listen. It also radiated self-assured confidence and the retro art school aesthetics of the music video (described as Terry Gilliam’s Dadaist collage) paired with the neat band clothes meant it appealed to both a sophisticated mature audience, without alienating the intelligent youth. Alex Kapranos stated he wanted their music videos to also to be entertaining on multiple views just like their music. Simple, fascinating and multi-layered.
Subsequent single The Dark Of The Matinée continue to show a band that were educated and academic about pop culture and aimed to blend that knowledge with their own personal heritage, into an idiosyncratic quirky soup. Just like the way Take Me Out contained a random assemblage of their possessions. The video is inspired by British television play and drama studies staple Blue Remembered Hills (1979) and other works of Dennis Potter, whilst keeping things fascinating with a mix of media (on screen graphs, projections of old western films) and dance routines. The song takes the form of a viscous cycle daydream. A student at Bearsden Academy – the secondary school that Alex Kapranos, as well as football manager David Moyes and Edwyn Collins attended – dreams of being interviewed by Terry Wogan on national television telling the world how successful his life has become, only to see the fictional world shatter around him.
Next up, This Fire showed their shred guitar antics and abilities in reverb and distortion, as well as a stylish interest in 1920s Soviet Art in their hypnosis-themed music video and a homage to Russian propaganda posters in the single’s artwork.
Already feeling particularly fearless, Michael included homoerotic lyrics. A slight nod to Sparks’s confusingly sexual humour. It was based loosely on a shameless night of drinking at a Glasgow dance party and the observation of two friends exploring each other in an unexpected and intimate way. The song is made even cruder on their live tours with the distasteful replacement of certain phrases.
Michael you’re the boy with all the leather hips
Stucky hair, sticky hips stubble on my sticky lips
Michael you’re the only one I ever want only one I ever want only one I ever want
Beautiful boys on a beautiful dance floor
Michael you’re dancing like a beautiful dance-whore
Michael waiting on a Silver platter now
And nothing matters now
#1 in the UK album charts, You Could Have It So Much Better capitalized on their early success immediately and kept the motivation engine running, shown by it’s lack of release gap in 2005. The sophomore album was summed up by Alex Kapranos as “like a teenager having sex”. It’s name was a slight afterthought after they originally wanted to conceptualize each album with a colour palette; keeping the title unlabeled. To keep things consistent, the cover sleeve persevered with their Russian association. Like the cover for Take Me Out, it paid tribute to the work of Alexander Rodchenko. Critics commented on the wider scope of sound employed, whilst happy that they remained addictive and catchy.
Eleanor Put Your Boots On was unusual for it’s fluttering of piano and harmonicas and almost Beatles-like retro psychedelia, as well as it’s deeply personal lyrics, seemingly about Alex Kapranos’s broken relationship with Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces. Furthermore, L. Wells would be another occasion where the singer would be smitten over woman. Funky track The Fallen was a slight step up back in the eyes of fans who previously admired their one-of-a-kind entertaining videos, it fell short with it’s simple screen footage techniques. However, it’s intriguing biblical lyrics expressing the second coming of Jesus and the feeding of the five thousand link towards Kapranos’ interest in theology.
Walk Away contains a blues rock vibe with moments of 60’s Kinks folk, in the way that Alex Kapranos sings in the muted bridges. It was the first song to reference Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the Royal Prince of Hungary of which the band are named from – but it’s more dedicated to celebrating his young murderer Gavrilo Princip.
I swapped my innocence for pride
Crushed the end within my stride
Said ‘I’m strong now I know that I’m a leaver”
I love the sound of you walking away
However, the album is most famous for the lead single Do You Want To (about the Glasgow art gallery Transmission), which anticipates an energetic crescendo-building climax of the words” lucky lucky, you’re so lucky.”
Like the previous album, recordings for their third release Tonight: Franz Ferdinand was split between Scotland and the United States, yet the photograph on the cover was taken in their home country but meant to reflect New York crime scene photography; an art style that suited their concept of night partying. Introductory single Lucid Dreams showed a dramatic reproduction of their sound into dance punk territory (LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) but it was intended to be friendlier than their second album. At 7 minutes long, Lucid Dreams has moments of interrupted exploration into impassive acid house. Ulysses hears Kapranos imitate Prince in the verses, as spacey swirls beam up behind the otherwise indie rock instrumentation. It was the first of a series of singles artwork that featured one band member lying dead on their crime scene depiction photography.
Can’t Stop This Feeling and What She Came For incorporate the fuzz of funk rock of The Fallen and is also complimented with a dance-able percussion, kraut rock and polished high-hats that fit the genre of the rest of the album. What She Came For is more explosive in it’s rock elements, as it enters an Arctic Monkeys style frenzy in the final chapter.
No Your Girls sustained Kapranos’ fascination with the opposite sex but the way the perspective changes from being critical of women’s ignorance towards rejection and teasing lust (based on the first awkward time that he kissed a girl), to men’s ignorance, demonstrates one of their best pieces of songwriting. The song also bought Franz Ferdinand into popular culture on a worldwide scale, when it was borrowed by an iPod commercial in 2009. Folk album track Katherine Kiss Me is about the same incident with similar lyrics but told in a less confrontational manner.
No Your Girls:
No you girls never know
How you make a boy feel
How you make a boy feel
No you boys never care
Oh no you boys’ll never care
No you boys never care
How the girl feels
Their last album as Franz Ferdinand was released in 2013 and it was a sign of things to come with FFS because they were produced by a pollination of Todd Terje, Joe Goddard & Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip and Bjorn Yttling. Their no.6 position in the UK chart showed that they were still relevant in mainstream music, despite the four year break and low key promotion. A cynics’ search of optimism and how imagination can overcome disadvantages were themes that Alex Kapranos was trying to get across on their fourth album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. A title that reflected their new found positivity and their step away from the limelight.
Evil Eye’s theremin qualities and snappy playful and familiar groove make it a Hammer Horror version of Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust. It possesses a hip-hop and punk funk atmosphere and a creepy delivery from Kapranos, that’s completely refreshing for a band that could easily rehash old ides. It’s much more conversational and less hung up on being intellectual, as it gives us a Polaroid of a paranoid sociopath. The all-out gore video, it’s controversial director Diane Martel (Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and Miley Cyrus’ Can’t Stop) and it’s low production quality pushed this idea to it’s limit.
Some people wanna see what I see
Some people put an evil eye on me
It looks so clean but I can see the crawling, crawling creatures
Suspended in solution, no, no, there’s no solution…
The promo for Love Illumination was perhaps even stranger with it’s lack of clear narrative, ritualistic dancing, semi-nudity of both sexes, animal heads and trance-inducing montages. Although it has a weak Hendrix-like funk bass, it unusually features a saxophone and an oboe and displays the cheeky side to their lyrics. Notably, the last track hints at the group’s career termination. Entitled Goodbye Lovers and Friends (no relation to the James Blunt song), it contains the suggestive lines: “you can laugh as if we’re still together but this really is the end.” An example of toying with their fans, you could say.
“I like the idea that, if we become popular, maybe the words Franz Ferdinand will make people think of the band rather than the historical figure.” said drummer Paul Thomson. Just like the Churchill dog, the younger generations will probably submit to the statement that pop culture knowledge has dominated over historical education. One thing that will certainty help is Franz Ferdinand’s unreserved openness to reworking songs that are light years away from their genre.
Britney Spears’ Womanizer, Air’s Sexy Boy, Gwen Stefani’s What You Waiting For? and a collaboration with Girls Aloud on Bowie’s Sound and Vision are the best examples of this and should cement them into pop consciousness. They also have recorded recently with a diverse spectrum of acts, that range from Jane Berkin, Elly Jackson (La Roux), actress Marion Cotillard and one of their favourite bands Hot Chip and sneaked their way on to the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. However, to keep things a little mysterious, they have performed a few secrets gigs under the alias The Black Hands; a name taken from the Serbian military society that organized the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.