Noel Answers Our Questions!

Long time listeners to Why? know we have a sister show called “Rock n’ Roll Grad School,” which, on occasion, we will share with listeners of this show. Well, this week we got to talk with Noel, whose debut album was written and producer by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks.

Long time listeners also know of our love for Sparks. So, this is a perfect combination. We talked with Noel on the show (which we will be sharing here soon, or, if you can’t wait, you can find in the Grad School feed wherever you get your podcasts), which was a blast.

Noel was fascinating and, as you may or not know, doesn’t do a lot of press. As part of preparation for our interview, we wrote out some questions to give her some idea of what we could talk about. Noel so graciously not only read over our questions to prepare, she also wrote out her answers. Do we talk about some of this on the show? Yes, but there are more details in her written answers and, truly, her voice comes through in her words.

“Is There More To Life Than Dancing?” was just reissued on CD and vinyl and available right now wherever you get your music. We highly recommend you pick up a copy for all of your friends and family.

Below are Noel’s written answers. So, may we start?

  • Did you re-listen to the record in the process of this re-release being put together and what did you make of it now?

Yes, Ron and Russell shared the re-mixed tracks with me and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the music had held up over time and how relevant the songs are today, and I was really excited that they are getting the recognition they deserve.

  • How long has ‘Dancing is Dangerous’ been stuck in your head? ‘Cause it’s been stuck in mine for years.

(Laughter) Honestly, when I moved on to other musical projects, my focus had to change. I will say that at that time I had no problem remembering those catchy lyrics when I performed and am enjoying getting them stuck back in my head again now.  My friends are sharing that they find themselves singing that song when they’re brushing their teeth, getting ready to go places, and driving in their cars, so you’re not alone.

  • You mention in the liner notes to the reissue of the album that the band you were performing with (the reformed Hamlet, I believe) had a reputation for a memorable live show. Can you talk about what made it memorable?

The specific band I was referencing in the liner notes was the “Mick Smiley” band, a punk rock group comprised of three of the original “Hamlet” members, Mick Smiley, lead vocals and song writer, Kurt Kearnes on rhythm guitar and Steve Parsons on drums, with the addition of myself on Farfisa organ and background vocals, and John Aseley “Ace” Otten on lead guitar. We wanted to present a “whole experience” by devising stage props, wearing black clothing and makeup, with loud, driving music and the dark and brooding lyrics, not the usual. Steve played drums like Keith Moon, Kurt could play the guitar with his teeth and behind his back and regularly danced across the stage while playing,  and Ace had a stack of Marshall amps and used a wang bar to bend the notes ala Jeff Beck, and I loved to take on audience members in stare-down competitions while playing the Farfisa organ and singing background vocals while Mick had a menacing presence as he paced back and forth across the stage dragging the mic stand and snarling out the lyrics. I remember one time we used helium to fill white and black balloons that we suspended from fishing line around the stage and punched at during the performance, and after the concert members of the audience took the balloons and started using the helium to make their voices sound high and everybody was laughing and having a good time – it was hilarious! Another time Mick brought a blow-up doll on stage and that was a shock factor, not only for the audience but for the rest of the band as well. One other time, we used large black plastic garbage bags taped together like a stage curtain with recording tape streaming down behind the band. We tried to always come up with entertaining and unusual props. We regularly performed with other up and coming groups like Xene and John Doe, the Bangles, the Go-Gos, Tori Amos, and even opened for Nina Haagen at the Whiskey when she came to town, so we wanted to present our own unique image to the crowd.

  • How did you put together the act? Was there a bigger theme/idea behind the performance?

As a fine arts major in college, I had been inspired by the German Bauhaus art movement and the art of Salvador Dali, and the band gave me a lot of creative control over stage and set designs.  I wanted to incorporate an element of post-modern surrealism into our live shows, as most of the song lyrics were dark and brooding.  I also had taken photography classes in college and fashion photographer Jack Lorenz, who took most of my fashion and music photographs, allowed me to be his darkroom assistant where I learned how to manipulate images in the development process, so I took all the band’s artsy promo photos by using a timer on my camera set on a tripod so I could be in the photos, too.

  • Is there a more LA music story than meeting the Mael brothers after a show at the Troubadour? Were they just in the crowd that night or had they heard about you?

I recently found out Ron and Russell had been recording “No 1 in Heaven” at Sound Arts, a studio where I had sung background vocals for Basil Poledouris for the soundtrack of the I-Max movie “Hawaii.” I think someone at the studio might have told Sparks about me after they mentioned they were looking for someone to produce and sing some of their songs to take to Midem, France, to shop for a record deal. That person could have been one of a number of people I knew and had worked with at that studio; it was a creative hub and had the first Moog synthesizer in town. The L.A. music scene used to be a really small circle of close-knit friends who were all pulling for each other and cheering one another on and collaborating with one another, and the longer you kept showing up the more street cred you earned, so a lot of the time it was a matter of chance, coupled with talent and a creative bent combined with perseverance that finally got you noticed.

  • What did they say about the performance that attracted them to possibly collaborating?

They were both surprised to see that my stage presence strongly resembled Ron’s stage persona, with the intensely serious stare-downs while playing keyboards and singing.

  • What did you make of the songs? Do you know if these songs had been intended for Sparks or had they been written as part of a different project?

It was like they had written the songs expressly for me. I related to the lyrics, I could sing the songs in the keys in which Russell had sung them for the demos, and was easily able to adapt my singing style and voice to convey the intent of the lyrics.

  • I just listened to a podcast where two fans discuss the songs and what they could be about. Their take on ‘Dancing is Dangerous’ is that it is a warning. My thought it that it’s a positive song- what do you think of it?

That’s an interesting question. I think you could take the meaning of those lyrics either way. On the one hand, when you’re out on the dance floor, having the time of your life and enjoying the music, the environment and your friends, you really sometimes wish the night would never end.

On the other hand, I had occasion to perform at an underground disco in New York at midday. Transitioning from bright daylight to dark, crowded underground dance club filled with drunk, rude and obnoxiously loud patrons who could have cared less about hearing me sing was a living hell!!! So you see, it can play either way, take your pick!

  • What was it like working with the Maels in the studio? Did they have a vision for the record that you had to conform to or were you able to bring in some of your own ideas into the mix?

Both! They had a vision, I fit that vision, their music fit my vision, their choice of musicians and background singers was impeccable, so it was all truly serendipitous. It all fit together like a glove!

  • The second disc of the reissue has a few tracks that aren’t on the original album- did you record vocals for those tracks and they just didn’t make the record?

Yes, I did record my vocals to those tracs at the same time, and Ron and Russell did seek my opinion on what songs to include on the final version of the record, but it was ultimately their decision to only release the five songs on the “Is There More to Life Than Dancing – NOËL” album.  I believe the three bonus songs included on the CD re-release are more relevant today than they would have been back then. Sparks have always been looking back while being ahead of their time. What I mean by that is that I can easily envision Marlene Dietrich singing “My Night” and Joan Jett singing “I Never Want to be a Mother” or Lady Gaga singing “I Just Wanna Be Seen With You.”  It’s truly timeless music!

  • Can you clear up a rumour about the record- There’s a male voice in the background of some of the tracks- is that Russell or Ron or someone else?

The Waters family, Julia, Maxine and brother Oren were the fabulous background singers on the album. All of the incredible players are finally credited on the inside sleeve of the re-released album and include such famous names as Michael Brecker on saxophone, Brazilian percussionist, Paulinho De Costa on percussion and synthesizer programming genius Gary Chang, with synthesizer played by Ron Mael.

  • Did Mickey Dolenz ever apologize for almost suffocating you with smoke for the “Dancing is Dangerous” video that he directed?

Poor Mickey, I got the sense that he was feeling very overwhelmed by all the demands being made on his time back then. He was so set on his storyboard concept of his vision for the video, I think he was mortified and embarrassed but too distracted by pressing demands and just forgot to apologize. I did find out later that Mickey missed his flight for the tour he was supposed to embark upon after the video and I felt bad for him, but I never harboured resentment for what happened at the video shoot. The music business is hard; it’s not for the faint of heart.

  • What was your tour like? Touring for a dance record and touring with a rock band seem like two completely different experiences.

Oh, my, completely different is an understatement. I toured with different top-40 dance bands for ten years before we decided to regroup in L.A. and work on original songs before I landed this record deal. I purchased and was responsible for setting up and running my own P.A. sound system, singing lead vocals for the songs I chose to perform, and coordinating wardrobe choices, and giving haircuts to the band while on the road.  A typical road tour entailed traveling in a caravan, setting up and rehearsing in the afternoons, performing in the clubs from 9pm – 2am, sometimes until 4 am, and then sometimes a patron would want to treat the band to breakfast before we headed back to a hotel to sleep until around 11 am, rinse and repeat for six nights a week, then on the road again to the next venue. It was like being in a tight-knit family, and we learned how to “read” the minds of our bandmates to lead the music in improvisational directions to break the monotony, which was a really wonderful growing experience. After recording the album with Ron and Russell, they left to go on a European tour to support their newly released “No1. in Heaven” album and I kept thinking, “when is someone going to give me the green light to get my band together?”  Then I was told there would be no band, and that I was just going to stand in the middle of the dance floor and sing with a microphone to a backing track tape that the DJ was going to play. I insisted that my lead vocals be left off of the tape, as I was adamant about not wanting to be accused of lip-syncing. A couple of times people still accused me of lip syncing because of the background vocals on the tape. It was very different touring and performing solo, with a tour manager to drive me from destination to destination for appearances and interviews and to make sure I got to and from the airport on time for my flights to and from the UK, New York, Boston and Montreal. 

  • Did your work as a model help you with your stage presence? You talk about singing along to backing tracks- was it just you on the stage for those shows?

Modelling definitely helped me, as detailed in my liner notes.  I had acquired some of those skills touring with the band in earlier years with the make-up and fashion I needed to create my stage presence. That’s what brought me to the attention of the fashion photographers and industry in L.A. to begin with.

  • Have you heard some of the theories about this record? There is/was apparently a theory that your vocals were just Russell singing in a higher range or the track was pitch corrected the way Prince created his alter-ego Camille. Did it bug you to see these things just spread around the internet, or do you just not care?

Honestly, over the last 45 years, I had no idea that these rumours were circulating until Russell told me about them last year when he called me with the news about the re-releases.  I don’t usually pay any attention to rumours; they can be very cruel and disheartening, and I was intent on pursuing my musical career.

  • When you look back at the whole experience, is there one image that comes to mind?

I will always remember the night I performed at the Warehouse in Glasgow/Sheffield area of England. I was given the luxury of being able to spend the evening dancing with the fans and then meeting each one on the way out and individually personalizing their albums with glitter pens I had purchased at the London airport for that specific purpose.  Getting to spend one-on-one time in a party atmosphere with my beloved fans was an exhilarating experience of a lifetime.

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