Caught halfway between glam and the penthouse-staring / gutter-dwelling worlds of disco and punk, the UK hit-making heyday of Sparks briefly illuminated the mid-'70s humdrum of the Top 40. Fighting for perm space amongst the Leo Sayers and the Gilbert O'Sullivans, Russell Mael and his brother Ron made much use of the overlit Top Of The Pops studios to add a visual credo to their pop operettas. That Ron Mael resembled a shop window dummy at Hitler And Co. only added to the incongruity at a time when a bit of theatre dahling was just sliding out of fashion.
Hits did follow in that hallowed era now known by general consensus as post-punk, as well as recognition back home in the USA. Perhaps their smartest and prescient creative shift occurred in 1979 when the duo enlisted the help of Giorgio Moroder, flush from the international success of recording I Feel Love and Love To Love You Baby with Donna Summer. If there's anyone reading who, by some unlikely quirk of fate, fails to recognise the name of Moroder or those two records, try and imagine the existence of the motor car without the invention of the internal combustion engine. That would be modern dance music without Moroder and his Munich sessions.
Looking at this vibrant performance of Sparks now, if Neil Tennant really did dream of matching Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat, well, the Brothers Mael beat him to it. Though there was always more than just a crafty wink of camp to their work, their sharp-eyed appropriation of disco stylings has defined much of the duo's attitudes to their work and performance since. And its part of what makes this DVD set more than just a tour document, and something to cherish in its own right.
As part of their world to promote the concept-driven Lil' Beethoven album, Ron's keyboards were augmented only by the presence of drummer Tammy Glover and guitarist Dean Menta. Yes, there are backing tapes, but the sound is big enough for a Polyphonic Spree's worth of personnel. Essentially, a show in two parts, this disc dedicates its first set to an as-they-came reading of Lil' Beethoven. By the numbers it may be, but the impish energy of the spry Russell and the minimal set-design keep the eye fascinated.
Highlights? Possibly too many to mention, but I'll give a try. Much of Lil' Beethoven is invigorated by the performance, the conceptual baggage a blessing rather than cumbersome. There's a reflective quality to the presentation too that really nails the Brothers Mael as the Gilbert & George of the post-disco art-rock set. Ron's Groucho-on-drawing-pins boogie to Ride 'Em Cowboy is not to be missed.
Not too shabby either is the run-through of well-known and not so well-known back catalogue numbers as a reminder of glories past. The Stockholm audience remains quixotically static but the psycho-dynamics of Here In Heaven and pop-savvy of When Do I Get To Sing My Way provides enough pep for a band half their age (and just what are these bands so angry about?).
If there is a criticism of this disc, it's that the special features aren't too much to get excited about. More damningly, it will make your audio copy of Lil' Beethoven superfluous. If you haven't got your copy yet, you just may find Live In Stockholm the wiser purchase. This is prime Sparks in all their gleeful glory and just might be the number one gig DVD in heaven.