// Category Archive for: Sparks Spectacular

Sparks Spectacular: Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Noisy Boy

What can I say that you don’t already know? Nothing really. The album performance was excellent, and for a first attempt, just about flawless. Less multimedia than the previous two, but what was there was really stood out, especially Ron’s reprise of the Notre Dame organ gag in “Photoshop.” Same goes for the use of backing dancers and models as angels during the “Intro,” and as pregnant “men” in “(She Got Me) Pregnant.” All we needed was to quiff them up for “Lighten Up, Morrissey!”

Photo © Louise Lee

It was obvious that Sparks were rightly revelling in the action and lapping up the feverish worship from all corners of the Empire. (Shepherd’s Bush and beyond!) In fact, they seemed sad to end their spectacular run, Ron symbolically burning all 21 album covers on-screen during the end of “Likeable.”

The second half was equally fabulous: every song that I’d seen them perform before was ten times better than previous performances. I should give special mention to “Looks Looks Looks,” which I thought was pretty poor at the Indiscreet gig, but absolutely on the money tonight: all lean, no wastage, no losing their way. Maybe they learned from last time. On top of that, apart from “The Decline And Fall Of Me,” I got to hear all the songs from my wish list that I missed from the gigs I didn’t see. “Dick Around” was fabulous. “Big Boy” was monstrously heavy, and “Goofing Off,” well, it should’ve been a single. Superb!

By the time it got round to “Get In The Swing,” I was looking at my watch, willing time to slow down, to get in ten, perhaps fifteen more songs. And then, after “Change,” I left, and waited for friends outside, only to realize I’d missed the final encore. Ah well, I’ve seen them do “This Town” thrice before, so I wasn’t too bothered, but it would’ve been nice to share the love that I could hear directed towards the band.

The only question now is, what am I going to do with myself every evening? Bravo to the Mael brothers and their fabulous band for doing the full thing, and allowing us to see all those songs (bringing my total up to 126 songs in this run). Let’s look forward to the same thing happening again with album 22. . . oh well, we can dream, eh?

Sparks Spectacular: Hello Young Lovers (2006)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Claire Schofield

Hello Young Lovers was part of my introduction to the wonderful world of Sparks and remains my favorite of their albums. Hence it seemed the logical choice for the single gig out of the twenty-one of the Sparks Spectacular shows that I was actually able to attend. (Damn you, university exams, etc.) Did that choice prove to be a good one? Hell yes, it did.

From the opening chorus of “Dick Around,” as the band fade in and out from behind mesh screens, the crowd is held rapt. It’s probably been said before, but the amount of energy Russell still displays as he bounds around the stage is frankly unbelievable, bordering on suspicious. They sail through the album, every track perfectly reproduced with that extra live bite. “Metaphor” is a highlight, Russell asking “who’s up for a metaphor?” and the crowd thundering the response back.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

The trend of video animation accompanying songs, started with Lil’ Beethoven, is continued here to great effect. Ron battles a video version of himself throughout “The Very Next Fight;” an army composed entirely of the brothers Mael marches along to “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country;” and a chorus of cats joins Russell for “Here Kitty.” It looks incredible, alternating wildly between witty and hypnotic.

Since this is a review, I should probably give a vague nod towards objectivity. So here we go. The nature of Hello Young Lovers, like much of Sparks’ later work, means that the live band is supported with a lot of pre-recorded strings and multi-tracked singing. But it doesn’t matter one bit (unless you’re one of those people overly concerned with authenticity, and in that case probably not a big Sparks fan). This is an album that is built on insane, bombastic arrangements, and the live venue only accentuates this. Particularly “Rock, Rock, Rock,” one of the weaker tracks on the album, finally reaches its potential as Ron acts rock god while guitars clash around him.

In the end, mere words cannot capture my love for this endearingly crazy band. It’s a bizarre but lovely feeling to discover a thirty-year-old back catalogue and to know that the people responsible are firstly, still putting out truly brilliant pop music and secondly, can put on a live show as thrilling as this.

The applause is rapturous and seemingly unending, with Russell and Ron becoming more and more happily embarrassed as it continues. They return for an encore of “Profile,” the last song they’ll play at the Carling Academy, and it soars as everything else has done. I leave on a somewhat ecstatic high, having decided to get hold of a ticket for Exotic Creatures of the Deep as soon as possible. University be damned; it’s clearly worth it.

By Elizabeth McCarthy

“Night Twenty! Can You Believe It?”

“We’ve got this far and it’s incredible. . . and it’s sad, this is the last night in Islington,” says Russell Mael during the performance of Sparks’ 20th album, Hello Young Lovers. And indeed it was kind of sad. Many of us had started to look upon the Carling Academy in Islington as a home away from home, a place where for an hour or so you could be transported to Sparks heaven. But this night we knew the dream was rapidly coming to an end.

Myself and two fellow Sparkophiles had booked ourselves on a plane from our native Dublin to London to see four of the shows Sparks would perform in their 21-night Spectacular. . . A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing, Kimono My House, Propaganda, and Indiscreet. Then we saw the light and hurriedly booked ourselves up for another three nights. . . Lil’ Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers, and the premiere performance of Exotic Creatures of the Deep.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

The first four nights we attended were utterly fantastic. I’d never seen Sparks perform live and was completely unprepared for the sheer energy and excitement of the shows. As innumerable people who have attended any of the shows have mentioned, these great albums gained even more in a live setting. . . like cleaning an old oil painting and discovering once again the vibrancy and brilliance that lay there all along. As a Sparks fan who enjoys the band’s more recent music at least as much as anything they have done over their astounding 30-year career, I awaited the last three concerts, as the saying goes, with heated anticipation.

I was not disappointed. These last few shows were very special. Not only because sadly, it was all coming to an end, but because they very much catalogue Sparks’ most recent musical reincarnation. . . vital, dramatic, poignant, sardonic, overblown, subtle, cynical, intelligent, angry, and funny. The Lil’ Beethoven show witnessed the audience’s most euphoric response to any one song, when “My Baby’s Taking Me Home” received a deafening ovation that seemed to last forever. Hello Young Lovers marked the second stage of Sparks’ “genre-defying opus.” Like Lil’ Beethoven, this show also marked a striking change in the band’s live show, with dramatic interactive projections and spatial demarcation of the stage.

On a stage that could just about enable you to swing the proverbial kitty, Sparks managed to reproduce Hello Young Lovers in all of its glory: the “intimate” setting only adding to the intensity and drama of the performance. The stage was essentially cut in half; the back was taken up with a large projection screen, either side of which were Sparks’ great musicians, garbed in black, behind a black mesh screen. In the front half of the stage there was a keyboard and the brothers Ron and Russell Mael. There was a poignancy to the stark, almost lonely, figures that the brothers cut out front on that stage. It brought home just who Sparks are and have been and how two people can work together over the decades and create something that touches people so profoundly.

The audience was, as they have been on all the nights I attended, an integral part of what made the Sparks Spectacular such a unique live experience. The concept of performing 21 albums on 21 nights is admittedly nuts and Sparks fans, being Sparks fans, embraced that nuttiness wholeheartedly. There was so much—dare I use the word? Yes, I dare—love projected from that audience it was truly amazing, and something I have never experienced before in all my gig-going days and nights. The Spectacular was, in part, a band statement—”Here’s who we are and how we got here”—and those attending celebrated that statement with unflagging joy and appreciation. But anyone expecting an easy ride through nostalgia-laden memory lanes had another thing coming. Hello Young Lovers proved that irrefutably.

In what has to be one of Sparks’ greatest opening songs of all time, the overblown, quasi-operatic, rocking “Dick Around” blasted out first. Ron bashed his “Ronald” keyboard, while Russell prowled the stage and sung with all the dramatic license the song affords. “Perfume” followed, Russell clicked his fingers like a suave lothario as he reeled out the litany of women’s names and their purchased scents. . . but even though he remembers them all, they are in the past. . . and as the audience unanimously agreed, “Screw the past!” During the dark “The Very Next Fight,” a song all about self-lacerating ego and insecurity, Ron leaves the keyboard to stage a battle with a virtual Ron on the projection screen, landing a series of perfectly-timed punches until he aims the fatal blow that sends his alter ego flying. . . until the next time.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

Like the stage show for Lil’ Beethoven, here the projection screen acts as an alternate world where Ron interacts with various projected media in a hyper-formalized style not unlike the silent screen comedians Charles Chaplin or Harold Lloyd—all of which adds a delightful but nonetheless unsettling element to these songs and highlights the intensely dark humor which has always been an integral part of Sparks’ music. A joyous send-up of macho and nationalist presumptions, “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?” is next, accompanied by a projected army of marching Russells.

The next song, “Rock, Rock, Rock,” is, for me, one of the night’s highlights. Ron straps on a guitar, leers menacingly, and throws various pseudo-rock star poses while the music mercilessly cranks out. Counterpointing this, Russell vows (scout’s honor) to “Rock! Rock! Rock!” then pleads “don’t leave me” and cradles himself “like a mother.” The song is all at once a damning indictment of conceding to the tide of soulless “rock” formulas and a genuine rock song that discovers its hardness through this very indictment. Two giant speakers are projected on screen, their brand names are “Russell” and “Ron” and, as the guitar screeches its feedback, the speakers shake and start to self-destruct.

“Metaphor” follows and, once again, Russell adopts the pose of a smooth lothario. “Chicks dig metaphors” you know? “Use them wisely use them well and you will never know the hell of loneliness.” The audience joins in and sings along at the key moments:

Russell asks: Who’s up for a metaphor?
We answer: We’re up for a metaphor!
Russell asks: Are you chicks up for a metaphor?
We (including all the men in the audience) answer: Yes, we’re up for a metaphor!

The wonderful “Waterproof” is next, with its erudite musical variations and witty lyrics, sung by Russell with such vigor that one can only remain in awe at his vocal abilities, which show no signs of flagging during the course of the 21 nights and which have only improved with age (whatever age he’s admitting to that is, as Ron wryly noted during the Exotic Creatures of the Deep show). “Here Kitty” follows, accompanied by projections of figures with the heads of cats and recorded meow loops. . . once again convincing me that this is one of Sparks’ creepiest songs. . . don’t ask my why. . . the answer is clearly too embedded in my unconscious mind for me to want to know the answer.

When “There’s No Such Thing As Aliens” begins I know it’s all nearly over. Perhaps this adds to the melancholy feeling the song has. . . especially when performed live with the projected images of Ron and Russell holding their hands out in front of them and slowly evolving into alien forms; an image that starkly contradicts the song’s lyrics which demand that dreamers stop dreaming and realize such otherworldly creatures do not exist.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

The final song, “As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral,” is a fitting end to proceedings. Ron places himself in front of the projection screen and plays a virtual church organ. . . Russell paces back and forth. . . spitting out lyrics which (like Hello Young Lovers‘ predecessor, Lil’ Beethoven) turn mundane terms and trite interactions into operatic expressions, which through constant repetition become increasingly menacing: “bye bye bye my baby now it’s time time time for me to go to work work work so you might want make your way from here. . . “

The song then shifts onto another level as the harsh guitar sound of “Dick Around” insinuates itself into the rhythm. Doleful organ sounds then appear, followed by a madly frenetic organ arrangement not unlike something Lon Chaney might have cranked out as The Phantom of the Opera. Ron mimes this on the projected organ as it shakes and swells. . . and yes, the sexual innuendo does not go unmarked by the lyrics, which lament the confusion of religious faith with the organ player’s desire to impress a woman in the congregation. But his efforts seem futile. . . he knows he will be upstaged by HIM. At this moment Russell points to the sky. . . HIM is God. . . The religious ceremony is in fact a courting ritual, with God as the ultimate romantic rival. But having made his sexual conquest, our organ player has FAITH, a deep abiding faith. And the audience of Carling Academy responds with appropriate joy, “Hallelujah!

The night ends, as all of the previous 20 shows have, with an encore song that in some way merits as an obscurity. Although judging by most of the audience, there’s no such thing as an obscure Sparks song. Many of the encore songs were connected with the album featured that night, but this time around there was no connection. The song was “Profile,” the b-side to “Get In The Swing” from the album Indiscreet. And it was a cracking finish to a fantastic night and a perfect way to bid bon voyage to Carling Academy Islington. The fact that the song careened us all back to Sparks circa 1975 was an apt reminder of the musical innovation as well as longevity of the band.

As always, the night ended with Russell giving a well-deserved mention and thanks to the musicians: Steve McDonald, Steven Nistor, Jim Wilson, Tammy Glover, Marcus Blake, “and the principal songwriter, my brother, Ron Mael.” He also thanked the audience, “Thank you, thank you so much. Thanks for making this month something we are always going to remember.” We’ll always remember it, too. Thank you Sparks.

Sparks Spectacular: Lil’ Beethoven (2002)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Noisy Boy

Wow. Just wow. Unquestionably the best show yet, and one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. Just stunning in every respect: from the crowd who were just as entertaining as the band (props to the folk waving cowboy hats during the choruses of “Ride Em Cowboy”), to the backdrop (which was faithful to the DVD), to the return of Tammy Glover (who looks a bit like Becky from Coronation Street if you squint a bit).

Photo © Nick Barber

Positioning myself towards the back rather than the front made for a great sound, as on came the band and into “The Rhythm Thief” they went, with all the band on vocals, Steven Nistor and Tammy Glover on timpanis. . . just breathtaking. Enter Ron and his long arms for “Carnegie Hall,” to much applause. This was easily the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve yet seen.

I think what made this so excellent for me (and what made it so damn annoying that I couldn’t see the next night’s show) is that this wasn’t an attempt at creating a facsimile of a vintage work, as the past shows have been; this was real and current and still vibrant. It also helps that most of the band who played on the album (and live shows) were still there (though Dean did appear in spirit as one of the on-screen animations taking a bow at the end). It showed up best in the younger crowd, and in “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” possibly the best performance of anything they’ve done so far, and a response so rapturous I didn’t think it would end. Seriously, people didn’t stop cheering after it had finished!

The other facet was that this is very much a performance piece rather than just an album rendition. The whole multimedia presentation is definitely Sparks’ most adventurous work in that realm (so far), and Ron is as much of a star as Russell (who said very little during the set). He’s not just the deadpan keyboard player, but a key stage element, and a very funny physical comedian. I very much dug his amusing facial expressions in “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls,” whilst he paraded his beautiful girl around, as well as his “Ride Em Cowboy” actions.

What was also a joy, and what you may not have been able to see on the webcast was the sheer camaraderie between the rest of the band. During “Suburban Homeboy,” when Steve McDonald came back out (sporting a rather ill-advised moustache) to sing backing vocals, all the band looked like they were having a whale of a time, which was really infectious. They could’ve ended right there and I’d have gone home happy. And while I was expecting “The Mandalay Song” as the encore, “Wunderbar” was a good choice, with Russell doing a fine impersonation of Günther Koch’s exasperated commentary skills.

Thus ended my experience of Sparks at Islington Academy; one of the most unique things I’ve experienced in my life, and probably twice as unique for those who’ve been attending every show.

Sparks Spectacular: Balls (2000)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Miss Missy Tannenbaum

As on previous evenings the sound was brilliant; every detail in the tunes was loud and clear. Tammy Glover, who was a Sparks drummer for ten years, was back for this set and the two subsequent ones. It was lovely to have the chance to see the lady play live.

One thing I hoped for was the guitar sound Ron had done as an intro on Balls Live from 2000. It’s not a part of the album but was a very good sound to start a concert with. On this gig Balls started with the same tune as the album. Both the title song and the second song “More Than A Sex Machine” were powerful to hear and it was impossible not to clap along.

“Scheherazade” was beautiful, as always. Even though the strings are only generated from synthesizers, they are so dramatic and pure-sounding that the fact remains that this song will never sound bad live, ever.

“Aeroflot” is not my favorite but the intro with Tammy chanting “Thank you for flying Aeroflot” was incredible, and there was an astounding effect of her voice being “lifted” from speaker to speaker. As irony would have it, the microphone decided to go on strike with a loud “bang” in the beginning of a song about an airline that lacks reliability.

A technician tried his best to find a new microphone which he had to rob from the other musicians. Even though the vocal was gone, the music went on and so did Russell, giving signs to the audience to sing along which we of course did since sing-alongs are always fun.

The hunt for a good working microphone went on. Russell threw away one he was handed before he confiscated Jim Wilson’s mic, all for the noble task of getting the lead vocal heard by the crowd.

The mic sound needed a little boosting but it improved by the “Calm Before The Storm.” Of course, this and “Bullet Train” again made the audience clap and chant with the music. “The Angels” was beautifully done with an added guitar in the mix which was another highlight of the night.

The encore, “Katharine Hepburn,” was a wonderful surprise and without a doubt a huge favorite (which was actually played again on the last night). It’s an obscure song many fans crossed their fingers would be an encore, so it was an almost unreal and overwhelming experience to hear Russell singing that song for the first time. Problems aside, this turned out to be a splendid concert.

Sparks Spectacular: Plagiarism (1997)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Michael Pearson

It’s 8 p.m. on the seventh of June and I’m sitting in a bar just across the road from the Carling Academy in Islington. Sparks are due on stage in little under half an hour but I’m perfectly relaxed. I had chosen tonight’s album—Plagiarism—partly because being the money-conscious person I am it is amongst the lengthiest of Sparks’ canon, but also because I was sure there would not be too many people there. On entering the venue I immediately see how wrong I had been. The place is almost packed and the best spot I can get is standing right next to the bar.

Plagiarism of course, is Sparks’ reworking of several of their older songs, be it slowing them down, speeding them up, or adding strings. The additional musicians for tonight’s show enter the stage and sit there somewhat embarrassed for what seems an age before they are joined by the Mael brothers and their supporting band. Launching into “Pulling Rabbits out of a Hat” it is immediately evident that the whole band is again relaxed and confident. Everything works beautifully: the techno-thrash of “Angst in my Pants,” the beguiling strings of “Something for the Girl with Everything,” and the extended “Propaganda” after which Russell is visibly delighted to have got through word- and note-perfect.

About half-way through the show I look up at the balcony and spot a diminutive figure dancing away and clearly having a whale of a time. It looks like. . . Could it be? Indeed it could. Shortly before the end of the show the figure is no longer there but it reappears on stage in the guise of Jimmy Somerville, performing a wondrous duet with Russell on “Number One Song in Heaven.” In time to the words, “Written of course by the mightiest hand,” Jimmy falls to his knees and bows to Ron. Amen to that!

The following review was originally published on Cult TV and is being used here with the kind permission of the author and publication.

By Alex J. Geairns

2008 seems to be fast becoming one of those years where I get to revisit previous parts of my life with a new 21st Century perspective. And the lovely thing about it is that in almost all cases it wasn’t a case that the stuff that meant something to me all those years ago was a victim of rose-tinted spectacles. The return gigs have reminded me exactly WHY I was fired up about them all those years ago, and that I was right to hold them in such esteem to do this day.

Read the rest at Cult TV.

Sparks Spectacular: Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Angie Holmes

Gratuitous Sax, Sparks in the 21st Century, and a Girl from Wolverhampton

The very first time I ever heard Sparks was on Radio 1 in 1974—shortly before my 12th birthday—and I was totally blown away by their sound. 34 years later I still adore them.

I first saw them at the Odeon Theatre in Birmingham on Thursday 6 November 1975; the ticket cost me £2 and I still have it! (I stuck it in one of two scrapbooks full of photographs and articles about Ron and Russell.) I have since seen them three more times and they just get better and better.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

When I found out about the 21-gig Sparks Spectacular I just had to go to at least one of the concerts. The one that fit best with my schedule was Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. This was perfect. My 15-year-old son Sam was “force-fed” them from an early age and fancied going to see them. He was two years old in the summer of 1995 when Gratuitous Sax was played over and over again on the car stereo on holiday in Cornwall. It was on so often that he knew lots of the words, often quoting “Gone with the Wind” by stating “Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” on a regular basis.

Anyway, we booked our tickets, also buying some for our good friends Chris and Jane (friends from High School). We also booked a hotel in Islington and some train tickets. On a wet Friday evening in June we pitched up at the Islington Carling Academy. I was so excited (much to the embarrassment of my son and amusement of my friends).

Ron and Russell were completely superb from the minute they came on the stage to the time they eventually left, after many minutes of tumultuous applause. The sound was excellent—Russell’s voice sounding exactly as it did in 1994. The guys in the band played well together and looked very smart in their specially-produced album cover T-shirts. It was Ron though, who stole the show. His presence is awesome, if a little scary, especially during “I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car.” You feel as if he is actually scolding you as he wags his finger and stares into the audience. And as Tsui Hark was unavailable to do the vocals in the song bearing his name, Ron stepped in claiming that he was the only one who had a deep enough voice in the band—he even remembered most of the words! He truly looks no different to when I saw him all those years ago in Birmingham.

The large screen behind the band projecting “relevant” photographs was also a very nice touch as we were treated to stills of Charlie Parker, Vivien Leigh, and Clark Gable, not to mention some surfing shots for “Let’s Go Surfing” and a BBC logo for “Now That I Own the BBC.”

The venue was electric when they came on for their encore of “Marry Me” with the majority of the crowd singing along. It was so sad to see them go but wonderful to have been able to witness one of a truly historic series of concerts. No other band in the world has attempted such a feat and I doubt none ever will. That’s what makes Sparks the best band ever, never mind about the senseless violins.

By Here Kitty

My boyfriend is the longtime Sparks fan, not me. Like most listeners too young to have been there at the time, my Sparks knowledge stretched only as far my Dad’s “Best of the 70s” CD would allow. I admit Lil’ Beethoven was an aural epiphany upon my first listen in 2003, like swimming through shifting layers of sound, sublime orchestral movements unfurling around repetitive voice samples. I saw them on the 2006 Hello Young Lovers tour and loved their humor, their style, and showmanship. I laughed at the cynicism and truth in their lyrics; I appreciated their obvious originality and eccentricity; and I thought Ron was cool and Russell cute, seemingly ticking all the right boxes for fangirl membership. . . and yet. . . somehow I still hadn’t made that transition from casual listener and occasional gig-goer to full-time obsessive. Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is the gig that changed that.

I was 17 in 1994 when Gratuitous Sax was released, and although I didn’t listen to the album until the journey down to the gig, I felt a rather disjointed sense of nostalgia as the lights started to throb in time to the thunderous opening beat of “When do I get to sing “My Way”—I know I hadn’t heard the song before this year and while I can’t remember listening to music quite like it in 1994, I know if I had heard it back then it’s exactly the kind of thing I would have loved. So there I was in 2008, listening to new music which reminded me of the past and discovering just how much my tastes haven’t changed.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

There was so much to like, but my favorite of the night was the infectious and epic opener “My Way.” “Now that I Own the BBC” was both bright and bold, and I thought “Charlie Parker” translated particularly well too, like a lyrical roller coaster, part tongue-twister, part scattergun. “Hear No Evil” was wistful and beautiful and creepy. “I Thought I told you to Wait in the Car” was a surprisingly intense and enjoyable performance and I was impressed again by “The Ghost of Liberace,” another track I had thought of as one of the weaker songs on the album, but one which was utterly charming on execution. Though it was when Ron took the microphone to darkly intone “Tsui Hark” that caused the biggest fan uproar of the night, evoking more cheers and catcalls when he missed out the Chinese bits.

The brothers contrast yet complement each other. Russell is impishly-little, camp and charismatic with the crowd. He is so frenetic in his performance that of the 79 of photos I took that night, 76 show him to be an artily-blurred figure ghosting movement trails, like a 70s howlaround. Only three managed to show such detail of the Rhys-from-Hollyoaks indie cut and black-and-Brighton-rock-pink jacket. Silent and still (and therefore much more photograph-friendly), Ron is pipe-cleaner thin and business-man smart, a look oddly offset by a Boston Blackie tache and trendy trainers, doing the whole moody-glower-behind-the-keyboard act, a band dynamic I thought the Pet Shop Boys had originated rather than ripped-off. Sparks are funny and charming and as they say on Exotic Creatures of the Deep, oh-so-likeable.

All this has inspired an interest in Sparks’ back catalogue and I’m discovering more and more to like with each new song on each album. But it’s a bittersweet experience, because I can’t help but think how much better it would have been to hear so many of these songs for the first time crammed into a mass of like-minded fans, clamoring to see over taller shoulders and uplifted mobiles, while attempting and failing to get another photo of Russell not moving—rather than sitting at my computer on my own. Oh damn my timing.

The following review was originally published on Playlouder and is being used here with the kind permission of the author and publication.

Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins 1994, yet another Sparks renaissance album. They’d been away for six years having been stuck in something of a creative rut at the close of the 80s. Few would’ve predicted that their comeback would not only fit seamlessly into the musical climate of the time but that it would produce their biggest hit single to date, leading to a full critical reappraisal and new appreciation for their work.

Read the rest at Playlouder.

Sparks Spectacular: Interior Design (1988)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Miss Missy Tannenbaum

Hey, this was fun! Interior Design is the Sparks album that many fans—often in sheer annoyance—have called “Inferior Design,” but it worked great on stage. The sound was crisp; the performance showed a great enthusiasm for digging this album out of the shame pit, and that was done without trying to update the eighties arrangement that has condemned the album as being dated.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

As always, there were speculations among fans about how the album would sound live in 2008, and there were certain expectations that there would be changes made to achieve a more layered sound. There were no changes and thankfully so: firstly, because it showed how brave Sparks are to perform a type of musical arrangement that’s not considered to have stood the test of time. It was also a reminder of how many different types of musical styles Sparks have embraced and appreciated, an attitude that has kept them versatile as artists for years.

By the time from the first Halfnelson gig to this album (number fifteen in the line of shows) it seemed to be settled that Sparks would play the albums as faithfully as possible to the studio recordings. When the evening’s first song “So Important” started the show, it felt amazingly close to the original album sound. Jim Wilson got his moment with a short but delightful guitar solo.

“I Just Got Back From Heaven,” the album’s weakest song, benefited from the boosted bass sound that’s typical for a live setting. The studio recording of some of the songs sounded flat, but in a live context they became more vivid. In “A Lot Of Reasons” for instance, Wilson got his chance again to put the guitar in good use, giving the song an extra punch.

Interior Design‘s ballads “You Got A Hold Of My Heart,” “Toughest Girl In Town,” and “Let’s Make Love” were absolutely gorgeous. The highlight of this gig was “A Walk Down Memory Lane,” a song which let Russell make beautiful use of his falsetto voice. On “Madonna,” Russell sang a verse in French which made the audience cheer with enthusiasm.

Tonight’s big surprise was that the band decided to play two obscure songs instead of one as they’d usually been doing. The choice of the encores was splendid; first, the mighty “Big Brass Ring,” which was unexpected since the forthcoming concert of Plagiarism has a version of that melody. The other great surprise was “It’s Kind Of Like The Movies” from the Bad Manners soundtrack, a song so obscure that Russell believed no one had heard of it. Again, Wilson kicked in with a smooth guitar solo to end the evening’s last tune.

Sparks Spectacular: Music That You Can Dance To (1986)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Miss Missy Tannenbaum

Music That You Can Dance To is an album that very few fans would entitle as their favorite. As with the other low-rated albums, MTYCDT‘s advantage was most of the fans’ belief that it would probably be better live. When Sparks started with the album’s title song the beat kicked right in. Gone were the previous night’s sound problems with the synth; it sounded as crisp and loud as it could get.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

This is not the easiest album to perform live because it has more heavy drumbeats and bass than harmonious melodies. By far, the most difficult song of the evening was undoubtedly the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips.” The performance was good; the band did everything to the note and more. Judging by Russell’s vocal work he really wanted this to be well received; he absolutely did his best. The problem was that without audience participation a live version of “Fingertips” falls dead, and unfortunately tonight’s audience seemed completely uninterested in the song. What a pity, as it would have been great if the crowd would have bothered to just shout “Yeah!” That was all the song needed to become an excellent live performance.

Thankfully there were melodies like “Armies Of The Night,” a wonderful highlight of the evening where Russell’s voice was at its very peak of clear, sheer beauty when he hit those high notes from the middle part of the song.

During “Shopping Mall Of Love” it was Ron Mael’s opportunity to shine with his lead vocal, but he certainly was not in a hurry to let us hear him sing: he rather wanted to drink some water. To everybody’s amusement Ron showed off his cleaning skills after spilling water on the stage. He demonstrated that time is not an issue when it comes to wiping the floor clear of everything of a liquid nature. His poignant, dry singing contrasted with Russell’s perfectly. It was a joy to hear the drumbeats as the only instrument and there was really good work by Steven Nistor, who was accompanied by Russell’s and Jim Wilson’s terrific hand claps.

The encore was, as expected, “Change.” Over the years, “Armies Of The Night” from the main set has ended up being a more obscure song than “Change,” but the difference this time was that the song was performed with the original eighties hard synth arrangements instead of the piano version Sparks have done in recent shows. No matter which version, “Change” is truly popular among the fans, something that the enthusiastic crowd proved with a standing ovation.

Sparks Spectacular: Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat (1984)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By Janina

This isn’t my favorite album; I had to think twice about booking to see it because in my view it contained too many soppy songs (although maybe not as many as Interior Design). But on the strength of the Introducing show I went along on the Sunday and never regretted it.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

I preferred the Islington Academy to larger places: it was great feeling part of a community, especially for a slightly more obscure album—here the venue was only around half-full. There was possibly some corporate hospitality going on, with dressed-up women in heels being ushered past the ropes and later to the front of the stage—they didn’t seem to fit with the middle-aged, hefty Sparks fans already standing there.

The music pounded out for Pulling Rabbits and Russell came on stage. I found the title track very atmospheric, even though Russell’s pitch is less suited to singing “deep and brooding” stuff. There seemed to be more going on in terms of lighting in this show—a lot of dramatic colors flashing up suddenly and then off again during the lines “applause, applause, applause.”

I so rarely play most of the tracks I’d forgotten what was on the album, so it was fun not knowing what came next—a case of beat the intro. I actually enjoyed “Love Scenes”—it’s a gentle verse but there’s a bit in the chorus where Ron’s synth goes “crash crash,” so that, combined with Steve Nistor’s drums, really made an impression. Or perhaps I just don’t play it loud enough normally. “Pretending To Be Drunk” seemed to be a favorite with the audience; it’s a cheerful bouncy number, although Russ slightly messed up the lyrics at one point.

“Progress” seemed to be a hit—very punchy. The audience, mainly men, sang along, of course. “With All My Might” was another low-key number, but probably suitable for a small audience. I think “Sparks in the Dark,” short version, segued straight into the next track as per the album, but can’t now remember. “Everybody Move” is one of the best on the album for me. The song “Sisters,” about a threesome, also proved popular, with hands being waved in the air. I actually think there is an underlying air of melancholy about a lot of the lyrics on this album.

Russell commented on the encore playlist for the forthcoming final gig, giving away that Introducing‘s “Goofing Off” was going to be one of the numbers; he also mentioned “A Song that Sings Itself.” (In the end the latter proved not to be the case.)

As there was plenty of room, I danced about to the long version of “Sparks in the Dark.” Russell mentioned it’s one of their rare instrumentals and he only hovered around the stage for a while. Again, it was a case of following strict album order that made the concert perhaps take a little downturn as the whole “team” wasn’t involved.

When they all returned on stage, the encore song was given away by Ron, said Russell. Big brother grinned and insisted he’d just been checking his keyboard but the Psycho knifing sounds had come out, so those in the know guessed that “National Crime Awareness Week” was coming up.

Another really enjoyable gig and a privilege to be part of something this special. It’s also great to be reintroduced to music you’ve had for ages but neglected. It’s not a classic, but either way, I’m now playing the Rabbits CD regularly in my car.

By Musicalsushi

I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat. Released in 1984, and containing songs such as “Progress” and “Everybody Move,” it never really stood a chance of aging well. All the same, there are some decent songs on there, crushed under the weight of dodgy mid-eighties production. I can never decide whether this is my favorite bad Sparks album or my least favorite good Sparks album. It marks the turning point between Sparks’ popular early-eighties work and their. . . uh. . . less appreciated late-eighties albums—but it’s not obvious on which side of the line Rabbits lies. A nineties re-recording gave the title track a new lease of life—this violin-driven version sounded less tired and much more distinctive than the song’s original synth-smothered form. Throughout the first half of Sparks’ 2008 tour, I was impatient to find out whether a modern performance of the full album could rescue the rest of the songs.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

The night of the show arrives, and I arrive at 7:30 to catch the support act—tonight, it’s the Young Knives, who missed their earlier slot supporting A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing. They play a good set, but the audience haven’t really warmed up yet. By virtue of moving my head and torso to the spiky beats, I’m one of the more enthusiastic dancers.

Between the two sets, I mingle with other fans and chat about their expectations for tonight’s show. Although many faces are familiar to me from previous nights, there are also many people who’ve only recently started attending the tour. One of the die-hards tells me this is his favorite Sparks album. Others are more circumspect, but nonetheless enthusiastic about the show. Many fans are eagerly anticipating the live rendition of “A Song That Sings Itself,” which I doubt has ever been performed live in the UK.

By the time Sparks take the stage, just over 140 fans have turned up (when I ask the manager about attendance figures a couple of shows later, he seems fairly certain that this night had the lowest attendance of the tour). En route to his keyboard, Ron peers at the album cover projected behind the stage—he is wearing the same clothes tonight. Russell is dressed in a silver pinstripe suit and pink tie. Steve Nistor counts in for the title track, and it sounds amazing from the start: I know already that the rest of the album is going to sound fantastic live.

Russell virtually acts out the words of the chorus, shouting, “APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!” with passion but then clapping politely and reservedly to the audience; I like this. By the end of the song, the audience have livened up, unable to resist the pounding synth and guitars. They immediately dance and sway when the next song, “Love Scenes,” begins. Russell flexes his arm to punctuate every synth blast in the choruses, and who’d have thought eighties-style synths could sound this good?

After “Love Scenes,” Russell finally welcomes us to the show, although he’s not sure how far into the tour they are at this point—hardly surprising, as he’s already played through 12 shows. Some nice, cool beers appear on the background screen as the intro to “Pretending To Be Drunk” starts to play. As the percussion kicks in, the audience begins to pogo. The dancing continues during the next song, “Progress.” Russell sings the anachronistic lyric “you’re so fun, so alive, you’re so 1985” without altering the year, and it describes the song pretty well—it’s clearly a product of the eighties but we’re having great fun dancing to it.

Someone shouts, “Brilliant!” after the applause for “Progress” has died down, but the whole audience cheers when Ron starts to play “With All My Might.” Despite the slower pace, the audience is still dancing, and it sounds sublime. The bridge solo places more emphasis on the guitar than the synth, unlike the LP, which is good, but unfortunately the backing vocals during the choruses can’t really be heard over the instruments. The pace picks up again with “Everybody Move” and the audience resumes bouncing up and down, while Russell tries to catch us out by getting us to sing along—of course, as the gig is populated almost entirely with die-hard Sparks fans, no one drops “Everybody move!” in the wrong place as he’s hoping. We cheer like mad when the song finishes, having had a fantastic time, but the highlight of the show is just about to begin.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

“A Song That Sings Itself” is a huge fan favorite, and it’s likely that this song was responsible for many people deciding to come to this show. One fan films it in its entirety—you can probably find the recording on YouTube. Nistor’s percussion gives the song a real boost, and Russell’s singing is right on form, although it feels strange to hear the chorus without the faux-harmony used on the LP. Russell encourages us to clap along during the bridge, which starts off as synth chords but becomes a guitar solo. As the song draws to a close, most of the audience are swaying and clapping along. The atmosphere is enhanced further by pellets of bright, primary-colored light drifting down the screen behind the stage—yet more eighties style, but perfect for the song. The audience are rapturous when it finishes, and Russell takes this opportunity to remind us that we can vote for songs we want to be played in the final set of the tour, but points out that he and Ron might well “stuff the ballot box” in favor of this one. “We’re allowed to cheat; it’s our band.” Sadly, it later turns out that this song doesn’t get selected for the final set—a real shame, as the live rendition in this show was excellent.

The next song is “Sisters.” I’m impressed that Russell still manages to hit the falsetto notes in the bridge. He also sings the chorus to the next song, “Kiss Me Quick,” in falsetto—you may also be able to catch this one on YouTube. When the applause dies down, Russell triumphantly announces, “Ha, my night’s over!” The final song is an instrumental, “Sparks In The Dark.” The audience claps along enthusiastically during this synth-driven piece, which is augmented with extra guitar during the second verse. Russell dances near his brother’s keyboards, and at one point Ron turns to glare theatrically at him. Visual jokes centering on Ron’s stern demeanor have been a mainstay of the tour.

To enthusiastic applause, the band returns for an encore after the main set, and Russell asks us to thank each of the band members: Steve Nistor, Jim Wilson, Marcus Blake, and Ron Mael, whom he ironically describes as “sort of weak on lyrics but his instrumentals are fantastically composed.” Unfortunately, Ron disgraces himself by jumping the gun with the encore song—we hear a couple of chords from the Psycho theme, and people cheer as they realise the band are going to play the awesome “National Crime Awareness Week.” “I was just testing!” he protests, and Russell tells us that “we have a lot of songs with Psycho shower scene intros. We’re not going to do the obvious one.” Needless to say though, they go ahead and play it, and it’s as fun as it always is—throughout my tenure as a Sparks fan (which only started in the 21st century, sadly), this song has been a staple of their live sets. As such, it’s not a unique treat like some of the other encores, but it’s impossible not to enjoy a live performance of this song, and I’m delighted that it’s been chosen to end such a great concert, even if Ron did let the cat out of the bag. Russell has his revenge during the bridge, making stabbing motions at Ron with his mic, in time with the Psycho theme that Ron’s playing. Everyone has a great time dancing to the song, and the cheers and applause last so long that the Mael brothers can hardly leave the stage. We’re told to look forward to the next show, although they can’t remember which album they’ll be playing.

Sparks did a superb job of this show, updating the songs and emphasizing the guitar and bass for the live concert, but retaining the fun, cheesy parts of their eighties sound. I’m not the only person to be impressed; a Canadian tourist, visiting London for three days, approaches me after the show to chat about the music, and tells me that he’d never heard of Sparks until tonight but had read about the tour and decided to come to the gig on a whim. He liked it so much that it was hardly any effort for me to persuade him to buy Kimono My House on his way out. It’s official: this gig was good enough to convert Sparks virgins into new fans!

Sparks Spectacular: In Outer Space (1983)

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Concert Reviews, Issues, Music, Reviews, Sparks Spectacular |

By a-anne

In Outer Space is a creepy record. Sure it’s gloriously danceable, but it’s creepy. It’s like Less Than Zero set to music: all air-headed teenage bliss, girls, sex, insecurities, and parties galore: “Let’s meet the rest of our friends/At a place that’s called/I forget what it’s called/But it’s really great/And all our friends will be there.” The undercurrent of menace that threads through the album manifests itself in “Dance Goddammit,” arguably the darkest song ever set to record, but Sparks being Sparks, one still possible to dance to, even if you feel a little coerced into it.

Photo © Daniel Gray @Dead By Sunrise

And what a dance. Every single song on the album lends itself perfectly to the Russell Bop: skipping frenetically from one foot to another whilst swinging arms back and forth in an over-exaggerated manner, and incorporating the occasional twirl when things get really exciting, like a badly-choreographed aerobics session. I’d vouch for it being the greatest dance ever, possibly even surpassing the Ron Shuffle. While Russell himself may have stopped indulging in it long ago, it doesn’t stop me (and quite a few others) from having a go in public. Not that it’s so public anymore, as these gigs became a private party for about 400 hardcore fans about a week ago. No one minds a little embarrassment in front of friends.

The big question of tonight’s performance was who was going to perform Jane Wiedlin’s duet parts in “Cool Places” and “Lucky Me, Lucky You.” As it turns out, the answer was no one—and rightfully so. If it couldn’t be Jane, it wouldn’t really work with anyone else. Russell the vocal superhero copes just fine, and with eunuch-voiced sidekicks Jim and Marcus, both songs on the album bop along all honeyed and glowing. “Popularity” sees a whole audience singing along to the synth line in the middle eight. People are so happy that they even go a little crazy for “Praying For A Party.” Or maybe people just like that song. It’s never done it for me, but it chugs on through with its totally singable chorus being all rousing and irritatingly persuasive.

“All You Ever Think About Is Sex!” The greatest synth pop song ever written! I danced. It’s telling when you’re only twenty minutes into a concert and you’ve got leg cramps already. The Russell Bop is deceivingly exhausting. The gods being as good as they are, “Please Baby Please” is the slowest track on the album, and demands exuberant singing but very little dancing. By the time Russell announces, “This song’s called. . . ‘Rockin’ Girls’,” everyone’s refreshed and ecstatically bopping around again at the prospect of hearing one of the greatest Sparks songs live. Russell mangles the lyrics a little, but at least he gets “Come on baby!” right, which is obviously the most important part. Once the song ends, the entire audience spontaneously yells, “Yeahhh!” immediately before showering them with applause and eternal gratitude. We are having a Good Time.

“Dress for success/That’s what they say/Give me some clothes to slap over my head”—it’s impressive when lyrics can still make you laugh when you’re hearing them for the hundredth time. Another sing along, ending in a 400-person-strong “LET’S GO!” and by the time we’ve got through “I Wish I Looked A Little Better,” the applause is deafening. “A Fun Bunch Of Guys From Outer Space” passes gleefully, and in the context of watching the Maels pull out their most sunshine L.A.-centric tracks in a gloomy London rock venue, is almost convincing.

And then it’s that horrendous beast of a song, “Dance Godammit.” Don’t get me wrong; it’s an underrated masterpiece. It swaggers; it sounds as horny as hell. When Russell eyeballs the audience, intoning “Do you wanna dance?” you know it’s not a question but a roundabout imperative. Frightening and somehow so wholesome.

They encore with “Sports,” the b-side to “Cool Places” and we damn well dance. The audience cheers throughout the verses and choruses. . . we more or less just cheer throughout the whole thing. “One more time for a healthy body! One more time for a healthy mind! One more time for no good reason!” Just to prove their point, at the moment the song ends Russell dashes onstage with a custard pie. Just as we’re in full party mode, they terrify us, and just when we’re scared enough, they bring on the slapstick. With the infamous album cover projected high above their heads, he gently, astonishingly, tenderly, lobs it at Ron. The crowd goes wild, a little guiltily, but it’s probably safe to assume he’s more than used to it by now. “You got an extra bonus,” drawls Ron. After a gig like that, it’s not like we needed one, but having proved themselves the most generous band in history, who minds them going one further?