bright Sparks! photo by Alex Staszko
bright Sparks! photo by Alex Staszko

Sparks
Manchester Ritz
Oct 22nd 2012
Live review

bright Sparks! photo by Alex Staszko
bright Sparks! photo by Alex Staszko

Still a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery wrapped nside an enigma; Sparks continue to confound expectations.

The eternal pop misfits who pushed the boundaries for decades with their distinctive music, which has brilliantly never fitted in, are currently touring as the core brother two piece. With just Ron Mael on keyboards and Russell Mael on vocals it underlines all the strengths of their music- stripping it down to its essence.

The set starts with the fantastically stern looking Ron dressed in black, with his hair severely combed back, playing a long piano part- quoting parts from the pair’s best loved songs as the audience shout the titles back at him. Five minutes later his brother Russell bounces on stage with his voice and presence nowhere near that of a normal 65 year old. Straight in, Russell reaches for the high notes for a great version of 1975’s Hospitality On Parade and the pair’s strengths are already underlined.

Ron is the creator with those wonderful dextrous piano hands and the staring eyes and the brilliantly awkward stage presence which he totally negates in one genius moment when he leaves his piano post and tap dances like a crazed madman to a standing ovation before returning to his keyboard like nothing happened.

Ron still glares at the crowd and is a wonderfully eccentric opposite to all known pop performers. He has been writing the songs for this brother to dance and sing for decades now but Russell creates the perfect creative balance. He takes Ron’s songs and laces them with the magic dust of that great voice, the timelessly brilliant voice that shows no sign of cracking and is as important creatively as Ron’s songs. The voice soars and hits imposable notes and cuts like glass through the decades with his pin up personae still in place.

They assume opposite roles creatively on stage but each ones needs the other. It’s a perfect symmetry and a perfect balance and sets the tone for the night with their music that is part German pre war cabaret, electronic pioneer or glam tinged pop. They were making new Wave post-punk music in 1969, they were a synth duo before Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys had even thought about it. Their 1974 albums Kimono My House and Propaganda are two of the finest albums in the seventies- as conceptually brilliant and forward thinking as David Bowie and as thrilling and exciting pop as anything that prime time, genius, Marc Bolan was dealing at the time. And their most recent album the Seduction Of Inger Bergam is orchestral and thought provoking both dealing with the creative crisis of the famous Swedish film director and perhaps the creative crisis of art v commerce at the heart of pop culture. For a band that was initially named Sparks brothers in homage to the Marx brothers this cinematic approach to their music makes total sense.

They have also always been armed with those acidic and clever lyrics that swerve between sheer genius and brilliantly painful puns. You can never tell if they are entirely serious or not and that is one of their key tricks.

The music is stuffed full of ideas and concepts that overflow – maybe too many ideas for the dumbed down world of popular culture but every now and then they connect perfectly with the mass audience and pull off a batch of unlikely hits.

It’s taken me my whole life to see Sparks. I’ve loved them since I first heard the iconic This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us on the radio in 1974. At the time I was transfixed by the song- it’s strange atmosphere, its glam tinged power and those stunning vocals that were part opera and part pop.

Just who were this group?

They just seemed to have appeared from nowhere.

They certainly looked like they had appeared from nowhere. Bang smack in the middle of the wam bam thank you glam decade they arrived. Where they came from and what time zone that was still is impossible to tell. They had formed in 1969 as Halfnelson and were creating an anglophile pop that was ten years too early that and its follow up album had been flops, they moved to the UK in 1974 and released This Town and became the pop sensation of the year.

Their music sounded ancient and modern at the same time, Russell may have looked like a conventional pop star but even he was already pretty of kilter and as for Ron! His stiff back, disapproving scowl and those great stares down the Top Of The Pops camera lens were so much part of the seventies lexicon.

Camp, silly and too damn clever for the mundane mainstream they were European art house underground cinema trapped in a three-minute pop band. Sparks were just part of the wonderfully innovative pop music of the period. A time when the real innovation and forward thinking music was getting made in the top ten and being ignored by the so called high brow music media who were bogged down in the morass of hairy bands with their over complicated musics. Sparks were scoring hits and making a music that was far more complex emotionally and imaginatively than anything their hipsters were daring to make but they were getting played on daytime radio and getting ignored by the critic and evening radio heavyweights.

The first time you heard This Town on the radio you were entranced and desperately looking for scraps of information on the band. What did they look like? Who were they? When they were on Top Of the Pops a couple of weeks later and the single was riding high in the UK chart they were even stranger than anyone could have hoped and dared for and the questions remained unanswered!

Live you can sense the close bond between the brothers. The way their opposite roles sometimes merge and complement eachother but mainly stand poles apart. They seem humble and warm. They give little away about themselves but still pack their music with an emotional rush and euphoria that is normally not part of the art rock canyon.

In the seventies littered with excess and madness this was a band that was even more strange. Singer Russell Mael was a bouncing pop pirouette, with Jim Morrison features combined with a garish knitwear appearance, his falsetto was key and he was the perfect frontman. Next to him was the piano player staring into space like a psycho, sat stock still with a white shirt and black tie on and shockingly a Hitler moustache. Decades later they still play out these roles, Ron looks like astern film director, Russ a camp starlet in a brown suit.

In the decade of Bowies and Bolans it was getting hard for anyone to be the shock of the new but in 1974 Sparks were stunning. Vocally and musically they were a pause in the seventies dayglo meltdown and an entry into another bizarre world.

Nearly forty years later they are playing at the Ritz in Manchester- the perfect venue for their part music hall, part futuristic music.

It’s just the two brothers, Ron still sat stock still on the piano and Russell still dancing like the pirouette and singing in that stunning falsetto. They were always, in reality, a duo and the stripped down nature of the show just makes the sound even better exploring all the twist and turns of the songs and exposing whole new textures and ideas. It almost feels like all the other instruments got in the way and all you needed was those stunning vocals and that strident piano – a mixture of one note slamming and neo classical, music hall knees up flurries or ragtime and jazz breaks- it’s a bewildering mash of styles.

Russell Mael is one of the great pop vocalists. Few can sing with this dexterity and imagination although many have tried, Morrissey was a big fan and that breaking free from conventional melodies is what he learned here, Billy Mackenzie from Associates was an obvious fan whilst Siouxsie and Adam Ant had obviously been listening and a whole host of the rest of the punk generation learned something very profound from the brothers- that rule breaking, genre busting, high IQ intelligence that is key.

It’s still there all these years later. They end the set with a new song Two Hands One Mouth which sounds as good as anything in their career.

Their encore is a homage to their disco era with several songs, like a great version of Never Turn Your back On Mother Earth really underlining its gorgeous, grandiose melody and its futuristic swirl that out Krafwerk’s Kraftwerk. It’s a real moment and you are left stunned by Russell Mael’s voice that literally floats around the room.

They also deliver At Home At Work At Play and the aforementioned killer version of This Town underlining their 1974/75 success peak when they part of the British pop lexicon. The success may have dipped for a couple of years but they hit the charts again in 1978 after hooking up with Giorgio Moroder produced and fab Number One Song All Over Heaven.

The hit was from a time of their biggest stylist switch from rock n roll to disco. All that hokum about New Order being the first hip band to go disco has to be put into context by the Sparks who had already rolled up onto that dance floor years before with Russell prancing around and Ron sat at the side looking stern by the disco ball.

But this is no mere nostalgia romp their most recent album The Seduction Of Inger Bergman is referenced with its grander and darker songs like I Am Inger Bergman that fit perfectly into the set with their filmic sensibility celebrated and enhanced by the core simplicity of this two-man show.
The stark lighting and the empty stage make for a great backdrop to the performance that is one part Berlin thirties and another part English musical hall and another part endlessly futuristic and that can be in the same song. European art house triumphing over American commerce and played by two eccentric and smart brothers from LA and turned into pop- it’s so off the wall it’s genius.

Sparks pack so many reference and hints into their songs and terrific clever wordplay that it is impossible to keep up. Each songs ends in a standing ovation and the reception at the end of the show really does raise the roof and the pair of them stand there genuinely moved by the warmth pouring from the crowd with even Ron giving speech of thanks.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks john.Topclass .As a sparks fan for 40years and at the concert in manchester:oct and london june.I am so pleased there is a intelligent reviewer looking at sparks career and performance .SParks have lways been at the periferals of music society although plagerised in some areas by other musicians not willing enought to stand alone like ron and russ have for decades.THe secret is that lateral thinkers find sparks a breath of fresh air whist most paralel thinkers dont understand what its about. Johns review is in my humble opinion most excellent and with his credentials he is no pussy at what he does best.thanks john and thanks ron and russ for 40years of excellence.

  2. That’s a fantastic write-up on Sparks, John, who remain my favourite band ever (or should that be duo?). I haven’t seen them on their latest tour but caught them in Wolverhampton in 1995 and Gateshead around 2006. Their back catalogue has its ups and downs but the last half dozen albums have really upped the ante. There simply is no-one like them anywhere and for that we should be truly grateful. I laughed at the comment on This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us – so true!

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