Sparks: The best band you’ve never heard of

Sparks sing “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” Click to listen!

On March 11, 2022, I watched the last episode of Season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As Midge Maisel walked alone in the snow outside Carnegie Hall and the credits scrolled, some amazing music began to play with the hypnotic refrain “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice, man, practice.” I had to hear it again. A little online research found the artist; a band I’d never heard of called Sparks.

That was the start of my exploration of the music and performances of a two-brothers band that critics describe as “your favorite band’s favorite band.” Sparks revealed their self-titled debut album in 1971—and they’ve been making music ever since! In their sixth decade, they’re still touring and releasing new albums.

Why I like Sparks

My musical tastes are diverse (at least when compared to most of my contemporaries). In my seventies, I love large swathes of classical, folk, rock, and electronic music. I’m drawn to complex rhythms, catchy riffs and harmonies, and memorable lyrics.

Sparks checks all these boxes. If you’re like me, you’ll find that many of their tracks are earworms, hard to get out of your mind. You have been warned!

In addition, Ron and Russell Mael have a film school background and create unforgettable videos to accompany their music. For example, consider this simple accompaniment to “Lighten Up Morrissey” (which Morrissey of the Smiths played before some of his shows).

Or this beautiful video of their evocative “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)“:

Sparks are consummate musicians who make it look easy. In 2008, they performed Sparks Spectacular, a legendary series of concerts in which they played every single song from every one of the 21 albums they’d released on 21 (almost) consecutive nights in London, one album each night. “Approximately 250 songs, or for you musicians, 4 million, 825 thousand, 273 notes.” I think it’s fair to say that few bands could pull this off. I wish I’d been there.

More about Sparks

How have Sparks managed to release 25 albums to date and stay working for over half a century without falling apart like so many other bands? Perhaps it’s because they are brothers, who have played with a constantly rotating stream of excellent musicians over the years.

A great place to learn more about Sparks is their 2021 documentary The Sparks Brothers which you can watch here.

Although they’ve always had a cult following—I’m now a member—finally Sparks are achieving commercial success with their live performances of music (including the 2021 musical film Annette for which they wrote all the songs). Still performing with incredible energy in their 70s reminds me of Leonard Cohen‘s vigor during his Old Ideas World Tour playing over a hundred shows all over the world.

To sum up

Sparks continue to make remarkable, addictive music, that remains fresh and original and stands the test of time.

One final tip. Like a lot of ultimately catchy music, I found that sometimes the first time I hear a track there’s a part of me that says I’m going to like it, but I need to hear it a few more times before I get hooked. Check out many of their songs and videos for free, listen a few times, and maybe you’ll like them too!

Are you a Sparks fan? Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments below.

A leak in the solar system

leak in the solar system There is a leak in the solar system.

Actually, I discovered recently, there’s more than one leak.

While reading Bill Bryson‘s delightful book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, I came across this:
leak in the solar system

“The most remarkable part of all is your DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid). You have a meter of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.”
—Bill Bryson, The Body

Think of that; a strand of the DNA from a single human being is long enough to escape our solar system.

Then there’s the email Celia wrote to Scott, our yoga teacher, explaining why we hadn’t been on his Zoom class last week:

“We’ve had some impediments—sickness (not Covid!), leaks in our solar system…”

She was referring to this unwelcome development in our solar hot water and radiant floor heating system, which I installed in 1983.

leak in the solar system

To which Scott replied:

“I’m loving ‘the leaks in our solar system’ … I think I know what you mean … But it could be even more of a universal statement describing 2020 in general :)”

And then there’s the picture at the top of this post, courtesy of NASA: an artist’s conception of the atmosphere leaking into space from a planet orbiting the star DMPP-1, about 200 light-years away. This distant solar system is literally leaking into space.

But let’s go back to Scott’s reply. I’m loving ‘the leak in the solar system’ … I think I know what you mean. 2020 has been a crazy year for just about everyone. We can’t do anything about a leaking solar system 200 light-years away (not that we need to, thank goodness). On the other hand, I can fix the leaks in my solar system perhaps with a plumber’s help.

In between, I hope that, collectively, we can fix the leaks in the world that 2020 has brought us. And, in this, my last post for 2020, I wish you a much better year in 2021.

Photo attribute: NASA — This Four-planet System is Leaking

Charles, Lawrence, David Bowie, and me

My first public gig as a musician was at David Bowie’s Beckenham Arts Lab. From then on, my musical career was downhill all the way.

It was 1969. I was a prototype schoolboy nerd who was drawn to making music despite little talent, so I built a one-of-a-kind electronic music synthesizer out of discrete electronic components and army-surplus parts, including some monstrous electromechanical devices called uniselectors. The Beast generated impressively complex loops of sounds and was controlled by hundreds of unlabeled knobs and switches, which made me the only person who could play it.

my musical career
Uniselectors — a key component of early telephone exchanges. Lawrence’s description of The Beast: “Adrian Segar had built a synthesizer, which was also a sequencer before its time, which made a loud mechanical noise we had to drown out by playing loudly. It played bass as well as higher sounds. It looked like the controls of a spaceship.”

With this dubious achievement, I joined two friends, Charles Hayward and Lawrence Ball in a short-lived band named Snowfish. We had a few more gigs, including our entry in the annual British Melody Maker Rock Contest — where I recall we placed next to last, beating only a band with the memorable-but-not-in-a-good-way name The Revolving Sugar Bowl — but Oxford University beckoned, Charles & Lawrence stayed in London, and when I emigrated to the United States, The Beast stayed with a friend of Lawrence’s where it slowly fell apart. Sadly, no photographs seem to have survived of those days.

My musical career was over. But both Charles and Lawrence went on to become internationally known musicians: Charles a well-respected drummer, formerly with This Heat (“the Beatles of modern experimental music”), and Lawrence a performer and prolific composer who has collaborated with Pete Townshend since 2006.

The last time I saw Lawrence was in 2001 when he visited me in Vermont. But I haven’t seen Charles since we were at school together, though I’ve enjoyed many of his YouTube performance videos over the years.

So I was happy to discover (thanks Lawrence!) a recent talk/performance Charles gave to young students at the University of East London.

A few excerpts follow, but I recommend you watch Charles’ video as he shares, in an entertaining way, how a musician (and artist) thinks. One of the many things I like about the video is that Charles talks as he moves around the stage setting up his drum kit.

A few quotes and {impressions/comments} — but watch!

“The way I share myself with the world is primarily [through] music.”

“I’ve been playing drums since I was ten.”

“The first thing I always bring along with me is the chair…if I’m not sitting strong and stable [when I’m playing], all the bits are going all over the place.”

{Charles tells a story about how he turned a silly text he received from a kid “I’ve been watching you. Did I wake you up?” into a song (which he performs).}

“When [music] is really cooking, I’m obeying it. I’m just listening to it and it tells me what to do, and I do that thing…I have to keep myself open all the time so I’m ready to serve the music.”

“I know almost nothing, and that sense of not knowing means that it’s constantly a discovery—and also I can change, because I haven’t got anything to prove! What’s the next thing? I’ll find out what I need to know to make that next thing happen.” {I work the same way.}

{Charles talks about and demonstrates two drumming areas that he’s working on at the moment:} “…where I have the most problems—that’s the edge for me.”

His final demonstration/performance: “This is almost nothing but it’s great.” {Subtle work is often the most rewarding.}

My musical career was brief but memorable. Music is still important to me. I’m happy Charles and Lawrence got to continue with the music that they love.
Image of Charles Hayward by / Fergus, CC BY-SA 2.0

Please remember what you were about to forget

remember what you were about to forget Not long ago, my friend Jeremy Birch told me about the recorded announcement you hear—in English—when Japanese buses approach a bus stop:

“Please remember what you were about to forget.”

No, Japanese bus companies are not promoting distributed practice, where learning activity is spread out over time to improve overall learning (chapter 4 of The Power of Participation has more on this).

Instead, they are merely reminding people who are getting off the bus to check for anything they may be leaving behind.

Nevertheless, I like the (probably unintended) playful construction of “Please remember what you were about to forget”.

And perhaps, having typed it a few times here, I’m a little more likely to carry it out…

The internet is running out of…stuff

internet running out of stuff ad-70507_1920 The day we’d hoped would never come is finally here.

The Internet is running out of … stuff.

After years of not turning off the Internet when you shower and Internetting a little too long when you brush your teeth, we’re now at something of a crossroads.

Data reservoirs are at record lows, and we’ve already dipped into our emergency meme supply. I’m not sure how much more plainly I can say this, but there are dark days ahead for the information superhighway.

It’s not too late to change things – but we must take measures to protect what little remains of this precious resource.

If your street address ends in an even number, try to use the Internet only on Sundays and Thursdays. If it ends in an odd number, try Tuesdays and Saturdays.

When you’re connected to the Internet, try to limit your use to 15 minutes per site, per day.

The sad truth is – these measures may not be enough. If we don’t get more Internet soon, guess what’s going to come out of your Internet tubes when you turn on the power?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Let’s do what we can now to ensure an Internet full of stuff for our children and our children’s children.



[No, I didn’t write “the internet is running out of stuff” but I feel it deserves a wider audience than just the readers of the Dreamhost newsletter, which I only receive because this very website is hosted on Dreamhost’s fine sturdy shoulders. Or head. Forearms? Whatever.]

Cheer up-it’s normal to be less popular than your friends on social media!

popular on social media sad person 84286500_6097d35c2d_o
Do you have fewer Twitter followers than the folks who follow you?

If so, cheer up, it’s normal, thanks to the magic of simple statistics! You are more likely to be a friend of a popular person simply because he or she has a larger number of friends. So, on average, your followers are likely to have more followers than you do.

Feel better?

For a more detailed explanation, read this Scientific American article by John Allen Paulos.

Photo attribution: Flickr user seraphimc

How to add participation into a traditional conference and market it

A common question people ask me is how to add participation into existing events and market them effectively. The Medical Group Management Association will be doing just that at their 2011 PEER conference (estimated 800 attendees).

Even MGMA’s choice of name for the conference echoes the event’s theme of “directing the conversation”: PEER, a neat acronym for Participate, Educate, Experience, Relate.

Conference marketing

Take a look at how the conference brochure carefully incorporates PEER themes (click image to view).

add participation MGMA PEER brochure

What do you think of MGMA’s design and marketing?

Full disclosure: MGMA is a client of Conferences That Work.

Jerry Weinberg’s Ten Laws of Pricing

soc100dpi In March I posted a summary of Jerry Weinberg’s ten laws of trust, taken from his brilliant book, published twenty-five years ago and still in print: The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving & Getting Advice Successfully. It was clear from the response that many people hadn’t heard about Jerry’s work.

Today I was thinking about adjusting my consulting rates, and remembered that Jerry has a lot to say on this subject too. Understanding his Ten Laws of Pricing made it easy for me to set fees for my work, and, more importantly, helped me feel comfortable with the role of money in my professional life. #2 alone gave me the confidence to bill an additional six digit income during my IT consulting career, and #9 makes setting your rate for billing or being charged anything a snap.

So here are Jerry’s Ten Laws of Pricing. If you like them and want to know more, do yourself a big favor and buy his book!

  1. Pricing has many functions, only one of which is the exchange of money.
  2. The more they pay you, the more they love you. The less they pay you, the less they respect you.
  3. The money is usually the smallest part of the price.
  4. Pricing is not a zero-sum game.
  5. If you need the money, don’t take the job.
  6. If they don’t like your work, don’t take their money.
  7. Money is more than price.
  8. Price is not a thing, it’s a negotiated relationship.
  9. Set the price so you won’t regret it either way. (Also known as the Principle of Least Regret.)
  10. All prices are ultimately based on feelings, both yours and theirs.


acting -vancouverfilmschool - 3673603570_a18452d485_o

Acting. One of the oddities that permeate the English language is the dual meanings of the verb “to act”:

  • to do something.
  • to pretend to do something.

When you act, which meaning fits?

Image attribution: Flick user vancouverfilmschool