Live Music + Gig Reviews

Sparks: Spectacular @ Islington Academy / Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

25 May 2008 (No.1 In Heaven), 10 June 2008 (Lil' Beethoven), 13 June 2008 (Exotic Creatures Of The Deep)



If proof was needed, Sparks have just confirmed that they are utterly, wonderfully bonkers. Between 16 May and 13 June of this year, they’ve played every one of their 21 albums live: one per night, with only the odd day off. Never ones to hold back from taking a crazy idea to its ultimate conclusion, the Mael Brothers spent four months rehearsing over 250 songs, each to be played just once.

And the fans responded in kind: not only did many of them set themselves back 350 for a golden ticket to attend all 21 dates, some travelled from as far as Japan or Russia to do so.

I made it to three of the shows; all impressive, and all staggeringly different. Particularly exciting was No.1 In Heaven, the neglected 1979 Giorgio Moroder-produced classic which virtually invented electro-pop as we know it. For an album nearly 30 years old it sounded totally fresh and modern; the illusion of having been created yesterday supported by Russell’s puckish hyperactivity and Ron’s hair-for-hair recreation of his Fuhrer-perm of the day. In wiggish form of course – he is over 60 after all – but it’s the thought that counts.

The album demands an intense falsetto delivery throughout; and Russell’s voice, as high and clear as it ever was, rose to the occasion amazingly. Highlights were the amphetamine heartbeat of Tryouts For The Human Race (easily the equal of Moroder’s better-known Donna Summer collaboration I Feel Love) and the glorious, ethereal No.1 Song In Heaven, which had the whole crowd singing along at an absurdly high pitch. Thank heaven that the glasses behind the bar were made of plastic.

Once described as ‘Gilbert and Sullivan on Quaaludes’, 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven cemented Sparks’ recent creative renaissance. In comparison to the relatively straight delivery of No.1 In Heaven (well, as straight as early electro-pop could ever be), Lil’ Beethoven was played throughout for maximum lunacy. Sparks have a unique talent for weaving elements of wackiness into their art without ever descending into tackiness or novelty; and the Lil’ Beethoven show toed this narrow line perfectly.

Breaking with the convention of glowering silently from behind his keyboard, Ron proved himself to be the star of the show, via a series of insane, vaudevillian mimes. These included playing’ the piano parts on How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall with five-foot long prosthetic arms accompanied by a terrifying grin, and chasing reluctant back-projected brides around the stage on I Married Myself with a Chaplinesque degree of earnestness and pathos.

Musically the gig touched on genius: and bizarrely, the most affecting performance was My Baby’s Taking Me Home, a song consisting principally of the title repeated some 100 times, but delivered with such panache and drama that it became oddly moving.

These shows were all the more engaging for the fact that Russell and Ron were evidently enormously touched by the fans’ reactions: it was clear that the last month will go down in Sparks history as a true milestone.

It was, though, a little harder to feel part of their world in the much larger venue chosen for the final gig of the run, Exotic Creatures of the Deep; though the Maels were enjoying themselves immensely. The album was played very, very loudly by a killer band positioned behind enormous gilt frames; with Russell relishing a larger stage to run around and Ron deadpanning his way through more comedy routines (including a hilarious mimed attempt to play a shapeshifting projected piano during Photoshop).

After a ceremonious mock-immolation of all 21 albums, the gig ended with an hour of hits and rarities topped off by the song that secured their reputation, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us; followed by emotional goodbyes.

Awesome stuff, but what next for the Sparks? A well-earned rest? Not likely: London may have been rocked like a mother, but there’s a whole world out there to conquer.

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