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Islington Academy, London
Sunday May 25 2008




As concepts go, this one takes the biscuit. Sparks have decided to play their entire ouevre – all 21 albums – over a month's worth of gigs. One album per night, with a sprinkling of days off along the way. There's a certain amount of chutzpah involved here, for sure – or, at least, an unshakeable faith in the loyalty of the Sparks fanbase. How many other bands would have the confidence to set up such a marathon run? How many bands would have enough material to sustain it, while never playing the same song twice?

But somehow Sparks have pulled it off, and in SparksWorld it doesn't even seem like such a strange idea. Because, over the years, if there was ever a band that could be relied upon to go its own way and make odd into the everyday, that band is Sparks. Tonight's album is a case in point. Number One in Heaven was something of a sensation upon its release in 1979. It was the album upon which Sparks abandoned their earlier glam-rock incarnation and 'went disco' - a downright shocking move at a time when dance was regarded as the implacable enemy of rock. Such genre-hopping, commonplace today, was regarded back then almost as some sort of betrayal. But Sparks, being Sparks, pulled it off.

GamineEvery gig of the 21-night run features a different support band, chosen by Sparks themselves after a call for contenders was put out on the web. Tonight, we have the disarmingly kooky appeal of Gamine, who look like they've transplanted themselves from a wine bar on the rive gauche specially for tonight's gig.

Whimsically charming female vocals over keyboards and pedal steel guitar might sound like a strange musical alliance, but the resulting sound shimmers temptingly like streetlights on the Seine. 'When Sparks booked us to support them I don't think they realised we were going to do an entire set of lullabies,' remarks the singer – and yes, Gamine do indeed keep things low-key and late-night, beguiling us with a series of wistful ballads fit to tempt the unwary listener to open a bottle of sultry red and throw away the cork. What's more, Gamine's vocalist manages to conjure up such associations while spending much of the set cradling a can of Grolsch. Now that's class.

A big screen at the back of the stage projects images of Sparks as they were in 1979. And here come Sparks as they are today: Russell Mael, hyperactive and garrulous, on vocals, and Ron Mael, reserved, cautious, and wearing his usual expression of endearingly non-specific anxiety, on keyboards. It's uncanny how little the Sparks brothers have changed over the years, even though both members must be approaching bus pass age these days. There's also a drummer at the back – a nod to old school methodology, this, for while today it would be routine to create thumping disco beats with technology, in the late 70s drum machinery was so primitive that even an electronics-based band like Sparks would haul in a human being to ensure that the rhythms did the business.

SparksWithout ceremony they're away, and suddenly I'm reminded just how many earthly hits are contained on Number One In Heaven. The pounding urgency of 'Beat The Clock', a song which spirals to ever-more urgent peaks – Russell's climactic cry 'You've got to BEAT THE CLOCK!', delivered as it is in a panicky falsetto must count as one of the best pay-off lines in pop.

'Number One Song in heaven' itself is a runaway train of surging beats and stuttering electronics, all sounding so fresh and immediate you'd think that the song had been written yesterday. And what delicious irony that a song so full of hit-the-dancefloor life should start with the lines 'If you should die before you awake/If you should die while crossing the street'. That Sparks could get the nation dancing (this was a big chart hit, let's not forget) to a song that contemplates death counts as downright subversive. You probably couldn't get away with it now. The Committee For Ensuring That Nobody Is Ever Offended By Anything Ever would have it banned in five seconds flat.

Taking time out to set the period scene between songs, Russell Mael points out that playing the disco anthems of '79 live wasn't easy at the time. Technology that now needs nothing more than a laptop required a hefty chunk of hard-wired hardware back in ye olden days. Ron Mael – as always, quizzically reserved behind his keyboard, which has had its Roland brand name doctored to read 'Ronald' – now has more technology at his fingertips than even the most extravagant muso-boffin could command in the seventies. it's all taken for granted now, of course: it's probably only a band like Sparks, who've hung on in there for three decades and then some, who really appreciate how far we've come.

SparksRight now, we've come to my favourite track on Number One In Heaven – the spooky croon that is 'My Other Voice', itself a demonstration of advancing technology. The vocoder-treated vocal, nowadays a staple effect on the dance scene, was a technological headache in '79, but the song slinks and sidewinds out of the PA stacks as if intent on showing us just how this stuff should be done.

By way of contrast, 'Tryouts For The Human Race' is a brilliantly bonkers rush, the synth pulse racing the kick drum to the finishing line as if the future depends on it - as, in a way, it did, back in '79. For there we have the uncanny thing: these songs, nigh-on thirty years old though they may be, sound shiny and new and crisply contemporary. Sparks were ahead of their time then, and they're still in the vanguard now. Without Sparks, we probably wouldn't have Ladytron or Ladyhawke, Crystal Castles or even, maybe, the Ting Tings (you see - it's all their fault!). Without Sparks, rock and dance would probably still be giving each other hostile stares over a yawning generic gulf.

Then as now, Innovators, pioneers, ironists and humourists, Sparks are still going strong. This is only the 8th gig of 21, and just to emphasise that this is not merely an exercise in revisiting past glories, the final night of the marathon will see the band play their new (and as yet untitled) album in its entirety - a brave move in itself, when it would have been so easy to go out on a guaranteed familiar high. Tonight, Ron and Russell take a bow, grinning with disarming pleasure as the applause gusts around them. Their excursion into the 70s is complete. But their work in the twenty-first century is nowhere near done – and let's be thankful for that.


Essential links:

Sparks: Website | MySpace
Gamine: Website | MySpace

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