|Sparks, Ron & Russell Mael - Photo by Masayo King|
One thing you can be sure about with Sparks is that you can never be sure about Sparks! You can rarely second guess them. Constantly moving with, and often ahead of the times, they delight in challenging themselves and their audience with a shape-shifting attitude that keeps the band as fresh and vital now as at any time in their 40 year career. Whether it's announcing the heroic 21 consecutive night run through of all their albums (and B-sides...) or the full-on theatrical tours around the orchestral “L’il Beethoven”, there's always a sense of occasion about a new Sparks tour or record, and a question of just what the hell are they going to do now...? So, following the powerful, guitar heavy shows to promote "Exotic Creatures" and "Hello Young Lovers" - which featured a line-up including members of Faith No More and Redd Kross - the Mael brothers decided to totally strip things back for their latest round of dates. The tour was advertised as “Two Hands One Mouth”, with just Ron and Russell due to perform a selection of material from their extensive back catalogue.
|Sparks by Steve Worrall|
From the tour title and description, I was half expecting Ron to be seated at a grand piano with Russell perched on a bar stool next to him, crooning lounge style versions of their greatest hits. However, again they confounded me, there was no such mellowing out. Sure, the stage is unusually bare for a Sparks show, the brothers have dispensed with a band and computers and extravagant stage sets. There are simple elegant drapes as a back-drop, Ron's Roland (Ronald) keyboards and a mic stand but absolutely nothing else, the stage looks huge. First of all Ron appears alone and runs through an overture of Sparks songs on the piano, fans clap and cheer as familiar riffs are recognised. There’s not a bar stool in sight as Russell takes the stage to kick things off properly with “Hospitality on Parade” from the excellent “Indiscreet” album. As it transpires, Russell is his usual blur of energy, skipping around the stage with his trademark balancing-on-a-tightrope dancing style and crouching, finger-popping poses. Next up we get one of the band’s more recent tracks, “Metaphor”, which advises listeners how a well delivered metaphor can be a valuable tool in the powers of seduction!
|Sparks by Steve Worrall|
“Propaganda” segues into “At Home, At Work, At Play” and then it’s a rarely played “Sherlock Holmes”, which for me is one of the night’s highlights. The new arrangement really suits the song, which has a slightly dated production sound on record. Ron makes full use of his Synth and keyboards to produce an often powerful sound on familiar songs that have had to be cleverly re-arranged to compensate for the missing guitars and instruments. "Good Morning" and "My Baby's Taking Me Home" are followed by a rare outing for "Singing In The Shower" and the oddity "The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy To Russell Mael". Next comes three excerpts from their latest album “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman”, which was originally commissioned as a play for broadcast and performance in Sweden, a country that like the UK, seems to have connected with Sparks in a big way. Ron dons a beret to get into character as the Swedish movie Director to deliver the narrative.
|Ron as Bergman - by Masayo King|
It’s the operatic story of the philosophical Swedish movie Director Ingmar Bergman furtively sneaking into a trashy American Blockbuster movie out of curiosity. However, he leaves the cinema only to find he has mysteriously emerged in the midst of Hollywood and there follows a Woody Allen style story reminiscent of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” or “Midnight in Paris” with a nod to the original Sixties Psychedelic Spy series, “The Prisoner”. The devious Hollywood movie moguls try to persuade Bergman to sell out and work on a Blockbuster himself as he wrestles with his demons and tries to figure out a way to escape from their evil clutches. It really is a superb story, not forgetting the great songs that make up the score, and as the applause fades, Russell announces the good news that "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman" will hopefully be made into a movie and stage show too. "Dick Around", the amusing ode to procrastination, or procreation, take your pick, is followed by a stunning "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth", another song that thrives in this stripped back style. Then it's the classic "This Town...", "The Rhythm Thief" and singalong "Suburban Homeboy" from "Li'l Beethoven" and to cap it all "When Do I Get To Sing My Way?", one of the only songs I know that manages to name check both Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious. There is rapturous applause as the band take a bow and strident calls for an encore. The brothers return, visually moved by the crowd's reaction and Ron cranks up the pulsing rhythms of "The Number One Song In Heaven".
|Two Hands One Mouth - Photo by Steve Worrall|
Ron likes to subvert his own image as the dour, stock still keyboard player that first unsettled the British youth with that famous “This Town…” Top of The Pops appearance many years ago. This manifests itself tonight when during the second song of the encore "Beat The Clock", Russell approaches the keyboards, theatrically waving Ron aside who slowly and dejectedly walks towards centre stage. He stops and stands still, facing the audience for a couple of minutes before suddenly bursting into action with an energetic running-on-the-spot work-out. Then he delights the crowd by leaving the stage and dancing around the aisles amongst the cheering audience. The excitement gets to Ron and when he returns he strips off his shirt to continue his dance topless. It’s a great, unexpected and hilarious moment. The song finishes and he rather sheepishly puts on his shirt again and returns to his more familiar position, motionless behind his keyboard. The final encore is a run through of the brand new song written especially for the tour and Russell sings to us, "Two Hands and One Mouth are all it needs to satisfy". He's not wrong, the audience are totally satisfied, and show their appreciation by a hearty standing ovation that goes on and on. The brothers seem quite touched by the crowd’s rapturous reception and they tell us that London has always had a very special place in their hearts, as this is where they made their home while they struggled to make a name for themselves.
|Sparks - Photo by Masayo King|
Ron takes the microphone to tell us that we Brits must have better taste than Americans as we accepted them far more readily than their own fellow countrymen! They leave us with the news that there will be a live album of the "Two Hands One Mouth" tour released soon. Sparks are unique, an autonomous entity with complete artistic control and one of the very few bands that can claim to be giving the Music Industry a severe pasting. They are as "Punk Rock" as it gets...Always playing with their own image and other people’s perceptions of what that might be, they have a subversive wit and humour in abundance, not just in the often hilarious lyrics, that in some cases could work equally well as scripts for a comedy show, but in their visuals and presentations. They obviously love that show-biz old style Hollywood glamour but at the same time seem far more down to earth and, well just extremely pleasant, in the interviews I have read over the years. They always seem to be communicative and courteous, but more importantly, in this era of Facebook, Twitter and tabloid newspapers publishing every minute detail of celebrities’ lives, Sparks remain a total enigma. So, long may Sparks continue to baffle, confound, excite and entertain us for a long time to come.
With many thanks to Masayo King for contributing the Photos.