SQUEEZING OUT SPARKS
Solo Acoustic 40th Anniversary
After producing the excellent book, “The Songs Of Three Chords Good” and “Mystery Glue,” the complete acoustic, lead and rhythm guitar charts of both of those albums, Martin Belmont has now turned his highly skilled attentions to “Squeezing Out Sparks.” Brinsley was brought in to go over his parts on this album as well, which was released in March 1979. Yes, there was much head scratching going on as both guitarists tried to figure out just what the hell they’d been playing all those years ago. It’s typical that musicians who make an album, then go out on tour where they will play some of those songs, will change what they play very quickly, and often from night to night, to make the songs more suitable in a live setting. The parts they play are constantly morphing, so it’s often baffling to revisit the original form of any particular album. My job was easy - I played very little guitar on Sparks and mostly just had to proof read the lyrics.
On one of our regular get togethers over an Indian meal, Martin mentioned that “Squeezing Out Sparks” will be 40 years old in 2019. Well, with a glass of cheap wine inside me (from the extensive wine list - “Red wine, White wine”) and some dopamine producing madras heat rifling through my bloodstream, I foolishly blurted out that I should record the entire album solo acoustic, to go along with Martin’s book. D’Oh! What was I saying? What have I put my foot into? Over the years I’ve played a good few Sparks songs live, both with bands and solo, but this is not an acoustic guitar album; there is no easy swing involved - it’s almost all big guitar rock, a gruelling challenge to play alone. Still, I wrote the songs on an acoustic guitar, so “impossible” is not a word that was going to get me out of this jam. I had to pull it off now that I’d opened my big mouth, and that’s what I’ve attempted here, with varying degrees of success. “Don’t Get Excited” for instance was a real pig to get across on just an acoustic guitar when I wrote it, and that has not changed to this day. It won’t work well slowed down, turned into reggae, a waltz or salsa, and I can’t see a madrigal gambit paying off, either. I was pretty much stuck with it as is and slogged through it accordingly.
Here it needs to be mentioned that I’ve taken some liberties when it comes to certain passages of some songs. No one wants to hear a lonely acoustic guitar droning on forever on the “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” guitar solo without the actual lead guitar playing it, so that is truncated in the same way I employ when performing the number onstage. Not being one who enjoys listening to my own old material and slavishly copying what I did 40 years ago, “Don’t Get Excited” needed a similar pairing down and quite harshly, too, and I must confess, I bluffed the solo part all the way to the actual chords themselves and came up with something almost on the spot that gets me out of trouble and on to the third verse as quickly as possible. It also needs to be mentioned to anyone who wants to learn the correct arrangements that they should read Martin’s painstakingly accurate work in his book and not confuse my solo recording with accuracy. Martin is representing what actually happened, I decidedly am not! I didn’t even study the lyrics on some of the tunes, so there might be a few bits that just popped out of my mouth in the wrong order when that dread, red light that indicates recording is in progress on the virtual tape machine flashed on.
“Mercury Poisoning” did get a real reinvention, however, and I have in fact played it a few times live in 3/4 time, a sort of evil waltz, and that works quite decently here. This song was written almost to order, after my manager Dave Robinson insisted I write an entire album of hate songs directed at Mercury Records. I wrote this one tune on the subject and then made it clear the rest of the “I Hate Mercury” album would not be forthcoming. When an artist starts whining about their record label, fans should wonder whether that artist has lost the plot. It’s not a good look. And to be honest, Mercury or not, I was having a blast when we were out on the road in America in 1976 promoting “Howlin’ Wind.” Dave was the one who had to bear the brunt of Mercury’s obvious lack of interest. It was all new to me and the most exciting and unexpected time of my life, and I had an idea that more records would be forthcoming and that things would grow in their own way, Mercury Records notwithstanding.
(“Mercury Poisoning” was not on the original album and appears here as a spare track because it was recorded at the same time as the album but not considered good enough by me to make the cut. Martin has also added “I Want You Back (Alive),” a tune recorded in a mobile studio a short time before we did the album and something I’m unlikely to ever mess with on an acoustic guitar.)
Going back to lyrical accuracy, do not believe what you see on these lyric sites! There’s some odd stuff out there. “Grandfather’s money” in “Nobody Hurts You,” for instance. What? Or, “You know all my favourite bitches” in “Don’t Get Excited”. I would have been well ahead of the rappers if I’d used the word bitches in a song in 1979! Then there’s the chord charts. I’ve rarely seen one that’s anywhere near accurate. Anyone who wants accuracy must check out Martin’s work.
When it comes to the actual recording of these solo versions, Simon Edwards, the bass player on “Cloud Symbols,” has a nice home studio that worked perfectly. He put a couple of mics in front of the acoustic and I’d brought in a small Ibanez acoustic amp I picked up for £25 in a junk store near Hastings, and we put a mic on that for some heft. I had a feeling that odd little brown amp would earn its money one day! We did this because - as described above - this is not an album that lends itself to light acoustic versions and I’d decided somewhere in the run-up to recording that I wouldn’t be bringing an electric guitar into this.Therefore, a bit of experimentation was needed to beef up my Gibson J200 acoustic and I think it worked pretty well, to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking that there is more than one guitar playing. This entire album took two four hour sessions to record and one four-hour session to mix. Most of my takes were first takes. Now that’s how it’s done!