I remember there was quite the outcry over the sleeve for Beat The Clock, the single released by Sparks in July 1979 as the follow-up to Number One Song In Heaven which, earlier the same year, had taken the brotherly duo back into the charts after a four-year absence.
The problem for the big retail stores which sold records, such as Woolworth and WH Smiths, was that the picture sleeve featured a model, dressed in a lab coat, which was open to the waist and thus you could see her underwear which consisted of a see-through bra and thus a nipple was on display. The image on the back sleeve was even more problematic for public display as it consisted of a full-length shot of the model in which she was ripping off her lab coat….the solution for such stores was to stock the single but only have it available from under the counter!
Things like this in 1979 caused outrage in the tabloid press, notwithstanding the fact that many of them also featured topless women on Page 3 of their publications as a matter of routine. There is no doubt that Russell and Ron Mael knew what they were doing when they agreed to the sleeve, no doubt egged on by those in charge at Virgin Records who quite liked the idea of the music industry still being able to shock society – it was no real surprise that the label was home to more post-punk/new wave acts than any other.
The annoying thing was that with Giorgio Moroder on board for the new material, there was no need to resort to such cheap and nasty gimmicks as the music was more than capable of delivering on its own merits. Still, there’s no doubt the sleeve helped shift a few more units as the single went all the way to #10, their biggest success since the initial one-two of This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us and Amateur Hour back in 1974.
The parent album only had six tracks and so there was a real lack of material for the b-side. An alternative mix was therefore offered up:-
mp3: Sparks – Beat The Clock (single version)
mp3: Sparks – Beat The Clock (alternative mix)
The 12″ came in a quasi-picture disc format in that it was pressed in a way that it had a standard 12″ black or coloured vinyl on the outside edge with the music merging into a picture disc towards the central area. It offered up an extended version along with a gimmick:-
mp3: Sparks – Beat The Clock (long version)
mp3: Sparks – Untitled
The latter was a two-and-a-half minutes-long piece in which the comedian Peter Cook, acting as a lawyer who represents God, calls up Virgin Records to make a formal complaint that Sparks had no right to call their new album Number One in Heaven. The piece is put together in a way that snippets of tracks on the album are aired.