Talent Is An Asset: Sparks
Hackney Ocean 20/03/04
It's been a strange and wonderful voyage for Ron (born:1948) and Russell (born: 1953) Mael. The Californian brothers recorded the first of their 19 albums in 1970 under the name Halfnelson, and along the way they've taken a little known band called Queen under their wings, had hits in Britain, France, Germany and even their native America. Still
best remembered in this country for the bombastic glam-rock of 1974's This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both of Us, and having a keyboard player, Ron, who both Shelley Winters and John Lennon remarked looked like Hitler. Two years ago they released possibly their most ambitious project to date, the 9 mini-operettas' of 'Lil' Beethoven, an album of beautifully crafted orchestral songs that pushed at the boundaries of pop song writing and received almost universal acclaim.
Two years on and the brothers are in Britain re-launching Lil' Beethoven on their own record label and playing two showcase nights at Hackney's under-used Ocean venue.
The show opens with the famously stoical Ron cantering on-stage to play the familiar opening bars of This Town... to rapturous applause. Then a solitary firework and he is gone again, replaced by brother Russell (in a purple suit that makes him resemble nothing quite so much as Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's older brother)1, long time percussionist Tammy
Glover and a guitarist/percussionist (who must regrettably remain nameless)2 as they launch into The Rhythm Thief. Although much of the songs multi-layered orchestrations are clearly being produced on backing tape, the effect is still stunning - both percussionists play kettledrums and provide backing vocals to re-produce the layered vocals effects of
the original tracks.
Ron returns to the stage for the second number How Do I get To Carnegie Hall?, sporting the sort of extended arms much favoured by Benny Hill and his ilk. When he takes his seat three feet from the keyboards (and following a technical hitch which he assures us 'was not entirely my fault') begins to play the keyboard part from the song, it becomes apparent that this is a very different Sparks show, in perfect keeping with the uncommon nature of the music. Evidently encouraged
by the audiences favourable reactions to his dance routines from earlier shows, Ron has now begun to develop a considerable comic presence on stage, and throughout the first part of the show rarely plays the keyboards at all - during I Married Myself he tragi-comically turns from one beautiful bride to another in bewildered confusion (eliciting a huge mock 'aaaaaah!' from a not overly sympathetic audience), whilst Ride 'Em Cowboy finds him gleefully striking horse riding poses wearing the sort of grin normally associated with politicians. During You're Calls Very Important to Us, Please Hold he constantly attempts to approach the object of his desire, merely to retreat behind his keyboard at the intonation 'Please Hold' in mock confusion and hurt. Ugly Guys and Beautiful Girls sees him abandon the keyboards altogether as he promenades round the stage with a glamorous girl on his arm, much to brother Russell's bemusement. The first half of the show sees him stripped down to his vest for Suburban Homeboy.
And it is Ron again who opens the second half of the show, now dressed in a bow tie and waist coat, somewhat incongruously miming to brother Russell's vocals on Gonna be a Sparks Show Tonight. Then he retreats to the rear of the stage (albeit from a vantage point above the rest of the band) and to a more familiar position behind his Roland
keyboard (subtly altered to read 'Ronald'). For the rest of the night he seems content to return to his best-known persona as a mannequin behind the keyboard.
Yet Russell appears to have a new lease of life, whirling and rushing round the stage like a man of half his fifty years, and he is also given ample opportunity to show of his remarkable vocal range - first on a solely guitar accompanied Talent is an Asset and then on a keyboards only version of Hospitality on Parade, both songs belying the fact that they are nearly thirty years old. Also present and correct is No 1 Song in heaven, which is beautifully elided into Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth. Perhaps most haunting of all the marvellous melodies of When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) and The Ghost of Liberace from the wonderfully titled Gratitious Sax and Senseless Violins album - an album that first kick started the present critical acclaim that Sparks now enjoy. The regular set finishes, inevitably, with This Town Ain't Big Enough... which still draws an enormous cheer, despite having been a hit before many of the audience were born.
Regrettably, we had to leave before the encores3, which is why I can only offer a conjecture that the guitarist was Dean Menta, who played on the Lil' Beethoven sessions.
But despite that, it is clear that this is a band still at the height of their powers. When many of their contemporaries (their first UK tour in the seventies was supported by a little known band called Queen) are beginning to slow down, and at the very least, rest on their laurels, Ron and Russell Mael display an energy and vitality that many bands of today would find hard to match. In an evening which seamlessly
blends songs from a 35 year career they illustrate perfectly why performers as diverse as Erasure, Faith No More and Jimmy Somerville are happy to list them as influences (and also raises the question of just where The Darkness lifted some of their song structures from), Sparks illustrate perfectly just what it takes to survive in the music industry for as long as they have - talent, bravado and an unfaltering knack for being one step ahead of the crowd.
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