Sitting in the auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall for Sparks’ appearance at Morrissey‘s Meltdown festival, it is easy to understand why the art rock duo have been able to cultivate a 30-year career producing no less than 19 albums. The diversity of the audience members ranges from middle-aged, middle class couples despairing at some of the unique outfits worn by fellow fans, to die-hard Morrissey fans, families complete with kids wearing matching Sparks T-shirts, to gay men.
One thing each and every audience member has in common is a enduring loyalty to the brothers Mael, whose unique brand of electronica sounds like an amalgamation of Queen, Kraftwerk and Tom Jones, but is distinctly their own.
As the lights dimmed to mark the beginning of the set, the audience cried out with anticipation and threatened at one point to become rowdier than a Metallica mosh-pit. A projection featuring two kitsch Japanese girls lit up the stage and one-by-one, the silhouettes of the various band members could be seen taking their place among their instruments. The lights came up and an energetic Russell Mael launched into their biggest hit This Town Ain’t Both of Us to a rapturous reception.
The most surprising thing about this opening, to a Sparks novice, was how much it rocked. This is perhaps due to Sparks’ choice of musicians and joining them on stage tonight were Jim Wilson, guitarist of the Henry Rollins Band, Redd Kross bassist Steve McDonald and former Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta, who all played with enthusiasm, skill and the with obvious respect for the Mael brothers.
The first half of the gig was dedicated to old material – the whole of the 1974 breakthrough album Kimono My Dragon, in fact – which proved to be more than popular with Sparks’ dedicated fans. Keyboardist Ron adopted his trademark deadpan expression throughout, breaking it once to rescue a toppling gong that their percussionist Tammy Glover had hit a little too over-zealously.
Despite the fact that this music was around thirty years old it didn’t seem too dated, although perhaps a little kitsch in places. The two brothers have aged as well as their music and gave the Stones a run for their money in terms of energy. The first half was received with a standing ovation that Sparks were delighted to receive – even Ron managed to crack a smile.
It was interesting to see if the second half – this year’s Lil’ Beethoven album played in order – would be received as well as the former set. Cleverly the band opted for a more theatrical affair and the songs were accompanied by an excellent visual display, some of which featured an amusing Ron animation. The audience were slightly less eager but equally engaged in this half, which demonstrated the band’s use of wit to full effect.
The opening track Rhythm Thief involved Russell chanting the lyric “rhythm thief, rhythm thief/lights out, Ibiza” and his brother Ron made an appearance for the song that followed wearing a ridiculously long pair of prosthetic arms. What Are All These Bands So Angry About? summed up the duo’s thoughts on modern music and their final song Suburban Homeboy was a clever satire on middle class white kids adopting black hip hop culture. Watching Sparks makes you vow never to take music seriously again.
Again, the end of this set was met with glowing appreciation and Russell and Ron looked touched to the core. Ron thanked the audience by saying, “After 19 albums it’s down to our creative juices and people like you.” Then he came back on stage to say, “Actually its more to do with people like you.” There’s no question that fan loyalty has helped Sparks to stay alive but there’s no denying their creativity either.